PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 8: Wide receiver Marquess Wilson #86 of the Washington State Cougars carries the ball against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl on October 8, 2011 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Looking at how Washington State's hiring of Mike Leach impacts both the Wazzu program and West Coast football as a whole.
Five reactions to Mike Leach's move to Pullman:
1. Wazzu Will Go Bowling Next Year
In the short-term, this hire will maximize the strengths of the current Washington State squad. The Cougars may have had a terrible defense (118th in Def. F/+) and running game (118th in Rushing S&P+), but they could pass (46th in Passing S&P+), and Leach should be able to improve on that. If there's one thing a Mike Leach team can do, it's pass. From 2005-09 (S&P+ only spans back to 2005), the Red Raiders ranked no worse than 29th in Passing S&P+ in any single year. They were not amazingly explosive (they ranked between 30th and 40th in Passing PPP+ every year), but they were often among the most efficient passing games in college football (they ranked in the Top 15 in Passing Success Rate+ in 2005, 2007 and 2008).
Looking at Wazzu's returning passing personnel for 2012, Leach should find quite a bit to like. Lanky redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Halliday started two games late in the season before suffering a lacerated liver (ouch) and missing the Apple Cup. In a 10-point upset win over Arizona State, he completed 27 of 36 passes for 494 yards and four touchdowns. For the season, he completed 57 percent of his passes at 9.3 yards per pass; he threw nine touchdown passes and four interceptions (all against Utah). He was more aggressive than he will probably be allowed to be next year; he is actually similar in that regard to Leach's first quarterback at Texas Tech. Kliff Kingsbury completed 44 percent of his passes under Spike Dykes in 1999 but averaged 19.7 yards per completion. Tech's was a run-first/play-action offense, and Leach almost immediately turned Kingsbury into a dangerous, efficient passer: 62-percent completion rate, 21 touchdowns. And Kingsbury had nobody even remotely as good as Marquess Wilson in his arsenal.
Marquess Wilson might already be the third-best receiver Leach has coached, behind just Michael Crabtree and Wes Welker. Wilson averaged 11.3 yards per target in 2011; his was the highest per-target average in the country of receivers targeted at least 120 times, better than even Baylor's Kendall Wright (11.1), Iowa's Marvin McNutt (10.0) or Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon (9.1). In likely No. 2 man Bobby Ratliff, a redshirt freshman who averaged 12.4 yards per catch with a 68-percent catch rate in 2011, Leach has at least one other weapon to distract the defenses who choose to overplay Wilson. Plus, two interesting young running backs -- redshirt freshman Rickey Galvin and junior Carl Winston -- have shown some decent pass-catching ability, combining for 39 catches and 331 yards this season.
Maximizing strengths is going to be only part of Leach's job, of course. He also has to figure out how to minimize weaknesses. And boy, did Washington State have plenty of those. But with the schedule at hand, immediate bowl eligibility should be a goal even if the defense and running game are slow to come around.
Washington State's 2012 schedule includes home games versus Eastern Washington, Colorado and UCLA, along with potentially winnable home games versus California and Washington and reasonable trips to Oregon State, Arizona State, UNLV and BYU. It is not at all unreasonable to expect Leach's first Cougars team to steal six wins from this bunch, even if they are still miles behind Oregon and, potentially, Stanford. They will be exciting and just good enough to show viable progress.
2. Bud Is Absolutely Right: Recruiting Will Be More Iffy
SBN's Bud Elliott had a nice piece yesterday regarding the potential issues Leach will find in recruiting to his style in a different region of the country.
In a state as loaded with talent as Texas, this strategy can work. But it might not work in Pullman. Compared to Lubbock, Texas, Pullman, Washington is completely bereft of surrounding talent. In addition, the skill guys Leach pulled were typically from the prep infrastructure that includes years of passing work in seven-on-seven camps during the summer. Simply put, they were more ready to step in and play college football than the kids in Washington state.
And the competition for what little talent exists in state is fierce, with schools like Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Cal and USC attempt to pull the top kids out of Washington State, leaving the Cougars to find overlooked kids from California.
There probably isn't a better state in the country for recruiting to the spread offense than Texas. Even though there is plenty of talent for the taking in the state of California, Leach will face obstacles in the form of distance (You thought Houston-to-Lubbock was far? Try Los Angeles-to-Pullman) and competition in attempting to pull in talent from up and down the West Coast. Of course, Leach was never a prolific recruiter at Tech, either. His classes ranked among Rivals' Top 25 just once (in 2006) and among the Top 40 just four times (2004-06, 2009). His general approach of finding overlooked talent and "the right guys" (as opposed to the most highly rated) is exactly what Washington State will need to succeed.
Along those same lines...
3. The Makeup Of His Staff Will Be Incredibly Important
One of the most fascinating parts of Leach's Swing Your Sword was the scattered way in which his first coaching staff at Texas Tech came together. Leach called upon people he met at just about every stop in his career to find the right guys. He has evidently been given nearly a $2 million budget for assistant coaches, which is tremendous.
It will be interesting to see which former assistants he is able to reel back in (his coaching tree is both disparate and expansive at this point) and which newcomers he attracts to his pirate ship. They will need to be able to recruit California, obviously, but he will also need a sturdy set of defensive coaches to turn around the mess that has been the recent Wazzu defense. Leach's last few Tech teams were much better defensively than their predecessors (defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill was able to engineer a nice step forward, though as East Carolina head coach, his defenses have regressed considerably), and we will have to see how quickly his Wazzu teams will become capable of only winning games 31-28 instead of 51-48.
4. Leach Will Win Games Regardless
Are we talking "7-5 annually," "contending for Pac-12 titles" or "contending for national titles"? That depends on topics No. 2 and 3 above. But Leach will win more games than he loses. It is what he does. Washington State could not have made a better move in terms of restoring respectability.
It is easy to forget given recent history (Wazzu has won just nine games in four seasons and hasn't finished with a winning record since 2003), but Mike Price and Bill Doba combined for four 10-win seasons in the seven years from 1997 to 2003. The Cougars went to two Rose Bowls and six bowls in 12 seasons. An unconventional, semi-crazy coach like Price was able to win games in Pullman, and he came to Wazzu without anything resembling Leach's proven track record. Leach's Tech teams won at least seven games in all ten of his year's in Lubbock; granted, they won either seven or eight games six times (they were consistently strong if rarely spectacular), but at the very least, he should be capable of establishing the Cougars as an annually solid team. Even under Price, Wazzu wasn't consistently good.
5. The Fan In Me Is Really Happy
As I've mentioned before, Mike Leach is to college football bloggers as Brett Favre is to ESPN. We can't help but like the guy, and we really want him back in our lives.
Now, not only do we have him, but we have him in a place where he can be his weird old self, isolated and unconventional. Plus ... think about the Pac-12 North for a moment. We get to see Leach's teams face off with Chip Kelly on an annual basis. We get to see some incredible contrasts when Leach's Cougars face Stanford. We get to see some potentially fantastic Apple Cup battles with Steve Sarkisian's Huskies. And along with Rich Rodriguez's hire at Arizona, we get a Pac-12 that has an increasingly strong roster of exciting offensive coaches. We will see if the Pac-12 can compete nationally with the SEC (probably not), but there is no question that the conference has gotten stronger and more exciting with recent hires, from Leach to Rodriguez to, of course, commissionerhimself. This is a good time to be a fan of the Pac-12, and for the first time in quite a while, this is an exciting time to be a Washington State fan.