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Why Washington State’s season-opener against Colorado State starts up front

PULLMAN – Washington State edge rushers Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson are definitely tough-looking guys on the football field.

Talk to them off the field, though, and you realize they’re more like a cross between class clowns and thoughtful guys who would make any program better.

When they take the field Saturday evening at Canvas Stadium, where the Cougars take on Colorado State to kick off this new season, they’ll need to turn into the menacing versions of themselves. They’ll need to play like the edge rushers who have built reputations for themselves and have made big impacts during games.

Stone and Jackson’s services might come in particularly handy this weekend. That’s because Colorado State features a particularly accurate quarterback and a new-look offensive line, the kind that Stone and Jackson would love to upend.

“Really excited this week,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a great game plan to stop this guy. As a freshman last year, very accurate guy. So we gotta get him rattled early. New O-line, a lot of guys who are coming in and transferring in, so hopefully we can kind of get after them before they start meshing together and becoming a really strong unit.”

That unit, at least according to CSU’s first depth chart, will include left tackle Saveyon Henderson, left guard Oliver Jervis, center Jacob Gardner, right guard Andrew Cannon, right tackle Drew Moss.

Besides Gardner, a returning starter, the other four are new on the line. Henderson transferred from Lane College, a junior college in Tennessee. Jervis transferred from Monmouth (New Jersey). Cannon didn’t play for CSU last season, and Moss transferred from Lamar, an FCS school in Texas.

If WSU’s defensive line, Stone and Jackson plus interior guys David Gusta and Nusi Malani, could draw up an offensive line they’d most like to attack, it might look something like Colorado State’s – one returning starter, four new players and guys who have yet to play a snap of FBS football. In short, an inexperienced bunch.

They’re only inexperienced at this level, however. The Rams’ front five have played some serious amounts of football. Henderson has made 20 career college starts. Moss has made 22. Jervis has made 24 starts, and he’s played in 35 college games. That’s not even counting Gardner, who started all 12 games for CSU last fall.

How will they match up with the Cougars’ defensive line or their backups, guys like Quinn Roff and Na’im Rodman and Ra’am Stevenson? There’s no way to know in advance, but WSU is ready to find out.

“Finally, man. Finally ready to hit somebody that’s not wearing crimson,” Jackson said. “That is the dream. That’s why we play football – to hit other people, not our own teammates.”

The matchup might have an outsized impact on Saturday’s game. Last year, the Rams’ quarterback, redshirt sophomore Clay Millen, set an FBS freshman record with a 72.2% completion percentage, the best in CSU history and the second best in Mountain West history. He finished with 1,190 yards passing and 10 touchdown passes.

He also took 55 sacks. Last year’s CSU offensive line was, at least statistically, the worst in the FBS. The Rams yielded 59 sacks, which came out to 4.92 per game. Colorado State finished second to last in the Mountain West in scoring, with just 13.2 points per game.

The Rams completely rebuilt their offensive line, which makes it hard to draw too many conclusions from that season, but the idea holds: Disrupt Millen and the Cougars will disrupt the Rams’ offense. That’s important for several reasons, namely Millen and his accuracy, but also because of Millen’s main targets, his wide receivers.

The headliner is Tory Horton, a first-team all-conference selection last year, when he totaled 71 catches for 1,131 and eight touchdowns, blossoming into one of the best wideouts in the country. Around him are fellow receivers Justus Ross-Simmons, who hauled in three touchdown receptions last year, and Louis Brown IV, a sophomore who started the final two games of last season.

“He dealt with a lot of pressure last year, but he takes calculated chances,” WSU safeties/nickels coach Jordan Malone said of Millen. “So you’re a quarterback that feels confident to sit in there and go through your reads, which he does an excellent job of, really going through his progression.”

That’s where Stone and Jackson come back into the picture. They’ve created a habit of doing so during the last several years. They can kick off their final seasons at WSU the right way by doing what they’ve built their reputations on.