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Washington State mailbag: On Max Borghi, the Pac-12’s relevance and Nick Rolovich’s recruiting strategy

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Full disclosure: We compiled our first-week mailbag of the 2020 football season/nonfootball season before the Pac-12 announced its partnership with the testing company, Quidel Corp., late Thursday afternoon – something that could reignite hopes of a late fall season on the West Coast.

While we’re hopeful, for now we’re still under the assumption the Pac-12 won’t be holding football games until Jan. 1 at the earliest, and we treated the questions in this first mailbag as such.

In case you forgot the drill after a long, strange, never-ending offseason, send your mailbag questions Monday through Thursday, either by emailing theol@spokesman.com or tweeting @TheoLawson_SR.

This week, we cover the possibility of an early Max Borghi departure (gulp), which positions Nick Rolovich is recruiting and why, how the Pac-12 stays relevant with no football season and how the pandemic impacts WSU’s various sports programs.

Do you think Max Borghi declares for the NFL draft this spring?

- Holli W.

Washington State’s chances of getting eight to 12 more games with Borghi may largely depend on a fall season happening, in the wake of Thursday’s news regarding the Pac-12’s partnership with testing company Quidel, or some form of a spring football season taking place.

If neither happens, I could certainly see Borghi taking his chances in professional football rather than waiting around another 11 months to put on a crimson helmet again, and therefore another 19 months for the 2021 NFL draft.

In Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, Borghi thrived as both a between-the-tackles runner capable of springing the occasional long play, but also as a primary pass-catcher with 817 rushing yards and 597 receiving yards as a sophomore. It probably wouldn’t hurt to spend a year in Rolovich’s run and shoot, where it looks like he’d be used in a more traditional rushing role. Showing scouts he has the flexibility to star in both roles – catch 86 passes one season, rush for 1,200-plus yards the next – could make him that much more attractive to NFL scouts.

In a recent Pro Football Focus ranking of 2021 NFL draft running back prospects, Borghi checked in at No. 9. That’s impressive, considering how top-heavy the class looks, with the likes of Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard. The 2020 class wasn’t as talented, but 16 running backs were still drafted.

Borghi continues to draw the Christian McCaffrey comparison and it probably bodes well for him that the Carolina Panthers star is coming off his best season. Another productive year for McCaffrey may endear more teams to Borghi, whether he plays a junior season or not.

Will he suit up for the Cougars again? I lean toward yes, but the chances are far greater if the Pac-12 can pull off a season in 2020 or early 2021.

As of now, the recruiting breakdown is 10 on defense, six on offense, one special teams. Will we continue to see this kind of ratio between defense/offense when the class is all said and done? How does Rolo’s “ideal positional roster” compare to Leach’s in terms of position breakdown? I assume Leach’s roster is unique among college football with a lot more scholarship allocation to the OL and receivers. Is Rolo trying to get the roster breakdown more to his liking by overloading this class with more defense than offense?

- Nathan S.

I went back and browsed through Hawaii’s 2019 football roster, comparing it to WSU’s roster, to see how individual offensive positions broke down. The Rainbow Warriors carried 17 wide receivers and the Cougars carried 18. The offensive line was comparable, too. Hawaii listed 19 offensive linemen on its roster, while WSU listed the same. Leach typically used seven or eight receivers in his rotation, while Rolovich relied more on the four “starters,” judging by stats from the 2019 season. Still, it seems Rolovich will value having 15-20 receivers on his roster, the same way Leach did, and retaining that many offensive linemen will also be a priority.

More to your point, not long after Rolovich accepted the job at WSU, he immediately recognized where the Cougars needed more top-end talent and depth. He said as much on Feb. 5 when asked which position groups he was targeting when finalizing the 2020 signing class.

“Interior D-linemen and defensive backs,” Rolovich said. “The receivers were kind of the best available guys we felt. We wanted to make sure we got some big bodies for the middle and some young defensive backs that can be contributors.”

Of the six players WSU signed in the spring, four were D-linemen or defensive backs. Of the 17 committed, seven are D-linemen or defensive backs. While I think WR and OL will be priority positions for Rolovich in the future, the Cougars needed more immediate upgrades at DL and DB.

How will the Pac-12 stay relevant when the other major conferences are playing?

- Glenn D.

I’m not sure “Pac-12” and “relevant” have been used in the same sentence since Chip Kelly ran the blur offense at Oregon. Even then, you could argue it was the Ducks’ flash and flair carrying the conference on its shoulders, rather than their actual substance on a football field, as evidenced by national championship losses to Auburn and Ohio State.

There’s no disputing the fact the Pac-12 had a relevance problem before the pandemic and there’s no disputing the disparity between them and the other four major conferences will continue to grow over the next four months, assuming the SEC, ACC and Big-12 squeeze in their respective seasons. I’m not sure it’s a safe assumption, but I suppose that’s another topic for another mailbag.

When I consider this question, I think about three things: exposure, revenue and recruiting. All three are somewhat intertwined, but let’s look at them separately.

Exposure: This was already a somewhat massive problem for a conference that airs many of its marquee games past 7 p.m. Pacific. Pac-12 fans spend their mornings with Alabama and Clemson, the flip on Oklahoma and Ohio State during the afternoon tailgate. Meanwhile, fans in the SEC, Big-12, ACC and Big Ten are often curled up in bed by the time USC kicks off against Arizona State, or they choose to call it by halftime.

The Pac-12 needs to produce more generational players, top-10 matchups and Heisman candidates, to become relevant again. I’d argue it also needs one of its programs to become steadily relevant on a national scale, as USC was during the Pete Carroll/Reggie Bush era and, to a lesser extent, Oregon during the Kelly/Marcus Mariota era.

This season, however, consumers won’t even have the choice to avoid Pac-12 football. It will be nowhere to be found. Out of sight, out of mind. Ouch.

Revenue: It’s been reported the Pac-12 could consider taking out a massive loan to bail out many of its schools that, in the wake of the postponement news last month, were essentially put on financial life support.

Every program is hurting. Programs in the SEC, Big-12 and ACC that still intend to play a season are hurting, without guaranteed ticket revenue that sellout football games tend to rake in. Obviously, the losses are monumental for programs in the Pac-12 and especially those like WSU that were already facing major shortfalls – “destructive,” Cougars AD Pat Chun put it last spring, describing the potential of no football season. I imagine every school will cope with the losses differently when it comes to cost-cutting strategies, but it’ll be interesting to see where things stand in a few months.

As for the conference itself, 88 employees were furloughed, the digital media team was laid off and the face of the conference’s television network, Mike Yam, lost his job. What are the immediate ramifications of those moves? Judging by the social media reaction, Larry Scott’s approval rating certainly didn’t go up when the conference let go of Yam, especially as the Pac-12 holds onto its high-rent building in downtown San Francisco and pays the commissioner north of $5 million annually. Without a qualified digital media team, the conference, I imagine, won’t have the capacity to produce web/social content the same way it did before – something else that could damage the Pac-12’s visibility and exposure.

Recruiting: This one’s straightforward. Even if prospects can’t make on-campus visits during the extended recruiting dead period, the programs that are playing this fall have the built-in advantages over those that aren’t.

If “X” recruit, who has offers from Oregon, Michigan, LSU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame, can watch the Tigers, Sooners and Fighting Irish play on television this fall, he’ll have more information about those schools and may be better prepared to sign with one of them.

Maybe the perception that the Pac-12 isn’t as serious about football will grow as other conferences play the season out. Maybe coaches from those other conferences will push that narrative more as the early signing period creeps up.

At this point, the Pac-12 loses out no matter what if the SEC, ACC and Big-12 plow ahead. Maybe they’ll be able to make up some ground in the spring by holding a season while those others aren’t.

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