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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


This, folks, ought to be interesting.

We’re talking about the resurfacing of ex-Texas Tech HC Mike Leach as the new boss of a woebegone Washington State program that looks like it could be a marriage made in...well, if not heaven, certainly the Palouse.

Leach’s reappearance on the college scene has 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, son of ESPN’s Craig James. Although Leach has always maintained that the Jones controversy was merely a byproduct of lingering animosity by the school after a difficult round of contract negotiations the previous year.

After being relieved of his duties, Leach brought suit against Texas Tech for wrongful termination. Most, but not all, of Leach’s claims have been since dismissed by District Judge Bill Sowder and the Texas 7th Court of Appeals, and what remains of the lawsuit has been working its way through the appeals system that Leach attorney Paul Dobrowski believes will eventually wind up in the Supreme Court of Texas.

But now that Leach has found another football job, he can concentrate on something else besides the appeals process.

Following his dismissal at Texas Tech, there were no shortage of potential landing spots for Leach, who at various times seemed to be destined for jobs at Maryland, Memphis, Minnesota, Miami, Kansas, Tulane, Ole Miss, and UCLA before landing far outside of the mainstream at Wazzu, where Leach’s peculiarities are more easily overlooked and where there are few politically-correct bureaucrats and boosters who find Leach’s curious act to be, if not inappropriate, certainly unbecoming of a major college head coach and semi-ambassador for the university.

Leach definitely marches to a different drummer, and several gridiron insiders around the country have noted to us what a strange bird the former Red Raider can be. Among other oddities, the fascination with everything pirate adds further intrigue to the Leach persona. While most coaches are apt to quote Vince Lombardi, Leach would rather cite Blackbeard and Calico Jack.

We must assume, too, that Leach’s favorite ride at Disneyland is Pirates of the Caribbean.

Such peculiarity, however, is 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, as long as the program started to win again. The past several years have been tough ones for WSU, a theme that has recurred at times throughout the decades. But as long as Leach can succeed without recruiting pirates of the Somalian variety (and even then, if one happened to have a rocket arm or ran the 40 in 4.4, it might be acceptable), the Cougar support base will be thrilled.

History tells us that it is difficult, but hardly impossible, to win at Washington State, which has long had the benefit of a more-lenient acceptance policy than rival schools in the Pac-12, simply because it must if it wishes to recruit into such a remote locale. The rolling wheatfields of the Palouse are hardly the sort of attraction that can compete with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the cosmopolitan settings of the Bay Area, Seattle, and metro Phoenix, or the ski-themed backdrops of Boulder and Salt Lake City, each a competing locale within the conference.

But what Cougar backers are really loathe to avoid is the sort of dissolution of the on-field product that has occurred on occasion in the Palouse, certainly with recently-dismissed HC Paul Wulff’s first three teams from 2008-10. Wazzu has had enough of its share of helpless editions throughout the decades that the support base is 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.

That was exactly the recipe for Mike Price (right), the prototype for all Wazzu coaches, who lasted almost twice as long (fourteen seasons between 1989-2002) on the job as any other Coug mentor over the past fifty years. Although WSU didn’t contend and make bowl games every year for Price, it could occasionally come up big, such as when QBs Drew Bledsoe and the controversial Ryan Leaf were on campus. Some of Price’s best teams came during his final years in the Palouse, qualifying for a pair of Rose Bowls (after the ‘97 and ’02 seasons) and back-to-back postseason trips in his final two seasons on the job in 2001 & ‘02 with teams featuring the prolific Jason Gesser at QB.

But it also can go bad in a hurry in the Palouse with the wrong man, as Price’s successor Bill Doba turned out to be in the middle of the past decade, although the real deterioration of the program due to Doba’s failed stewardship (caused by failed recruiting) waited to fully manifest until the regime of successor Wulff. In retrospect, Wulff really had no chance, inheriting a carcass of a program from Doba that could only produce nine wins in four seasons (four of those a year ago). Manpower disadvantages have long been common at Wazzu, whose usual lack of depth has often proven its Waterloo.

Toward the end of the Wulff regime, however, green shoots began to appear on the once-barren landscape, which Leach hopes to further cultivate in the fall.

Leach’s presence with his all-out Air Raid offenses are a proper progression in the litany of potent Wazzu offenses, of which the aforementioned Price’s full-throttle, one-back attacks proved a good fit for the available talent on hand when the Cougs often ranked among the top offenses in the conference and sometimes the nation during his tenure. As they did for a couple of wondrous years under predecessor Dennis Erickson, whose 1988 squad (one of only two Erickson WSU teams) was among the best-balanced teams in Pac-10 history, featuring a 3000-yard passer in QB Timm Rosenbach and a 1000-yard rusher in RB Steve Broussard.

The history of potent Cougar offenses also includes most of Jim Walden’s squads between 1978-86 that at times featured prolific QBs Jack Thompson and Mark Rypien (left, with Walden in 1984). as well as RB Reuben Mayes, who set an all-time NCAA single-game record (since broken) of 357 yards in a 50-41 win at Oregon in 1984, a mark that still stands as a now-named Pac-12 conference record.

No mention of the coaching tree at Wazzu would be complete, however, without recalling an odd period between 1975-78 when four head coaches in as many seasons graced the Cougar sidelines. Irish Jim Sweeney, whose earlier editions endured some of the frightful beatings to which we previously referred (Sweeney’s WSU entries won just one game in both 1969 & ‘70), resigned under pressure after the 1975 campaign, taking the Fresno State job, and was succeeded by Pitt assistant Jackie Sherrill, who lasted for one year (1976) before being recalled to Pitt to replace former boss Johnny Majors, who moved to alma mater Tennessee after the Panthers won the ‘76 national title. Ex-Oakland Raider defensive back Warren Powers then took over in 1977 and got the Cougs to 6-5 behind QB Thompson before taking the job at Missouri. Walden succeeded Powers, and Jim’s first team showcased the “Throwin’ Samoan” Thompson before a succession of other capable QBs (Steve Grant, Samoa Samoa...yep, that was his name, Clete Casper, Ricky Turner, Rypien, and Ed Blount) kept the Cougs entertaining and often dangerous.

The 1981 side in particular was a colorful one, surprising onlookers from the outset of the season and threatening to win the then-called Pac-10 crown, needing only an Apple Cup win over hated Washington in the regular-season finale at Seattle to sew up the school’s first Rose Bowl berth in 66 years. Alas, the Huskies won, 23-10, and forced WSU to settle for the Holiday Bowl instead, but Walden got his revenge on U-Dub the next two seasons with major upsets in the Apple Cup (24-20 over a 5th-ranked UW in 1982 and 17-6 the following year in Seattle behind 169 rush yards from punishing RB Kerry Porter), denying a couple of Don James' better Huskies squads a pair of New Year's Day berths in Pasadena.

Which brings us to Leach and the 2012 edition that looks to complete the road to respectablity that the Cougs began to chart in Wulff’s final campaign last 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.

Pac-12 sources report that Leach, who inherits a strike force that actually ranked a respectable 33rd nationally in total offense last fall and ninth in passing, hinted at adding some new wrinkles in spring to his pet 4-WR, Air Raid looks. With ex-Nevada and UCLA offensive assistant Jim Mastro now on staff, Leach introduced a handful of variations to his “O” that included Nevada-influenced “Pistol” looks, multiple RB sets (sacrilege!) and motion with the same out of the backfield, plus some play-action and “pop” passes that have been indoctrinated into other versions of the spread but had rarely been part of Leach’s former bag of tricks at Texas Tech.

Leach, whose five-year, $11 million contract makes him the highest-paid employee in WSU history, developed a succession of prolific triggermen at Lubbock, and whichever QB takes the snaps in the Coug version of the spread is likely to garner much attention and rank among the nation’s passing leaders. At the moment, it appears as if oft-injured sr. holdover Jeff Tuel (right), whose ill-advised return from an early collarbone injury last fall needlessly blew a full season of eligibility and might have indirectly helped convince AD Bill Moos that Wulff was the wrong guy to run the program, 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 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, conducted in front of over 10,000 fans at the upgraded Martin Stadium, 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.

In other words, a well-oiled and well-designed machine unlike the often-choppy and mistake-prone strike forces from the Wulff regime.

If healthy, Tuel would seem to possess the type of attributes (arm strength, mobility, and decision-making skills) that should thrive in 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. Those man-eaters were often on top of Tuel 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 an awful 116th nationally in that category.

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 6'4 jr. Marquess Wilson (left), who wowed observers in April and 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 truly frightening numbers in the Leach offense. Converted sr. TE Andrei Lintz, all 6'5 and 252 pounds of him, made the switch to WR in spring and developed a quick rapport with Tuel. Plenty of underclassmen with blazing speed (such as soph Bobby Ratliff and RS frosh Dominique Williams), the sorts who used to post big stats for Leach at Texas Tech, populate the other available options in Leach’s base 4-WR sets.

Running backs have to catch the ball in the Leach offense, and last year’s leading rusher, soph Ricky Galvin (right; 611 YR in 2011), seems to have the hands to make things work after catching 26 passes from Tuel, Halliday, and graduated Marshall Lobbestael a year ago. He and another pint-sized weapon, soph Marcus Mason, will have a chance to catch a lot more this fall while also having the benefit of running downhill in the Leach offense.

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. Regional sources, however, expect better things this fall after the linemen spent spring adjusting to the new keys and wider splits in the Leach offense. By the end of workouts, sources say the forward wall seemed to be coagulating nicely. Three starters return, with jr. LT John Fullington a possible honors candidate.

Leach also inherits a reliable PK, jr. Andrew Furney, who connected on 14 of 16 FG tries a year ago and nailed all five of his attempts from 40 yards and beyond.

The bugaboo of many past Leach Red Raider teams, however, has been defense, and Leach hardly inherits the Alabama stop unit in Pullman. Although the platoon showed improvement in 2011 from the pipsqueak versions the previous three seasons for Wulff, Wazzu still allowed 31.8 ppg a year ago, ranking 95th in scoring defense, while its pass efficiency defense ranked 111th, numbers much worse than those Leach was dealing with in his years at Lubbock.

Seeking to change the recipe, Leach authorized new d.c. Mike Breske to move forward on a switch to 3-4 alignments from the recent 4-3 used (to mostly poor effect) by Wulff’s recent teams. But developments in spring were not all positive, especially with a pair of returning starting LBs, C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, booted from the team for disciplinary reasons. Along with the graduation of last year’s firebrand, Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Wazzu enters fall camp very thin at the LB spots.

Several anxious and speedy underclassmen will get their opportunities, including soph Chester Su’a and RS frosh Darryl Monroe on the inside. A handful of RBs also converted to LB in spring with encouraging results, including jr. Eric Cartel, only 197 pounds but a potential pass-rush demon from the edge.

Travis Long (left. vs. UCLA last October), a 6'4, 256-lb. 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 still be ornery if RS frosh Xavier Cooper fulfills his promise at a DE spot, and there is thought that a pair of thick Samoan frosh DTs, Destiny Vaeao and Robert Barber, might push returning starter seniors Leonard Williams and Anthony Laurenzi.

The Cougs were better at the point of attack a year ago after being routinely trampled in Wulff's first three years on the job, ranking a more-respectable 63rd nationally vs. the run while allowing an improved (but hardly airtight) 4.4 ypc in 2011, and the hope is that the upgrades continue with the switch to the 3-4.

But whatever the combinations in the front seven, Breske still must coax a better pass rush from the platoon after it managed only 17 sacks all of last season, ranking a poor 94th nationally.

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 adjacent jr. FS Deone Bucannon (right, vs. Cal last November) emerged as the star if the secondary last autumn. The returning starting corners (sr. Daniel Simmons and jr. Damante Horton) are a bit undersized at 5'10, though Horton did show a decent nose for the football with four picks in 2011. 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 a DB, where Marks also starred as a prep. Don't be surprised if Marks plays both ways this fall.

The secondary, however, could certainly benefit from more pass rush pressure being applied by the front seven after allowing 64% completions a year ago.

The schedule is challenging but not overly-daunting, as WSU will be a heavy favorite in two of its three non-league games (home vs. nearby Eastern Washington and at UNLV) after a tough opener in the all-Cougar battle at BYU. WSU plays only five games in Pullman this season, moving a home date vs. Oregon across state in the annual game at the NFL Seahawks’ fancy Century Link Field as a treat for the many Wazzu alums in the Seattle area.

Pointspread-wise, note that Wulff’s Cougar teams covered 7 of their last 9 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 the other way. Leach’s reputation likely alters that perception somewhat, so don’t expect to get all of those huge numbers if thinking about backing the Cougs this fall. Leach’s Texas Tech teams generally performed well as a favorite, especially when laying 7 points or more, standing 30-19 vs. the spread as a TD + favorite.

Summary...The hiring of Leach, along with the modest recovery of the Cougs in Wulff’s final season, suggests that Wazzu is a program ready to ascend, perhaps quickly. Expect Leach’s offense to be more-refined and creative than Wulff’s last edition, especially if QB Jeff Tuel stays healthy. Leach’s defenses at Texas Tech, however, often lagged far behind his offenses, and that might not change in the Palouse. Whereas performance of the "D" for Leach’s last few Red Raider teams often meant the difference between competing for a BCS bowl or a lesser postseason assignment, this season in Pullman it will likely mean the difference between a minor bowl and having to wait another year for the Cougar postseason drought (in effect since 2004) to end.


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