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Sun Bowl 2022 updates: Nakia Watson takes center stage for WSU

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The Wisconsin transfer finally will get his chance to shine.

TEMPE, AZ - OCTOBER 30: Washington State running back Nakia Watson (25) runs in open space during the second half of a PAC 12 conference matchup between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Washington State Cougars on October 30, 2021, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ.
Nakia Watson finally gets his chance to shine.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

For the first time in his college career, Washington State running back Nakia Watson will get the chance to be the primary running back in his team’s rushing attack after it was revealed that Deon McIntosh did not make the trip to El Paso, Texas, for the Sun Bowl.

The Sun Bowl kicks off tomorrow, on New Year’s Eve, at 9 a.m. PT. The game will be broadcast over the air on CBS.

WSU coach Jake Dickert didn’t elaborate on the reason for McIntosh’s absence — “Deon did not make the trip and that’s really all I’m going to say about that” — and it leaves the Cougars extremely short-handed in the backfield for their matchup with Central Michigan after starting running back Max Borghi announced a couple of weeks ago that he’d be opting out of the Sun Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft after foregoing his final year of eligibility.

Watson turned a lot of heads in fall camp after transferring into the program following two years at Wisconsin — so much so, that some wondered if he might cut into carries by Borghi and McIntosh. That was always going to be an uphill battle, given the limited number of rushes available to players in the Run and Shoot, and with both Borghi and McIntosh remaining healthy for the majority of the year, Watson was relegated to mop-up duty in blowouts, never registering more than five carries in a game.

That all changes tomorrow — one game earlier than expected — when he’ll be the unquestioned lead back and likely command around 20 carries. At 6-0 and 227 pounds, he’s well built to carry that kind of load. His potential seems considerable: 247Sports rated him as a 4-star prospect out of Austin, Texas, and now we truly get to see what he can do in advance of taking the lead role next season under new offensive coordinator Eric Morris.

If WSU decides to sprinkle in another running back, it’s unclear who would get the nod. Diminutive Jouvensly Bazil (5-10/185) has been waiting in the wings for a couple of years, and figures to be a bit more of a home run threat; converted linebacker Peni Naulu (6-2/211) would be more in the same mold as Watson or McIntosh; and walk-on Kannon Katzer (5-8/187) could even get a look.

Offensive line reshuffled

PULLMAN, WA - OCTOBER 16: Washington State lineman Ma’ake Fifita (66) pass blocks during the first half of a PAC 12 conference matchup between the Stanford Cardinal and the Washington State Cougars on October 16, 2021, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA.
Ma’ake Fifita (66) and Brian Greene
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Evaluating Watson’s performance could be a bit rough in this one, given that WSU is going to be without two stalwarts and one part-time starter on the offensive line. Right tackle Abe Lucas opted out of the game in favor of preparing for the NFL Draft, while left tackle Liam Ryan had postseason surgery and will miss the game. They’ve been starting on the offensive line together for about a decade. (Roughly.)

Additionally, Cade Beresford — who split time at right guard — transferred to Boise State immediately following the season, leaving WSU to figure out how to piece together a line.

This is what it will look like:

  • LT: Jarrett Kingston (listed as a RS-Junior, but really two seasons of eligibility remaining with the Covid year)
  • LG: Brian Greene (RS-Senior/one season)
  • C: Konner Gomness (RS-Sophomore/three seasons)
  • RG: Ma’ake Fifita (RS-Sophomore/three seasons)
  • RT: Christian Hillborn (True Freshman/three seasons)

For as makeshift as this appears, it’s actually full of experience at four of the spots. Kingston has been the left guard for two years; Greene has been the starting center for two years (when available); Gomness played a ton of center this year when Greene wasn’t available, starting seven games; and Fifita had already been splitting considerable time with Beresford, and playing very well.

Hillborn is the wildcard here with the biggest shoes to fill. He’s just a true freshman who hasn’t taken a live snap at right tackle, but the coaching staff is high on his potential.

“Christian gets an opportunity to play in this moment, in this game and show what he can do,” Dickert said. “He didn’t come here just to sit the bench, so he’s been preparing all season like he’s the starter, and now he’s going to get that opportunity.”

If Greene elects to return for one more season — and it’s believed he will — this could be a preview of next season’s starting five, barring any additions from the transfer portal.

And if you’re looking for a reason to think these guys could play really well, there’s this: veteran offensive line coach Dennis McKnight has done a tremendous job while filling in for his deposed predecessor.

Uniform reveal

WSU will try to keep it simple

WSU head coach Jake Dickert meets the press at the Sun Bowl.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Football teams aren’t used to preparing for opponents on mere days notice, but that’s exactly what WSU has had to do with the insertion of Central Michigan in the Sun Bowl. Nobody is complaining — everyone’s just happy to be playing in a game, after being dangerously close to seeing it canceled altogether — but there’s a reality to the time crunch.

Dickert said the team will just try and keep things simple.

“Go back to a little old school,” he said. “Throw the ball around, play your rules and principles, play the game. Our team just wants to play together again.”