The resurfacing of ex-Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach as the new boss at Washington State looks like it could be a marriage made in gridiron heaven. Leach’s act always figured to play best at a remote locale off of the beaten track. And Pullman, Washington is about as far off the beaten track as any place this side of Saskatchewan.
Leach’s return had been rumored at a variety of destinations since he ran afoul of Texas Tech administrators in 2009 and was forced to resign as a result of allegations brought forth by WR Adam James. Leach eventually brought suit against Texas Tech for wrongful termination, and though most of those claims have been dismissed, what remains of the lawsuit has been working its way through the Texas appeals system.
Now, however, Leach can concentrate on football once more.
Leach’s many peculiarities (including his fascination with pirates) are easily overlooked in the remote Palouse, and especially by WSU backers who probably wouldn’t care if Leach insisted that Captain Kidd replace Butch the Cougar as the Wazzu mascot. Besides, Washington State has had enough of its share of helpless editions throughout the decades that the support base is usually going to be satisfied with a competitive product that usually (but not always) competes for bowl berths and makes only an occasional run at conference honors and the national rankings.
Leach, it would seem, should be able to meet those minimum expectations better than predecessor Paul Wulff, who admittedly inherited a carcass of a program from predecessor Bill Doba but could do no better than last year’s 4-8 mark in his four years in charge.
Toward the end of the Wulff regime, however, green shoots began to appear on the long-barren Pullman landscape, which Leach hopes to further cultivate in the fall. Leach, his own offensive coordinator, wasted no time installing his new attack in spring as the roster began to get a feel for the new staff and terminology.
Leach inherits a strike force that actually ranked a respectable 33rd nationally in total offense last fall and ninth in passing, though much of those numbers were piled up at the expense of overmatched early foes Idaho State and UNLV. Leach even added some new wrinkles to his pet 4-WR, Air Raid looks. With ex-Nevada and UCLA offensive assistant Jim Mastro now on staff, Leach introduced some variations to his 'O' that included Nevada-influenced 'Pistol' looks, multiple RB sets, and motion with the same out of the backfield, plus some play-action and 'pop' passes that had rarely been part of Leach’s former bag of tricks at Texas Tech.
Leach developed a succession of prolific triggermen at Tech, and whoever takes the snaps in the Coug version of the spread is likely to rank among the nation’s passing leaders. After spring work, it appears as if oft-injured senior holdover Jeff Tuel is likely to start the challenging September 1 opener at BYU. With last year’s late-season sensation, soph Connor Halliday, recovering in spring from a lacerated liver, Tuel took almost all of the reps with the first team in spring and enters fall with a clear lead in the QB derby, though Leach is withholding an official announcement on his starter until later this summer.
The spring game served as an early warning for Cougar foes as Leach’s spread functioned with barely a hitch. Tuel completed his first 15 passes and tallied 285 aerial yards on the afternoon, which admittedly could also be an indictment of the defense. Still, excitement was hard to contain among long-suffering Wazzu backers who had trouble comprehending what they were actually seeing from the Leach offense.
If he’s healthy, Tuel would seem a good fit for Leach’s pass-happy offense that also features plenty of quick reads and slants, each designed to get rid of the ball quickly and hopefully make Tuel less of a target in the pocket for opposing pass rushers who were often on top of him in his deeper drops and longer-developing reads from the Wulff days, contributing to some of Tuel’s various injury problems the past three seasons. Cougar QBs were sacked a whopping 40 times last fall, ranking a poor 116th nationally.
Tuel, or maybe Halliday, will have the benefit of having one of the Pac-12's, if not the nation’s, top wideouts in smooth-striding 6-foot-4 junior Marquess Wilson, who wowed observers in April and drew further attention in the spring game when hauling in an 84-yard TD pass from Tuel. Wilson, who caught 82 passes worth almost 17 yards per catch and 12 TDs a year ago, could post even bigger numbers in the Leach offense. Converted senior TE Andrei Lintz made the switch to WR in spring and developed a quick rapport with Tuel. Plenty of underclassmen with blazing speed similar to Leach’s many receiving targets at Texas Tech are also on hand.
The backs also have to catch the ball in the Leach offense, and last year’s leading rusher, soph Ricky Galvin (611 YR), seems to have the hands to make things work after catching 26 passes from Tuel, Halliday and graduated Marshall Lobbestael a year ago.
The OL improved a year ago after being a (very) weak link in Wulff’s first few seasons, but still had problems protecting the QB, reflected in the aforementioned sack stats. Three starters return, with junior LT John Fullington a possible honors candidate.
Reliable PK Andrew Furney is also back after hitting 14-of-16 FG tries a year ago.
Defense, however, always took a backseat for Leach in his Lubbock days, and this is no LSU-like stop unit that leach inherits in Pullman. Although the Cougar 'D' improved a year ago from the weakling versions the previous three seasons for Wulff, WSU still allowed 31.8 ppg a year ago, ranking 95th in scoring defense, while its pass efficiency defense ranked 111th, numbers even worse than those Leach’s stop units posted at Texas Tech.
Leach thus authorized new defensive coordinator Mike Breske to implement a change to 3-4 alignments from the recent 4-3 used by Wulff’s recent teams. But a pair of returning starting LBs, C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, were dismissed in spring due to disciplinary reasons. Along with the graduation of 2011's inspirational leader, Alex Hoffman-Ellis, it leaves Wazzu pretty thin at the LB spots, where several speedy newcomers (watch soph Chester Su’a and RS frosh Darryl Monroe on the inside) will get their chances this fall.
Also note that Travis Long, a three-year starter at DE with 36 career starts for Wulff’s teams and having recorded 12 tackles for a loss last season, has been moved to a hybrid LB/DE spot in the Breske defense. The new DL could be ornery if RS frosh Xavier Cooper fulfills his promise at a DE spot, and there is experience and depth at the NT spot.
Whatever the combinations in the front seven, Breske’s new-look 3-4 must generate a better pass rush after the Cougs generated only 17 sacks all of last season, ranking 94th nationally.
On the plus side, there’s plenty of experience in the secondary, where returnees have a combined 95 starts in their careers. Senior SS Tyree Toomer will be a four-year starter in fall, while junior FS Deone Bucannon emerged as the star if the secondary last fall. One new face to watch could be true frosh Gabriel Marks, an L.A.-area product and touted WR prospect but whom Breske believes might make a more-immediate impact as DB, where Marks also starred as a prep.
The schedule is manageable and the Cougs will be heavy favorites in two of their three non-league games (home vs. nearby Eastern Washington and at UNLV), although anticipation is already growing for the challenging opener at rugged BYU, a game that has been already moved to Thursday, August 30 as one of ESPN’s featured games on the first night of the college season.
Note that Wulff’s Cougar teams covered seven of their last nine at Pullman and were hardly a pushover vs. the line, although Wazzu was routinely undervalued by oddsmakers and the wagering public and received benefit from many inflated lines. Leach’s reputation might have the opposite effect, as WSU can be expected to instead be slightly overvalued at the outset. Still, be aware that Leach’s Red Raider teams generally performed well as a favorite, especially when laying seven points or more, standing 30-19 vs. the spread.
Summary: Leach’s new presence, plus improvements shown last season by Wazzu, suggests the Cougs could make a quick ascent, especially in a Pac-12 that looks a bit suspect beyond loop favorites Oregon and Southern Cal (the latter not on WSU’s 2012 slate). If he can stay healthy, expect senior QB Jeff Tuel to post some big numbers this fall. As has often been the case with Leach’s past teams, the defense can be expected to lag behind, which could keep a bowl game just beyond the reach of this season’s Cougar edition.
But maybe not. The recent days of WSU being a pushover look to be in the rear-view mirror, and we wouldn’t bet against Leach breaking Wazzu’s 9-year postseason drought this fall.
Follow Bruce Marshall's college football previews throughout the summer here at Don Best Sports: Boise State ... Brigham Young ... Florida State ... Stanford ... Washington State