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2023 Pac-12 Preview: Defense Remains Wazzu’s Calling Card

A productive transfer class and revamped O-line should get the Cougars back into a bowl game

Posted on August 21, 2023


  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Washington State preseason football preview is the final of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 26th.

Pac-12Each preview consists of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.

Washington State Cougars Fast Facts

2022 Record: 7-6
Head Coach: Jake Dickert (10-9 at WSU)
Offensive Coordinator: Ben Arbuckle
Defensive Coordinator: Jeff Schmedding
Home Stadium: Martin Stadium (39,952), Pullman, WA
Last Conference Title: 2002, Pac-10


Overview
Jake Dickert made a major move on offense after the end of last season.

Dickert

Former offensive coordinator Eric Morris jetted for the head coaching job at North Texas and Dickert hired rising star Ben Arbuckle.

At just 27 years old, Arbuckle was the offensive coordinator for Western Kentucky, a team that ended the year No. 2 in the nation in passing yards per game, No. 7 in total offense, and No. 15 in scoring offense.

Operating a pass-heavy scheme with a roughly 60/40 run-pass split, Arbuckle is regarded as a young and gifted offensive mind. His system replaces a Coug Raid that was not efficient through the air.

The previous Wazzu offense was 72nd in the nation in passing efficiency and 121st in yards per completion.

Arbuckle’s offense (27th in passing efficiency and 59th in yards per completion), on the other hand, is substantially more effective and should produce a more exciting brand of football.

That’s a good sign for a Cougar program that returns its quarterback, its top two running backs, and four of its five starting offensive linemen.

Yet, the strength of the WSU program is its defense and that doesn’t figure to change in 2023. Dickert has key players returning on the defensive line and three of his five leading defensive backs.

Getting production out of his transfer class and shoring up the issues along the offensive line is a must, but the Cougars should be in a position to once again make a bowl game.


Best-Case Scenario
Arbuckle’s new offensive scheme is a smashing hit and the transfers at wide receiver hit the ground running.

The numbers don’t lie when it comes to Wazzu’s new offensive system. Arbuckle created a prolific offense at Western Kentucky that should fit right in with the elite offensive schemes in the Pac-12.

Quarterback Cam Ward is back after passing for 3,232 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, along with running backs Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins, who combined for 1,165 yards rushing and 16 total touchdowns.

But Ward lost all four of his top wide receivers.

The quartet combined for 61 percent of the receiving yards, 60 percent of the receiving touchdowns, and 55 percent of the receptions.

The only other contributors at wideout that return are Lincoln Victor and Orion Peters, who combined for just 383 yards receiving and one touchdown last year.

Dickert mined the portal to replace the four primary targets, though.

Quarterback Cameron Ward | WSU Athletics

UNLV transfer Kyle Williams headlines the new receivers after starting nine games for the Rebels last season and putting up 541 yards receiving with five touchdowns.

San Jose State’s Isaiah Hamilton was added, as well, after posting 228 yards receiving and two touchdowns for the Spartans in 2022.

Rounding out the receiver transfers is Fresno State’s Josh Kelly, who put up 207 yards receiving for the Bulldogs last season.

The trio should thrive within Arbuckle’s system.

With a greater emphasis on tempo, the new Washington State scheme should produce more passing attempts per game and a slight uptick in the number of run plays.

The Cougars averaged 38.5 passing plays per game last year, while Arbuckle’s Western Kentucky team averaged 44.5. At the same time, Arbuckle’s system averaged 29.6 rushing plays per game, compared to WSU’s 28.2.

In other words, the system will be quicker with a greater emphasis on the pass, all without compromising the ground game.

As long as the Cougar offensive line takes steps forward in 2023, the introduction of the upgraded offense should produce a winning record.


Worst Case Scenario
Most of the attention given to Washington State revolves around its defense. And for good reason.

Dickert oversaw the Pac-12’s No. 3 scoring defense, which was promulgated on a strong front seven.

The strength on “D”, however, overshadowed a frankly terrible offensive line. The Cougars were 125th in the FBS in sacks allowed per game and 117th in tackles for loss allowed per game.

Both of those marks were the worst in the Pac-12, lower than even one-win Colorado.

Making matters worse, Washington State lost its top offensive lineman to USC via the portal.

Offensive lineman Konner Gomness | Young Kwak/AP

Four of the five starters do return, but that might not necessarily be a positive sign considering the product on the field last season.

Konner Gomness and Christian Hilborn both started all 13 games last year, while Ma’ake Fifita started eight and Fa’alili Fa’amoe started seven.

Dickert did bring in two players through the portal that are expected to contribute, however. Esa Pole is the No. 9 junior college offensive tackle, per ESPN, and Christy Nkanu has eight career starts for Southern Utah.

At the very least, both transfers add depth to a line in desperate need of improvement.

But if the offensive line struggles the way it did last year, the Cougs could struggle to reach bowl eligibility.


What Should Happen
The Washington State defense should be just as strong as it was last season.

Former defensive coordinator Brian Ward departed for Arizona State and Dickert hired Auburn DC Jeff Schmedding.

Formerly the defensive coordinator for Boise State and Eastern Washington, Schmedding has roots in the area that should pay dividends in the long run.

Dickert did lose three of his four leading tacklers, all three of his top linebackers, two key defensive linemen, and two of his top five defensive backs. Yet, major contributors from Wazzu’s D-Line return.

Headlined by Brennan Jackson, Ron Stone Jr., Quinn Roff, and Andrew Edson, the four Cougar linemen combined for 29 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in 2022.

All of them return and should once again form one of the strongest units in the Pac-12.

At the same time, three of the top four defensive backs return. Jaden Hicks was second on the team in tackles and tied for second in passes defended.

Sam Lockett III was fifth on the team in tackles and led the team in interceptions. And Chau Smith-Wade topped the charts in passes defended and added three fumble recoveries.

With the talent returning up front and in the secondary, there shouldn’t be much drop-off in the defensive production.

Cornerback Chau Smith-Wade | WSU Athletics

There’s always a “but,” though.

All three of Dickert’s top linebackers are no longer with the program and his 4-2-5 scheme is highly reliant on elite linebacker play.

The portal always has answers, however, and the WSU head coach reeled in several key players.

Maryland’s Ahmad McCullough was the biggest get, after posting 45 tackles for the Terrapins last season. South Florida’s Davon Hicks was a strong addition, too, after putting up 33 tackles for the Bulls in 2022.

Texas’s Devin Richardson was added, as well, although he only put up 11 tackles for the Longhorns last year.

The trio are expected to be major contributors for a team that returns just one linebacker with substantial production in Kyle Thornton who has just one career start.

At the end of the day, Dickert has proven his worth by developing players and producing strong defenses year after year. It should be more of the same on the Palouse this season.


What Must Happen
The elephant in the room is improvement along the offensive line.

Washington State really had no business making a bowl game last year based on the quality of its line play. If not for Dickert’s defensive acumen, the team would have struggled mightily.

With four of the five starters returning and two key transfer additions, Dickert must get better play in the trenches.

Making up for the lost production at wide receiver and linebacker is another must.

The staff did well to identify their needs and target players in the portal at those positions. The wide receiver additions are all from the Mountain West and should adjust well to the new scheme.

Transfer linebacker Ahmad McCullough | Whitney Thornton/CougFan.com

As for the linebackers, McCullough has nine starts for a Big Ten program and could end up leading the team in tackles.

Yet, if there’s one aspect where the defense probably needs to improve, it’s defending the pass. The Cougars were 10th in the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed per game.

The “D” has an ultimate bend but don’t break mentality, though, and ended the season No. 15 in the country in red zone defense.

Still, doing a better job defending the pass is a clear goal for the 2023 season. Increased production from senior defensive back Cam Lampkin could be critical in that regard.


Greatest Strength
Washington State’s defensive line is its greatest strength.

Watson

The group helped produce the No. 6 rush defense in the league, the No. 4 sack defense in the Pac-12, and the Conference’s No. 4 defense in turnovers gained.

Only Oregon State had a stronger red zone defense, indicating the lockdown culture of the team within the 20-yard line.

At the same time, the Cougars have a strong quarterback/running back combination with Ward, Watson, and Jenkins.

Acting as the backbone of the offense, the trio are among the better units in the Pac-12.

Yet, depending on how well it’s executed, Washington State’s greatest strength could be Arbuckle’s offensive system, which puts up points and moves the ball effectively.

If it all goes right, watching the Cougars this season could be like night and day when it comes to points on the board.


Biggest Concern
There are three primary concerns for WSU heading into the season: linebackers, offensive line, and wide receivers.

Hilborn

The portal additions at the linebacker and wide receiver positions should perform well. But fixing the issues along the offensive line isn’t as straightforward.

Losing Jarrett Kingston to the Trojans was a tough blow. He started 26 games for the Cougars and was the anchor of the line.

With him gone, Gomness is the player with the most starting experience at 21 career starts.

All told, the four returning starters have combined for 55 career starts. Experience is not the issue.

There are no easy answers for the problems up front, but perhaps Arbuckle can engineer some solutions. The faster-tempo offense should help by keeping opposing defenses on their heels throughout the game.


Deciding Factors
Washington State’s bowl eligibility aspirations arguably ride on the production of its transfers.

Williams

The additions at wide receiver and linebacker, in particular, must perform immediately.

With the top four receivers and the top three linebackers gone, the season might very well be determined by Williams, Kelly, and Hamilton at receiver and McCullough, Richardson, and Hicks at linebacker.

Utah State cornerback Dominic Tatum is a promising prospect, as well. He posted 26 tackles for the Aggies last season with four starts.

His addition should help fill the gaps lost from the departure of Armani Marsh and Derrick Langford.

Colorado defensive lineman Na’im Rodman should add depth up front, too. With nine career starts for the Buffs, Rodman figures to contribute for the Cougars this season.

And within the offensive line, transfers Pole and Nkanu could hold the key to improvement up front.


Schedule Analysis
2023 Washington State Cougars Schedule

Sept. 2 at Colorado State
Sept. 9 vs Wisconsin
Sept. 16 vs Northern Colorado
Sept. 23 vs Oregon State
Oct. 7 at UCLA
Oct. 14 vs Arizona
Oct. 21 at Oregon
Oct. 28 at Arizona State
Nov. 4 vs Stanford
Nov. 11 at California
Nov. 17 vs Colorado
Nov. 24 at Washington

The season begins with an arguably must-win game for Washington State’s bowl eligibility hopes.

A defeat to Colorado State would be hard to overcome.

Yet, the Cougs should take care of business in Fort Collins and be well prepared for the following week against Wisconsin.

Nobody predicted WSU to beat the Badgers last season, and the Big Ten team will be hard-pressed to beat the Cougs in Pullman.

A 3-0 nonconference mark is a reasonable expectation, although a 2-1 record wouldn’t be unexpected.

The probable defeats in conference play are the road games at UCLA, Oregon, and Washington. The home games against Stanford and Colorado are the probable victories.

The games against Oregon State, Arizona, Arizona State, and California are more of a toss-up.

If the Cougs can go 2-2 in those matchups while beating Stanford and Colorado, then bowl eligibility is within reach, even with a loss to Wisconsin.

A surprise to the upside is certainly possible, but a 6-6 record is a fair projection considering the issues along the offensive line and the lost production at linebacker.




—More from Dane Miller—