Finding ways for WSU football to improve in 2021
As you are keenly aware, dear loyal reader of Coach’s Corner, we normally spend our time in this space breaking down some sort of technical aspect of the Washington State Cougars offense and/or hypothesizing on what new wrinkle the offense could have added in the offseason. With only four games actually played last season, combined with the Run and Shoot Primer over the course of the 2020 summer, it feels like there hasn’t been enough information learned to speculate, neither has there been enough new outside of the standard Run and Shoot fare to break it down.
So, instead, we’ll take a slightly different tack. For this year’s preview, we’re going to identify some good things we saw and some areas of concern that we saw in 2020, and a bit on how to address them, breaking it down mostly by position group.
Let’s dig in.
Let’s start with the most important position on the field. I’m operating under the assumption that Jayden de Laura will be the starting quarterback for the Cougs this year, because there’s really no reason to expect otherwise now that de Laura has been reinstated to the team after his legal issues during the offseason.
Sure, technically speaking, there probably is a “competition” for the starting job between de Laura and Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano. You don’t bring in a grad transfer—particularly one from a power conference—if there isn’t at least a sliver of possibility he’ll end up being The Guy. But de Laura had a stranglehold on the job as a true freshman, so barring injury or an out-of-body level summer from Guarantano, it’s going to remain de Laura’s job. Nick Rolovich, as is par for the course for football coaches, is most likely just trying to keep de Laura from getting complacent in the starting role.
Jayden de Laura’s true freshman campaign went about as well as could be expected, considering the circumstances. Brand new coach, brand new (to WSU, though not necessarily to de Laura) system, brand new apocalypse. Despite all of the potential pitfalls, there was a lot of promise in de Laura’s play. His pocket presence was at an advanced level, with an ability to extend the play and get outside the pocket. That proved important as the O-Line struggled at times to keep the pocket clean. His command of the offense was solid overall, and he adjusted well to the different looks a Pac-12 defense can throw at an offense. Being able to read and react on the fly is critical for a quarterback in the Run and Shoot, and de Laura showed an aptitude for that.
That one didn’t count, so let’s just run it back no big deal I guess.
Sometimes the line between a strength and a weakness is very fine. In de Laura’s case, his trust in his own athletic ability got him into some trouble, as he had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long. Some of that may simply be due to the fact that Pac-12 defenses are faster than high school defenses in Hawai’i, as you would imagine. Processing coverages is also a factor here; the quicker de Laura deciphers coverages, the more likely the ball is coming out of his hand.
Another element that is crying out for improvement is—to mix sports worlds—pace of play. Between every snap, de Laura went to the sideline to get the play call directly from Rolovich and Brian Smith, then transmitted the info to the rest of the offensive personnel. The upshot is that in the majority of plays, the ball was snapped with single digits on the play clock, dragging down the tempo of the offense overall.
In a vacuum, it’s not really a huge deal. It’s not like the offense was paralyzed into delay of game penalties every drive. And this may even just be a personal pet peeve. But, when you are slicing and dicing a defense, the last thing you want to do is give that defense a chance to catch its collective breath.
It was a different world for the wide receivers in 2020. The Air Raid ran out as many as 10 receivers in a seemingly never-ending barrage of talented pass catchers. The Run and Shoot plays four, maybe five in any given game. The Run and Shoot also asks a lot more of its receivers after the snap, requiring them to correctly read the defensive coverage and adjust their route accordingly. As such, there was a definite learning curve for the receiver group, and four games doesn’t give you but so many opportunities at full speed to get it mastered.
Overall, the group responded to the change in offensive system fairly well. Multiple receivers had 90+ yard performances, and there seemed to be only a few instances of complete misreads by the receivers. This was a talented, if thin, group, and that talent showed out when it was healthy. Unfortunately, the injury bug did catch a few, and the inexperience and lack of athleticism behind the top four showed in the back half of the season.
They also made plays like this:
Drops. As a wide receiver coach by trade, I hate everything about that word. It’s banned from practice. I’d rather a player cuss my mama than say that word. I’ve transitioned over to coaching the quarterbacks this year (which is very fun at practice and ulcer-inducing on game night) but nothing about my disdain for that word has changed. But for a young quarterback, which de Laura still is in terms of game experience, drops can be detrimental. He’s going to make mistakes as a young quarterback, so it is incumbent upon the more veteran receiver group to not compound those mistakes with drops.
The other areas of improvement are largely out of their control—injuries and experience. Behind the top dogs, there was not a lot of game run. With the departure of Jamire Calvin, that group gets a little bit less experienced. Calvin Jackson Jr has not yet managed to stay healthy for an entire season. So if anybody has any voodoo rituals to help prevent injuries, now’s the time to bust them out.
Much like the receivers, the running backs saw a significantly different situation both in terms of scheme and rotation. The Air Raid often rotated its backs as much as three-deep, while the Run and Shoot has a distinct primary back. The Air Raid often saw the running back as a glorified fifth receiver, while the Run and Shoot rarely employs the running back in the route concepts.
It was going to be a transition for the group, even before news came that Max Borghi, the presumptive primary back, would be out for an unknown amount of whatever the 2020 season would be. Happily, Deon McIntosh stepped in and carried the load, including establishing the highest single game rushing total (147) for a Cougar RB since Dwight Tardy in 2007.
Losing Borghi was never going to be the ideal situation. The wildly popular and incredibly talented running back was poised to take much of the strain off the shoulders of the true freshman quarterback, and give some reliable stability to the offense in case de Laura struggled to adapt to the speed of major college football.
Then he was hurt, and suddenly running back became a giant question mark. McIntosh was a known commodity who had played well in spots as a rotational back in the Air Raid, but being RB1 (and the only running back with any sort of game experience) is a different animal. Undaunted, McIntosh came out of the gate swinging, with the best rushing performance in over a decade. He tapered off a bit as the competition improved, but was impressive in his three starts.
That being said, it is somewhat telling that as soon as Borghi was healthy, he was reinserted as the primary running back in the offense.
Borghi back, y’all.
I’m lumping these together in part because the improvements are fairly simple in both cases, but also because both of these groups are so much more dependent on working as a cohesive unit. The offensive line struggled at times keeping a clean pocket in blitz pickup for de Laura, though in fairness, three of the four opponents were three of the top defensive line units in the conference in Utah, Oregon, and USC. This leads to de Laura having to either process his reads quicker, or leave the pocket in a hurry, or in the worst case scenario hold the ball and eat a sack. Considering it’s the Run and Shoot, pass protection is a smidge on the important side.
On the defensive side of the ball, things were … uh … not great. 28, 43, 38, and 45 are big numbers. There were bright spots in the play of Brennan Jackson, Ahmir Crowder, and a few others. But mostly it was hold on to your butts time when the defense was on the field. In terms of improvements that I’d like to see at each level:
- The defensive line has to gap control better. WSU is never going to have a huge defensive line, so the Cougar defense has to rely on speed and quickness, beating the offensive line to the spot and holding its ground.
- The linebacker level has to run fit better. There were way too many instances of linebackers overrunning the hole or giving the runner a two-way go.
- The defensive backs had a few different issues, but the biggest concern for me was their tendency to panic. They would be out of phase and lose contact, but the ball would be off target and the DBs would take an unnecessary pass interference call on a play that would otherwise end as an incomplete pass.
If each group can find a way to improve in a few areas, this group is talented enough to win six and make a bowl game, which should always be the baseline for this program in its current state. On a personal note, it’s just fun doing football things in August again. Here’s hoping for fully played schedules all the way around.