The Pac-12 saw a rush of new big-name head coaches hired into the conference, but few names made a bigger splash than Mike Leach with the Washington State Cougars. WSU has been down over the last several years, making their last bowl game way back in 2003, but the arrival of Leach has caused a surge of excitement in and around the Cougar program. But getting people excited is the easy part. The hard part now comes with the Cougars opening camp and trying to put Leach’s high paced style of offense on the field to bring successful football back to the Palouse.
The way to keep the excitement going is to win some games. What questions loom for Wazzu in fall camp as they try and turn things around?
Who will be the next prolific Mike Leach quarterback?
Every Mike Leach offense is keyed by the quarterback, and the right quarterback can break some NCAA passing records (see: Graham Harrell). Right now, it looks like senior Jeff Tuel will be the starter and sophomore Connor Halliday as the primary backup. Tuel missed much of last season with injuries, playing in just three games. He looks to be 100 percent healthy at this point and has jumped head first into this new playbook to learn the ins and outs of the offense to try and be the next Mike Leach success story. If he falters, or gets injured again, don’t be surprised to see Halliday step in and throw the football all over the field. In his first start last season against Arizona State, Halliday threw for 494 yards and four touchdowns. Of course, the next week he was knocked out for the season with a lacerated liver, so maybe the next prolific Leach quarterback is whichever one stays upright the longest.
Will the Cougars be able to field a defense?
The Cougar defense struggled last season and things look like they’ll be even leaner this season. Three projected starters in linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sakope Kaufusi and defensive tackle Anthony Laurenzi have been dismissed from the team by Leach for breaking team rules. The onus will be on senior defensive end/outside linebacker Travis Long to step up his game and be a leader on defense while being surrounded by a bevy of unknowns. Can 300-pound transfer nose tackle Ioane Gauta come in and contribute right away? Will Logan Mayes be able to make the transition to DE/OLB hybrid opposite Long? Can incoming freshman Raymond Ford provide some much needed help to a struggling secondary? The Cougars plan on scoring points with Leach on the sidelines, but they may have to score even more to stay ahead of their limited defense.
How will the backfield shake out?
The Cougar running game struggled last season, rushing for just 100.2 yards per game (111th in the nation). While rushing is never the main component of a Leach offense, it will be important to establish the run to keep defenses honest on play-action passes. Senior Carl Winston led the team in touches last year, rushing 123 times but for only 442 yards (3.6 YPC), and could be the third option for the Cougars this season behind a pair of sophomores. Rickey Galvin led the team in yards in 2011, rushing 114 times for 602 yards (5.3 YPC) and exhibited quite a bit more explosiveness than Winston. Fellow youngster Marcus Mason saw limited time last season, rushing just 19 times, but showed a home-run ability (averaging 8.1 YPC) that should get him on the field more in 2012. The key for these runners, however, may be how well they catch the ball out of the backfield, as Leach loves using complete backs in his offense.
Do the Cougars have a second playmaker?
Marquess Wilson is hands down the most exciting player on the Cougar roster this season. He’s getting attention from nearly every preseason offensive award watch list, and has drawn comparisons to Michael Crabtree (who enjoyed a bit of success under Leach at Texas Tech). However, a passing attack can’t consist of just one weapon, so who will fill out the receiver depth chart? Expect to see plenty of youth on the edge for WSU, as a trio of sophomores in Bobby Ratliff (28 receptions, 348 yards, 1 touchdown in 2011), Kristoff Williams (9 rec, 134 yds, 2 TD), and Isiah Myers (7 rec, 76 yds, 0 TD) have the inside track to fill receiver spots 2-4. How well they can attack opposing defenses and draw coverage away from Wilson will determine how often the Cougar offense will make big plays down the field.
The Palouse is buzzing with the possibility of exciting football games returning to Martin Stadium this fall. How quickly the offense picks up Leach’s offense and how well the Cougars can patch the holes on defense during camp will tell us just how long that excitement will last.
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