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NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford

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Five big questions for Washington State’s 2021 season

Unsurprisingly, 2020 left us with a lot of things unanswered!

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

This is the next installment in our series of stories previewing the 2021 Washington State Cougars football season. For other installments, click here.

For the first time since 2019, the Washington State football team is preparing for a September kickoff. The Cougars start their 2021 campaign in just over two weeks and you have come to the right place to get all the information you need.

Head coach Nick Rolovich has coached just four games for the Cougars which leaves us with plenty of questions heading into this season.

Here are five.

Will the Run and Shoot offense take hold?

Washington State University Football Fall Practice 9 - Jayden de Laura (4)
Jayden de Laura
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Rolovich has coached just four games since getting hired, and there were plenty of struggles last season. The offense was led by a true freshman quarterback missing his best offensive player in Max Borghi — never mind needing to replace plenty of talent at the receiver position. It was a recipe for inconsistency.

While Jayden de Laura was familiar with the run and shoot offense from his high school days, he made plenty of freshman mistakes last season. We are still unsure if we will see de Laura under center this year or if it will be Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano, but one thing is for sure: they have had plenty of reps with this new offense at the starting position during practice.

Most of this team will now have had an offseason and a half to practice this offense and the Cougars are returning plenty of starters from last year’s team. All but one offensive lineman will be returning, with Liam Ryan and Abe Lucas as the main anchors for the guys up front, they will be returning a two-headed monster at running back with Borghi and Deon McIntosh (and Wisconsin transfer Nakia Watson might also have something to say about it), as well as having a receiving corps loaded with talent and depth including a few transfers from Hawaii who ran the offense under Rolovich prior to him coming to Pullman.

Last season, the offense struggled but showed a lot of hope and promise in times. After a full offseason to study as well as spring and fall camp to actually run the plays, the Run and Shoot offense should take hold and we should be in for a fun year with this exciting offense.

How will special teams fare?

Kicker Blake Mazza and punter Oscar Draguicevich III left the program this past offseason as Draguicevich III opted to take a shot at the NFL while Mazza transferred to SMU to be closer to home. The two specialists leave a massive hole for the Cougars to fill this season.

Mazza, who had 127 PAT’s and went 34 of 40 for field goals during his three years, will likely be replaced by Andrew Boyle who impressed on social media earlier this month when he made a 72-yard field goal. The redshirt sophomore stepped in last season and handled kickoff duties, where he had four touchbacks out of his seven kickoffs. Transfer Lucas Dunker Jr. and Dean Janikowski will join Boyle as possible replacements for Mazza.

At punter, replacing Draguicevich III will likely be Nick Haberer from Australia. The freshman was ranked the eighth best punter by 247 Sports for the 2021 class. He enrolled in January and has been since getting used to punting with the Cougars.

Which newcomer will make his name known?

Washington State University Football Fall Practice 2 - Ben Wilson (9)
Ben Wilson
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Linebacker Ben Wilson is a name that stands out to me this year. The 6-foot-1, 226-pound senior transferred in from TCU this season and joins a secondary that really could use the help. The Cougars gave up an average of 307 yards through the air last season and an additional 155 yards on the ground.

The Sumner, Washington, native appeared in 29 games during his time at TCU against Big 12 opponents and tallied up 34 tackles during his time. He will have a chance to play beside Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers this season and will look to break out this season as well as prove why he was ranked the top inside linebacker in Washington coming out of high school.

On the freshman side of things I am going to go with another linebacker in Francisco Mauigoa. If the name rings a bell, it should — he is the younger brother of three year starting center Frederick Mauigoa. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound legacy from Tafuna High School was ranked as the 41st inside linebacker in the country. Mauigoa is one of the biggest out of the group of linebackers and got an offseason working with one of the best linebackers in the country in Woods.

The linebacker position is one of the weakest links of the Cougars defense and will need to step it up this season to bring their opponents averages down. Both Wilson and Mauigoa are names I can see stepping up and playing a massive role on this inexperienced defense.

Most important player on offense and defense?

Washington State University Football Fall Practice 12 - Max Borghi (21)
Max Borghi
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

On offense, the answer is simple: Max Borghi. After suffering an injury last year and missing all but one game, the senior opted to return for one final year. Borghi is the only running back in the country to be named to the Doak Walker Award and the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch lists; in 2019 he finished with 127 rushes for 817 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 86 receptions for 597 yards and an additional 5 touchdowns through the air.

Borghi will be looking to go off during his final season with the hopes of impressing scouts to get a shot in the NFL. One thing that could put a bit of a hitch in that plan is Deon McIntosh, the graduate senior who tallied 323 yards on 52 rushes and 3 touchdowns during the four games last season.

Washington State University Football Fall Practice 11 - Jahad Woods (13)
Jahad Woods
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Defensively the pick is just as simple as on offense: Jahad Woods. The graduate linebacker was named to the All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season and second team the year before. He had 31 tackles, one interception, and one forced fumble last season. The year before he finished with 141 total tackles, one interception, and two forced fumbles, which landed him fourth most in the country and second in the conference for tackles. On a defense that includes a historically suspect secondary, having a force and a leader at linebacker with Woods will be very important.

Outside of the obvious answers of Borghi and Woods I would have to go with receiver Travell Harris and edge Willie Taylor III. Harris is the only receiver returning from last year’s team that hauled in double-digit receptions. He will lead a young group of receivers this season with either a quarterback who has yet to start a game for the Cougars or a quarterback that has just four starts under his belt. Taylor III will look to improve on a 2019 season that brought him 23 tackles and two sacks in his 13 games. The redshirt senior appeared in just one game last season recording a sack before getting injured against Oregon State.

Most important game on the schedule?

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Honestly, this is a tough one for me so I am going to plead my case for two important games.

Utah State - the Cougars will open up the season with a night game in Pullman with a crowd full of students and fans who have been very very eager to watch their team play. The Aggies finished last season with a 1-5 record and were held to less than 14 points in four of those games; their lone win came against New Mexico in a 41-27 victory. My reasoning for this being the most important game on the schedule is we will hopefully find out who this team is. If they can’t show up for an opening night game with a rowdy crowd, we are going to be in for a long season.

This game will tell us who we are going to see at quarterback and which version of that player shows up. Are we going to get the Jayden De Laura who threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns with an additional 43 yards on the ground with another touchdown against Oregon State? Or are we going to get the De Laura who went 18 of 29 for 134 yards and two interceptions against USC? Do we get a quarterback who has yet to throw a pass for the Cougars? Do we get a mixture of both quarterbacks throughout the game like a high school practice that rotates them when they make a mistake? We have no idea.

Now, lets say I am overreacting to the first two games and everything goes smoothly and the Cougars find themselves sitting at 2-0 and getting ready to host USC...

UCLA v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

This will be the biggest game of the season for Rolovich and the Cougars. While Utah State and Portland State are nothing to skim over — looking at you, 2015 squad — the Trojans will be their first big test of the season. The Cougs will be looking at a very tough stretch of games once they start conference play - USC at home, at Utah, at California, then home for three against Oregon State, Stanford and a non-con against BYU. Starting out strong against the Trojans will be massive for this team.

The Trojans are projected to finish at the top of the conference this year and the Cougs will get them early and at home. Can they hang with the top of the conference?

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