2012 Washington State Football Preview: Welcome Back

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)

Related: Washington State's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Wazzu football, visit Washington State blog Coug Center, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Seattle.

It is perfectly understandable why coachspeak is coachspeak, why most coaches are afraid of saying anything interesting to the media, and why personalities like Nick Saban have reached the top of college football. When you open your mouth in front of a microphone, and you extend beyond guarded cliches, the odds are decent that you will say something awkward, something regrettable, or something you'll have to apologize for later. And since a major college football coach is part-coach and part-politician, it is almost always better to say something bland.

But college football was built on personality. Woody Hayes. Howard Schnellenberger. Barry Switzer. Bobby Bowden. Steve Spurrier. It is one of the many things that makes it a greater game than the sharper, more polished professional version. (And yes, I know Switzer also coached in the NFL. He will always be a college coach.)

In the two years that he was away from the college game, Mike Leach and his personality were missed, but not necessarily in the way that one would think. He has always been a great quote, but that goes without saying. He remained a great quote after his coaching days at Texas Tech ended. (He wasn't exactly unavailable.) No, college football missed Mike Leach because of that offense, that play-calling, the incredible, no-playbook uniqueness that his Red Raiders brought to the field. The Air Raid has very much lived on in his absence, of course -- there are Leach/Hal Mumme disciples scattered throughout college football, from West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen, to Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes, to even Murray State's Chris Hatcher. But Leach's personality always added something to the proceedings.

What makes his return to coaching perhaps even more exciting for offense geeks is one simple, extra point: we don't exactly know what his offense is going to look like at Washington State. He has had two years to tinker in his basement. He brought in an offensive coordinator well-schooled in the Pistol offense. For the blogger world, watching the Wazzu offense jog out onto the field for its first series against BYU on August 30 will make college football's opening night feel even more like Christmas morning than it already did. You have no idea what you are about to see, but you are pretty sure you will like it immensely.

I have no idea what to expect from Mike Leach in Pullman. Outgoing coach Paul Wulff coaxed a rebound out of Wazzu in 2010-11 after a historically bad pair of seasons in 2008-09, and he did win four games with a ridiculously young squad last year. It doesn't seem like too much to ask for Leach to pretty quickly build a six- or seven-win program in the Pacific Northwest, but their ceiling evades me at this point. He can build a good offense anyway, but Texas Tech became a national contender in 2008 when four-star recruits like Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree entered the fray and matured. Will he be able to reel in the personnel he needs to succeed at a similar level?

But those are questions for another year. With solid quarterbacks, an incredibly exciting receiver, and an experienced defense operating in a potentially underdog-friendly 3-4 defense, Wazzu should provide enough intrigue in the present tense that we don't have to worry about the future just yet.

Welcome back, Cap'n. It's been lonely without you.


Related: Check out Washington State's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Wazzu a year ago:

At this point, no matter how much of Wulff's mess was inherited and how much he created on his own, you might as well give him ample time to clean it up. I would, of course, recommend Wulff win quite a bit in 2011 -- six wins would be nice, in fact. […]

A five-year recruiting average much higher than their recent level of play ... a healthy number of starters returning on both sides of the ball ... a YPP margin that suggests they were quite unlucky last year ... it certainly seems as if Wazzu could be ready for another autumn of improvement. The question is, of course ... what exactly does 'improvement' mean? A 3-9 record? Multiple conference wins? If 'improvement' consists of something less than six wins and a bowl bid, will that be enough to save Wulff? And if his seat is that hot, will that affect players' level of performance if they begin to press to save his job?

You've got to start somewhere, and Washington State did that in 2010. But their four-year performance average still ranks 39 spots lower than anybody else's in the Pac-12 (Colorado ranks 75th), and they still rank lower in that category than any of the 11 FBS opponents on their 2011 schedule.

Taking a look at Wazzu's schedule, it is somewhat clear that a three-game road trip through San Diego State, Colorado and UCLA will all but determine Wulff's fate. All three of those opponents will be beatable in 2011, but all three are away from home. By the time Stanford comes to Pullman in mid-October, WSU could be 3-2 and fighting for bowl eligibility ... or 1-4 and playing for an interim coach.

Wazzu did indeed give it a run. They were 3-2 after five games, and they were closer to 4-1 than 2-3 (they beat Colorado by four points and lost to UCLA by three). There was reason to be optimistic with an offense that was putting up serious yards and points (albeit against lesser defenses), even though the defense was allowing plenty of its own. But when the competition rose, the Cougars couldn't quite keep up. After their loss to UCLA, Wazzu lost their next four games by an average score of 40.3 to 17.5, and in need of a three-game win streak to reach six wins, they beat Arizona State, lost a three-point heartbreaker to Utah, and faded at Washington. For the season, the offense indeed showed signs of life despite injuries at quarterback, but the defense remained mostly at the same level as it had been in Wazzu's awful recent history. So naturally … they brought in an offense-friendly coach! That's a line of thinking I can very much back.


Related: Spencer Hall and Dan Rubenstein on Mike Leach:

Offense

I said above that Leach took Texas Tech to another level when he started pulling in the Harrell-and-Crabtree types to replace players like Sonny Cumbie and Trey Haverty. Leach might actually have inherited a Crabtree type in Marquess Wilson, a 6'4 junior from Tulare, California. Wilson certainly has numbers on his side. In an offense that ranked 64th in Off. F/+, Wilson caught 82 passes for 1,388 yards, a 66-percent catch rate and a per-target average of 11.3 last year. In his breakthrough season of 2007, Michael Crabtree had a more efficient 73-percent catch rate and a less explosive per-target average of 10.7.

It is, of course, incredibly unfair to paint Wilson as a Crabtree type before his first down as a Mike Leach receiver, especially after a hit-or-miss spring that saw Leach, in what was likely a very calculated manner, challenging him significantly. Still, he is a wonderful weapon to inherit.

So what do we know about the WSU offense at this stage in the game, besides "Marquess Wilson is tantalizing"?

  • There is potential at quarterback. Once healthy, sophomore Connor Halliday will battle with ninth-year senior Jeff Tuel for the starting job. Both have had their moments, but Halliday was an outright tease in 2011. After both Tuel and last year's starter, Marshall Lobbestael, got injured, Halliday came in and engineered a nearly perfect performance in his first game. In rain and slop and snow, Halliday completed 27 of 36 passes for 494 yards and four touchdowns and combined with Lobbestael to create my favorite gif of the 2011 college football season.
    And like that, he was gone. Halliday threw four interceptions the next week versus Utah, suffering a lacerated liver along the way (and continuing to play through it), and was shut down for the season. Tuel could provide a steady presence in Leach's first season, but it is difficult to avoid getting starry-eyed about Halliday's potential once healthy.
  • Halliday isn't the only intriguing sophomore. Wulff executed a huge youth movement last year, which is always a little brave when you are facing job security issues. As a result, sophomores Rickey Galvin and Marcus Mason enter the season as semi-proven running backs (they combined to rush for 5.7 yards per carry and a plus-6.2 Adj. POE in 133 first-year carries), sophomores Bobby Ratliff, Kristoff Williams and Isiah Myers potentially line up as the Nos. 2-4 receivers, and at least one sophomore (left tackle Jake Rodgers) will start on the offensive line. Of the receivers, Ratliff is particularly intriguing -- with a 68-percent catch rate and a per-catch average of 12.4 yards, he fits the mold of a wonderful possession receiver in the Air Raid. Though Wilson is a junior (and quite possibly gone after this season if he breaks out), there could be quite a bit of continuity in 2013 and beyond, especially if Halliday takes off in 2012, and especially if lanky redshirt freshman receiver Dominique Williams can build off of a lovely spring game.
  • The line is a question mark. Leach's Tech offenses almost always had strong sack rates because of how quickly the quarterback gets rid of the ball. But the line could still hold Wazzu back if the quarterbacks are still getting used to the system and the Cougars are facing a lot of passing downs. It ranked just 113th in Adj. Line Yards last season, and while Leach offenses will always pass, it does appear that there will be some Pistol and quick running involved as well. Hard to do that successfully without at least a decent line.

Defense

After ranking a horrendous 120th in overall F/+ in both 2008 and 2009, Washington State improved to 95th and 100th the last two seasons. The improvement would have been greater if, while the offense was improving from terrible to mediocre, the defense hadn't completely bottomed out. Over the last four seasons, Wazzu's Def. F/+ ranking fell from 90th to 95th to 114th to 118th.

In other words, if you're ever going to change your defensive alignment, now is a pretty good time. FCS veteran Mike Breske takes over the defense after a couple of years leading a strong Montana unit, and his first order of business was switching from the 4-3 to a 3-4. He will certainly have pieces to work with -- of the 16 players who recorded at least 13.0 tackles last year, 13 return -- but we don't yet know how many of these pieces are actually any good.

Relatively speaking, the "strength" of the Wazzu defense lied in its front seven last year. The Cougars ranked 78th in Adj. Line Yards and 71st in Rushing S&P+, and players like end Travis Long (12 tackles for loss) and linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis (11) put together solid stat lines. But the pass rush was minimal (Long was the only player on the team with more than 2.5 sacks), and a consistently shuffled secondary just couldn't make enough plays.

Despite the loss of Hoffman-Ellis, some personnel shuffling could result in a better effort from the front seven. Long returns and, at 6'4, 256 pounds, is at least reasonably big enough to handle the move to 3-4 end. Tackle Anthony Laurenzi could make a decent nose tackle (and he could get help from three-star, 300-pound junior college transfer Ioane Gauta), and a player like sophomore end Logan Mayes, who was far too small to be anything other than a pass rush specialist last year, could find a home as a Von Miller-style OLB/DE hybrid. Mayes in particular was a spring standout.

If the front seven can take another step forward in 2012, that might allow for a much more experienced secondary to put together more respectable numbers. Safety Doene Bucannon is a hard hitter and reasonably decent safety valve, and junior corner Damante Horton (four picks, three passes broken up last year) has decent cover potential, but they need help. Hell, they also need continuity. Nine different defensive backs logged at least 10.0 tackles last fall, suggesting that last year's staff very much struggled to find consistent contributors for a decent, regular-sized rotation.

Defining Success

Expectations are a funny thing. Mike Leach teams simply make bowl games. It's what they do. Though he only once topped the nine-win mark in Lubbock, he always won at least seven games. (And after the second season at Tech, he always won at least eight.) On the other hand, Washington State has won a combined nine games in four seasons. So is it too much to ask for Leach to immediately produce at least bowl eligibility in Pullman?

A home schedule of Eastern Washington, Colorado, California, UCLA and Washington should produce at least three wins, and possibly four or five. Add in a trip to eminently beatable UNLV, and you're pretty close to six wins. But if the Cougars slip up at home at all, they will need to pull a road upset to make a bowl. For that reason, I will very conservatively set the bar at five wins (while secretly expecting a lot more).

Prognosis

In theory, this sets up perfectly for Mike Leach. Paul Wulff already did a little bit of rebuilding before he left Pullman, and Leach knows a little something about winning games with poor defenses. If Wazzu wins at BYU on the season's first night, all bets are off. Still, the most likely odds are for the Cougars to struggle a bit to overcome defensive issues, years of losing, some serious stylistic shifts, et cetera. Leach will win there before long, and it is quite possible that it happens immediately. But 2012 should mostly be about observation above expectation. What will Leach do differently this time around? How will he fit the Pistol into his repertoire? How will the new defense begin to take shape? How quickly can his own recruits take hold? How many passes might Marquess Wilson catch?

It is worth remembering that Leach inherited a pretty consistent winner at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had finished .500 or better in eight of the nine seasons before he walked in the door, so while there were still some major stylistic shifts in the works, it's not like he took an 0-11 team and immediately made it a winner. It might take some time for him to get back to that eight- or nine-win range at Wazzu, but it is going to be really fun watching him build to that.

For more on Wazzu football, visit Washington State blog Coug Center, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Seattle.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

Check out the SB Nation Channel on YouTube

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