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Greg Hansen: JdL-vs.-WSU storyline overshadows something better: A big game between Cats, Cougars

Jayden de Laura will take on his former team on Saturday, when the Wildcats host Washington State at noon.

Jayden de Laura’s improbable football journey began in October 2019 when, rather than pursue scholarship offers from USC and Ohio State, he committed to play football with Mike Leach at Washington State. What quarterback wouldn’t want to play for Leach’s “Air Raid” attack?

There was one problem: Leach bolted for a job at Mississippi State a month after de Laura signed a WSU letter-of-intent.

Cue the transfer portal, right?

But de Laura chose to stay at WSU because a few days after Leach left town, the Cougars hired Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich. It appeared to be a union touched by the football gods.

De Laura had played at Honolulu’s Saint Louis High School, just down the road from where Rolovich coached the “Run and Shoot” offense for the Rainbow Warriors. In fact, Rolovich was the first to offer the young Jayden de Laura a scholarship.

“I’m going to bring something that Coug Nation hasn’t seen in a while,” de Laura told Spokane reporters on letter-of-intent day. “I think I have something special.”

Oh, de Laura’s something special, all right. He’s something special wearing the red and blue of the Arizona Wildcats. Not even future Super Bowl-winning QB Nick Foles had a first-season at Arizona anything close to what de Laura has delivered to Jedd Fisch in 2022.

And no one could’ve seen it coming more than the football fans of the Palouse.

When WSU began its COVID-19 delayed 2020 season, de Laura became the first true freshman quarterback to start at WSU, which is something of a Quarterback U factory. After beating Oregon State 38-28, a Spokane columnist referred to it as an entry into the “Big Book of Cougar Lore.”

“Historians may have to flip a coin to decide whose ‘era’ this officially begins — the first-time freshman or the coach,” wrote John Blanchette, who covered WSU football for 40 years. “Let’s just give it to the kid.”

A kid no more, de Laura is in his third year of college football, working for his third head coach. But the “Big Book of Cougar Lore” was a short read.

The quirky Rolovich became too quirky for his own good. Rather than roll with de Laura for his sophomore year, Rolovich went to the transfer portal to sign Tennessee grad transfer QB Jarrett Guarintano, who had started 32 games for the Volunteers.

Rolovich told reporters “there were some things (about de Laura) that gave me a little pause.”

Little pause. Big mistake.

Guarintano was a bust. He was so bad in the 2021 opener that the Cougars lost to heavy underdog Utah State. De Laura got his job back and went on to become the Pac-12 offensive Freshman of the Year.

Rolovich was fired at midseason for failing to get vaccinated for COVID-19, and until de Laura was injured in the first half of the Sun Bowl — sacked three times against Central Michigan — new Cougars coach Jake Dickert seemed to have his QB of the future.

“Jayden is the biggest single catalyst of our (late season) turn-around,” said Dickert.

Yet on the day of the Sun Bowl, FCS quarterback Cameron Ward of Incarnate Word announced he had been offered a scholarship by the Cougars.

Oops. Something wasn’t right at the old Palouse Quarterback Factory.

A week later, de Laura announced he was entering the transfer portal. Three days after that, he announced he would play for Arizona.

No hard feelings, right? That’s just college football, 2022, isn’t it?

Nobody knows that better than de Laura. In 2020, he opposed Oregon quarterback Tyler Slough, who soon transferred to Texas Tech, and against USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, now the QB at Pitt.

In 2021, the quarterback shuffle became even more ordinary. De Laura played against ASU’s Jayden Daniels, now LSU’s starting QB, and against USC’s Jaxson Dart, now the QB at Ole Miss.

This year, it has been a blur. De Laura has opposed Washington’s Michael Penix, a transfer from Indiana; Oregon’s Bo Nix, a transfer from Auburn; USC’s Caleb Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma; and Cal’s Jack Plummer, a transfer from Purdue.

So while Saturday’s game will surely be billed as WSU vs. de Laura, the real story is that it’s a showdown between two schools fighting for increased relevance in college football.

The “let’s-beat-our-old-quarterback” revenge story has nothing more than a subplot.

But there is one lingering thought that touches on the fleeting nature of college football: After de Laura completed 27 of 32 passes to trigger WSU’s rousing 40-13 Apple Cup victory at Washington last season, Dickert did not temper his praise of de Laura.

“We’re going to center this around Jayden and his development and what he can do in the future,” said Dickert. “He’s just starting.”

A year later, he’s just starting ... for Arizona.

After upsetting No. 12 UCLA at the Rose Bowl, the Arizona Wildcats look to win back-to-back games for the first time since 2019, when they face Washington State on Saturday. Quarterback Jayden de Laura, who played two seasons for the Cougars before transferring, and safety Christian Young spoke to media on Tuesday.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711


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