Freshman running back impresses as Cougars conduct first preseason scrimmage: Notes from Day 10 of WSU camp

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Aug. 14—PULLMAN — Washington State will hold 25 practices ahead of its season opener Sept. 3 against Idaho. The Spokesman-Review will be in attendance for each of those, tracking relevant storylines, notes, depth-chart developments and key plays as the Cougars prepare for the 2022 football season — their first under coach Jake Dickert. Below are observations from the 10th day of fall camp in Pullman, which served as the Cougars' first preseason scrimmage.

Freshman RB shines in first scrimmage

WSU coaches highlighted running back Jaylen Jenkins' name before Saturday's scrimmage. They wanted to "make sure we got a clear picture of what Jaylen is capable of doing" in a game-like setting.

"And I think you saw plenty of big plays from him," Dickert said.

Jenkins didn't disappoint in his first mock game with the Cougars. The true freshman speedster from Texas was the brightest performer of the morning on Saturday at Gesa Field. He produced a number of highlights and finished his day with 126 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.

"He's fearless," Dickert said. "There's no situation that we have put him in so far that he hasn't handled, mentally and physically. He has passed every test that we've kinda had for him.

"Explosive runs are game-changers. I think that's what he brings to our offense."

The 5-foot-8, 177-pound Jenkins is one of the fastest-rising youngsters on the Cougars' roster. WSU defenders have had trouble wrapping him up throughout fall camp. In the team's first full-contact session of the preseason, Jenkins again distinguished himself as an evasive playmaker for the Cougars' new Air Raid offense. He broke off runs of 35, 26, 24 and 20 yards.

"Jaylen's big runs and making second-level defenders miss is a big deal, and that's a sign of a really good football player," Dickert said.

Starting quarterback Cameron Ward offered his thoughts on the promising rookie RB after the scrimmage.

"He's still learning the plays, but when he gets the ball in his hands, he shows you what he can do — just a little shiftiness that he adds to the game," Ward said. "I'm really excited to have him by my side."

Jenkins split his reps with WSU's first team and reserve groups. The Cougars plan to take a "by-committee" approach to the ground game this season, and Dickert hasn't named an official starter. Junior Nakia Watson, the presumed favorite to start this season, missed the scrimmage with an unspecified injury.

"We'll get Nakia back as we go throughout next week," Dickert said. "I'm excited to see him to do some more things in the (next) scrimmage to build his confidence, too."

Three other RBs are in the mix for playing time this season.

Redshirt freshman Kannon Katzer, a walk-on from Mt. Spokane High, was the first tailback on the field for the scrimmage. He gained 3 yards on three rushing attempts.

True freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker, a graduate of Squalicum High in Bellingham, rotated in with WSU's top two offensive units but had an off day in what has otherwise been a solid camp. Schlenbaker couldn't find much running room and totaled 7 yards on seven carries.

Redshirt freshman Dylan Paine, a walk-on from Tumwater, Washington, was used sparingly and did not record any statistics.

Scrimmage recap

Veterans and established starters spent much of the day on the sidelines and providing guidance for younger teammates while coaches evaluated WSU's less-experienced players.

Ward, a sophomore transfer , quarterbacked the Cougars on only three of 15 drives.

"It felt great, just being able to compete and go live against the defensive (starters), instead of them having to tag off in practice," Ward said. "Being able to compete against them, getting a live rush at me and being able to go through an actual scramble drill, like we would in a game — it's fun to do.

"I feel like we have one of the best zone defenses in the Pac-12 and blitz defenses. It puts a lot of pressure on us as quarterbacks, just to be careful with the ball. ... Them keeping that pressure on me and never letting me get complacent, that's what I love."

Ward completed 8 of 13 passes, settling into a groove after a three-and-out to start the scrimmage. He led quick-paced scoring drives on the next two possessions.

On his second series, he dropped a 36-yard touchdown to standout sophomore outside receiver De'Zhaun Stribling, who finished with 74 yards on three catches.

Sixteen receivers and one tight end — sophomore starter Billy Riviere — had catches. Stribling led the way.

Slot receiver Drake Owen picked up 58 yards and a score on five catches. Tsion Nunnally — Stribling's backup at outside receiver — amassed 56 yards on two grabs. He spun out of traffic for a 38-yard catch-and-run.

"Tsion Nunnally I think is showing more and more that we can count on him," Dickert said.

Stribling, along with other proven pass-catchers like Donovan Ollie and Renard Bell, exited the lineup early in the day and took on coaching roles. The same went for defensive standouts such as edge rusher Brennan Jackson and linebacker Daiyan Henley.

A few of WSU's top offensive linemen were also limited participants, including left tackle Jarrett Kingston and center Konner Gomness. Several familiar faces were held out of the scrimmage — star edge Ron Stone Jr., slot receiver Lincoln Victor and nickel Armani Marsh among them.

"I thought our team showed a lot of maturity," Dickert said. "I saw Strib cheering on Tsion. I saw BJ (Jackson) and RJ (Stone) over there coaching. I just think it's a sign of a really mature and engaged football team."

Right tackle Ma'ake Fifita and guard Brock Dieu are still sidelined with injuries. Reserve edge Raam Stevenson and backup tight end Andre Dollar were also out.

Dickert was pleased with his starting offensive line's performance across a few drives against the Cougars' first-team defensive front.

"I thought the offensive linemen did a great job today. We were very clean," Dickert said, awarding offensive player of the day to right guard Grant Stephens, a senior transfer who earned All-Big Sky honors last season at Northern Colorado. "I thought the (starters) set good pockets and kept Cam upright.

"They're gelling together. I think we're getting some pieces in the right places and (redshirt freshman left guard Christian Hilborn) has grown up."

WSU's first-team offensive line played about a third of the possessions and surrendered two sacks. When the backups came in up front — most of WSU's No. 2 offensive line is composed of freshmen — the Cougars' offense allowed six sacks.

"Our (backup) offensive line right now is young," Dickert said. "They're getting forged through the fire a little bit and are going against some pretty good guys, but I was happy with the No. 1 offensive line."

Defensive tackle Nusi Malani, a sophomore Virginia transfer , recorded two sacks.

Reserve DT Ty Garay-Harris and backup edge Lawrence Falatea contributed two sacks apiece. Malani and Falatea were named co-defensive players of the day.

"Lawrence and Nusi were in the backfield all day," Dickert said. "That defensive line has been bringing it all camp, and they showed some of that stuff today."

Jackson, edge Andrew Edson, backup defensive back Henry Kimmins and fast-developing freshman defensive tackle Rashad McKenzie chipped in TFLs in the run game.

Reserve linebackers Hudson Cedarland and Joshua Erling had interceptions.

Dickert will move a step closer to naming his backup quarterback after watching footage of the scrimmage. Three freshmen — Xavier Ward, Emmett Brown and John Mateer — are in the running. Each alternated drives for the better part of the mock game. Ward, a redshirt frosh, seemed to be the most effective of the three. He finished approximately 8 of 13, with red-zone touchdown passes to Anderson Grover and Owen. Mateer completed 8 of 14 passes with an interception and a pretty deep ball to Stribling. Brown completed 4 of 10 attempts.

"One of the biggest things for this last week of fall camp is who's going to be our backup quarterback," Dickert said. "I think they all had their moments today, but no one has been consistent enough to go grab that. It's going to be a big opportunity for these guys next week as we limit Cam's reps."

WSU's offense scored four touchdowns and converted on three field-goal attempts. The defense forced three takeaways and three three-and-outs.

All-Pac-12 kicker Dean Janikowski has been reliable throughout camp. The sophomore went 3 for 3 on field goals during the scrimmage, connecting on attempts of 52, 46 and 38 yards.

"Dean has been in midseason form since Day 1," Dickert said.

WSU conducted situational drills for a stretch of the scrimmage, focusing on aspects of the game that are difficult for coaches to script, such as two-minute red-zone offense and Hail Mary defense.

"Our (first-year staff is) really working together and getting on the same page," Dickert said. "I'm noting things on communication, coming out of huddles — where we could get better and become more efficient as we get closer to game day."

The New York Jets sent a scout to Saturday's scrimmage.

Plays of the day

1. Mateer, with his offense backed up inside its 30-yard line, gave Stribling a chance on a 50/50 jump ball deep down the left sideline. Cornerback Chau-Smith Wade was playing tight coverage on Stribling but turned his head around late. Stribling hopped and twisted his body, flipping himself around in the air then sticking his right hand behind Smith-Wade's left shoulder. With his vision obstructed, Stribling snagged the ball with one hand and pinned it on Smith-Wade's back for support, gaining firm possession of the reception as the two fell to the turf. Smith-Wade was flagged for pass interference.

2. Jenkins showed off his top speed and zoomed past every Cougars defender on his final carry of the day, concluding his impressive showing with a 35-yard touchdown. Lining up with a reserve team, Jenkins took the handoff and headed straight toward a slight gap in the left side of the line. He didn't hesitate or change course at all, flying through the lane and dashing upfield, avoiding contact for a smooth scoring run.

3. Ward led a long scoring series on the second possession of the day, capping the drive with a precise pass to Stribling for a 36-yard touchdown. Stribling beat a cornerback at the line of scrimmage. Safety Jordan Lee tried to pick up the coverage assignment downfield but was too late. Ward spotted Stribling striding uncovered down the left sideline, with Lee trailing by about 2 yards. Ward delivered a strike and Stribling extended his arms to make an over-the-shoulder catch in stride, then scooted another 15 yards into the end zone.

4. On the scrimmage's final play, QB JP Zamora's pocket crumbled from pressure and the true freshman reserve was forced into an ill-advised pass. Zamora's short throw sailed into a crowd in the middle of the field. Junior linebacker Joshua Erling emerged from the scrum with an interception, then bounced into clear space to his right and raced the pick 70 yards back for a touchdown.

Their words

"We're seeing a growing confidence between Cam and (his receivers), being able to put the ball in some spots where he trusts them to go make some plays. I think that's a fun place to be for our offense. Now, they know what to expect. Cam has elite pocket presence. So, you never know when he's sliding around — all of a sudden, that ball comes out and you gotta be ready. The fact that he can spray it all over the field has everybody at attention and running purposeful routes." — Dickert on the developing chemistry between Ward and the Cougars' receiving corps.