Posted on December 11, 2020
This college football season has been really weird, we all know that. It is early December and the Cougars have played just 12 quarters of football; at this point last year they had played 12 games.
So far those 12 quarters have been a very mixed bag. Some of them have been good, such as forcing three turnovers against Oregon. And some of them have been bad, such as giving up four touchdowns to the same receiver against USC.
Evaluating this team is tough because there have been so many ups and downs. The easiest way to assess the Cougars is to break it down by position.
From the biggest strength to the glaring weakness, here are the position rankings for the WSU football team.
1. Offensive Line
The top spot in these rankings was a toss up between the offensive line and the running backs. Since one group would not be able to do its job without the other, the nod goes to the big guys up front.
The line does not rack up any individual stats, but the numbers have backed up their spot at the top. WSU has averaged over 4.5 yards per carry on the ground this year and leading running back Deon McIntosh has averaged 6.9 yards per carry.
The five starters on the line have also kept the pocket clean for most of the season. Before allowing four sacks over the weekend, the Cougars had only surrendered two sacks in their previous two games.
Of those six total sacks, three of them have come from non-defensive lineman, who are typically not the job of the offensive linemen.
It is also pretty clear that this group is not only the most productive but the most talented.
Of the seven WSU players elected to the preseason All-Pac-12 teams and honorable mentions, two of them were offensive linemen. Offensive tackle Abe Lucas made the first team while guard Josh Watson was named an honorable mention.
Lucas is widely regarded as one of the best tackles in the conference and maybe the nation. He has staked claim to the role as best player on this team with running back Max Borghi missing time due to injury.
Due to Lucas and the other linemen’s stellar play, this group has been the strength of WSU’s team so far.
2. Running Backs
I say running backs as a formality, because really it has all been about Deon McIntosh.
The redshirt senior has stepped up big time in Borghi’s absence and has proven that he is much better than just some backup.
McIntosh has impressed from the jump this season, rushing for 147 yards in the Cougars’ first game against Oregon State. He followed that up with 92 yards against a really good Oregon defense and most recently rushed for 65 yards on just 10 carries against USC.
I have already written an entire column dedicated to McIntosh and his breakout season so I will keep it short. He is one of the best running backs in the conference and therefore has earned a spot in the top two for the running backs in the team-wide positional rankings.
After the top two groups there is a bit of a drop off, but when your group contains Jahad Woods it will always be formidable.
Woods is once again the leader of this defense and is playing like it. He has 22 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, and has broken up two passes. Pair that with Justus Rogers’ 11 tackles and you have a very solid group in the middle of this defense.
The main reason for the linebackers’ placement in these rankings is the run defense. By stuffing rushers at the line and preventing big plays up the middle, the linebackers have been a huge reason why the WSU defense has been able to stop, or more accurately slow down, the opponent’s ground game.
While the defense as a whole has been a bit underwhelming this season, it is not because of the play from the linebackers.
As leaders of the defense in the middle, Woods and Rogers will be tasked with keeping up the performance and locking down the center of the field in order for the defense to improve.
Before the game against USC, this position would have ranked easily in the top three, with a case for ranking first.
Jayden de Laura was guaranteed to be interesting this season due to being a true freshman starting quarterback in a year marred by a global pandemic. He played extremely well in the first two games; he made a handful of great plays and limited the number of mistakes.
He looked the part of a freshman against the Trojans on Sunday. He had his first bad performance, throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns.
Even with the recent struggles, he has still played more good quarters than bad ones. If he can bounce back in the team’s final two games, he can make fans forget about the USC game.
But for now, there is no doubt that the quarterback position has been a solid but unspectacular position group in the Cougars’ three games.
5. Defensive Line
The defensive line being this low is a combination of two things: run defense and rush. One of those things, run defense, has been impressive while the other, pass rush, has been uninspiring.
Just like the linebackers, the defensive line has been integral to the defense’s ability to plug up rushing lanes and prevent opposing running backs from making big plays.
The pass rush has been a weakness of this team in recent years, and while there have been flashes of improvement it has still been underwhelming. Edge rushers Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. have both registered 1.5 sacks but nobody else has recorded more than one.
Despite some flashes of good play, there is still a lot more to wish for from the guys up front. Consistent pressure on the quarterback would be nice, as would some more tackles in the backfield.
This group is by no means a weakness on this team but it is also far from a strength. The fifth-best position group on this roster seems like an appropriate slot.
6. Wide Receivers
This may seem surprising given Renard Bell and Travell Harris’s combined 569 yards and four touchdowns. The reason the wide receivers are so low in because those two players make up just 50 percent on the starting group.
The other positions have combined for just 132 yards and 16 catches between three players.
If I broke this up into slot and outside receivers the slots would probably be at one while the outside guys might come in last. The inconsistency across this group is a huge problem and is holding them back despite having two of the better wideouts in the conference.
This group has also struggled to produce big plays, some of that might be due to the quarterback, along with dropping a handful of catchable passes, this one is all on the receivers.
The wide receivers are the key to further unlocking de Laura and this Cougar offense. If Jamire Calvin, Lucas Bacon, Calvin Jackson Jr., or some other unlikely name can step up and start producing, this group will make its way up these rankings considerably.
This is the least surprising placement on these rankings, and not just because you could narrow it down based on process of elimination.
The secondary has had a lot of issues this year. They have provided little resistance to opposing quarterbacks, allowing 307.7 passing yards per game, 123rd out of 127 FBS teams.
They also have generated just one interception; an Ayden Hector pick off a poorly executed Oregon wide receiver screen. Fans knew pass defense would be a struggle this season, it has been in years past, but they at least expected an improvement.
In the secondary’s defense, two of the Cougars’ three games have been against some of the better quarterbacks in the Pac-12, including arguably the best in USC’s Kedon Slovis. That combined with a lackluster pass rush as previously mentioned has made it very hard on the guys in the back.
All things considered the secondary could be worse, though not by much. There are a lot of young players in this group that provide hope for the future but unfortunately the present is still looking bleak.
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