Cougs look to start season with revamped team

WSU to take on Oregon State University on Nov. 7



Junior running back Max Borghi said he is excited for the new offense head coach Nick Rolovich brought.

CODY SCHOELER, Evergreen reporter

When the Cougars take the field on Nov. 7 against Oregon State University, it will finally mark the end of the longest offseason in recent memory. It would be 315 days since WSU lost to Air Force in the 2019 Cheez-It Bowl.

During that extended time off, a number of questions have emerged about the team. Uncertainty surrounds new head coach Nick Rolovich, the quarterback competition and almost the entire defense.

While most of those questions will remain unanswered until they take on the Beavers next week, the past three weeks of practice shed some light on some of the more interesting offseason storylines.

The biggest question that every fan has been asking since the end of last season is who will start under center for the Cougars.

Rolovich said he named a starting quarterback internally but is not ready to announce who it is yet.

The competition was between three players: redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper, redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz and true freshman Jayden de Laura.

De Laura put together the most impressive statistic line across the team’s two scrimmages. He has gone 20-27 for 179 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed seven times for 47 yards and a touchdown.

Offensive coordinator Brian Smith said de Laura showed his explosiveness in the first scrimmage. He said de Laura made plays both through the air and on the ground.

“He’s a twitchy kid, and he’s got the ability to extend plays,” Smith said. “He has some familiarity with our offense already that I think has helped him already.”

Cooper has gone 11-22 for 171 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions while Cruz has gone 16-33 for 118 yards and one rushing touchdown.

Smith said Cooper demonstrated a veteran presence throughout camp and in the first scrimmage. He is the most experienced quarterback on the roster as he is going into his third season with WSU.

“He’s starting to get through his reads a lot quicker,” Smith said. “He manages the group; he manages the offense at a high level.”

Another big development in training camp has been the emergence of a handful of freshmen that figure to play a considerable role this season.

One name that has been mentioned since the start of camp is freshman wide receiver Joey Hobert.

“He practices like he belongs; the stage isn’t too big for him; I think he has a good grasp of play calls and playbooks,” Rolovich said after the first day of practice. “He acts older than a true freshman.”

Hobert has been catching both the football and the eyes of his teammates. He had the best performance of any receiver in the first scrimmage, finishing with six catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns.

Hobert also stood out because he does not wear gloves, which is unusual for a receiver. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jamire Calvin said not wearing gloves for a receiver is a lot harder than people think, and it puts a lot of impact on the hands.

Redshirt senior wide receiver Renard Bell said he has been impressed by Hobert. He mentioned how he does not wear gloves and said Hobert has nice hands and is excited to see him develop.

“Joey’s for sure going to be something special,” Bell said. “You could see him from the day he came in, he was ready to work off the rip.”

Another freshman player that stood out in practice is defensive back Chau Smith-Wade. He has five tackles and an interception in the two scrimmages.

Senior defensive back George Hicks III said Smith-Wade played really well in camp and can only get better. He said he expects him to be suiting up and playing in week one.

“He’s a player, he’s here to play right now, play right away, and I think he’s working toward that,” Hicks said.

Cornerbacks coach John Richardson said he saw Smith-Wade making plays during practice. He said the best thing about Smith-Wade is he competes.

“He wants to play at this level,” Richardson said. “He sees himself as a big-time player which is great.”

Richardson said Smith-Wade has a lot of room to grow. As a true freshman, he never played in Pac-12 football yet, and it will be a different challenge than what he faced in practice.

Another thing that’s been mentioned by multiple players through camp is the new offensive and defensive systems Rolovich and his staff have installed.

There may not be a player that benefits from the new systems more than junior running back Max Borghi. He said he is the most excited about getting to run the ball more. In 2019, he averaged 9.8 carries a game despite a conference-leading 6.4 yards per carry.

“I’m excited for the different concepts of run reads that I have,” Borghi said. “It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be a lot more explosive.”

Borghi said there is some opportunity for him to line up in the slot and run some routes, something he did not do under previous head coach Mike Leach.

The wide receivers expressed their affinity for the Run and Shoot offense.

Redshirt junior wide receiver Travell Harris said he loves the offense and described it as a perfect fit for himself and the other receivers. He said the offense is very explosive and dynamic.

Bell said the Run and Shoot is different from the Air Raid but also has some similarities. He said he loves the system and thinks the offense will be extraordinary this season.

“I’m very excited for this offense. I actually feel more comfortable within this offense,” Bell said. “It allows me to be an individual out there on the field.”

Calvin missed last season due to injury and when he makes his long-awaited return to the field, he may be lining up in a different position. He played slot receiver in his two years under Leach, but Rolovich said they have been giving him reps at outside receiver.

Calvin said he enjoyed getting to expand his game by getting reps on the outside. He said the matchups are a little more competitive out there going against the corners.

Players on the defensive side of the ball have been equally as excited about their new scheme.

Redshirt junior defensive back Armani Marsh said he is excited to play in the defense. Marsh has been primarily taking over the nickel role that was vacated when senior defensive back Skyler Thomas entered the transfer portal.

“I think we all get to move around more and they’re putting us in great positions to be successful and as a player, you can’t ask for anything better than that,” he said.

Hicks said the defense is setting a new standard this year. He said he enjoys the new scheme, and it allows for the guys to play faster and freer.

“We’re going to get stops, we’re going to cause turnovers and to be quite frank, we’re going to shut teams down this year,” Hicks said.

Redshirt senior linebacker Jahad Woods said he is expecting a huge turnaround defensively for this squad. He said he enjoys the togetherness the team has been playing with. He said he agreed with defensive coordinator Jake Dickert that he does not want to have to make 140 tackles this year.

Another big change on defense is the switch in playstyle for the defensive ends. In previous years, they played standing up in the rush position but have not transitioned to an edge position and are rushing with their hands in the ground.

Woods said he thinks the players feel more comfortable in that position.

Redshirt sophomore edge Ron Stone Jr. said he has been a big fan of the change from rush to edge and is looking forward to his new role.

Senior edge Will Rodgers III said he feels at home as an edge rusher, and it’s a more natural position for him. He said he thinks the defense will be successful this year with the new system.

“It’s definitely a different type of defense getting more freedom to just play and be ballplayers, and I love that,” Rodgers said.

The Cougars take on Oregon State at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in Corvallis, Oregon.