The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

Spring watch: key Cougar football position battles heading into Spring practice

Football begins spring practices
John Mateer warming up his arm before WSU vs. Oregon, Oct. 21, in Eugene, Oregon.

The Cougs return no all-conference players heading into 2024, and as a result, countless position battles are beginning as Spring football practices roll around. With such a young team, let’s look at where the most competition will be as the flowers bloom.


Anytime your nationally recognized star player decides to go pro (despite returning to college), you know you have a big hole to fill. That is the case for the QB position at WSU.

Cam Ward threw for 3,732 yards and 25 touchdowns a season ago before transferring to University of Miami (Florida), leaving backup John Mateer and fourth-string freshman Jaxon Potter as the primary two remaining QBs on the roster. 

In the offseason, the Cougs bolstered the competition, adding freshman Evans Chuba from Clearwater Academy International High School in Clearwater, Florida and transfer Zevi Eckhaus from FCS Bryant University. 

Each QB has a unique skill set, WSU head coach Jake Dickert said, and although Mateer will get the first reps of the Spring, there will be plenty of different rotations throughout camp. 

“Zevi is a professional in everything he does. He is quick, sharp, he’s articulate, he understands protections. And Evans Chuba coming in as a mid-year enrollee, you see him running around in some of the lines, you think he’s a defensive end with how athletic he is, yet he can really sling the football,” Dickert said. “That’s going to be a heck of a competition… Who can command the offense? Who can go out there and earn leadership roles within our offense?”

Running Back

Another key position group is the tailbacks. The Cougs struggled to get production from the room a season ago, only racking up 784 total rushing yards between five different backs.

This season the Cougs return three of those five, with Nakia Watson having graduated. The returners are redshirt freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker, freshman Leo Pulalasi and redshirt junior Dylan Paine. Each of the three averaged over four yards per carry a season ago, but none had more than 33 carries.

Added to the group are incoming freshmen Wayshawn Parker from Grant Union High School in Sacramento, California and Josh Joyner from Pacifca High School in Oxnard, California. 

Paine missed time due to injury in 2023, but when healthy split carries in a rotation with Schlenbaker and Pulalasi. The majority of all three’s carries came when the game was at a large deficit, or when the injury bug struck. As a result, the position is up for grabs for whoever wants to take it and will be a fascinating watch throughout the Spring.

Wide Receiver

For the second straight season, there was a mass exodus of receivers with Josh Kelly transferring to Texas Tech and Lincoln Victor graduating. But for the second straight season, there was an influx of newcomers through the transfer portal. 

Rolling over from last year is former UNLV transfer Kyle Williams who shined in year one in the crimson and gray with a career-high 61 catches for 842 yards and six touchdowns. Also notably remaining is promising freshman Carlos Hernandez, redshirt junior Josh Meredith and redshirt freshman Brandon Hills.

The Cougs secured a trio of transfer receivers, including Kyle Maxwell from Louisiana Tech University, Kris Hutson from University of Oregon and Tre Shackelford from Austin Peay University. 

With so much turnover and uncertainty at the position, Dickert has a few things to key in on.

“Kyle Williams to take his game to the next level. Carlos Hernandez has probably made the biggest jump from a freshman to now getting into where he’s gonna go through his second spring. Josh Meredith has elevated his game tremendously. I’m excited to see Kris Hutson. He’s got all the tools and he’s really putting it together on and off the field,” Dickert said.

For the second straight year things will be murky until the season starts, but the Spring could shine some light on who to pay closer attention to among this packed room of pass catchers.

Offensive Tackle

Last season was up and down for the Cougar offensive line, and with last year’s starting right tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe being out all of Spring with a right knee injury, there is plenty to be shown in camp.

Wazzu also returns last year’s starting left tackle Esa Pole, but despite his return, there is still competition at the position with Dickert saying freshman Ashton Tripp has really impressed on the field and in the weight room.

Things here could end up chalky, but the depth with the aging of the group as a whole and having retained almost everyone at the positions should be superior to 2023 and fun to watch this Spring.

Defensive Line

Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson are gone, leaving two massive holes on the edge. Add to it defensive tackle Na’im Rodman graduated as well, and now there is competition across the defensive front. 

Stepping up to try and fill the middle could be a pair of true freshmen from 2023 in Ansel Din-Mbuh and Khalil Laufau, along with redshirt juniors David Gusta and Jernias Tafia. Among the four, Gusta was led the way with 30 tackles (nobody else had more than four) and registered a half-sack. 

Edge may have lost more from a year ago, but also gained much more in the offseason. Returning from 2023 is Quinn Roff, Raam Stevenson, Andrew Edson and Nusi Malani who slid out from defensive tackle. Added to the bunch is Syrus Webster, a senior from Utah Tech who had 10.5 sacks and five forced fumbles over the last two seasons for the Trailblazers.

“Syrus Webster has blown us all away as far as what he can do at one of those edge positions. Moving Nusi out there really creates a bit of a logjam, out of that edge competition, we’re excited about that,” Dickert said. 

There is the potential for position changes as needed, but with the loss of two sixth-year cornerstones, the Cougs can at least say that there are plenty of options up front.


The secondary was gutted this offseason, especially by the losses at cornerback in Chau Smith-Wade and Cam Lampkin. 

Luckily for the Cougs, starting nickel corner Kapena Gushiken is back for his senior season despite recovering from an injury. The other positive is that despite not starting, returning corners Stephen Hall and Jamorri Colson got a good amount of laying time due to Smith-Wade missing time while injured in 2023.

Another player to watch is Warren Smith Jr., a redshirt freshman who impressed during Spring camp last season but was redshirted due to the depth of the position. While more names may jump out at camp, the other key piece is redshirt senior transfer Tyson Durant from Akron University, who had four interceptions over the last two seasons.

Strong Safety

“Strong safety is a crux position in our defense,” Dickert said. 

The loss of a potential NFL talent in Jaden Hicks will be hard to replace, considering he had 151 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three interceptions and 10 passes defended over the past two seasons. But similar to the edge position, the Cougs will attempt to fill with numbers, not with one ringer.

Redshirt junior Jackson Lataimua is moving to safety from nickel corner a season ago, Dickert said, along with guys like senior Tanner Moku and redshirt sophomore Reece Sylvester also fighting for the position, Moku and Sylvester may get a headstart with Lataimua recovering from a hernia surgery he had in January.

There is room throughout the defensive secondary for jobs to be won, and for players to shift positions, which is why Spring is so key to get a foot in the door and make a good first impression in 2024.

While position battles are fun, no positions will be decided so early on. 

“The one thing I’ve said about every position, not a single job will be won out of this Spring. So I want to make sure our guys are out there, they’re playing fast, especially new guys to a program, they understand there’s going to be a learning curve. I want them out there failing often, going out there and not making the same mistakes twice, but growing within our football program,” Dickert said.

It is fun to speculate, but any number of things can change or affect these position battles come kickoff in the Fall. For now, it is all about improvement for the players, assessment for the coaches and excitement for the fans.

The first chance for fans to get a peek at the 2024 Cougar football team will be at the Crimson and Gray Spring game April 27 at Gesa Field.

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About the Contributors
LUKE WESTFALL, Evergreen sports co-editor
Luke Westfall is a junior in Broadcast News from Custer, WA. He is an avid fanatic of the many sports at many levels who spends all his available time indulging in them. Luke began working at the Evergreen in Spring 2022.
BRANDON WILLMAN, Multimedia editor
Brandon Willman is a junior multimedia journalism student from Vancouver, Washington. He started working as a sportswriter for the Daily Evergreen in Fall 2022 and worked as copy editor in spring 2023. Brandon was elected to be the Editor-in-chief starting in summer 2023 and served in the position from May 2023 to February 2024 before transitioning to the role of multimedia editor. He enjoys watching sports, backpacking, and watching horror movies.