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Mike Leach ended Washington State's decade lost at sea. Now what's next?

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The Cougars broke through for nine wins last year, but a turn of bad luck would make that hard to repeat. This is Bill C.'s 128-team preview, currently winding through the Pac-12.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Back to land

In 2005, Bill Doba's Washington State Cougars, just two years removed from three consecutive top-10 poll appearances, had hit what seemed like hard time. They were 30-8 from 2001-03, and after a 5-6 campaign in 2004, they appeared close to a rebound.

Alex Brink threw for nearly 3,000 yards, and Jerome Harrison rushed for nearly 2,000, but they lost five games by four or fewer points in a six-week span in conference play and finished 4-7. By the numbers, they were an average Pac-10 team; bad luck gave them a below-average record.

Wazzu fans were used to ups and downs. Even during the immensely successful Mike Price era, which featured five ranked finishes, five bowls and two Rose Bowls, success wasn't sustained without missteps.

WSU won eight games in 1995-96 before the 10-win Rose Bowl season in 1997. Before the 2001-03 run (Price left after 2002), the Cougars won 10 combined games in 1998-00. When the talent and experienced were properly balanced, the Cougars erupted. But Pullman is as much Idaho as Washington, and it's always going to be difficult to consistently recruit well. Price was great, and the successes were undeniable. And sporadic.

Doba fought the tide for two more years, going 6-6 in 2006 and 5-7 in 2007. The Cougars still weren't bad, but they weren't good enough. Doba was dumped in favor of Eastern Washington head coach Paul Wulff. He had won nine games with EWU in 2007; he won nine in four years with Wazzu.

Ups and downs are one thing, but Washington State just spent a decade in the wilderness. After four horrific years with Wulff, WSU hired Mike Leach. He managed a bowl bid in 2013 and established a mediocre level of play in 2013-14 -- and hey, mediocre is great when you've been lost in the wilderness. In 2015, his Cougars weren't demonstrably better than they had been, but they improved enough, and got just lucky enough, to have a truly happy, exciting season.

In 2015, WSU opened the season with a loss to Portland State, then followed with nine wins in 12 games. It was the Cougars' first truly good season in 12 years.

It took him a while, but Leach finally dragged WSU out of the wilderness and produced conference-average play in Pullman. It took five one-possession wins and 3.4 points per game in positive turnover luck to do it, but WSU fans more than deserved a happy season, and they got one.

Now, how long will it take to get another?

First things first: It's going to be really hard to win nine games again this year. If you're an optimistic fan, you're going to look at the players returning this year -- quarterback Luke Falk, the top three rushers, 10 of 11 receivers, an all-conference offensive lineman, two 11-TFL defenders in the front seven, aggressive safeties Shalom Luani and Parker Henry -- and figure, "We're going to be even better than last year!" And that could very well be true for Wazzu.

But the Cougars weren't an amazing team on paper and needed some good fortune to break through. That fortune doesn't tend to last. WSU should absolutely expect to improve further, but with a schedule that features four projected top-20 opponents (three in consecutive weeks in October) and an early trip to Boise State, a reversal in luck could mean a trip back down toward .500.

Regardless, Leach has restored life in Pullman. He has towed the wayward pirate ship to shore. There will almost certainly be drastic ups and downs moving forward; it's the way life is going to be at WSU regardless, and in a Pac-12 with tons of solid teams -- with the improvement of WSU, Washington, and Cal, there is only one easy out in the Pac-12 North, and Oregon State made a good hire last year as well -- a little bit of improvement or regression could make a huge difference.

But WSU is living and breathing again. Even if this team struggles to meet expectations, that probably isn't going to change in 2016.

Seriously, though, I could have skipped this intro entirely and simply posted this F/+ progression image. It takes a while to dig yourself out of a trench.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 54 | Final S&P+ Rk: 63
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep Portland State N/A 17-24 L 18% 23% -21.6
12-Sep at Rutgers 101 37-34 W 54% 80% +1.5 +5.0
19-Sep Wyoming 115 31-14 W 64% 95% -1.6 -7.0
3-Oct at California 29 28-34 L 49% 41% +12.5 +13.0
10-Oct at Oregon 23 45-38 W 54% 48% +19.8 +24.0
17-Oct Oregon State 107 52-31 W 89% 100% +17.6 +13.0
24-Oct at Arizona 77 45-42 W 56% 65% +5.7 +10.5
31-Oct Stanford 6 28-30 L 47% 22% +7.9 +10.0
7-Nov Arizona State 50 38-24 W 65% 81% +11.1 +11.5
14-Nov at UCLA 28 31-27 W 69% 69% +20.8 +13.5
21-Nov Colorado 94 27-3 W 90% 100% +12.4 +9.0
27-Nov at Washington 13 10-45 L 22% 3% -23.8 -35.0
26-Dec vs. Miami-FL 62 20-14 W 40% 31% +9.9 +3.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 32.2 47 29.2 72
Points Per Game 31.5 49 27.7 74

2. The in-between was great

Your first and last impressions are overrated. The season began with a misstep against Portland State, your regular reminder that Week 1 performances can be amazingly misleading. (It's okay -- we all get amnesia and forget this lesson every single damn year.) Meanwhile, the season ended with an Apple Cup dud and a weird Sun Bowl performance against both Miami and snowy conditions.

In between, the Cougars were rock solid. Not great, but solid.

  • Wazzu in the first game and last two:
    Record: 1-2 | Average percentile performance: 27% (~top 95) | Average score: Opp 28, WSU 16 | Yards per play: Opp 5.5, WSU 5.0 (-0.5)
  • Wazzu in the 10 games in-between:
    Record: 8-2 | Average percentile performance: 64% (~top 45) | Average score: WSU 36, Opp 28 | Yards per play: WSU 6.2, Opp 5.9 (+0.3)

Wazzu fans weren't big S&P+ fans during the season last year, and I addressed the issue in mid-November. But it bears mentioning that S&P+ was closer than Vegas in its WSU projections eight of 12 times. The Cougars were simply a strange team to figure out last year, and luck of the bounce made things even stranger.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.16 113 IsoPPP+ 98.5 74
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 47.9% 15 Succ. Rt. + 105.0 54
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 31.1 96 Def. FP+ 30.4 84
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.3 77 Redzone S&P+ 97.6 82
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 31.3 ACTUAL 25 -6.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 25 65 54 74
RUSHING 128 67 39 94
PASSING 1 79 49 85
Standard Downs 63 41 78
Passing Downs 55 44 64
Q1 Rk 59 1st Down Rk 53
Q2 Rk 38 2nd Down Rk 98
Q3 Rk 96 3rd Down Rk 77
Q4 Rk 59

3. Orthodoxy

Louisville's Bobby Petrino is exploring a fascination with mobile quarterbacks. Arizona's Rich Rodriguez is running a pass-first offense; in 2015, WVU's Dana Holgorsen ran a nearly run-first offense. Alabama's Nick Saban has, to some small degree, embraced tempo.

Stick around in the coaching game long enough, and your philosophy could change. Maybe you notice the game itself changing and realize that there's a better way to win. Maybe opponents have just tried to adapt to your attack to such a degree that you find more success doing the opposite.

Or maybe you're Mike Leach, and you don't change much of anything.

When Leach got back into coaching, we were really curious to see what he would change. Previous proteges like Holgorsen had been tinkering more with the run in his absence, and from his first spring in Pullman, we heard rumors of pistol formations and different looks.

Instead, we got the Mike Leach offense. Four years into his second head coaching stint, Leach's team was still throwing more frequently than anybody. Way, way, way more. On standard downs, Mississippi State ran the ball just 44.1 percent of the time, second-least in FBS. Washington State was at 30.2 percent. On passing downs, Western Kentucky ran 18.4 percent of the time, second-least; Wazzu was at 10.5 percent. Washington State's leading rusher averaged eight carries per game. Eight! Two per quarter! Meanwhile, Falk missed a game and a half and still threw 644 passes.

It's almost admirable, sticking to what you know in a changing world. Leach is the bizarro version of Woody Hayes, Darrell K Royal, and all the other coaches to whom the "Three things can happen when you pass, and two are bad" mantra was pinned. Mike Leach is going to throw the ball -- short, medium, long; left, middle, right -- no matter what else is going on in the universe. He's going to throw it 67 percent of the time when he's winning big and 80 percent of the time when he's losing big. It's comforting to have constants in life.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Luke Falk 6'4, 214 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) NR 447 644 4561 38 8 69.4% 37 5.4% 6.3
Peyton Bender



53 91 498 3 4 58.2% 3 3.2% 5.1
Tyler Hilinski 6'3, 191 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8608
Justus Rogers 6'2, 218 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8303

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Gerard Wicks RB 6'0, 226 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8209 107 610 3 5.7 4.9 42.1% 2 2
Jamal Morrow RB 5'9, 191 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8314 53 347 0 6.5 4.5 56.6% 1 0
Luke Falk QB 6'4, 214 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) NR 45 157 3 3.5 3.2 35.6% 9 0
Keith Harrington RB/WR 5'8, 191 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8509 37 238 2 6.4 5.8 48.6% 3 3
James Williams RB 5'11, 195 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8528
Romello Harris RB 5'10, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8513







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Gabe Marks WR-Z 6'0, 188 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9287 149 104 1192 69.8% 20.8% 8.0 61.1% 55.0% 1.35
Dom Williams WR-X 130 75 1040 57.7% 18.1% 8.0 66.2% 52.3% 1.45
River Cracraft SLOT 6'0, 203 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8247 78 53 609 67.9% 10.9% 7.8 61.5% 55.1% 1.26
Robert Lewis SLOT 5'9, 162 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8691 56 43 490 76.8% 7.8% 8.8 67.9% 62.5% 1.27
Gerard Wicks RB 6'0, 226 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8209 54 39 149 72.2% 7.5% 2.8 75.9% 31.5% 0.70
Keith Harrington SLOT 5'8, 191 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8509 51 43 312 84.3% 7.1% 6.1 74.5% 45.1% 1.33
Kyrin Priester SLOT 6'1, 194 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8913 43 33 241 76.7% 6.0% 5.6 74.4% 41.9% 1.18
Jamal Morrow RB 5'9, 191 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8314 41 34 309 82.9% 5.7% 7.5 68.3% 53.7% 1.30
John Thompson SLOT 5'8, 192 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) NR 37 24 255 64.9% 5.2% 6.9 54.1% 48.6% 1.17
Kyle Sweet SLOT 6'0, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8457 31 21 222 67.7% 4.3% 7.2 51.6% 45.2% 1.49
Tavares Martin Jr. WR-X 6'1, 182 So. 3 stars (5.5) NR 23 16 124 69.6% 3.2% 5.4 60.9% 39.1% 1.42
Tyler Baker SLOT 17 13 114 76.5% 2.4% 6.7 76.5% 47.1% 1.30
CJ Dimry WR 6'5, 200 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7819
Brett Bartolone WR 5'10, 185 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) NR
Kaleb Fossum WR-X 5'10, 186 So. NR NR
Isaiah Johnson WR-Z 6'3, 214 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8646
Renard Bell WR 5'10, 165 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8437
Grant Porter WR 6'2, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8428

4. More big plays wouldn't hurt

Wazzu has basically run a bend-don't-break offense of late, capable of constantly staying ahead of the chains but pulling off fewer big plays than preferable. Because of pure volume, the Cougars had more passes of 10-plus yards (200) than anyone else in FBS, but they had only 19 30-yarders, 54th in the country and fewer than such passing non-stalwarts as Kansas State, Florida, Rice, and Virginia Tech. Fewer than Stanford, even!

There are two ways to attempt to move the football: by creating numbers advantages for yourself, or by having your guys simply beat the guys across from them. Wazzu's skill guys don't tend to beat their opponent very frequently, turning short passes into huge gains. But if you are accurate enough in simply getting them the ball and working the ball up the field six to eight yards at a time, you can still rack up points and yards. And unlike predecessor Connor Halliday, Falk seems perfect content with this approach -- he isn't fighting hero-ball instincts like Halliday frequently seemed to be doing.

Of the 13 players who caught at least four passes in 2015, only one averaged better than 11.6 yards per catch (Dom Williams) and one averaged more than 8 yards per target (Robert Lewis). But the success rates were tremendous. That will almost certainly be the case again in 2016, but with Williams gone, Wazzu has gone from one known deep threat to zero.

In Gabe Marks, you've got the receiver version of a workhorse back. And inside receivers River Cracraft and Lewis are ultra-efficient. Keith Harrington, easily the most explosive running back of last year's trio, has evidently moved to inside receiver as well. Chances are this offense is what it is; the big plays aren't likely to change much.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 96.4 3.14 3.13 45.3% 65.6% 18.1% 107.0 5.2% 5.1%
Rank 88 26 75 5 71 44 50 74 19
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Eduardo Middleton RG 6'5, 323 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8395 13 25 2015 1st All-Pac-12
Joe Dahl LT 9 34 2015 2nd All-Pac-12
Gunnar Eklund LG 13 45
Riley Sorenson C 6'4, 327 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8472 12 22
Cole Madison RT 6'5, 305 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8119 13 21
Jacob Seydel RT 2 6
Sam Flor C
1 3
Andre Dillard LT 6'5, 290 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8159 2 2
Cody O'Connell LG 6'8, 351 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8362 0 0
B.J. Salmonson RT 6'4, 281 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7652 0 0
Carlos Freeman OL 6'3, 308 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8141 0 0
Mack Hopkins LG 6'5, 309 So. NR NR 0 0
Noah Osur-Myers C 6'4, 309 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8375

Cedric Bigge-Duren LT 6'6, 320 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8280

Drew Norvell RG 6'4, 293 RSFr. NR NR

Frederick Mauigoa OL 6'4, 295 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8632

5. Good at exactly what you need to be good at (and nothing more)

Wazzu's line kept Luke Falk upright on passing downs and gave running backs a shot at the second level in rare rush attempts. The Cougars weren't great in short yardage (lack of practice, probably), but that's not part of the package. WSU was successful in the areas where it most needed to be successful. It rarely moved backwards.

The quick passing game neutralizes any line disadvantages by getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands too quickly for pressure to occur. So that should make the loss of two starters (including all-conference tackle Joe Dahl) more palatable. There was enough shuffling last year that eight guys ended up starting at least one game, and four of them are back. Barring implosion at left tackle, things should be fine here.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.24 58 IsoPPP+ 103.9 52
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 43.4% 85 Succ. Rt. + 103.0 53
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.0 60 Off. FP+ 30.1 61
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 3.8 17 Redzone S&P+ 107.3 37
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 22.1 ACTUAL 24.0 +1.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 84 55 53 52
RUSHING 95 92 69 106
PASSING 64 24 38 20
Standard Downs 44 45 45
Passing Downs 78 89 69
Q1 Rk 54 1st Down Rk 60
Q2 Rk 40 2nd Down Rk 36
Q3 Rk 59 3rd Down Rk 68
Q4 Rk 74

6. A good first step for Grinch

Former Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch took over Leach's defense in 2015, and while improvement wasn't rampant, it was obvious. Wazzu improved from 95th to 72nd in Def. S&P+, and Grinch was quickly able to do some damage with a secondary made up mostly of sophomores and juniors. Run defense was problematic, but pass defense was downright strong. And any defensive strength is an improvement for Wazzu.

The secondary should get even better in 2016, as sophomores and juniors turn into juniors and seniors. But the front seven is a mystery. Six Cougars produced at least nine tackles for loss a year ago, but only two are back. End Hercules Mata'afa was a dynamic pass rusher as a freshman, and Peyton Pelluer was Wazzu's best run defender. But that's it. And since WSU basically played only five linemen and five linebackers, we don't really know what the reinforcements are like.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 99 2.83 3.75 43.2% 57.1% 22.5% 116.9 5.5% 8.3%
Rank 68 57 117 119 20 34 37 52 45
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Darryl Paulo DE 13 30.0 4.1% 13.5 5.5 0 1 1 0
Destiny Vaeao DE 13 30.0 4.1% 12.0 4.5 0 1 1 0
Hercules Mata'afa DE 6'2, 245 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8075 13 26.0 3.5% 11.0 7.0 0 0 1 0
Daniel Ekuale DE 6'3, 296 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 13 20.0 2.7% 5.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Robert Barber NT 6'3, 309 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 12 12.0 1.6% 4.5 1.0 0 0 2 0
Reggie Coates DE
6 2.0 0.3% 1.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Jeremiah Mitchell DE 6'4, 270 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8412
Ngalu Tapa DT 6'2, 314 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8059
Kingston Fernandez DE 6'2, 260 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8033
T.J. Fehoko DE 6'1, 272 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8495
Hunter Mattox NT 6'3, 270 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8442
Nnamdi Oguayo DE 6'3, 218 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7785
Garrett McBroom DE 6'3, 276 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7893
Lyric Bartley DE 6'3, 245 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8381








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jeremiah Allison WILL 13 79.5 10.7% 5.0 0.0 1 1 0 0
Peyton Pelluer MIKE 6'0, 229 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8369 13 79.0 10.7% 11.0 0.0 1 2 2 0
Ivan McLennan RUSH 13 33.5 4.5% 9.0 6.0 0 2 0 0
Isaac Dotson WILL 6'1, 214 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8259 8 31.5 4.3% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Kache Palacio RUSH 13 28.5 3.8% 10.0 5.0 0 0 2 0
Chandler Leniu MIKE 6'0, 260 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8683 12 11.0 1.5% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Frankie Luvu WILL 6'2, 239 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8233 11 11.0 1.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dylan Hanser RUSH 6'4, 230 Jr. NR 0.7900 11 9.5 1.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Logan Tago RUSH 6'3, 240 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8200 12 8.0 1.1% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Nate DeRider LB 6'1, 222 Jr. NR NR 13 6.5 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Aaron Porter LB 6'3, 228 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8491 12 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Paris Taylor WILL 6'3, 215 Sr. NR 0.7667
Greg Hoyd III LB 6'1, 230 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8472
Chima Onyeukwu LB 6'3, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8541
Suliasi Tamaivena LB 6'2, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8467
Mason Vinyard LB 6'5, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8471








7. The downside of a small rotation

Mata'afa and Pelluer are lovely building blocks, but of last year's 10 regulars, only five return. Linebackers Chandler Leniu, Frankie Luvu, Dylan Hanser, and Logan Tago all saw a little bit of action, but they combined for 1.5 tackles for loss between them.

So we don't know much about some of the players who will be counted on this fall. Leniu was a four-star recruit per Rivals, and Tago appears to have some potential as a rush end. But if Wazzu's front seven improves in 2016, it's going to be because of newcomers to the rotation, especially on the line. Of JUCO transfers Garrett McBroom (DE), Chima Onyeukwu (LB), and Suliasi Tamaivena (LB), at least one, preferably two (most preferably McBroom) will need to provide early disruption. Meanwhile, Leniu, Tago, and big tackle Ngalu Tapa will need sophomore leaps. And if someone like redshirt freshman T.J. Fehoko or Hunter Mattox wants to quickly break through, that would be great.

It could happen. But the odds are against it. The more likely bet is on a level of quality familiar to what we saw last year, if not slightly worse.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Shalom Luani FS 6'0, 198 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8892 13 78.5 10.6% 3 0 4 6 2 0
Parker Henry NB 5'11, 203 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 13 53.5 7.2% 6.5 1 1 1 0 0
Taylor Taliulu SS 13 42.5 5.7% 1 0 1 6 0 0
Darrien Molton CB 5'10, 173 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539 11 39.0 5.3% 1 0 1 4 1 0
Marcellus Pippins CB 5'10, 170 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8426 13 35.5 4.8% 1 0 3 6 0 1
Charleston White FS 6'0, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8082 12 28.0 3.8% 0 0 1 2 0 0
Kirkland Parker NB 6'1, 182 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8367 12 13.5 1.8% 1 0 0 2 1 0
Calvin Green SS
9 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Colton Teglovic NB 6'0, 188 Sr. NR NR 11 4.0 0.5% 1.5 0 0 0 0 0
Darius Lemora NB 6'0, 193 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8141 7 3.5 0.5% 2 0 0 0 0 0
Treshon Broughton CB 6'0, 174 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8495 8 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Hunter Dale SS 5'10, 203 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8631
Suli Hameed S 5'10, 185 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8345
Kameron Powell S 6'0, 194 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8760
Deion Singleton CB 6'2, 184 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8612
Robert Taylor DB 5'11, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8159
Jalen Thompson SS 6'0, 176 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8406

8. Another great secondary

In last year's preview, I claimed that the WSU secondary would be very good ... in 2016.

Of the nine returnees who saw the field, six were freshmen and two were sophomores. That equation probably won't work out in your favor if you're Alabama, much less Wazzu. But freshmen become sophomores, and sophomores become juniors. One can only expect so much improvement in one year, but by 2016, the WSU secondary could be fantastic. Grinch should have more than enough to field a decent secondary in 2015 and a very good one down the line.

Turns out, it was quite a bit better than decent. Despite run deficiencies, Wazzu allowed only a 124.2 passer rating, down from 158.0 the year before. An absurd 33-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio in 2014 flipped to 13-to-13 last fall, and the pass defense got better as the game wore on. (Unfortunately, opponents didn't necessarily have to pass late in games.)

This was spectaular improvement, and only one of seven regulars is gone. Free safety Shalom Luani and nickel back Parker Henry are back after combining for 9.5 tackles for loss and 12 passes defensed as juniors. Corners Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins are back after combining for four picks and 10 breakups. This is a relatively undersized unit -- Molton and Pippins both weigh in under 175, and only Henry tops 200 pounds.

But the Cougars are fast and fun in the back. Unless the pass rush completely falls apart, I'd be shocked if WSU fell out of the Passing S&P+ top 30 or so. If the front seven does regress, that would be a shame because it would probably prevent us from seeing exactly what this secondary is capable of.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Zach Charme 6'1, 188 So. 47 39.6 4 9 10 40.4%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Erik Powell 6'1, 195 Jr. 76 56.5 21 0 27.6%
Quentin Breshears 3 55.7 0 0 0.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Erik Powell 6'1, 195 Jr. 49-49 15-16 93.8% 5-10 50.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Tavares Martin Jr. KR 6'1, 182 So. 25 22.1 0
Kyrin Priester KR 6'1, 194 Jr. 6 18.8 0
Gabe Marks PR 6'0, 188 Sr. 11 9.6 0
Kyrin Priester PR 6'1, 194 Jr. 4 5.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 102
Field Goal Efficiency 56
Punt Return Success Rate 93
Kick Return Success Rate 85
Punt Success Rate 119
Kickoff Success Rate 97

9. Improvement!

Washington State's special teams unit was bad in 2015. That's good! Because "bad" isn't "worst in the nation"! The Cougars were still beyond dreadful in punt coverage (14.5 yards per return, 123rd in the country), and they allowed four more return scores (two via punt, two via kickoff). But Erik Powell was downright solid in the place-kicking department, and the return games were ... less awful? Powell needs to produce more touchbacks in kickoffs, but still, this unit had an actual strength. That's something. And basically everybody's back this year. That's something, too.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Eastern Washington NR 28.1 95%
10-Sep at Boise State 36 -6.8 35%
17-Sep Idaho 108 19.6 87%
1-Oct Oregon 18 -6.5 35%
8-Oct at Stanford 16 -13.9 21%
15-Oct UCLA 12 -8.0 32%
22-Oct at Arizona State 57 -2.2 45%
29-Oct at Oregon State 86 4.3 60%
5-Nov Arizona 64 5.8 63%
12-Nov California 49 3.7 58%
19-Nov at Colorado 82 3.7 58%
25-Nov Washington 10 -8.5 31%
Projected wins: 6.2
Five-Year F/+ Rk -9.7% (82)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 56 / 57
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -9.2
2015 TO Luck/Game +3.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (87%, 71%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (1.4)

10. Wazzu vs. expectations

I am indeed a little bit concerned about expectations this year. When you win nine games and return as much as WSU does (especially on offense), the inclincation is to set the bar awfully high. But the Cougars really weren't significantly better than they had been in the previous two years. And while they will almost certainly improve again in 2016, their record may not.

They're going to play in a ton of close games, though, and that will give them a chance. The schedule is weirdly symmetrical -- per S&P+, the Cougs have two likely wins (EWU, Idaho), one likely loss (at Stanford), four games with win probability between 31 and 35 percent, and five between 45 and 63. In all, nine games are projected to finish within 8.5 points. So if Wazzu is able to maneuver well in close games again, and if the ball bounces the Cougars' way again, there are a lot of potential wins on the table.

S&P+ doesn't think about luck, though, and it projects both a top-50 campaign and a 6-6 record. As fun as the college football world can be with Washington State making things crazy and winning a lot of games, I'm going to try to set the bar around six or seven wins as well.

Still, it's fantastic to be talking about Wazzu as a "disappointing" six-win team, isn't it? After a lost decade, Wazzu fans might actually have something to be disappointed about. That is a morbid form of growth.