Washington State Utah Football

Utah cornerback Faybian Marks tackles Washington State receiver Travell Harris during the first half of Saturday's game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

When Mike Leach was feeling especially gamesome during his tenure as Washington State football coach, he sometimes joked that he would keep his choice for No. 1 quarterback a secret up to the moment when the fellow trotted onto the field for the first series.

Leach's successor actually did that.

Before the Cougars' game against Utah on Saturday at Salt Lake City, Jarrett Guarantano and Camm Cooper took turns warming up with the first unit, and Jayden de Laura was present and taking snaps as well.

At some point, de Laura disappeared and, before kickoff, returned to the field in street clothes. Meanwhile, head-scratching observers tentatively assumed Guarantano would get the nod, but they didn't know for certain until, yes, he trotted onto the field for the first series.

In more realms than one, Nick Rolovich is taking coyness to a new level.

As the Cougars lurched to another come-from-ahead loss, this time by the more reasonable score of 24-13, many WSU fans got their first extended look at Guarantano, the grad transfer from Tennessee who's trying to recast his narrative in Pullman the way Gardner Minshew did in 2018.

De Laura keeps getting in his way, but the mercurial sophomore spent this game on the sideline, sending occasional signals to the older quarterback and stylishly wearing a white cap angled 10 degrees west of backward. Nobody outside the program seems to know how he'd sustained a minor injury to his left knee in the Cougs' loss to USC the previous week. But he did, and it's apparently slow to heal.

If nothing else, the game maybe shed some light on the quandary that consumed Rolovich for much of preseason workouts. The second-year coach has four quarterbacks who are as different from one another as the Beatles. So he can't simply evaluate them at various skills and choose the best guy. He also has to evaluate the relative importance of the skills to this particular team.

If, for example, de Laura is twitchy and energizing, Guarantano is focused and calming. Although certain lapses against the Utes, particularly the first of his three interceptions, hinted at why cowardly Tennessee fans hounded Guarantano on social media, he played better than the final score suggests.

But the contrasts between those two quarterbacks aren't as problematic as a particular similarity: At the moment, they each appear hexed.

After the Cougars blew a 14-point lead and lost 45-14 to USC, offensive lineman Abe Lucas intriguingly implied the Cougars – who after this Utah loss are 2-8 under Rolovich – are caught between cultures, still influenced by Leach's coaching style and trying to reconcile it with his successor's.

He seemed to mean something psychological. But the difference is physical as well.

Leach didn't want his quarterbacks repeatedly going off-script and running around the field. In his Air Raid offense, he prioritized keeping them healthy and maintaining a play-to-play, week-to-week consistency. In Rolovich's run-and-shoot offense, on the other hand, quarterback mobility is ideal, both on- and off-script.

Yes, it's a pass-oriented offense that helped inspire the Air Raid, but it's also distinct from it in several ways. For one, it aspires to a dynamism that requires durability of its quarterbacks. And even more than the Air Raid, its demands a high level of on-field telepathy between quarterbacks and receivers.

The Cougars aren't getting enough of either.

In the Crimson and Gray scrimmage in April, Guarantano struck his hand on a lineman's helmet on the first play and was sidelined the rest of the way. After edging de Laura for the starter's job for the season opener four weeks ago against Utah State, he was sacked for a safety in the second quarter, injured a knee and was out of commission until the Utah game.

Two weeks later, de Laura played terrifically in the first half against USC before sustaining a mysterious injury that somehow didn't prevent him from returning for three ineffectual plays in the third quarter.

And the quarterback-to--receiver telepathy? It's there sometimes. But in the loss to Utah, maybe it's telling that the Cougars' last gasp at victory ended on what appeared to be a miscommunication between Guarantano and slotback Calvin Jackson Jr. Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III intercepted and romped 54 yards for an insurance touchdown.

If fate ever allows, the Cougars need to put themselves in a position where the quarterback job is settled and Leachian coyness is beside the point.

Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.