Notebook: Cam Ward growing as a leader as WSU implements new Air Raid offense

The Cougars conducted their final practice without pads on Thursday in breezy conditions at Rogers Field.

WSU’s defenders stole the spotlight on Day 2 of preseason camp — the defensive backs, in particular. Cougar quarterbacks were often forced to throw into tight coverage. The 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 periods featured plenty of pass deflections — about a dozen pass breakups out of approximately 60 pass attempts — and two interceptions.

The first hour and a half of practice was dedicated to individual drills and mental training. WSU is early in the process of installing its new Air Raid offense. “We’re wanting to get the fundamentals and the foundation set,” Dickert said. The Cougars’ first-team offense slowed its pace, focusing on formations and basic schemes during a lengthy stretch of walk-throughs.

Dickert has been impressed with quarterback Cameron Ward’s growth as captain of the Air Raid. Asked about the sophomore’s development, Dickert said: “It’s the No. 1 thing I’ve talked to him about — his demeanor, his leadership. And I’m hearing him more. … He’s saying things he never said in the spring. That growth is really important to him, really important to his future, because he’s the biggest decision-maker on this football team. We trust him to go out there and make the right calls.”

Ward completed approximately 16 of 23 passes during 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 segments. He did some of his best work outside the pocket, firing accurate passes on the run. The Cougars seemed to put an emphasis on their quick-passing game and run-pass options.

Veteran receiver Renard Bell offered his assessment of WSU’s new QB, comparing Ward’s passing abilities to those of a superstar NFL signal-caller: “Cam’s gonna be real good. Cam’s gonna be real nice. Hey has an arm. He can make Patrick Mahomes throws and stuff like that. … Once he gets used to (Pac-12 speed), it’s a wrap from there.”

A seventh-year senior, Bell missed the 2021 season due to an ACL injury. He felt a profound sense of “happiness and joy” and was brought to tears when he entered the locker room Wednesday ahead of WSU’s fall-camp opener. Bell reconnected with an old friend at Rogers Field, too. Record-setting former WSU quarterback Luke Falk has been in attendance at fall camp. Bell started for the Cougars as a redshirt freshman in 2017 — Falk’s final season at WSU. “Wow, I still can’t believe that,” Bell said. “I’m getting older, but I’ve got a lot of wisdom to give back.”

WSU’s starters at the offensive skill positions are fairly settled, but the Cougars are still trying to tease out their “best five” up front, Dickert said. Left guard appears to be up for grabs. Freshmen Brock Dieu and Christian Hilborn are getting the bulk of the reps at that position, with sophomore Rodrick Tialavea rotating in.

The Cougars are searching for one more reliable cornerback to replace senior Kaleb Ford-Dement, who will miss the year after undergoing shoulder surgery this offseason. Backup nickel Armauni Archie “is very multiple,” Dickert said, and can be shifted to CB if need be. The coach also mentioned Javan Robinson, a true freshman from Florida, as a potential candidate for a reserve role at CB. Dickert said it’s uncertain whether Ford-Dement will pursue a medical redshirt.

Participation report

Starting slotback Lincoln Victor sported a yellow no-contact jersey and participated sparingly in exercises Thursday. A day earlier, the junior from West Camas, Washington, spent most of practice working through light drills after sustaining what appears to be a minor injury. Edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. was sidelined for the second straight day, and senior nickel Armani Marsh was also held out of exercises.

Dickert didn’t get into specifics when asked about those three players. Earlier this week, he said some of WSU’s more experienced players would be on “pitch counts” — limited reps to reduce workloads — early in camp.

“They are still getting back into it, and we just want to make sure there’s no setbacks,” he said Thursday. “At this time of the year, we can’t have any setbacks. So, they’re doing a good job. Those guys have played a lot of football, and they’ll continue to work back in as we keep going.”

Backup outside receiver CJ Moore wore street clothes and spectated practice. Moore suffered an unspecified lower-body injury Wednesday. Slotback Robert Ferrel, a senior transfer from Incarnate Word, remained sidelined with a toe injury.

Cougars preview contact drills

Linebacker Daiyan Henley spoke at length about WSU’s tight-knit culture.

“Everything he (Dickert) talks about is being a family, being a unit — the Cougs win all the time,” said Henley, a senior Nevada transfer and a WSU star in the making. “We’re competing, but at the end of the day, the Cougs win.”

After Henley wrapped up his amicable thoughts, a reporter mentioned that the Cougar defense seemed to have an edge on its offensive counterparts at Thursday’s practice.

“I know this might contradict what I just said about ‘the Cougs always win,’ ” Henley said, grinning while Bell listened in on the interview, “but when don’t we have the edge? I mean, you might talk to Renard Bell, and he might say he caught a pass… but it’s always about the defense.

“We’re like the little brother, the stepchild. It’s about being the ‘dark side.’ That’s how we think of ourselves sometimes. We go out and ruin people’s days, because who wants to see the defense stop their offense from scoring?”

WSU straps on shoulder pads Friday morning. Henley’s looking forward to it.

“Violent, friendly fun,” he said. “That’s how I’m feeling. I get to hit people and it’s legal — usually — without yellow flags.”

Bell got his chance to respond to the claim — that WSU’s defense has an advantage over the team’s offense. He’s eager to prove Henley wrong.

“We’re ecstatic,” Bell said. “I hope they go man (coverage) tomorrow. Press everybody. I pray they do, because it’s a wrap. It doesn’t matter what they do — touchdown. It is just what it is. Go offense. But in the end, the Cougs win.”

Dickert is anticipating inside-running drills to test out his Air Raid offense’s durability in the ground-and-pound game.

“I’m an old defensive guy, so that’s in my blood,” he said. “Once you get the pads on … everything will ramp up, the energy will ramp up.”

Their words

“With (Mike) Leach, we threw about 100% of the time. With this Air Raid, I know for sure we’re going to run the ball a lot more. We’ve got a tight-end package. … That’s going to help us out a lot, especially with the run game. That’s the main thing — the run game. I think it’s going to be more 60/40 passing/running, but whatever’s working that game, that’s what we’re gonna go to.” — Seventh-year WSU receiver Renard Bell, asked to compare the Cougars’ new Air Raid offense to the Air Raid system employed by former coach Mike Leach.

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