Posted on October 5, 2020
Pac-12 football is coming back.
Yeah, it’s old news. But the real fans, the die hard Pac-12 followers—the true football nerds—they’re excited that practices are coming back.
The non-football nerds will be thinking, ‘Practice? Yawn. Let me know when the games start.’ (Looking at you Allen Iverson).
What most people might not know is that you can learn a lot about what will happen in the games by paying attention to practice, especially in this weird abbreviated offseason.
With WSU getting ready to step onto the practice field for the first time in at least eight months, here are some of the biggest storylines to pay attention to in the Cougar football world.
Battle at the Most Important Position
Heading into a football season without a clear-cut starting quarterback is nothing new for Cougar fans. The only difference is that usually there is clarity under center by the time October rolls around.
Essentially any quarterback on the roster has a shot at winning the starting job this year. No signal caller has any experience in new head coach Nick Rolovich’s system, and the guys with the best chance at winning the job have yet to take a collegiate snap.
All eyes are on the quarterbacks every year in Pullman but this year will be unique because whoever wins the job could be the starter for years to come.
The three leading candidates—Cammon Cooper, Gunner Cruz, and Jayden De Laura—are either a redshirt sophomore or younger, meaning this is not just a battle for 2020. This competition has huge ramifications on the future of the program. One or both of the losers of that battle could easily end up transferring.
Another reason this aspect of practice is even more intriguing is because the quarterback guru that is Mike Leach is no longer in Pullman. The man who got 600-plus yards out of KJ Costello would be able to turn any of those three starting candidates into superstars.
The same is not guaranteed with Rolovich at the helm. He has had incredible success with his passing game at Hawai’i, but until he proves it in the Pac-12 eyes will be glued to that position all fall.
Leaders on Defense Stepping Up
The WSU defense has been pretty abysmal for a few years now. That does not seem to be any closer to ending in 2020 with the Cougars heading into a season with holes all over the defense.
Most of the starters on that side of the ball will be inexperienced due to either age or previous playing time. The bright side is that new defensive coordinator Jake Dickert will have a handful of veterans to rely on.
Defensive lineman Will Rodgers III, linebacker Jahad Woods, and defensive back Skyler Thomas provide a senior leader at each level of the defense.
The aspect to watch is how these players are able to help Rolovich ease into his first year as the Cougar’s head coach. The trio will be one of the keys to how successful this team, and specifically this defense, can be right away.
If these players are able to hold it down on the field while simultaneously mentoring the young guys at their positions, then the defense will be able hold their own and keep games within reach for the offense.
Holes in the Offensive Line (But Not the Good Kind)
Usually the goal of the offensive line is to create holes, but at the start of practice the goal will be to fill some holes. Two of the starters along the line in 2019 have graduated: center Frederick Mauigoa and guard Robert Valencia.
With three starters firmly in place, tackles Liam Ryan and Abe Lucas and guard Josh Watson, the rest of the lineman will be left to fight for the remaining two spots.
The front runners seem to be redshirt junior Brian Greene and redshirt sophomore Jarrett Kingston.
Greene was Mauigoa’s backup in 2019, playing mostly special teams and even appearing in some games at center. Kingston was also primarily a backup but saw some action at left guard in eight games, splitting time with Valencia at times.
Despite those two guys having an inside track at the open positions, nothing is for sure with the new coaching staff. Each guy will have a chance to impress Rolovich and offensive line coach Mark Weber and make their case to start.
A number of guys will get an opportunity to win a starting job, but with just a little over a month until the first game of the season Rolovich must make a decision fairly soon in order to create continuity on the line and in the offense.
The Most Important Number: COVID-19
In any other year, the quarterback battle or the inexperienced defense would be the most talked about storyline of WSU’s offseason.
In 2020 the most talked about storyline of WSU’s offseason will be COVID-19, just like every other team in the conference.
There have been instances of good COVID management in sports leagues around the country. The NBA did an incredible job with its Orlando bubble and the NFL did not have their first outbreak until week four, even though it was just a few players.
Other cases have shown exactly how not to handle the current pandemic. The MLB had a tumultuous first couple of weeks and there have been a decent number of outbreaks in other college football programs around the nation.
The Pac-12 has put itself in a position where it must get it right in order for the season to actually happen. With seven games in seven weeks, there is no margin for error, or in this case a full-fledged outbreak.
Avoiding this virus is going to be important for the Cougars as practice starts up. One positive case can be a huge setback for the season and a two-week quarantine would be detrimental for any player.
The responsibility will fall almost exclusively on the players to ensure that this season goes off without a hitch, as if anything in 2020 can happen without a hitch.
The biggest outbreaks in professional sports have nearly all been traced back to player negligence and disregard of the rules. The Marlins nearly ended the MLB season by leaving the hotel and everybody heard about “Lemon Pepper Lou” Williams and his escapade to a nightclub.
For the first time ever in sports, every single player is equally important to the team, at least in terms of COVID. The fourth-string nose tackle has the same ability to end the team’s season due to an outbreak as star running back Max Borghi does.
The players must follow whatever social distancing protocols are put in place, whether by the team, the conference, or the NCAA. They have to resist the urge to go out to the bar or to a party and stay home and play Madden (it’s not that hard trust me).
Practices will indicate whether or not that goal is attainable. If WSU can get through four weeks of practice with little exposure to the virus, the season will look much more possible. If numbers spike as soon as players hit the field, the Cougars’ season will be in jeopardy.
—Recent Cody Schoeler Stories—
- Schoeler: Trick-or-Treating for Cougar Football Candy
- Schoeler: Who Will Seize Emergent Opportunities in WSU Secondary?
- Schoeler: Setting Realistic Expectations for the 2020 WSU Football Season
- Schoeler: Roadmap for a Pac-12 Team to Make the College Football Playoff
- Schoeler: Player Departures Proving Costly For Nick Rolovich’s Cougars
- Schoeler: Just Put WSU’s Max Borghi on the All-Pac-12 First Team Right Now
Schoeler: Trick-or-Treating for Cougar Football CandyMatching WSU players and Nick Rolovich with Halloween goodies - October 27, 2020
Schoeler: Who Will Seize Emergent Opportunities in WSU Secondary?The departure of Skyler Thomas gives other defensive backs a chance to step up - October 19, 2020
Schoeler: Setting Realistic Expectations for the 2020 WSU Football SeasonThe Cougars won't win the Pac-12 title, but they can reestablish themselves as consistent Conference competitors - October 12, 2020