LEWISTON, Idaho — In order to breed a competitive practice setting, Mike Leach and his coaches would contend that every position on Washington State roster is up for grabs this fall. We’ll call that coach speak at its finest.
That said, it’s hard to imagine anyone will unseat Max Borghi for the lead running back job, or Jahad Woods at “Will” linebacker.
But not unlike every preseason camp in America, there are plenty of intriguing position battles taking place right now on the grass at Sacajawea Middle School, so we picked out five of them to look at with closer detail. We examine the competitions at quarterback, “X” wide receiver, nose tackle, “Mike” linebacker and strong safety, breaking down the contenders, explaining the competition and finally listing who we think will rise to the top of the depth chart at each spot.
The contenders: Gage Gubrud (Gr., 6-2, 208), Trey Tinsley (RSr., 6-3, 215), Anthony Gordon (RSr., 6-3, 210)
The competition: Though Gubrud is the newbie here, I’d still maintain these next few weeks are more crucial for Tinsley and Gordon than they are for the Eastern Washington transfer. Gubrud may not have the same comprehension of the Air Raid offense yet, while the other two have spent a combined six years breathing it, but his resume and experience are two things Tinsley and Gordon obviously cannot acquire in a month’s time. Put it this way: Gubrud has more passing yards (705) and touchdowns (9) in games against the Cougars than the other two have in their careers — and by a long shot. Gordon puts more zip on his balls than the other two and has a knack for fitting throws into tight windows. Tinsley has a loud and strong voice at the line of scrimmage and is most comparable to Gardner Minshew in the way he leads. Gubrud’s athleticism and agility would make him the most mobile QB Leach has had at WSU. Minshew isn’t as fleet of foot, but even a small amount of mobility can open things up in the Air Raid — as evidenced by the QB’s four rushing touchdowns last year.
Asked if there was any desperation to win the starting job in his final season, Gordon said “I wouldn’t say desperation, but I’m optimistic and looking to push myself every day and I’m shooting for all the marbles. I know it’s my last season, so trying to go out on top and take this team to the Rose Bowl.”
Our pick: Gubrud. Assuming a clean bill of health and continued progress in the offense over the next few weeks, Gubrud should become the second straight grad transfer to start for the Cougars — and third straight WSU starting QB to have started his career as a walk-on. Gordon, though, is the most likely to push him.
“X” wide receiver
The contenders: Calvin Jackson Jr. (Sr., 5-10, 185), Tay Martin (Jr., 6-3, 186)
The competition: It’s not clear exactly when Jackson Jr. overtook Martin at the “X” outside receiver spot, but Leach said after the first day of camp the former JC wideout was “a little ahead (of Martin)” before reassuring “he’s going to have to hang on.” For those not as versed in Leach’s philosophy with wide receivers, the coach plays eight at a time. Essentially, he has eight starters. Two players at each position rotate in and out of the game and Leach often decides who plays based on where the Cougars are stationed on the field — a taller, stronger receiver is more likely to appear in red zone situations — or who they’re playing and if a certain matchup suits one player over another. Last year, Martin got the majority of the early reps as Jackson Jr. was still getting a feel for the offense, but that changed in the second half, as Jackson Jr. got more comfortable and Martin started to battle inconsistency.
“They’re both very, very good players no matter who’s in there,” outside receiver Easop Winston Jr. said. “They’re both going to contribute.”
Our pick: Jackson Jr. Now that he’s taken hold of the “starting” job, I don’t see Jackson Jr. letting go of it. While Martin regressed at certain points last year, Jackson Jr. has only made steady improvement. He has ultra-reliable hands and is as good as anyone else on the team after the catch.
The contenders: Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei (Sr., 6-3, 270), Lamonte McDougle (RSo., 6-0, 291)
The competition: It was Aiolupotea-Pei who took a majority of the first team reps this spring and he’s been running with the No. 1 defense through the first two days of fall camp. The senior from Australia, who goes by the nickname “Misi,” played a backup role in 2018 — his first at the FBS level — and had seven tackles, two of those for-loss. He has more of a prototypical defensive line frame, at 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, while McDougle is built more like the player he’s trying to replace, Taylor Comfort, and stands at 6-feet and 291 pounds. McDougle, a redshirt sophomore, hasn’t taken live reps since his rookie season at West Virginia, where he had 23 tackles, four for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
“All of them can do a lot of things, but obviously Mont being just that strong guy in the middle — unmovable force,” defensive tackle Will Rodgers III said. “I feel like they’re just going to have a battle all camp long.”
Our pick: McDougle. For the reason Rodgers III spelled out in the quote above. “Unmovable force” is a pretty accurate descriptor.
The contenders: Justus Rogers (RJr., 6-2, 230), Dillon Sherman (RJr., 6-2, 230)
The competition: Two players that were thrown into the fire a few years ago when the linebackers suffered a rash of injuries to older players, Rogers and Sherman are now in a heated battle for the “Mike” linebacker spot finally vacated by longtime Cougar Peyton Pelluer. Check out their career numbers and you won’t find much difference between the redshirt juniors. Rogers is up to 26 career games played and has totaled 56 tackles, while Sherman has 25 games under his belt and 53 tackles. Sherman’s numbers, though, have been more consistent over two years — he followed 23 tackles from his freshman year with 30 more last year — while Rogers piled up 47 as a freshman and seemed to decline in 2018 with only nine takedowns.
“Each time’s different,” Rogers said, asked to size up the competition. “Spring’s different than summer, is different than fall so I can’t really pin that on the head right now and tell you but everybody’s doing great.”
Our pick: Rogers. Sherman is probably the stronger player and surer tackler, but Rogers is more instinctive, better in pass coverage and has more experience in a starting role.
The contenders: Tyrese Ross (RFr., 6-2 ,190), Chad Davis Jr. (RSo., 6-2, 201)
The competition: Jalen Thompson’s swift and sudden departure opened up an immediate vacancy in the Cougars’ secondary — and at a position where there’s no obvious backup. Leach essentially shut down the idea of moving Skyler Thomas back to safety, so it’ll be up to Ross, a redshirt freshman, or Davis Jr., a redshirt sophomore who transferred in from Independence Community College last season, to patrol the defensive backfield alongside free safety Bryce Beekman. Ross still preserved his redshirt while playing four games last season, and made his defensive debut in the Cougars’ blowout win at Oregon State. Davis Jr. only played in one game, exclusively on special teams, against Stanford.
Our pick: Ross. We asked linebacker Jahad Woods about this battle at Pac-12 Media Day and he quickly gave his nod to Ross. The Atlanta native who prepped in Florida was highly regarded coming out of Westlake High in Jacksonville and he’s currently the one running with the No. 1 defense.