WSU ranks #61 in USA TODAY's College Football Countdown

WSU ranks #61 in USA TODAY's College Football Countdown

WSU ranks #61 in USA TODAY's College Football Countdown

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by USA TODAY & KREM.com

KREM.com

Posted on July 7, 2014 at 2:54 PM

Updated Monday, Jul 7 at 2:54 PM

You could give Mike Leach $61 million and he'd still rock the flops, still rollerblade through town, still put his feet up in Key West and still churn out a little non-fiction at his earliest convenience – and still coach football, I'd wager.

But give Mike Leach a $61 million football facility and things start to get really interesting: Washington State has joined the Pac-12 arms race, catching up with the rest of the herd – Oregon, Arizona, rival Washington – with sparkling new facilities that serve as the backdrop to the program's rejuvenation.

The new football complex features an 11,620-square-foot locker room, more than double the size of the previous space. The locker room is only slightly bigger than the Cougars' strength and conditioning area – 11,153 feet, and just about the sweetest setup you'll see across the country.

The equipment area shines. If not replete with the Oregon-style bells and whistles, WSU's coaches' offices are an enormous upgrade from the previous incarnation. Each position grouping now has its own meeting room; the Cougars even have a room designated for recruiting, and to be a fly on the wall when Leach seals a deal …

It's all about the personal touch: WSU's new auditorium, for example, has seats that are – how should I put this – wide enough to handle certain players' – again, how should I phrase this – ample frames. Yes, the main area has extra-wide seats built to accept and harness even the broadest caboose.

And things are going to get interesting. Since the day of his arrival, Mike Leach has been selling to outsiders two things: Mike Leach and promise. As of today, Leach can pitch not just himself, which is huge, but also the draw of facilities, upgrades and a rock-solid commitment to reclaiming a seat at the table. For WSU, the return on this investment could make Wall Street drool in envy.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

If the Cougars can continue to bring pressure into the backfield, perhaps WSU's defense has the weapons along the back seven to make a nice step forward during Pac-12 play. But as elsewhere, WSU's defense is a year away. The Cougars are not ready to challenge for a postseason berth or a spot in the top half of the North Division.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: Let's all do ourselves a favor – and by all I mean me, of course – and not doubt whether or not Leach is going to work his magic at WSU. He's going to do just that: Leach and the Cougars greatly exceeded my preseason expectations, scrapping and clawing for six wins in the deepest, most competitive conference in college football and creating a new standard for annual success – postseason or bust. That the Cougars did so with a frenzied offensive attack was to be expected, given Leach's history, but the season's two best wins, against USC and Arizona, featured the sort of defensive stinginess missing at this program for the greater part of a decade. When working in concert, WSU was an absolute bear to handle. But there were down points, as in the lopsided losses to other teams in the top half of the Pac-12 and an ugly close to the season against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl. WSU isn't quite there yet; the Cougars are merely ahead of schedule.

High point: Beating USC in September, setting a good tone, and then topping Arizona in November, essentially securing a bowl berth.

Low point: Losing the Apple Cup.

Tidbit: The Cougars' 42-0 win against Idaho on Sept. 21 was the program's first shutout since blanking the Vandals on Aug. 30, 2003. It was also WSU's first shutout at home since a 44-0 victory against Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 9, 1999.

Tidbit (youth edition): Last year's team continued to rank among the youngest in college football. In 2012, Leach's first season, the Cougars played nine true freshmen and 17 freshmen overall. Another 10 freshmen – five true freshmen – played last season, while eight sophomores started every game.

Tidbit (Apple Cup edition): Last November's loss to Washington prevented WSU from notching its third two-game winning streak in the series since 2004. But multiple-game winning streaks as a whole have been rare. WSU has won two in a row just eight times: 1929-30, 1953-54, 1957-58, 1967-78, 1972-73, 1982-83, 2004-5 and 2007-8. The Cougars have never topped the Huskies more than twice in a row, which is borderline incredible.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Mike Leach quarterbacks

1. Graham Harrell
2. Kliff Kingsbury
3. B.J. Symons
4. Cody Hodges
5. Connor Halliday

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: Connor Halliday could make 1,000 attempts this season, should WSU's defense get enough stops. Let's call 1,000 silly and just settle on, oh, 750 – give or take a dozen or so passes here and there. He made 714 a year ago, after all, including a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 89 attempts in October's loss to Oregon; 750 attempts would merely entail about 58 attempts per game during a 13-game season, and when you put it that way … it sounds totally doable, doesn't it? Let's insert our favorite Mike Leach quote, said after Texas Tech's mauling of Nebraska in 2004: "The interesting thing about football is that football is the only sport where you quit playing when you get a lead. … I don't subscribe to that. I don't do it like that."

Yeah, the gonzo mentality of pass-all-the-live-long-day has reached Pullman, and Pullman likes what it sees. Halliday is simply the extension of the coach, and this much we know for sure: If Leach was playing quarterback he'd call his own number every play and twice on Sundays. Projected numbers: Halliday's going to hit on about 65% of his passes, average about 6.8 yards per attempt – which would be a huge step, by the way – and throw for just shy of 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. He's not the best quarterback in the Pac-12; he's just the luckiest. Redshirt freshman Tyler Bruggman seems next in line, should he gain a stronger mental edge in 2014, and it's perfectly fine to be falling out of your seat in excitement.

The receiver corps is positively loaded. Meet the best unit in the Pac-12: WSU's depth is a joke, I'd say, and the joke might be on conference and non-conference foes without the secondary depth needed to handle wave after wave of capable targets. While a ton of receivers are going to play, you can pinpoint a top group in Gabe Marks (74 receptions for 807 yards), Vince Mayle (42 for 539), River Cracraft (46 for 614) and Dom Williams (40 for 647). But then you add Rickey Galvin, Isiah Myers, Kristoff Williams, Brett Bartolone and true freshman Calvin Green – the latter a major story during spring drills – and things just start to get silly. Only Mike Leach could find a way to get nine-plus receivers ample touches. He'll do just that, with perhaps no one receiver cracking the 1,000-yard mark but at least five notching 500 yards. It's ridiculous.

That the Cougars averaged 53.38 rushing yards per game last fall sounds terrible until you consider the improvement: WSU averaged 29.08 yards per game in 2012, so in terms of the percentages, this thing is headed in the right direction. Don't look for anything special, though a familiar returning cast should lead to another uptick in ground-game production. And this is also important: Just because WSU's run game isn't statistically impressive doesn't mean it's not effective; the Cougars' top two returning backs, senior Marcus Mason (429 yards) and junior Teondray Caldwell (271 yards) combined to average 5.11 yards per carry last fall, so they churn it out when given the call.

Yet it might not be that pair leading the charge, if any post-spring remarks are to be taken seriously: Leach has seemingly anointed senior Theron West and redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow as the team's top two backs, which would make sense if not for the fact that Mason and Caldwell are the Cougars' best options. Either way, Leach could conceivably rotate four backs in and out of the lineup. Besides, Mason's ability to contribute in the passing game makes him a must-have cog in this system.

Defense: And so we hit on the rub: WSU's defense. It's again an issue, pretty much, continuing a trend, and it's hard to take the Cougars' too seriously as a Pac-12 contender until this side of the ball joins the offense at the party. But it's not all bad, especially with an anchor and linchpin up front in junior Xavier Cooper (50 tackles, 13.5 for loss) – who may just be the most unheralded player in the Pac-12. The Cougars' front will undergo some changes with the departure of nose tackle Ioane Gauta, with the most notable move finding Cooper transitioning from end to tackle.

In my mind, Cooper can have an even bigger impact going against linemen who might be unprepared for a player with his quick first step. Last year's tackle, Kalafitoni Pole, will move inside to nose tackle, spelled by sophomore Robert Barber and junior Moritz Christ, while junior Destiny Vaeao takes over at end. It's not a good group outside of Cooper, but it's potentially a good group because of Cooper. Does that make sense? If he can find the quarterback and open up lanes for teammates, WSU could be in steady shape along the front seven.

I know there are some names to replace, but the Cougars' linebacker corps will improve if junior Tana Pritchard (55 tackles) capably fills Justin Sagote's shoes on the weak side. That might not be a stretch: Pritchard played fairly well as the team's top reserve linebacker a season ago. The only other notable change along the two-deep comes at the hybrid edge-rushing role, where WSU will make the permanent transition from Vaeao – too big to really excel in the spot – to 225-pound junior Kache Palacio (49 tackles, 4.0 sacks), who can be a difference-making talent. The idea of putting Palacio alongside or just behind Cooper – putting the team's top two rushers in the same general area – is intriguing. It's the same story inside: WSU returns senior Cyrus Coen (60 tackles) on the strong side and junior Darryl Monroe (94 tackles) in the middle.

Now, this secondary is absolute mess. Is it a disaster? Well, it could be. Three starters are gone, including all-everything safety Deone Bucannon, and it's going to very difficult for WSU to put forth an equally talented backfield when leaning so heavily on youngsters in the rotation. This is particularly true at cornerback, where the likely top group features sophomore Daquawn Brown, redshirt freshman Charleston White and true freshman Marcellus Pippins; while Brown was solid during the spring, this is an obvious concern. As is the hole at strong safety, even if WSU seems confident in sophomore Isaac Dotson's potential as Bucannon's replacement. At least the Cougars can team Dotson with junior Taylor Taliulu (54 tackles), the secondary's lone returning starter and most experienced hand. At best, this group can be viewed as questionable. But let's touch on one major positive: WSU's secondary will spend every practice working against an elite receiver corps. That'll bring out the best in this group, though the learning curve come late August will be severe.

Special teams: Redshirt freshman Erik Powell nailed a field goal or two during the spring, so perhaps the loss of Andrew Furney won't be as terrible as once advertised. The Cougars also return a somewhat experienced punting option in junior Wes Concepcion, even if he's failed to impress in spot duty. While the return game is unsettled, the odds are on two or three members of this loaded receiver corps taking the reins.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: This won't be the best line in the Pac-12 or the most experienced – the latter with a bullet – but I don't necessarily buy into the idea that this front's 33 career starts serves as the offense's Achilles heel. Yeah, maybe in comparison: WSU is pretty stacked elsewhere, after all. But I think the added experience and knowledge of Leach's unorthodox system – and it's even more unorthodox in its approach to splits and protection – helps this group survive despite returning only two starters. Two pieces of good news lost in the shuffle: one, both starters come on the blind side in juniors Gunnar Eklund and Joe Dahl, and two, the aforementioned uptick in scheme familiarity will yield dividends. Seeing that every other position on the offense is secure in its general rotation, the competition across the board should be defining storyline of fall camp.

Even Eklund and Dahl could be on the move, with Dahl shifting outside to tackle and Eklund moving inside to guard. I'm not sure why WSU would do this – seeing that Eklund has the frame to develop into a solid producer on the edge – but it does pay to at least acknowledge the potential that Leach and the staff don't think Eklund is the long-term answer as Halliday's blind-side protector. The most interesting two-man competition is underway at center, where one of two sophomores, Riley Sorensen and Sam Flor, will replace Elliot Bosch; my early money was on Sorensen, who got his feet at right guard a season ago, but Flor seems to be in control heading into fall camp. I also see the right side of the line going according to the early plan: Jacob Seydel, a former JUCO transfer, should start at right guard, and converted tight end Cole Madison should get the first crack at right tackle. By the way, one more note: WSU's line is noticeably bigger from tackle to tackle. If you think back, Leach's lines at Tech were defined in three ways: one, overall production; two, those wide splits; and three, massive beef.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Washington: It's the Apple Cup, for one, and it would be great for the Cougars to send new UW coach Chris Petersen into the postseason – or the offseason! – with a rivalry defeat. But the schedule is again a beast, because this is the Pac-12, so there's always the chance that the finale will also determine whether or not the Cougars make a return to bowl play. There are certain games WSU simply cannot afford to lose: Rutgers, Nevada, Portland State, Utah and California.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: This is going to be very, very interesting. As we enter year three of the Mike Leach era, it's obvious that Washington State is at the point where this offense is set to enter high gear. Part of this is due to mere familiarity with the system: WSU's offensive personnel now grasps the offense from top to bottom, thanks to the experience of the past 20 months, and with this increased experience comes the potential for improved production. This thought is doubled by the returning personnel, with Halliday now a seasoned starter, the backfield perhaps four deep and the receiver corps loaded with more bodies and options than any other unit in the Pac-12. Even the offensive line, a projected concern in some circles, should benefit from a more concrete knowledge of the system. The offense is dynamite.

Yet the defense isn't up to par. There's nothing WSU does particularly well, to be blunt. Rush the passer? Maybe, but only if Cooper fulfills his gargantuan potential. Stop the run? Not against good teams, as we saw last fall. Play in space? I don't see enough athleticism to go toe-to-toe with Oregon, for example, and not enough toughness to handle Stanford, USC or Arizona State. Defend the pass? For now, the less said of the secondary the better. Leach has had an enormously profound impact on the offense; now he needs to fix the defense. That won't happen in 2014.

But even a slight improvement will lead to a winning season. That's my take: WSU will six games regardless of any defensive incompetence, but an eight-win season is a possibility if the defense steps forward. I even think this team takes seven games during the regular season by outscoring the weak teams, surprising a stronger team and finding enough defense against those opponents in the same general stratosphere – a Utah, for instance. Things are looking up, up, up for WSU and these Cougars. Is the breakthrough coming in 2014? No, unless we look at this way: WSU should have its most successful season since 2003.

Dream season: Washington State leaps to 8-4, notching a 48-0 win against Washington in the finale to secure third place in the North Division.

Nightmare season: The Cougars slide back to 4-8.

 

 

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