If this were a normal football season, Washington State coaches might be ready to simplify their quarterback competition — in this case, eliminate one of their three top candidates.
In the midst of a pandemic, though, the Cougars want to keep their options open. If a starter or backup at any position tests positive for the coronavirus this season, coaches want the next man up to know what he’s doing.
So Camm Cooper, Gunner Cruz and Jayden de Laura continue to split reps at quarterback, according to offensive coordinator Brian Smith.
“With the nature of a COVID season, in our mind, we’ve got to develop all those kids to be able to play for us,” Smith said in a Zoom news conference Sunday. “Obviously you’d love to be able to say one of those guys is your starter and he’s really pulling away from everyone else and you can focus on that one kid a little more. But we’ve got to be ready to win games with all three of those kids.”
The Cougars, who have conducted 10 closed preseason practices in Pullman so far, are preparing for a virus-delayed season opener Nov. 7 at Oregon State.
Cooper, a third-year sophomore, drew more plaudits than the other two QBs after the Cougars’ first and possibly only preseason scrimmage Saturday. None of the three has taken a collegiate snap, but Cooper has at least worked closely with both of the Cougs’ two previous starters, Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon.
“The thing that Camm showed in the scrimmage was just a little more of his veteran presence,” Smith said. “I think he’s starting to get through his reads a lot quicker. He manages the group and manges the offense at a high level.”
In the run-and-shoot offense that Smith is installing with first-year head coach Nick Rolovich, quarterbacks will have more opportunities to run the ball than they had with predecessor Mike Leach.
De Laura, a true freshman who oversaw a form of the run-and-shoot in high school, took advantage of his green light during the scrimmage by rushing four times for 41 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s a twitchy kid — he’s got the ability to extend plays,” Smith said. “He has some familiarity with our offense already that I think has helped him early on on this process.”
As for Cruz, a second-year freshman, “One of Gunner’s big strengths right now is he’s got great leadership,” Smith said. “He’s handling our run game very well. He’s got some good confidence that he can continue to progress with too.”
The scrimmage also provided a showcase for second-year freshman running back Jouvensly (JoJo) Bazil, a speedster understudying Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh. He carried five times for 93 yards and a TD.
“JoJo is just an explosive kid,” Smith said. “What he has to really embrace is that, in this offense, that back has to be a great protector too. If they don’t do that, it will be harder for them to get on on field, because that becomes a liability. He does bring a little different element than those other kids, where he can probably outrun just about everybody on the field. That kid can roll.”
Smith is a longtime collaborator of Rolovich, for whom he was offensive coordinator throughout Rolo’s four years as head coach at Hawaii.
Smith calls most of the offensive plays on game day, he said, but Rolovich occasionally usurps that role.
“When you’re the head coach, you can call them whenever you want,” Smith said. “That’s part of the relationship that Rolo and I have, of working together for a very long time and knowing each other for an extremely long time. There’s a lot of trust between the two of us.”
Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune or (208) 848-2290.