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2023 Team Talent Preview: Washington State

Looking at the rosters of every team in the Pac-12 beginning with the cross-state Cougs

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Washington at Washington State Photo by Oliver McKenna/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’ve read this site for any length of time then you know that one of my favorite things in the world is to arbitrarily assign numbers to things related to Husky sports and then try to draw conclusions from it. Well okay, not completely arbitrarily.

In so doing this time around I found what I think is a good way for us to look at all of the rosters in the last season of this version of the Pac-12. I’ve come up with a way to try to measure the cumulative (relevant) talent on each team’s roster by modifying my formula that is used to inform my football transfer rankings.

For every Pac-12 roster I took every player with any kind of reasonable shot at playing time (an average of 86 per team) and applied my transfer formula to them. Since that system wasn’t exactly built to deal with true freshmen, I made a few modifications to lessen the penalty for having never seen the field for them. I also weighted on-field production more heavily and recruiting rating less for the longer a player has been in college. If you’re an all-conference 5th year senior it doesn’t matter as much if you weren’t highly rated coming out of high school.

Once I had a rating on a scale of 1-100 for every player (Caleb Williams un-shockingly had the high score in the Pac at 99.3), I then added up the totals for the projected two-deep to come up with scores by position and then overall. The highest rated player(s) at each position get their full points added to the team total and the projected backups in the 2-deep get half their points assigned. That corresponds to a roughly 23 and 13 playing time split between starters and backups. This way we can account a little for team depth and the potential for injuries.

Each team has 11 players included on both offense and defense and I used the following position groupings which are generally standard in modern college football: QB, RB, WR, WR, WR, TE, OL, OL, OL, OL, OL, DL, DL, ED, ED, LB, LB, CB, CB, CB, S, S. When it comes to for instance the offensive line or the nickel back role, I didn’t try to only get one left guard and one right tackle. If what ends up being the backup swing tackle is the 5th highest rated player on the line because the guard spots are underwhelming then he still counts as a starter towards a team’s standings.

And before you send in your angry emails I want to make a caveat. The players that I have listed as starters may not actually be the starters. Those are the players who are considered starters for my formula because they have the highest talent scores at each position. I have bolded the players who are predicted starters by Phil Steele to give a sense for how well the talent seems to match up with expectations by one of the experts in the business.

Let’s get started with the 12th place team, the Washington State Cougars (I promise this isn’t rigged because of the Apple Cup rivalry).

TOTAL OFFENSE- 853.3 (12th)

Quarterback- 75.8 (10th)

Starter- Cameron Ward (60.1)

Reserves- Jaxon Potter (31.4), John Mateer (27.4), JP Zamora (25.6)

If there’s any rating system that’s going to potentially underrate Cameron Ward, it’s this one. Coming out of the FCS at Incarnate Word it makes sense that Ward was unrated by the recruiting services which is a component. I also use PFF grades which are much less favorable towards Ward than what you see from most media members. Ward only averaged 6.4 yards per attempt last season while taking 46 sacks and fumbling 9 times. His highlight reel is ridiculous but there were plenty of lowlights. He did make honorable mention all-conference last year though.

It seems like Mateer will likely be the backup and he leads the non-Ward options in experience with...13 offensive snaps. If the Cougars are to do much of anything this year it will be because Ward upped his game and carried them on his back. Maybe there’s a quality option at quarterback elsewhere on the roster but we don’t have any proof of it yet.

Running Back- 94.1 (11th)

Starter- Nakia Watson (67.5)

Reserves- Jaylen Jenkins (53.2), Djouvensky Schlenbaker (37.6), Leo Pulalasi (34.8)

This is one of the places with the most returning experience for the Cougars as they return essentially everyone from the position group. Last year Watson and Jenkins combined for over 1,100 yards and each rushed for better than 5 yards per carry. They also contributed an extra 40+ catches and nearly 400 yards through the air.

That’s good production but there’s not a surefire 1st/2nd-team all-conference back among the group even if there are quite a few solid options. Unfortunately for Wazzu there were 8 running backs brought in through the portal that leapfrogged Watson (although a couple of them were intra-conference transfers). If there’s a measure of upside here it’s that Watson gets dinged for only having one year as a starter through his first 4 seasons in college. But he started out at Wisconsin which essentially always has an All-American at the RB spot and he probably would’ve put up bigger numbers had he started his career at WSU even with having made honorable mention all-conference last year.

It doesn’t exactly help though that the new Washington State OC most recently reigned over one of the pass-happiest attacks in the country at Western Kentucky. The Cougars are looking to throw the ball around 70% of the time which doesn’t limits the opportunities available for their most experienced position group.

Wide Receiver- 277.1 (10th)

Starters- Kyle Williams (73.1), Josh Kelly (69.2), Isaiah Hamilton (59.7)

Reserves- Orion Peters (59.4), Lincoln Victor (52.7), Leyton Smithson (50.7), Tsion Nunnally (45.7), CJ Moore (41.3), DT Sheffield (37.5)

The Cougars got rocked hard by the transfer portal losing 2 of their top-3 wideouts and having the other in that group run out of eligibility. They tried to make up for it by bringing in a trio from the Mountain West with Kyle Williams (UNLV), Josh Kelly (Fresno State), and Isaiah Hamilton (SJSU). You’ll notice that grouping makes up the top-3 in my talent scores since each got substantial playing time at their last stop.

That’s in contrast to the returners who have 13 combined starts to their name led by Leyton Smithson who tied for 4th on last year’s team with 30 catches for a total of 235 yards as a true freshman. The name to watch out for is new JUCO transfer DT Sheffield out of Northwest Mississippi Community College. He had 3 catches for 121 yards in WSU’s spring game and has an inside track for the starting slot receiver job. “Big Play Bob” Ferrell was a great underrated find for the Cougs last year and Sheffield is a similar size and is preseason 4th team all-conference by Phil Steele despite what my ranking system says.

Tight End- 60.7 (12th)

Starter- Andre Dollar (43.5)

Reserves- Trey Leckner (34.4), Billy Riviere (27.1)

This was essentially a defunct position when Mike Leach was in town and last year Riviere became the first Cougar tight end to catch a pass in almost a decade. The transfer from North Dakota has by far the most experience but it’s hard to say that he has been much of an impact player. You can’t really say that about any of these tight ends considering the Cougars often started out of a 4 WR set. But the differentiator in my system is that Dollar was a borderline 4-star recruit in the class of 2022 and that gives him a leg up projecting forward. Not a shock to see this position group last in the conference.

Offensive Line- 345.5 (12th)

Starters- C Konner Gomness (59.4), RG Christy Nkanu (57.7), RT Fa’alili Fa’amoe (53.4), LG Christian Hilborn (48.4), Ma’ake Fifita (43.4)

Reserves- Noah Dunham (39.0), LT Esa Pole (38.4), Nathan Pritchard (32.0), Nathan Gates (28.5), Ashton Tripp (28.4)

A note again that my listed starters here are the 5 highest scorers even if some of them play the same position. If the backup right tackle has a higher rating than the starting left guard, the LG gets bumped to reserves above.

What should’ve been WSU’s best returning offensive lineman ended up being a gain for USC as starting LT Jarrett Kingston defected to L.A via the portal. It’s still a pretty experienced group overall. 4 players that have started 7+ games for the Cougars return and they’ve combined for 54 total starts. Add in a multi-year starter transferring up from FCS Southern Utah and that’s seemingly a solid core. So why are they last?

Well, the problem is that they grade out poorly in every category but experience. Gomness was the highest rated recruit of the bunch at 0.853 in the 247 Sports Composite. For context, 13 of the 16 offensive linemen on the Husky roster were more highly rated out of high school. That would be one thing if they were all really great on the field. But the returning 4 starters all finished with PFF grades between 51.0 and 60.3 which puts them squarely in the below average category for Pac-12 starters. Phil Steele is a little higher on them with both Konner Gomness and Fa’alili Fa’amoe making his preseason 4th team all-conference team over Roger Rosengarten among others.

The expected breakthrough player in the group is JUCO transfer Esa Pole who becomes the most highly rated offensive lineman on the roster. He didn’t play football in high school due to his mom being worried about his safety but picked it up at Chabot College and appeared to have the inside track at the left tackle spot during the spring. If he wins the job it’s definitely a high risk/high reward situation for the 6’7, 330-pounder. And given those measurements, maybe his mom was just worried about all the other kids’ safety.

TOTAL DEFENSE- 856.2 (12th)

Defensive Line- 142.2 (12th)

Starters- David Gusta (55.5), Na’im Rodman (50.2)

Reserves- Nusi Malani (42.0), Ty Garay-Harris (31.2), Rashad McKenzie Jr (27.4), Khalil Laufau (26.3), Ansel Din-Mbuh (25.9)

Last year the Cougars relied primarily on a 3-man rotation on the interior and that entire grouping has since graduated. Former Virginia transfer Nusi Malani played the most of the returners with David Gusta next behind him. Those two should be right up there in snaps again. Colorado transfer Na’im Rodman had 17 starts for the Buffs over the past 2 seasons and will at least factor heavily into the rotation even if he doesn’t technically start. The only other player with any experience is Ty Garay-Harris who has been solid when called upon but only has 111 total snaps in 4 seasons.

Edge Rushers- 210.8 (5th)

Starters- Ron Stone Jr (79.9), Brennan Jackson (71.0)

Reserves- Andrew Edson (64.0), Lawrence Falatea (56.0), Quinn Roff (47.4), Raam Stevenson (47.2)

If there’s one spot on the roster where the Cougars appear to be able to generally compete with some of the top teams in the conference, it’s at the edge position. That’s not a bad spot to bring back plenty of experience. The clear stars here are Stone and Jackson who have combined for 59 starts and 27 sacks in their careers. Each of them made 2nd-team all-conference and are the only two returning members of the team to have achieved that honor. I think in a lot of years that would make for better than 5th but with guys like Laiatu Latu, the Murphy twins, and Bralen Trice all returning it makes it tough.

There’s also some solid depth behind them. Former walk-on Quinn Roff had 5 sacks as the primary back-up to the above pair while Edson has notched 3 sacks each of his 2 seasons on campus in reserve duty. Given how much more of a strength this spot is than the interior of the defensive line it seems likely that WSU tries to put 3 edge rushers on the field in clear passing situations.

Linebackers- 112.3 (12th)

Starters- Ahmad Mccullough (44.5), Devin Richardson (37.6)

Reserves- Kyle Thornton (30.2), Taariq Al-Uqdah (30.1), Tai Faavae (26.6), Tristan Bohannon (26.5)

...and goodbye to all that brief optimism. Phil Steele calls this the biggest worry spot on the team and it’s hard to argue. The gap between WSU in last and Stanford in 11th place is the same as the gap between UCLA in 5th and Utah in 1st. Not ideal.

I’ll admit that my system didn’t think much of Daiyan Henley when he transferred in last offseason from Nevada but he became a 2nd-team All-American. Henley ended up getting drafted by the Chargers in the 3rd round this past spring but the 2nd and 3rd linebackers off last year’s team transferred to Arizona State and Miami. It’s hard to fight that kind of talent drain when you’re recruiting to Pullman.

It’s not likely WSU hits the transfer jackpot 2 years in a row but they were forced to try. The starters are likely to be McCullough (Maryland) and Richardson (Texas/New Mexico State) but neither has both played a lot of snaps and played well during those snaps. Between the linebacker talent scores and the interior defensive lineman talent scores I expect a lot of teams are just going to try to run it down WSU’s throat and it’s hard to see how they’re going to be able to stop it.

Cornerbacks- 224.7 (9th)

Starters- Chau Smith-Wade (76.9), Cam Lampkin (51.0), Ethan O’Connor (42.8)

Reserves- Chris Jackson (37.8), Warren Smith (35.8), Jamorri Colson (34.5), Kapena Gushiken (30.5), Javan Robinson (29.1), Kiwaun Davis (27.2)

The clear standout here is Smith-Wade who finished with the highest defensive PFF grade on the team last season. That helped him make honorable mention all-conference putting up a pair of interceptions and 5 pass break-ups. He’s definitely a candidate to be one of the most underrated players in the conference this season.

Starting opposite him will probably be Cam Lampkin who saw reserve duty last year for the Cougs after transferring in from Utah State. The wildcard is Ethan O’Connor who committed to UCLA last winter over the Huskies. However, he never enrolled in L.A, re-opened his recruitment, and signed with the Cougars in May. He’ll compete for playing time right away even if he may not be a starter having missed spring practices.

The favorite at the nickel spot appears to be true freshman Kapena Gushiken. There will certainly be competition though including from former Michigan State transfer Chris Jackson who hasn’t been able to break into the starting lineup quite yet during 2 seasons in Pullman.

Safeties- 166.2 (11th)

Starters- Jaden Hicks (67.6), Sam Lockett (59.9)

Reserves- Dominic Tatum (41.1), Adrian Wilson (36.3), Tanner Moku (30.9)

This one should be pretty clear cut. Hicks and Lockett played the most snaps of any safeties on the roster last year once Nevada grad transfer Jordan Lee got hurt. Both of them were serviceable finishing 2nd and 4th on the team in tackles and combining for 4 INTs and 5 PBUs. If either of them take a leap then it’s definitely reasonable to think they could crack an all-conference team at season’s end.

The depth behind that pair isn’t great right now. Hicks/Lockett plus the graduated Lee played almost all of the safety snaps last year so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for the rest of the guys to learn on the job. Dominic Tatum got added as a transfer from Utah State where he started 4 games but never got his hand on the ball and struggled tackling in the Mountain West.

OVERALL TEAM- 1,709.5 (12th)

Last year Jake Dickert managed to essentially beat every team that wasn’t top-25 caliber until they got to the bowl game. That seems like it may be a tough ask to manage again this year. It’s worth noting that the schedule does set up favorably for them. Their toughest non-conference game (Wisconsin) is at home and they beat the Badgers last year in Madison although new head coach Luke Fickell will probably have them improved. The Cougars miss both USC and Utah on the schedule which right now looks like the best case scenario for piling up wins.

It’s not crazy despite the 12th place standings in the talent here to imagine WSU winning at Colorado State, Northern Colorado, Arizona, at ASU, Stanford, at Cal, and Colorado. That would put them at 7 wins again without asking them to pull what looks like a major upset. At the same time, Stanford/ASU/Colorado (plus Wisconsin) all have new head coaches and if multiple of them improve as much as expected then those games become much more difficult. I see this being a 4-5 win team unless Dickert is the absolute real deal. But having to replace both coordinators again after last season’s team overachieved feels like expecting a bowl game might be a little much.