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Washington State preseason notes (Oct. 26): Offensive linemen happy to make adjustments in new run-and-shoot scheme

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 26, 2020

Washington State Cougars offensive linemen Brian Greene and Josh Watson react after defeating Wyoming in 2018 at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars offensive linemen Brian Greene and Josh Watson react after defeating Wyoming in 2018 at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Despite the similarities between two offensive systems that fall under the “spread” umbrella, life should still look different for the quarterbacks and running backs at Washington State making the transition from Mike Leach’s Air Raid to Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot.

For both, much of it boils down to the same concept: running the ball more.

Therefore, life should also look different in the trenches, where three returning starters, a new center and a new right guard will be asked to forget much of what they learned under the old regime and adjust to new concepts and techniques.

“The offense is obviously a little different, we’re not passing 87 times a game year,” junior right tackle Abraham Lucas said sarcastically after the second day of preseason camp. “It should be divided up pretty evenly, so pass opens up the run, runs open up the pass, which makes it a little more physical when you’re going at somebody and they’re coming at you.”

For fans watching the Cougars on television this year, the most discernible difference between the offensive line in Leach’s system versus that of Rolovich’s may be the splits, or space, between the tackles, guards and center. Leach’s Air Raid employed famously wide splits that left between 3-6 feet between the left tackle and left guard, left guard and center, etc. The gaps, though still wider than those at other schools, have shrunk considerably in the run-and-shoot.

“It depends on the type of play we are running, sometimes we’re narrow and sometimes we are wide,” said Jarrett Kingston, a backup at right guard in 2019 who’s taken reps at both guard spots this camp. “… The last two years we would always have super wide splits to give us space to pass block. It’s nice having shorter splits because it allows us to do some good combos on run blocking.”

The average viewer may not be as proficient in spotting other offensive line tendencies, though, and many won’t recognize the other major changes coming to the front five. This fall, the O-line is adopting a “slide set,” which differs from the “vertical set” used almost exclusively in the Air Raid. The Cougars are contorting their bodies in different ways and moving their feet more at a 45-degree angle.

“One of the things is we set a little more aggressively in the protection,” offensive line coach Mark Weber said. “What we call the front side of the protection, it’s a little kind of a roll. We move the quarterback, it’s not just a straight drop back. So, one side is more firm … our slide side is more firm than what they’ve done in the past. But that’s the biggest difference. The sets aren’t straight back, we’re a little more aggressive on a 45-degree angle and sometimes even more aggressive than that. Almost a run-block on the front side of the protection. So, it takes really good feet and athleticism and guys have got to keep their hips under them.

“It’s quite a change, but they’re doing a good job with it.”

It’s been a positive change for the players themselves – most of whom have NFL aspirations and could benefit from learning a variety of different protection methods before reaching the next level.

“I like it, it’s just another tool in my tool bag,” senior left guard Josh Watson said. “I can hard set, I can slide set, I can do whatever. So, I just have a bigger toolbox basically. Helps me get the job done.”

While on the topic of positive changes, WSU’s offensive linemen generally seem to be thrilled about the idea of a more balanced offense, if Lucas’ earlier quote didn’t make it obvious. In Leach’s system, linemen rarely moved outside of a 5- or 10-yard bubble. With more run calls in the near future, they’ll have opportunities to split from the pocket and make key blocks downfield.

“I’ve been a pass-blocker for so long,” Watson said, “it’s good to finally hunker down and run the ball.”

It should also allow them to disprove a common myth about offensive linemen: the big guys can move.

“Run game wise, all of us are just getting on the move a lot more and just being able to use our athleticism, which is nice for us,” center Brian Greene said. “So, that’s been really fun for all of us.”

Not there yet

Rolovich assured WSU’s QBs have made improvements after a lethargic, inconsistent showing at Saturday’s scrimmage, but the coach suggested the team still isn’t close to naming a starter.

“A lot better,” Rolovich said about the play of his signal-callers during practices on Sunday and Monday. “A lot of stuff. Just getting mentally prepared for situations like that. I think we had to look at ourselves as coaches. How do we prepare not just the quarterback position, but the whole offense?”

“Have you selected a starter yet at that position?” a reporter followed up.

“Yeah, they’re still all getting reps,” Rolovich responded.

It’ll either be redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper, redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz or true freshman Jayden de Laura getting the first snaps on Nov. 7 at Oregon State, but Rolovich indicated it’s likely all three, or “a bunch,” would have to play for the Cougars in 2020.

The player who emerges as the Game 1 starter will have to display “consistent decision-making, accuracy, continued development within the offense.”

“They all have their different goals or things to work on,” Rolovich said. “Because I just have a feeling we’ll have to play a bunch of them.”

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