The big task for 2014 Cougars is to keep Connor Halliday healthy behind an offensive line that starts three Pac-12 rookies.
For all his entertaining dissertations about such diverse subjects as house pets, Palouse dining and the rise and fall of Geronimo, Mike Leach often can be stunningly bland when discussing football. The mad scientist of airborne footballs makes himself readily available to the media, but seems wary of revealing too much about ideas and strategy to reporters.
No stunning revelations about Washington State football were forthcoming when Leach met with the press Thursday afternoon via teleconference. Leach did make it clear, however, that he believes this year’s Cougars – despite glaring inexperience at some spots — is the best of the three teams he has coached in Pullman.
“Yes, I do,” Leach said. “First of all, putting one off-season on the next; now they’ve been through two really intensive off-seasons (for) the guys that have been here the whole time. I think our recruiting classes have gotten better. And then, there’s just kind of a tighter cohesion to our team as far as chemistry and working to achieve things.
“When we first got here, I always got the sense there’s too much satisfaction with just being on the team, rather than achieving a great deal. Now people really push each other to achieve. We’re working at a higher rate than we were before.”
The Cougars, seeking their first winning season since 2003, open fall camp Saturday with the first of two weeks of 2:30 p.m. practices in broiling Lewiston, ID. The predicted high Saturday in Lewiston, about a half hour south of Pullman, is 102 degrees.
Players raved about Leach’s decision to move the first fall practices to Lewiston last year. A blue-collar feel emanated from workouts held on the nondescript fields of Sacajawea Middle School, and players grew closer when rooming together in dormitories on the largely deserted Lewis-Clark State College campus.
“We try to have offensive guys with defensive guys, big guys with little guys,” Leach said. “In other words, linemen with (so-called skill-position) players. So, old-new, big-little, offense-defense. We try to mix the backgrounds, too.”
The 2013 Cougars doubled their win total from Leach’s first season, won three more conference games and made their first bowl appearance in 10 years. The season ended on a sour note, however, when two late fumbles in the New Mexico Bowl cost the Cougars the game (a 48-45 loss to Colorado State).
Washington State returns record-setting quarterback Connor Halliday and the top eight receivers from a year ago. However, the offensive line, secondary and special teams are filled with question marks due to inexperience.
Halliday is fairly elusive, but his scrambling ability figures to be tested early with three O-linemen making their first starts at the four-year college level. WSU can ill afford to lose Halliday to injury, since top backups Luke Falk (who redshirted last year) and Peyton Bender are freshmen.
Left tackle Joe Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund – they switched positions at the bowl game and have stayed put – are the returning starters on an offensive line that might face heavy blitzing until they prove worthy.
“I thought they did good in the spring,” Leach said. “We’re bigger, but we’re a work in progress.
“What I like is, we’re bigger and more athletic. The last two years, we had the smallest O-line in the Pac-12, averaging about 270 pounds. This year, we’ll average 300 to 310.”
Junior free safety Taylor Taliulu and sophomore cornerback Daquawn Brown are the only defensive backs with starting experience. Leach had high praise for freshmen corners Marcellus Pippins and Pat Porter, but it will not be easy replacing All-America safety Deone Bucannon in the secondary.
“At corner, we’re quick and athletic. We’re not high on experience,” Leach said.
The Cougars are loaded with depth at wide receiver and running back. Top receiving returnee Gabe Marks is listed as a second-teamer on the depth chart, but that may be due to his limited work in the spring following an unspecified operation and/or his off-season arrest for an incident in a bar.
Halliday led the nation in interceptions last season with 22, but that’s partly due to the fact that WSU threw the ball more than any other team (58.1 attempts per game). Halliday cut down on his picks inthe stretch, set a school record with 4,597 passing yards (second in Pac-12 history) and tied the school record of 34 touchdown passes.
“I think he’s better,” Leach said of the senior quarterback from Spokane. “I think receivers are more on the same page (with Halliday).
“Sometimes an interception is based on receivers not looking (for a ball), or it bounces off their chest. I think the more familiar they are with him, the more sharp (the offense) is.
“I think he’s better at knowing when (a receiver is) going to do something at what time. I also think if we can protect him even a few tenths of a second longer, then a lot of those plays are far more explosive.”
The Cougars ranked fourth in the nation in passing last season (368.0 yards per game), but they were just 52nd in scoring (31.0) and 54th in total offense (421.4). MIKE linebacker Darryl Monroe and end-tackle Xavier Cooper are key returnees on a defense that played inconsistently, ranking 112th in passing defense (270.8), 102nd in total defense (458.0) and 96th in scoring defense (32.5).
The Cougars play seven of their 12 games at home, counting the Aug. 28 season opener against Rutgers at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1). A 3-0 start is possible against Rutgers, Nevada (in Reno on Sept. 6) and in the Pullman opener Sept. 13 against Portland State, but then comes the Pac-12 opener against visiting Oregon. The fourth-ranked Ducks are one of six Pac-12 teams ranked in the preseason coaches Top 25.
The Cougars finished 6-7 last season and tied Oregon State for fourth in the Pac-12 North Division at 4-5. The Pac-12 media poll pegs WSU to come in fifth. Playing in a pass-happy league with 10 starting quarterbacks returning, it’s possible the Cougars could be better than a year ago and still finish with a worse record and lower finish in the standings.
“I don’t worry about any of that,” Leach insists. “I worry about improving and winning one game a week.
“Of course,” Leach added, “it’s also possible our record and our standings could be better.”