PULLMAN — Mike Leach wasn’t oblivious to the domino effect that occurred not long after the Washington State coach sent one of his assistants across the Pacific Ocean to put a set of eyes on Jayden de Laura, at the time one of the best-kept secrets in Hawaii.
As someone who’s watched dozens of teams replicate his Air Raid offense, Leach knows all about the copycat nature of college football. It’s relevant in recruiting, as well.
So, the WSU coach wasn’t surprised, nor was he concerned, when staff members from Ohio State and USC followed the Cougars to Honolulu to check out the Saint Louis High quarterback for themselves. While the Cougars were the first Power Five program to offer de Laura, and the only one to get a commitment from the QB, it didn’t prevent two of the sport’s blue bloods from entering the sweepstakes nearly a month later.
It would’ve been easy to choose the pedigree of the Buckeyes, or the pageantry of the Trojans. Instead, de Laura rewarded the persistence of the Cougars and signed his letter of intent with WSU on Wednesday afternoon — one of 18 high school players to ink with Leach’s program on the opening day of the early signing period, which runs through Friday.
The coveted Hawaiian quarterback is no doubt the prized jewel of WSU’s 2020 signing class, one that exclusively consists of three-star prospects (per 247Sports), and he’ll arrive on the Palouse next summer as a two-time state champion who also became the first Saint Louis QB to go undefeated as a starter — no easy task at a school that’s produced the likes of Marcus Mariota, Tua Tagovailoa, Timmy Chang and former WSU standout Jason Gesser.
“(He) does a good job creating things, he’s accurate, energizes the offensive unit and is good on the move throwing the ball and also can take off if he needs to,” Leach said of the 6-foot-1, 190-pound de Laura Wednesday during a short signing day news conference. “And then he just had such a great career there at Saint Louis High.”
Largely because of his position, and the quarterback’s role in Leach’s Air Raid offense, de Laura was the most appealing and popular member of WSU’s 2020 class.
But others may be just as important.
For the second straight year, the Cougars went for both size and numbers on the offensive line, knowing they’ll have to replace as many as four starters in the next two seasons, and potentially five if a strong redshirt junior season can vault right tackle Abraham Lucas up mock draft boards. For the fifth straight year, the Cougars managed to grab an offensive lineman from the Evergreen State, signing Devin Kylany (6-5, 290) of Lake Stevens, along with California’s Julian Ripley (6-6, 260), James McNorton (6-5, 275), Arizona’s Dylan Mayginnes (6-5, 290) and Utah’s Rodrick Tialavea (6-5, 315).
“I like all their personalities, I think they fit in our room,” offensive line coach Mason Miller said Wednesday afternoon on WSU’s NSD radio show. “I always kind of say this, we’re kind of a don’t say a whole lot, do your job and words and actions and the whole deal. … The other thing is they’re large humans as you can tell, and all of them are 17 years old, so they’re all puppies.”
The Cougars attacked a handful of their recruiting needs, but weren’t as aggressive with others. Leach said his coaches will use the next few months, before the traditional National Signing Day in February, to cement their depth in the defensive secondary. Even after signing California defensive backs Hunter Escorcia (6-2, 180), Justin Anderson (6-1, 180) and Jackson Lataimua (6-2, 200), WSU still needs to reload after losing three DBs in the middle of the season because of dismissals.
Leach didn’t specify whether the Cougars will be looking for cornerbacks or safeties, but he did cite the need to find “speed at those positions.”
One intriguing prospect who signed on Wednesday is California wide receiver Joey Hobert, the son of former Washington quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, who led the Huskies to a share of the national championship in 1991. Joey Hobert scored touchdowns six different ways as a high school senior at San Juan Hills — 18 receiving, one rushing, one fumble recovery, two interception returns, two punt returns and one kickoff return — and projects as a “Y” receiver in Leach’s offense.
Billy Joe congratulated his Wazzu-bound son on Twitter Wednesday, writing “Ok. He’s officially a Cougar! I love the frack out of my boy, and I’m not in the least bit ashamed to say…Go Cougs!”
Signing day came without many surprises for WSU, but there was one. The Cougars were expected to sign one edge rusher from Florida, Chamberlain’s Johnny Walker, and instead wound up with another, Cocoa’s Marquise Freeman, who chose WSU over Nebraska, Syracuse, Boston College and others.
“We’d been on him from the beginning,” Leach said of Freeman, “and we’re really excited to have him. As a matter of fact, because we thought he was explosive and dynamic from the start, but then we got the opening, we jumped on him and got him today.”
WSU’s class by position broke down like this: offensive line (5), wide receiver (3) defensive line (3), “Rush” linebacker (2), safety (2), cornerback (1), running back (1) and quarterback (1). The Cougars signed nine players from California and one each from Washington, Texas, Utah, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and Hawaii.