It wasn’t the type of season Nick Rolovich was anticipating in his first year in Pullman, Washington.
The former Hawaii head football coach had high hopes last fall after taking over the Washington State helm, but COVID-19, among other things, got in the way. The Pac-12 Conference initially elected to postpone football to the spring of 2021 before reversing course and playing a truncated schedule in the late fall.
The Cougars only ended up playing four games in 2020 as they had three canceled in a four-week stretch. WSU’s lone win was a 38-28 triumph over Oregon State on the road in its season opener.
Washington State was picked to finish sixth out of six teams in the Pac-12’s North Division in the league’s preseason media poll. Indeed, many people outside the program are expecting the Cougars — who went to five straight bowls games from 2015-19 under then-head coach Mike Leech — to struggle this fall, but Rolovich doesn’t feel that way.
“There’s NFL draft picks in our locker room,” said Rolovich, whose team will host Utah State on Saturday night in the season opener for both programs. “These players will elevate not only Washington State football, but also the Pac-12.”
Rolovich is optimistic because his team welcomed back 20 starters, including 10 on defense and eight on offense, from a year ago. Additionally, the Cougars have a clear-cut veteran leader/standout performer on both sides of the ball in running back Max Borghi and linebacker Jahad Woods.
Borghi suffered a back injury last season and was limited to one game, but he rushed for 95 yards on just 10 carries against an always stout Utah defense. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder made a huge splash during the 2019 campaign as he led the Cougars in rushing yards (127 carries for 817) and receptions (86 catches for 597 yards), plus he accounted for 16 touchdowns.
As a freshman in 2018, Borghi gained 366 yards on the ground and finished with 56 receptions. He is the only skill position player in program history to score 10 or more TDs in his first two seasons.
“He’s a physical runner,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said. “I know he missed some time, but we just expect him to come in at his very, very best. I think even more importantly than him is just how experienced and big they are up front on the O-line. I know there’s one young man that’s going to be playing that has had limited snaps, but the rest of those guys have been playing for quite a while, a lot of snaps. ... Clearly, (Borghi’s) talented and you’re going to have to do a great job tackling him one-on-one in space because he’s so physical, but I think it starts up front for them.”
That offensive line Anderson is referring to has three returning starters that garnered all-Pac-12 honors a year ago in right tackle Abraham Lucas (second team), center Brian Greene (honorable mention) and left tackle Liam Ryan (HM). Lucas has garnered second-team all-conference accolades three years in a row, and he and Ryan have each been in WSU’s starting lineup 30 times.
That experienced O-line has another proven weapon to block for in the running game as senior tailback Deon McIntosh averaged 80.8 yards rushing an outing last season in Borghi’s absence.
Heading into fall camp, the Cougars had two bonafide playmakers at wide receiver, but Renard Bell tore his ACL last month. Bell has started 29 games during his time in Pullman and has contributed with 147 receptions.
Fortunately for the Cougars, they still have speedy slot target Travell Harris, who caught 29 passes for 340 yards a year ago. The senior has tallied 1,185 yards on 103 receptions during his collegiate career and he is also WSU’s all-time leader in kickoff return yardage with 1,639.
Indeed, the Aggies will have their hands full accounting for the 5-9, 185-pound Harris, both on defense and special teams.
“Harris has really stood out,” Anderson said. “Not a ton of catches, but has that ability very similar to DT (Deven Thompkins) for us (in that he’s) electric in space. I would expect them to try and get him the ball in a lot of different ways.”
It is unclear who will be tossing the pigskin to Harris come Saturday. Like USU, WSU has yet to name a starting quarterback. The battle has come down to incumbent Jayden de Laura — who, last fall, became the first true freshman signal caller in program history to start a season opener — and Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano.
de Laura completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 886 yards (221.5 per game) and five TDs, vs. four interceptions a year ago. Guarantano made 32 career starts for the Volunteers and threw for 6,174 yards and 38 scores, vs. 17 INTs. WSU’s third-string QB is Lehi native Cammon Cooper.
Meanwhile, an experienced Washington State defense will be anchored by Woods, who is the Pac-12’s leading active tackle with 319 — the 10th-highest tally in the WSU record books. The durable senior has made 40 consecutive starts and is “one of the best linebackers that we’re likely going to see all year long,” asserted Anderson, who compared Woods to USU standout backer Justin Rice.
“He just finds the ball regardless of how you try and attack him, so we’re going to have to do a great job of knowing where he’s at and do a great job of getting bodies on him, making his job hard and hopefully getting up to that second level,” Anderson said of Woods. “... If he runs free, the guy makes a tackle every play.”
Of the 22 defensive players listed on the Cougars’ two-deep, 14 of them are seniors or super seniors. Two of those seniors, free safety George Hicks III and LB Justus Rogers, have played in a combined 82 games at WSU.
Woods was a honorable mention all-conference honoree a year ago, as were fellow teammates and returning starters Brennan Jackson (defensive end), Jaylen Watson (cornerback) and Daniel Isom (strong safety). Isom paced the Cougars in tackles last season (32), while Woods was second in tackles (31) and first in tackles for loss (4.5). Jackson contributed with 19 tackles, including 3.5 TFL, and 1.5 sacks.
Watson and WSU’s other starting corner, senior Derrick Langford Jr., are both 6-foot-3.
“They get up in your face,” Anderson said of WSU’s secondary. “They’ve got two 6-2 corners. It would not surprise me if they’re up in our face playing press coverage.”
Another veteran defensive player the Cougars welcomed back is DE Willie Taylor III, who has 20 career starts under his belt.
Baring unforeseen circumstances, a freshman will start at punter for the Cougars against the Aggies. WSU’s starting placekicker is a sophomore.