PULLMAN — New quarterback, new No. 1 running back. Time will tell what new narratives they’ll establish, but here’s a good bet: These guys will be on the same page.
Anthony Gordon and Max Borghi, the likely starters in the Washington State offensive backfield for the Aug. 31 opener against New Mexico State, are roommates and close friends, which is maybe not what you’d expect of a fifth-year senior and a true sophomore, respectively.
But Borghi is astute beyond his years, and together with Gordon he’s trying to refine the Cougars’ approach to an underrated aspect of Air Raid football: Knowing when to run the ball.
Regardless of who fills these backfield roles, the Cougars begin the season with a limited amount of Division I experience — almost of all it furnished by Borghi — but they hope to offset their greenness with smarts, teamwork and, in some cases, a different type of experience.
Borghi’s a good place to start.
In coach Mike Leach’s system, virtually every play-call begins as a pass, and the quarterback can audible to a run if he expects a light front-seven box from the defense. Borghi, his football IQ enriched by an impressive freshman season as a backup, thinks he can help make that determination.
“I’m just mentally a lot sharper out there,” he said this week. “I can recognize every single box, when to check run, which is huge. Last year, I was still kinda figuring out pass-pro and all that — I was more focused on other things than I am now. When we get the opportunity to run the ball, we need to run the ball. I’m going to be out there helping the quarterbacks check run.”
In that and other ways, the Cougars will try to fill the void left by two backfield starters from last year’s 11-2 season. It’s hard to overstate how quarterback Gardner Minshew reinvigorated the Air Raid with his mobility and leadership, and James Williams led the nation in receptions by a running back for a second consecutive year.
But Gordon and Borghi were watching them closely.
Leach is loath to identify his starters publicly, but Gordon (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) has edged Gage Gubrud as No. 1 quarterback for the opener. Leach announced the move Saturday.
A senior who arrived in Pullman as a junior-college transfer in 2016, Gordon has attempted only three passes as a Cougar but understands the Air Raid, throws an impeccably pretty ball and can extend plays with a combination of dances and unconventional tosses. He also has a tendency to throw to the wrong guys, but Leach has seen a big improvement in that area the past two years.
Gubrud (6-2, 208), a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington, made a strong challenge for the starter’s role despite missing spring drills with an injury. He’s more avowedly a dual threat than Gordon, but in practices the past two weeks has been less consistent sustaining drives and getting into the end zone.
Leach seems almost equally confident in another senior, Trey Tinsley (6-3, 215), who made it a three-man race through the first few weeks of preseason camp.
More battle-tested in Pac-12 football than any of the quarterbacks is Borghi (5-10, 197), who rushed for 366 yards and made 53 catches last year as Williams’ understudy in the mostly one-back system.
At one point in the offseason, he was the only scholarship running back on the roster. But he’s now the unlikely veteran of one of the most intriguing position groups on the team.
For one thing, the Cougars tracked down a former Notre Dame back who had taken a junior-college detour and got lost in the shuffle. That’s Deon McIntosh (6-0, 190), who still is learning the offense as a junior transfer but might end up evoking memories of Williams. The same could be said of Jouvensly Bazil (5-10, 180), a raw true freshman originally from Haiti.
In the meantime, beefy junior walk-on Clay Markoff (5-9, 227) has held the fort at running back so reliably Leach recently bestowed him a scholarship.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys with different skill sets, which is nice,” running backs coach Eric Mele said. “Max is kind of a do-it-all guy, Clay’s kind of a bruiser, Deon can kind of do both as well and Jouvensly can run like the wind. So it’s a nice combo of guys back there.”
None of this means the Cougars will run the ball more frequently than, say, last season, when they put the ball in the air 71 percent of the time.
If they just run more smartly, they could give the Air Raid a perhaps needed twist.
Grummert can be reached email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.