Nick Rolovich didn't have much time to install his Run-and-Shoot offense when he arrived at Washington State, losing key practice dates last spring to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, by virtue of the late-starting Pac-12 season — not to mention a slew of virus-related interruptions — the first-year Cougars head coach had only four opportunities to watch his team execute it against FBS competition.
Three of the seven games on WSU's schedule were wiped out by the virus, including a home matchup with California that was called 90 minutes before kickoff, and two of the Cougars' three losses came to USC and Oregon — teams that played for the conference title. A full 12-game slate should give Rolovich a better sense of what he has, what he needs and whether the Cougars are ready to contend in the Pac-12 North.
Previewing Washington State's Offense for 2021
For the first time since Luke Falk in 2017, the Cougars have a returning starter at quarterback — yet the position feels anything but settled. Jayden de Laura, who mastered the run-and-shoot system while winning two state championships at Honolulu powerhouse Saint Louis, used his knowledge of the scheme to win the job as a freshman and showed flashes of brilliance while starting in all four games. But it wasn't all smooth sailing for de Laura, who had three interceptions to one TD in the final two games. De Laura's status as QB1 encountered another road bump after an offseason DUI arrest, causing him to miss a chunk of spring camp and giving his challengers a chance to play catch-up. Redshirt junior Cammon Cooper, once a four-star prospect, and Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano, who started 32 games in the SEC, will try to pry the job away from de Laura this fall, and Xavier Ward is a highly regarded recruit.
Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh give the Cougars one of the most complete backfields in the Pac-12, if not the country. Borghi, who missed three of the Cougars' four games in 2020 due to a preseason back injury, possesses rare rushing/receiving abilities, finishing third in the Pac-12 in yards from scrimmage in 2019 with 1,414. He has 29 career touchdowns in 27 games. McIntosh, who spelled his backfield mate in three games last season, had 323 rushing yards, including a 147-yard effort against Oregon State.
The Cougars lose two starters at wide receiver but could be more productive this year. Most importantly, WSU returns speedster Travell Harris, who in 2020 scored touchdowns from his "H" receiver spot, from the Wildcat and as a running back. Expect the Cougars to find more ways to get the ball in his hands this season. Renard Bell also returns after leading the Cougars with 33 catches and 337 yards last year.
Abraham Lucas, one of the Pac-12's top offensive tackles, headlines a line that returns all but one starter.
Previewing Washington State's Defense for 2021
Encouraging signs from Jake Dickert's defense in Year One were often followed by untimely letdowns. Case in point: WSU forced three turnovers and led by 12 points in the first half of the Nov. 14 game against No. 11 Oregon, but that work was undone by a 57-yard pass that allowed the Ducks to score right before half. On paper, the Cougars have all-conference talent at all three levels.
They still need to build depth on the interior of their defensive line, but they're stout at the edge positions, returning Brennan Jackson, Ron Stone Jr. and Willie Taylor III. Jackson was a breakout star for the group in 2020 and has all the physical tools to make another leap this fall.
Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers and Dillon Sherman got their first reps four years ago when the Cougars were dealing with injuries. Now, Woods, Rogers and Sherman are sixth-year seniors with a combined 114 games of experience, and if WSU makes strides on defense, the veteran backers will have to play a big role.
Former USC signee Jaylen Watson emerged as WSU's top cornerback during the shortened fall season. At 6'3", 198 pounds, he has all the physical assets to be one of the conference's most disruptive players in pass coverage. Derrick Langford, Kaleb Ford-Dement, George Hicks III and Chau Smith-Wade add depth at corner, but the Cougars will need to find capable bodies at safety after Tyrese Ross and Ayden Hector transferred.
Previewing Washington State's Specialists for 2021
Not long after the season, all-conference punter Oscar Draguicevich III announced plans to enter the NFL Draft, and less than a month later, placekicker and former Lou Groza finalist Blake Mazza left the Cougars for SMU. Australian recruit Nick Haberer should be the top choice to replace Draguicevich at punter, but there's not as much clarity at placekicker. Harris is dynamic in the return game and could handle both punts and kicks this fall.
When WSU took a 28–7 halftime lead against Utah in the final game of the 2021 season, ESPN's predictive model gave the Cougars a 95.4 percent chance to win. The Utes stormed back to win 45–28, inspiring a new motto for the Cougars in 2021. "I printed it out and put it all over the building," Rolovich says of the ESPN prediction. "We've got to do 4.6 percent better. That's the thought process." With 15 returning starters on offense and defense, WSU should have all the ingredients to do so.
National Ranking: 68
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions