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Washington State Football: 2022 Cougars Season Preview and Prediction

De'Zhaun Stribling, Washington State Cougars Football

De'Zhaun Stribling and the Cougars are ranked No. 60 in Athlon Sports' Top 131 for the 2022 college football season

For nearly three months last season, Washington State struggled to get through a press conference without inquiries about the vaccination status of then-head coach Nick Rolovich. After failing to comply with a state mandate, Rolovich was removed, and the Cougars appointed defensive coordinator Jake Dickert as acting head coach. Promptly after leading WSU to its first Apple Cup win in nearly a decade, Dickert had his interim tag removed. Now the former Wyoming DC guides WSU into a season in which distractions away from the field shouldn't detract from the product on it.

Dickert overhauled the offensive staff, brought in a transfer quarterback and hired a new defensive coordinator, so it's too early to know whether the on-field product will be strong enough to get the Cougars back to the postseason for the eighth time in 10 years. But the 38-year-old has unequivocal support from players, administrators and boosters who've commended the way he handled the unprecedented, at-times tumultuous events of 2021. Now that the honeymoon stage is over, they'll be grading Dickert on how he fares in the win-loss column.

"I thought we did a great job in eight weeks of building a culture," Dickert says. "I think we've got a tight team and a team that understands who we need to be and who we want to be. We're heading in that direction every day."

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2022

Previewing Washington State's Offense for 2022

Cameron Ward hadn't taken a snap in spring practice when he was listed among 20 of the country's top players with +5000 odds to win the 2022 Heisman Trophy, according to BetMGM. The FCS Incarnate Word transfer was virtually handed WSU's starting QB job when he arrived, replacing Jayden de Laura after the two-year starter's departure for Arizona.

The former Southland Conference star threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns in 2021 on his way to becoming a Walter Payton Award finalist, and he's already familiar with the Air Raid scheme that former Incarnate Word offensive coordinator Eric Morris has installed at WSU — a more run-oriented twist on the system devised by Hal Mumme and former Cougars head coach Mike Leach.

"I like that it's a quarterback-driven offense," Ward says. "The quarterback has to know everything from the O-line to the receivers to the running backs, and also that we throw the ball a lot. I'm a big person, and I love to throw the ball."

The Cougars could have an ace at QB, but they're unproven elsewhere in the backfield after losing Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, running backs who accounted for 15 of the team's 19 rushing TDs in 2021. Presumptive starter Nakia Watson will need to prove he can be more effective than his showing in the Sun Bowl, where the ex-Wisconsin backup rushed 17 times for 62 yards.

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The offensive line is the biggest point of concern on this side of the ball after losing three starters. Jarrett Kingston has started a handful of games at both guard and tackle, and the Cougars may rely on the experience of Northern Colorado transfer Grant Stephens, although the All-Big Sky tackle won't arrive until fall camp.

Ward's protection may be shaky, but he won't lack capable targets. Renard Bell (147 career receptions) is back for his seventh season in Pullman, and De'Zhaun Stribling returns after a breakout freshman season. Unlike Leach's, Morris' rendition of the Air Raid occasionally calls on tight ends, so you can expect to see Andre Dollar and Moon Ashby in certain offensive packages.

Previewing Washington State's Defense for 2022

Two years ago, Dickert inherited a pair of young, promising edge rushers in Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more disruptive duo in the Pac-12 in 2022 after the all-conference performers — Stone a first-teamer, Jackson an honorable mention choice — combined for nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss last season. Wedged between those two will be some combination of Amir Mujahid, Antonio Pule, Ahmir Crowder and Virginia transfer Nusi Malani.

Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers leave after each appearing in 56 career games — a school record — but there may not be much of a drop-off at linebacker as the Cougars bring in hard-hitting Nevada transfer Daiyan Henley, who chose WSU over USC, Washington and Kansas State. Expect Henley to start alongside former four-star recruit Travion Brown.

The Cougars didn't just poach Nevada's DC, Brian Ward, and one of its starting linebackers, Henley — they also grabbed former Nevada safety Jordan Lee from the transfer portal. Lee's experience and physicality will buoy a secondary that brings back starting corner Derrick Langford and nickel Armani Marsh.

Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2022

Previewing Washington State's Specialists for 2022

Dean Janikowski was voted the Pac-12's best placekicker after earning all-league first team honors in 2021. Janikowski led the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (82.4). Strong-legged sophomore Nick Haberer returns at punter, but the Cougars will need to identify new candidates on kick and punt return without the elusive Travell Harris in 2022.

Final Analysis

If QB Ward can make a successful leap to the Power 5 level, the Cougars have enough pass-catching options to be dynamic on offense, even with looming questions at running back and offensive line. Defensive transfers at all three levels may have to deliver in order for WSU to find success on that side of the ball, but as long as the Cougars come out of the non-conference slate with at least two wins, they should be well-positioned for another bowl berth.

National Ranking: 60

Podcast: Complete Pac-12 Preview + Predictions for 2022