2012 Pac-12 College Football Preview: Washington State Cougars
Somebody was going to hire him. Eventually. He is too smart, too talented, too interesting and too much of a fan draw.
Every time there was an opening in college football, alumni would shout “Mike Leach!”
He spent two years away from the sidelines, working with Jack Arute on Sirius Radio’s College Football Playbook and for CBS Sports. You could tell from his voice that he missed the game. And that he longed for a chance to return.
Some thought it was going to be a year ago at Maryland. But something happened between “he’s the guy” and “sign on the dotted line.” The Terrapins instead went with Randy Edsall. How’s that one working out?
Leach’s record speaks for itself. But here’s a reminder: In 10 years as head coach at Texas Tech, he qualified for a bowl game every time. His teams won half of Texas Tech’s 12 all-time bowl victories, though he wasn’t allowed to coach the 2009 team after being fired because of a lawsuit he filed against the school.
Five of his final six teams at Texas Tech finished ranked among the nation’s Top 25. His 2008 team was 11-1 during the regular season, beating Texas and sharing the Big 12 title with the Longhorns and Oklahoma. The Red Raiders were relegated to the Cotton Bowl, where they lost to Ole Miss.
After the controversial end to his time in Lubbock, some considered Leach too risky a hire. He was called a lot of things by the media and college administrators, not all of it flattering.
Still, his name popped up on lists at Miami, Minnesota, Ole Miss, Kansas and Penn State. But the job he took was the one in Pullman.
The school has had a big-time football program before. During his final six seasons in Pullman, Mike Price won at least 10 games three times, qualified for two Rose Bowls and finished ranked as high as No. 9.
But Price left in 2002, and the years since haven’t been kind to the Cougars, who have managed only one winning season and one bowl game.
The last four years were downright atrocious under Paul Wulff, who went 9-40.
Enter Leach, a big fan of pirates (the aarrgh kind, not the baseball players). He likes challenges.
“Yeah, I think most people in football do really,” Leach said. “I say that is a key element because part of it is when you have a group like a team that type of thing gets contagious … that’s kind of a characteristic you’d like contagious on a team.”
Is his new gig harder than when he took over at Texas Tech?
“I don’t really think about it,” Leach said. “I just look at what you have and try to improve it and get as good as you can. It’s difficult to say … [WSU is] active in probation so we’re short a couple of scholarships. But they’ve been to bowls more recently. But both [play in] very demanding conferences.
“I think it’s a good challenge and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to be a part of it. There is great potential here and we are excited about it.”
Leach was happy with the team’s work during the spring. He’s eager to see how much better his team can be during training camp and “then see where it all takes us.”
No matter what happens on the field, it will be interesting. And having Leach on the sidelines will draw national attention to a school that hasn’t experienced much lately.
The crowds at Martin Stadium also figure to pick up. Not even Stanford could fill the place in 2011. And just 16,419 showed for a November game against Utah. Leach should be worth his salary in ticket sales alone.
To complete his staff, Leach brought in four coaches who had worked with him at Texas Tech. That should ease the transition for the new program.
Aug. 30 — @BYU
Sept. 8 — Eastern Washington
14 — @UNLV
22 — Colorado
29 — Oregon
Oct. 6 — @Oregon State
13 — California
27 — @Stanford
Nov. 3 — @Utah
10 — UCLA
17 — @Arizona State
23 — Washington
Head Coach: Mike Leach (BYU ’83)
Record at school: First year
Career record: 84-43 (10 years)
• Eric Russell (Idaho ’91) Assistant Head Coach/Special Teams
• Mike Breske (South Dakota State ’81) Defensive Coordinator/Secondary
• Jeff Choate (Montana-Western ’93) Linebackers
• Jim Mastro (Cal Poly ’94) Running Backs
• Clay Mcguire (Texas Tech ’04) Offensive Line
• Eric Morris (Texas Tech ’08) Inside Receivers
• Joe Salave’a (Arizona ’97) Defensive Line
• Dennis Simmons (Byu ’96) Receivers
• Paul Volero (Nova Southeastern ’04) Outside Linebackers
During his time at Texas Tech, Leach became famous for churning out prolific quarterbacks. That should be good news for senior Jeff Tuel (6-3, 223).
After starting and throwing for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2010, Tuel missed all but three games last season with a broken collarbone and leg injury.
Tuel was one of three quarterbacks competing for playing time during the spring. But the bulk of the first-team work went to the guy with the most experience.
“I think Jeff’s getting better and better,” Leach said. “He had the most reps, so it’s becoming more automatic for him. He is able to react more quickly. He is probably the most used to the receivers and what they are inclined to do and that type of thing.”
Sophomore Connor Halliday (6-4, 179) recovered from a lacerated kidney suffered late in the 2011 season and participated in part of spring drills. In part-time duty in 2011, he completed 57 percent of his passes, with nine touchdowns and just four interceptions. He will probably be Tuel’s backup and push for playing time if the senior struggles.
But the job belongs to Tuel, who should thrive in Leach’s offense. And the coach seems to do his best work with seniors. Not necessarily by design, Leach said.
“It doesn’t matter if you have five junior high quarterbacks or you have a young John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana,” Leach said. “You go out there and just figure out who is the best one, who fits the team the best, and play him.”
If there was a pleasant surprise waiting for Leach when he took over, it was in the backfield.
“They all run well,” Leach said. “They all pinch pretty well, they are getting better at blocking, and the funny thing about is they are all very similar. They compliment each other’s efforts pretty well. Look at them from behind and they all resemble one another, too.”
Sophomore Rickey Galvin (5-8, 171) returns after leading the Cougars in rushing last season. He gained 602 yards and scored five touchdowns, averaging a respectable 5.3 yards per carry.
When Galvin needs a break, Leach can send in senior Carl Winston (5-8, 200), who gained 442 yards and scored four touchdowns in 2011.
Maybe the reason Leach took the WSU job was because he looked at the talent at receiver.
There aren’t many better in the nation, at least statistically, than junior Marquess Wilson (6-4, 183). As a sophomore, the Californian caught 82 balls for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns. His yards ranked sixth nationally and he was 19th in receptions.
While the Cougars lost their No. 2 and No. 3 receivers from 2011, Wilson has plenty of help. Sophomore Bobby Ratliff (6-2, 194) finished fourth on the team with 28 catches for 348 yards. Sophomore Kristoff Williams (6-2, 206) caught nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
And big things are expected from redshirt freshman Dominique Williams (6-2, 180), who impressed Leach with his work during the spring.
“We are not real fast, but we have a good combination of size and speed,” Leach said. “I think we are limited on experience and we need to kind of grow up in that fashion pretty quick. I do think there is a good nucleus of players and guys that can catch the ball and run around.
“They showed a lot of promise and there’s a learning curve, but I think that they have certainly done some good things.”
Three starters are back from the 2011. But starting at Washington State with Leach as coach will be a different experience.
At guard, senior Dan Spitz (6-7, 300) is a converted defensive lineman who worked his way into the starting lineup in 2011. There is experience at the other guard spot in senior Wade Jacobson (6-6, 306), who returns after missing the bulk of the 2011 season. The former junior college player received a medical hardship after playing in just four games.
Backups at guard figure to come from seniors Taylor Meighen (6-3, 284) and Chas Sampson (6-4, 303), freshmen Denzell Dotson (6-2, 317) and Alex Mitchell (6-2, 309) and junior college transfer Niu Sale (6-4, 315).
At tackle, Leach will look to junior John Fullington (6-5, 290) and either sophomore Jake Rodgers (6-6, 295) or junior Rico Forbes (6-6, 287). Competition at tackle includes incoming freshman Sam Flor (6-4, 285) and junior college transfer Sam Jones (6-6, 295). Jones began his career at NC State, where he redshirted in 2009. He comes to WSU from Pima (Ariz.) Community College, where he started at left tackle in 2011.
“We need more numbers and we need to get bigger and stronger,” Leach said. “I’ve had bigger lines in the past, not necessarily as athletic as this group.”
First thing you’ll notice are the numbers. There won’t be as many Cougars up front.
Playing against the spread-happy Pac-12, defensive coordinator Mike Breske will use three linemen.
“We are going to be a movement defensive line in terms of our philosophy,” Breske said. “We’ll take advantage of the assets we’re dealt with, not the liabilities.”
The Cougars are on their third defensive line coach in three years.
“I give these guys credit, they’re hungry, they want to learn,” Breske said.
The third starter should be redshirt freshman end Xavier Cooper (6-4, 278).
“Certainly he is in a learning curve, our whole defensive line is in a learning curve,” Breske said. “It is so vastly different from what they did a year ago.”
The Cougars were missing two potential contributors during the spring: junior end Justin Clayton (6-4, 282) and sophomore tackle Toni Pole (6-1, 292).
“They’ve got to help us in some form and fashion,” Breske said.
Nothing wrong with a four-linebacker system … if you have the four linebackers ready to go.
That wasn’t the case when Breske first arrived in Pullman. But during the spring, the coaching staff found some answers, starting with junior Eric Oertel (6-1, 197).
“He is a playmaker,” Breske said. “He is an explosive player.”
Breske likes Oertel’s work ethic.
“He is what we talked about on defense,” Breske said.
So is sophomore Chester Su’a (6-1, 226), who will start at one of the inside spots. He made 22 tackles in 2011.
The leader of the unit is the lone returning starter, outside linebacker Travis Long (6-4, 256). The senior made 42 tackles in 2011 and led the team with four sacks.
“He has to be a bell cow for us,” Breske said. “We have to put Mr. Long in those positions.”
Breske isn’t worried about Long adjusting to a new defense.
“He has had a lot of philosophies thrown at him,” Breske said. “He is a Football 101 guy. What I mean by that is he gets it. He picks up the game very quickly. But he has got to be one of our productive players.”
The fourth starter will be redshirt freshman Darryl Monroe (6-1, 213), who tore his Achilles’ tendon in the 2011 opener and sat out the rest of the season. The coaches were careful with Monroe during spring practice.
“He’s what we are looking for,” Breske said. “He’s an explosive Mike linebacker, a guy that can blitz, can cover.”
Breske spent the spring looking for backups at all four spots. Contenders include freshman Khalil Pettway (6-4, 205), sophomore Cyrus Coen (6-0, 205), junior Darren Markle (6-1, 240) and senior Corey Laufasa (6-0, 245).
The statistics don’t lie. In 2011, Washington State intercepted eight passes. And gave up 24 touchdowns. Those kind of numbers can get you beat in any league, but they can get you killed in the Pac-12.
All four starters return, led by junior safety Deone Bucannon (6-1, 190), who was second on the team with 80 tackles. He had three interceptions.
“I’m glad he is on our football team,” Breske said. “He is one of the guys we have singled out for the way he practices, the way he approaches football. Really, the way he approaches life. I mean if that guy knocked on my door to take my daughter out, I would be the happiest man in the world.”
Senior Tyree Toomer (5-11, 199) is the other starting safety. He was third on the team with 60 tackles in 2011.
“He has done some positive things,” Breske said. “We’ve got to take advantage of what he can do and keep him out of situations that hurt him.”
“He’s a big hitter, explosive, but still needs to mentally grasp what we are trying to do,” Breske said.
Junior cornerback Damante Horton (5-10, 174) led the team with four interceptions in 2011.
“Damante is probably above the curve in terms of our corners,” Breske said.
The other returning starter, junior Nolan Washington (5-11, 184), is competing for a starting spot with senior Daniel Simmons (5-10, 193). Sophomore Tracy Clark (5-11, 186) is another player in the mix.
“We’re not where we need to be consistency-wise,” Breske said.
Good news for those who are fans of kicking and punting: Leach places great value on his specialists. The Cougars are trying to develop each unit, looking for players who fit the specific job needs.
“Special teams, it’s the biggest exchange of yards on a single play on the average,” Leach said. “You need to be good at it. We are planning to play starters out there on special teams. This isn’t a deal where you just throw the rest of the travel squad. Somebody is not good enough to play offense or defense, he is probably not good enough to play special teams.”
The Cougars were solid on kickoff returns in 2011, finishing 37th nationally. But they struggled on punt returns, finishing 111th. They were 70th in net punting and 99th in kickoff coverage.
Junior Andrew Furney (5-10, 231) was one of the most accurate kickers in the nation in 2011, hitting 14-of-16 field goals. He was 5 of 5 beyond 40 yards.
But Furney will have some competition in training camp from junior college transfer Michael Bowlin (6-4, 210). Originally an Oregon signee, he transferred to Saddleback (Calif.) Junior College. In 2011, he hit 11-of-15 field goal tries.
“He really has a strong leg and can kick it a long ways,” Leach said.
Leach plans to keep JUCO transfer Michael Bowlin busy, using him as both a kicker and a punter.
“It’s doing pretty good,” Leach said of the kicking game. “And we have some guys that show some promise. We have flashes, but we are working on consistency.”
Competing against Bowlin is redshirt freshman Tyler McNannay (6-0, 170).
There was a reason Washington State won just nine games in four years, and it wasn’t just coaching. The talent didn’t seem to be there, especially early in the Wulff era. But the former coach might have been turning the program in his final year, winning four games and losing close in two others.
In steps Leach, who has a chance to become an instant hero. Back after a two-year college football exile, he preached effort to his team during the spring. And not just for the players.
“Everybody can work a little harder than they think they can,” Leach said. “We have a sign up that says ‘You’re either coaching it or allowing it to happen.’ If we don’t like the way the players are functioning, we need to first assess our role in it. Anybody who really embraces the challenge of coaching will feel that way. It’s a cop out to say, ‘Well, the player is this, the player is that.’ What is your role in it?’ If it is all just the players, then what do they need you for?”
Leach and the Cougars caught a break from the Pac-12 schedule maker. They don’t play USC, picked by many to win the national title. If you are going to avoid a team in a nine-game league schedule, USC is the right one.
The Cougars open the season at BYU, Leach’s alma mater. Don’t expect him to get sentimental about the return to Provo.
The other two non-conference games are manageable. After a home game against Eastern Washington, Washington State travels to UNLV. A year ago, the Cougars routed the Rebels by 52.
Take two of three in the preseason and a bowl bid is within reach for Leach’s first team, which would continue his streak as a head coach. The Cougars play four conference games at home and figure to be favored against Colorado. There are tossup games against Utah, UCLA and Arizona State. The Bruins and Sun Devils, like Washington State, are breaking in new coaches.
Leach is new to the Pac-12, but he has been watching from afar.
“For a while, the Pac-10 was more Big Ten than the Big Ten was,” Leach said. “It wasn’t as wide open as its reputation.
That has changed, Leach said. And he is part of it.
“If you think about it conference-wide, from an offensive and defensive standpoint, there are more diverse styles than probably any conference in the country right now,” Leach said.