PULLMAN — With one fewer mustache than it had last season, Washington State’s football team will take to the large patch of turf at Rogers Field here this afternoon for the first time this fall, before moving to Lewiston’s Sacjawea Middle School for the next six days.
Replacing mustachioed quarterback-turned-cult hero Gardner Minshew is unquestionably the top priority this fall for a Cougar team that should look relatively familiar just about everywhere else.
WSU is returning four of the five starters who appeared on an offensive line that gave up just 13 sacks in 2019, seven of the eight wide receivers that helped Minshew spearhead a historic passing season and a sophomore running back who could be primed for an all-conference year.
We’ll be putting the QBs under a microscope these next three to four weeks — especially grad transfer Gage Gubrud — but there are other questions the Cougars must answer if they want to replicate the mounds of success they enjoyed in 2018.
Starting with Gubrud and the QBs, we give you five storylines to follow as the Cougars get underway today.
1. Gage Gubrud’s progression in the Air Raid offense.
He’s had ample time to jell with his new teammates, he’s been able show coaches his football acumen in the film room and the pages of his WSU playbook are probably frail by now because he’s flipped through it so many times.
Gage Gubrud, who enrolled in classes at WSU in February but watched spring drills from the sideline with an ankle/foot injury, has perhaps taken more mental reps than any other quarterback in the country since he got to campus.
Now he’ll put that knowledge to the test.
The Eastern Washington graduate transfer went through a handful of drills at half-speed toward the end of spring ball, but the Cougars were clearly determined to limit his activity and kept him out of the Crimson & Gray Game, letting him utilize the summer as a final recovery period.
If the injury-riddled Gubrud can avoid any tweaks, breaks or bruises for the next three weeks, and display some level of mastery of Leach’s Air Raid offense, he seems destined to replace Gardner Minshew as the Cougars’ starter. How do you turn away someone who’s accumulated 11,026 yards of offense in his career, amassed a career win percentage of .750 and thrown for 87 touchdowns?
The offense isn’t as complex as it may seem on the surface, but there’s also a reason many of the young QBs Leach brings in are nowhere close to ready to take the reins after one or two years in the system. Gubrud, of course, is much more advanced than those players and has sufficient experience running a spread offense, even if there are variances from the one Leach has been married to for the better part of three decades.
Leach won’t announce his starter publicly, but last season after WSU’s opener at Wyoming, Minshew told reporters he’d known for two weeks the job was his. If Leach uses the same timeline to determine his No. 1 this year, the Cougars should have their starter in place by the conclusion of the second scrimmage (Aug. 17).
2. The search for Jalen Thompson’s replacement at strong safety.
The Cougars will have to locate that player at some point in the next four weeks and, possibly even more crucial, the one who’ll replace Thompson as the defense’s vocal leader/captain/quarterback.
When news leaked that Thompson had lost his final year of eligibility, two Cougar defensive backs probably felt their hearts drop into their stomach a bit. Redshirt freshman Tyrese Ross and redshirt sophomore Chad Davis Jr. would’ve been Thompson’s understudies for another season and learning from the now Arizona Cardinal would’ve been an important part of their development.
But college football can work in cruel ways. Now, one of those two likely goes from sparingly used backup to a 12-game starter expected to anchor the defensive secondary, alongside presumed starting free safety Bryce Beekman.
We asked linebacker Jahad Woods about Thompson’s sudden exit and WSU’s newfound predicament at safety during Pac-12 Media Day last week. This is what he had to say:
“We coped with (Thompson’s loss) really well,” Woods said. “Jalen, he’s a tremendous player. We’re going to miss him. He was a leader of the defense, leader of the team. But things happen. He’s in the NFL now, that was his dream since he can remember, so I’m really happy for him.”
And who does Woods peg as most likely to replace Thompson?
“We don’t know who’s going to start yet at that position,” Woods said, “but I think it will be Tyrese Ross. At the end of the day, whoever starts at that position’s going to do well.”
Another option defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys may consider is moving Skyler Thomas back to his original safety spot, then relying on a young player like Halid Djibril to fill in at nickel. Either way, the Cougars will have to accelerate the career of some young DB, and it’ll be a storyline worth following throughout camp.
3. Deon McIntosh’s arrival and role in the running back rotation.
It’s not often you lose an All-American caliber safety in the dead of the summer. In fact, it probably happens about as often as acquiring a former Power Five running back during this stretch of time that’s supposed to serve as a break in the college football news cycle.
Thompson’s departure soured the offseason for Cougar fans, but the addition of former Notre Dame tailback Deon McIntosh — fresh off a 1,000-yard season at nationally acclaimed JC powerhouse East Mississippi — certainly sweetened it.
McIntosh gives the Cougars perhaps the only thing they were really missing on offense: a true No. 2 running back. It could actually work out that sophomore Max Borghi and McIntosh, a redshirt junior who’ll have two years of eligibility at WSU, become more of 1A/1B tandem in the Cougars’ backfield. In McIntosh’s lone year at Notre Dame, he backed up Irish starter Josh Adams — now with the Philadelphia Eagles — and still managed to pile up 368 yards and five touchdowns, then became a NJCAA All-American at EMCC, leading the Pirates to a national championship after rushing for 1,150 yards and five touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 190-pound McIntosh came to campus a little slim, but Leach says the running back has already packed on 10 pounds since arriving in Pullman.
And he should be a perfect match for the Air Raid: “The other thing you didn’t really see much on the Notre Dame film,” Leach said, “in high school he had good hands. Really good hands.”
In a perfect world, Borghi and McIntosh will trade reps similar to the way Borghi and James Williams did last year, when the Cougars’ RB duo combined for 1,913 all-purpose yards and 28 touchdowns.
4. The reconstruction of the defensive line.
At Media Day, Leach claimed his offensive line could be the team’s best position group, which is no surprise considering the group brings back a Freshman All-American right tackle (Abraham Lucas), a two-time Rimington Award watch list center (Fred Mauigoa) and another all-conference caliber player at left tackle (Liam Ryan).
But the WSU coach also suggested his defensive line will be right there with its offensive counterparts. The Cougars aren’t rebuilding on the defensive front as much as they are reconstructing, if you will.
Two starters, nose tackle Taylor Comfort and defensive end Logan Tago, are gone but the Cougars should feel more than comfortable with the players replacing them — and the players who’ll backup the starters.
Comfort was a pleasant surprise in the middle of the D-line last year, especially given that it was his first as a scholarship player, but the Cougars should realistically upgrade at nose tackle, where former West Virginia Freshman All-American Lamonte McDougle is in a position battle with Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei. During spring camp, Aiolupotea-Pei actually took the bulk of the first team reps, but I have to imagine it’ll be hard to fend off McDougle for another four weeks.
When the Cougars discovered how effective Tago could be at D-end in 2018, they went with the senior there instead of Nnamdi Oguayo, whose recurring injuries often put him at a disadvantage. But a couple years ago, Oguayo was considered one of the top up-and-coming linemen in the conference and he’s put on nearly 50 pounds — but still looks like the most chiseled player on the team — since signing with the Cougars out of Maryland.
Will Rodgers III was one of the team’s most productive pass-rushers as just a sophomore, tallying four sacks and 7½ tackles-for-loss, and should reassume his starting role at defensive tackle.
5. Which freshmen — if any — can carve out spots on the depth chart?
Over the last few years, the Cougars have been able to offer valuable, early playing time to true freshmen — and not always out of necessity.
Last year, Borghi earned himself a spot in the rotation practically as soon as he stepped on campus, then delivered more than 700 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns, tying a WSU freshman record. In 2017, a pair of rookie receivers, Tay Martin and Jamire Calvin, carved out in roles in Leach’s eight-man wideout rotation and combined for more than 600 yards and nine touchdowns. A year before that, Thompson was called on to lend some early help to Alex Grinch’s defensive secondary, and cornerback Darrien Molton started for the Cougars as a frosh in 2015.
WSU won’t have too many vacancies on the depth chart this fall, but the history indicates at least one of the 16 freshmen who signed with the Cougars will have to play important reps for the team in 2019.
As for who that is, linebacker Travion Brown and quarterback Gunner Cruz were considered the cream of the Cougars’ latest crop, but WSU doesn’t have great need at either position and it’ll probably be long snapper Simon Samarzich who’s the first to crack the two-deep.