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Taking stock of Washington State’s roster in the wake of the NCAA’s eligibility decision

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 22, 2020

Washington State’s Jahad Woods and Skyler Thomas, bottom, bring down Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin during an October 2019 Pac-12 game in Tempe, Ariz.  (Associated Press)
Washington State’s Jahad Woods and Skyler Thomas, bottom, bring down Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin during an October 2019 Pac-12 game in Tempe, Ariz. (Associated Press)

It may not be probable, but now at least it’s possible that Max Borghi could be racing past Pac-12 linebackers and bowling over safeties for two more seasons at Washington State.

Well, two years, but technically speaking, Borghi could actually log three more football seasons in Pullman now that the NCAA has approved an extension of eligibility waiver for fall sport athletes, regardless of them competing this fall or, for Pac-12 athletes, in the early spring of 2021.

In this wild, COVID-19-influenced college football world, Borghi could theoretically play eight to 10 games for the Cougars in a potential spring season, 12-13 more next fall and another full season as a fifth-year senior in 2022.

It always seemed inconceivable that Borghi, who was recruited to play in Mike Leach’s pass-oriented Air Raid, would have a shot at the school’s all-time rushing record, but here’s his chance. For Borghi to reach that plateau, he’d need to average only 70.7 yards per game if he suited up 30 more times for the Cougars. He’d shatter the school record for career touchdowns (41) and also make a run at former linebacker Peyton Pelluer’s mark for career games played (52) at WSU.

OK, time to get real.

Cougar fans will be fortunate to get one more season of Borghi’s bruising runs and dazzling hurdles.

He would’ve been in uniform for WSU this fall and now, like many NFL prospects, the Colorado native could have reason to consider opting out of the Pac-12’s proposed spring season in order to prepare for the 2021 draft, although Borghi hasn’t tipped his hand one way or the other.

But now this far-fetched option is on the table: Borghi could play out his junior season in the spring – most likely a truncated version of the usual 12-game schedule – then return to Pullman in the fall for a second junior (?) season and give Cougar fans one final year in the fall of 2022.

The NCAA’s decision has wide-ranging ramifications for college athletic departments that will be dissected in the weeks to come. Much like it did in the spring, WSU’s athletic administration will put a plan in place and it can be analyzed that when the time is right. For now, here’s a look at how the eligibility extension news may impact WSU’s roster in both the short and long term.

Super seniors

Days before the Pac-12 announced it would be postponing fall sports to 2021, WSU’s standout middle linebacker, Jahad Woods, had an inkling the Cougars wouldn’t move to contact practices, signaling an end to his senior season before it could start.

“I’m just waiting on the eligibility news at this point,” Woods tweeted.

Woods and hundreds of seniors from around the country were at the forefront of the NCAA’s decision to extend eligibility.

These are unprecedented circumstances, so it was necessary to make unprecedented exceptions.

Now Woods may get eight to 10 games in the spring with an additional 12-13 in the fall, cementing his legacy on the Palouse. How many others will follow suit?

WSU’s 2020 roster isn’t very senior-laden, which could offer some financial relief for the department if it decides to fund every senior scholarship. While fall sport seniors are able to return in 2020-21 without penalty, schools aren’t required to match the financial aid they were given in 2019-20 – a hurdle WSU already dealt with when the NCAA passed a similar blanket eligibility waiver in the spring.

Counting scholarship players only, 14 seniors are listed on WSU’s roster. Two of those, defensive back Skyler Thomas and wide receiver Tay Martin, have entered the transfer portal, meaning the Cougars would conceivably need to fund 12 additional scholarships if every senior returned in 2020-21.

By comparison, the Cougars had 13 seniors on their 2019 team and 17 the season prior.

For now, the players who could take advantage of the NCAA waiver include Woods, wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., offensive tackle Liam Ryan, offensive guard Josh Watson, linebacker Dillon Sherman, linebacker Justus Rogers, punter Oscar Draguicevich III, running back Deon McIntosh, defensive lineman Will Rodgers III, wide receiver Renard Bell and cornerback George Hicks.

Stay or go?

It’s fair to assume Borghi won’t be playing college football in 2022, but many WSU fans didn’t expect to see him in their backfield next fall, either, presuming a strong 2020 season would’ve catapulted him into the NFL draft conversation.

Now players in Borghi’s position – those in the Pac-12 and Big Ten, mainly – have to contemplate whether to play in a shortened spring season, then jet off to the NFL, or use a longer, more structured campaign in the fall of 2021 to pad their résumés.

Some top prospects from the SEC, ACC and Big-12 have opted out of the season to train for the next level.

Others from the Pac-12 and Big Ten will make those decisions in the coming months.

Borghi’s production – 28 all-purpose touchdowns in two seasons – certainly isn’t the question, but does he have the film evaluators need? Would he benefit from playing a full season in an offensive scheme such as Rolovich’s that features the running back in a more traditional sense?

What about offensive tackle Abraham Lucas, the former freshman All-American who may have a higher ceiling than ex-position mate Andre Dillard?

What could he accomplish with 12 more games? Or would he benefit from returning in 2022 and playing a senior year a la Dillard?

Friday’s vote doesn’t have a tremendous impact on those two players, seeing as how both, as juniors, would’ve had the option to return next fall regardless. But perhaps the opportunity to play another season with the seniors who were awarded an extra year would factor into a decision to return next fall.

Quarterback tracker

Next to walk-ons Jake Constantine and Will Heckman, the Cougars aren’t carrying an upperclassman quarterback on their roster, but they’re bound to have an excess of underclassmen by the time fall 2021 rolls around.

With the extension of clock waiver, Cammon Cooper, a redshirt sophomore and the oldest scholarship QB on the team, could still be playing for the Cougars in fall 2023. Gunner Cruz, a redshirt freshman, would be a senior in 2024 and true freshman Jayden de Laura would hypothetically be wrapping up his career in 2025. The Cougars also have one quarterback, Southern California three-star Xavier Ward, committed in the 2021 recruiting class. Ward and de Laura would be seniors in 2025 if both redshirted.

With seven quarterbacks in tow, maybe position coach Craig Stutzmann should rent out a lecture hall for his position meetings next fall.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect all seven players will stick it out over the next 11 months, and a potential spring season – or even a traditional spring camp – could help weed a few quarterbacks out if one emerges as a clear favorite during that time period.

If Cooper, for example, nailed down the starting job during an abbreviated spring season and seemed to be the odds-on favorite to retain it in the fall, Cruz could hypothetically transfer in April or May, sit out in 2021 due to transfer regulations and still have three years to play elsewhere.

But if the spring season is nixed by the Pac-12 and Rolovich isn’t able to truly evaluate his quarterbacks until next fall – and nobody transfers before then – would the Cougars then be deterred from signing another QB in 2022? If they do, maybe they hold off in 2023?

Because of the group’s youth, WSU could be backlogged at quarterback for a few years, which isn’t an awful thing for an offense that relies on the position as much as Rolovich’s. The Cougars had five scholarship QBs last season, with two walk-ons, so seeing seven blue jerseys roaming Rogers Field isn’t as unusual as you might think.

Overloaded

Surely, the Cougars will run into scholarship conundrums elsewhere, and they’ll have to confront the depth-chart headaches most teams are normally eager to have at the end of the 12-game regular-season slog.

As in too much of it, rather than not enough.

Rolovich’s offensive line may be the best case study here. The Cougars counted on replacing at least two senior starters, Ryan and Watson, in 2021 and recruited as if a third starter, Lucas, would be leaving early for the NFL.

Now all three have the option to return in 2021, and there’s little reason to think they won’t. Ryan, a respected senior leader who represented the Cougars at Pac-12 Media Day last July, is one of the more well-known personalities in Pullman. Watson is an savvy, steady veteran who’s been essential to the team’s success the past three years. Lucas, talented enough to perhaps sneak in as a fifth-to-seventh-round 2021 draft pick, could probably ascend to the tier Dillard reached at WSU if he stayed another year or two.

Ryan, Watson and Lucas are three of the 15 offensive linemen listed on the team’s spring roster. The Cougars also signed Utah’s Rodrick Tialavea, Arizona’s Dylan Mayginnes, California’s Julian Ripley and James McNorton and Washington’s Devin Kylany in the 2020 recruiting class, and have two more players committed in the 2021 class.

Barring transfers or departures, it means WSU could have 22 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster next fall.

The Cougars rostered 17 offensive linemen in 2019 and just 15 in 2018.

On defense, “Edge” could be another crowded position for the Cougars in the future. One senior, Rodgers, is eligible to return in 2021. Five more sit on the current roster, and another batch of five enrolled this month. WSU’s recruited the position well in the current class, grabbing three commits from “edges” to this point.

Record watch

Maybe it isn’t worth touching on this until a spring football format is finalized, but here’s a brief list of the records various WSU players could be targeting if they were awarded an additional eight to 10 games.

Borghi was already on the heels of Steve Broussard’s touchdown record and will need just 14 more to get there. With 20 more games, he’d have a realistic chance of becoming the first player in school history with 50 career scores. Borghi still needs 2,337 yards to break Reuben Mayes’ 35-year-old rushing record, but he’d have a chance at Broussard’s record for all- purpose yards, needing 2,460 to reach the mark of 4,635 set in 1989.

Even with 20 more games, Woods wouldn’t have a chance at reaching the career record for total tackles (524) set in the early 1980s by Lee Blakeney, but he’d need only 154 to climb to No. 2 on that list and jump ahead of Anthony McClanahan. With 25.5 tackles for loss, it’s possible Woods could jump into the top five in that category, requiring just 17 to leap Travis Long. If Woods stayed healthy through a spring and fall season, he’d take down the record for games played (52) set by his former position mate, Pelluer, only a few years ago. Woods has played in 39 of 39, so even if the Cougars don’t play a spring season, he’d match Pelluer in a potential bowl game next fall.

Kicker Blake Mazza is already tied for No. 8 with 30 career field goals. He needs 38 more to reach the school record of 68 set by Jason Dunning, and do it regardless of a spring season. With those eight to 10 extra games, Mazza would undoubtedly shoot to No. 1 and become the first player in school history with 70 career field goals.

Wide receiver Travell Harris has one kickoff-return touchdown. The redshirt junior needs just one more to match six other players for the school record and two more to break it. A spring season, a fall season in 2021 and another fall season in 2022 would give him approximately 30 games to get there.

Harris, with 1,464 kick-return yards in only two seasons, is already on pace to obliterate the career record of 1,578 set by Isiah Barton. He’d not only become the first player to reach 2,000, but would have a decent shot at finishing his career with 3,000 kick-return yards.

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