Washington State Football: seven predictions for the 2022 Cougars
Spring ball is over. We’re in the dog days of summer. That means it’s talkin’ season. Time to make predictions that will be laughably wrong and go out on completely unnecessary limbs all in the name of giving Freezing Cold Takes more Twitter fodder.
Here are seven predictions about the 2022 Washington State Cougars. Please save them for future enjoyment.
Cameron Ward tops 3,000 passing yards
Jake Dickert has turned the offense over to new offensive coordinator Eric Morris and his quarterback, Ward. The duo were together at Incarnate Word last season, with Morris the head coach and Ward the quarterback who threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns.
Simply put, Ward looks like a budding star who will finally get due attention playing at the Power Five level.
In the program’s return to the Air Raid, it looks like the Cougars are going to throw the ball all over the yard and Ward has the skillset to really shine as the engine that makes the whole thing go. He went 21-for-30 on his pass attempts in Washington State’s spring game, totaling 246 yards and four scores. While that was an exhibition game, it was par for the course with what the Ward experience brings. All this guy does is toss touchdown passes. In terms of per-play point production, only Caleb Williams and Dorian Thompson-Robinson were more prolific than Ward was on a football field last season. How does that translate up to the next level?
We shall see, but in terms of simply moving the football, 3,000 yards feels like a relatively low bar to clear. He’s not going to tear defenses up with his legs when the play breaks down. So, behind an offensive line with questions, Ward will need to continue to grow within his pocket presence and his anticipation. Do that, and we’ll see Ward’s name start moving up draft boards as the year progresses.
A Cougar wideout posts a 1,000-yard receiving season
This Washington State receiver group is incredibly intriguing.
Calvin Jackson Jr. (66 catches, 978 yards) and Travell Harris (76 catches, 795 yards) depart from last year’s squad. Those were the top two receivers for the Cougar passing game in 2021 and the second and third-leading receivers in the Pac-12. Not easily replaceable, though the level of talent remains high within the room. De’Zhaun Stribling (44 catches, 483 yards), a 6-foot-2 true freshman last season, is back and should be able to step in right away as the starting X. WSU also brings back Lincoln Victor (22 catches, 296 yards) and should get a healthy Renard Bell back after a torn ACL cost him the 2021 season (33 catches, 337 yards in four games in 2020). I liked the look Josh Meredith gave in the Cougar spring game. And former Oregon State wideout Zeriah Beason committed to transfer to Wazzu in April.
I’m also quite bullish on Victor as a slot receiver in this offense. The fourth-year junior really shines as a route-runner. He’s efficient. He had a healthy 13.5 yards-per-catch average and no drops in 35 targets. Among Pac-12 receivers with at least 30 targets last season, PFF gave him the eighth-best receiving grade. He works hard, a guy who supplemented his offensive snaps with a commitment to special teams and earned a scholarship earlier this year to show for it. That kind of player attacks practice. He should build quite the rapport with Ward. Their chemistry already looked strong in the spring game.
But even if I’m wrong and it’s not Victor who breaks out in a major way, it’ll be someone in this offense. If Ward is throwing for more than 3,000 yards, that’s more than enough to support a 1,000-yard receiver. And the Cougars have the talent in the room to get it done.
Djouvensky Schlenbaker plays right away
Nakia Watson is the most experienced back in the room and the favorite to open the year as the No. 1 option. Expect Schlenbaker, the true freshman, to have a role right away, though. By most accounts, Watson didn’t run away with the position during the spring. The 6-foot, 220-pounder from Bellingham, Washington, enrolled early and made the most of his time. His development in pass-pro will go a long way toward determining how often he’s on the field in the fall, but he’s a talented enough runner to warrant an immediate role.
Ward will be one of college football’s most-relied-upon players
The switch to 11 personnel will feature an adjustment period. Washington State wants to use tight ends in its offense again, but quality tight ends aren’t made overnight. The running game is a major question mark. How effective will it be after the Cougars struggled to run the ball last year? The offensive line needs to be rebuilt as well, and it wasn’t great last season (31 sacks allowed). Washington State needs Ward to be a star. He has the tools, but the Cougars are going to live and die by their quarterback to a higher-than-normal degree.
That might make for some uncomfortable games, but it’ll also produce one of the most watchable offenses in college football.
Ron Stone Jr. builds off a strong 2021 season
Among Power Five edge rushers, only three players had more stops than Stone did last season for the Cougars. (Tracked by PFF, stops are tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense.) He was in a class with Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Iowa’s Zach VanValkenburg, Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr., Kentucky’s Josh Paschal, and Penn State’s Jesse Luketa as the only P5 edge rushers to have at least 40. His 7.1% pressure rate ranked eighth among Pac-12 defenders who saw at least 100 snaps.
The 4-2-5 nickel set that Dickert brought to Washington State in 2020 remains under new defensive coordinator Brian Ward. The Cougars will be exotic with their pressures, but a ton of success will be determined by their ability to affect the passer with the four-man front. Stone (11.5 TFLs, five sacks) was a problem for opposing offensive lines last year, and he should be again in 2022.
Armani Marsh’s prediction comes true
The Cougars gave up 6.5 yards per pass last season, the second-best mark in the Pac-12. They held opposing quarterbacks to the third-lowest completion rate and quarterback rating in the league. Only Arizona State and Oregon had more interceptions, but Wazzu was one of the best in the conference at turning opportunities into takeaways.
The secondary didn’t get beat in behind—an allowed explosive pass play rate (20-plus yards) of 7.8%, 11th best in the country—and helped to make WSU the best red zone defense in the Pac-12. With Marsh at nickel and safety Jordan Lee coming over from Nevada, the Cougars have the makings of another strong secondary.
With so much to replace from the defensive whole, it feels like a safe bet to expect a defense that isn’t as efficient as the one the Cougars deployed a season ago, but I’d wager they’ll be even more opportunistic.
“We’re going to turn the ball over, make plays in the backfield, sack the quarterback, and get the ball to our offense so they can put up points,” Marsh said this spring.
The Cougars win the Apple Cup
DraftKings has the Washington State win total in 2022 at 5.5. That’s too low.
Even at 6.5, I might still take the over with a sense of comfort. An eight-win season feels very much on the table.
The first nine weeks of the schedule are tough, as Dickert and his Cougars will face Wisconsin in the non-conference as well as USC and Utah in the crossover games.
But the last four weeks of the season offer a potential runway for the Cougars, if they can just make it to the bye week with four wins, to challenge for eight. A home game against Washington on Nov. 26 with a shot at the program’s first eight-win season in four years would make for quite the atmosphere.
Regardless of what the record is when the two meet, I think Washington State takes its second straight game in the series after dropping 10 of the previous 11.