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This will likely be a tough season for Mike Leach’s Washington State

Leach is one of college football’s steadiest winners, but he’s got a lot to deal with this fall.

Colorado v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

At a macro level, the Mike Leach experience is one of the most reliable in college football. Sure, you never quite know what’s going to come out of his mouth or Twitter account, and sure, the passing game on which his reputation has been built remains unorthodox even within a pass-friendly sport. But the results themselves are predictable.

  • Here are Leach’s records at Texas Tech, beginning with his third year: 9-5, 8-5, 8-4, 9-3, 8-5, 9-4, 11-2, 8-4.
  • At Washington State, beginning with his fourth year: 9-4, 8-5, 9-4.

Once his system is in place, he establishes a cruising altitude.

Beginning with his third year at Tech, he won 59 percent of one-possession games (17-12) and 73 percent of more-than-one-possession games (54-20). Beginning with his fourth year at Wazzu, those numbers are pretty close: 67 percent (12-6) and 67 percent (14-7).

Like guys running a triple option, his system is, for lack of a better term, automated enough to execute it well in pressure situations. He has only once finished more than one game under .500 in one-possession games, and that was in 2001, his second year as a head coach. Contrast that with someone like Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, who has rode huge streaks of good and bad fortune to a BCS title game (2012) and a 4-8 season (2015) and everything in between.

In too many ways to count, though, this season is going to test that stability.

This is because of reasons that have very little to do with the two-deep, though to be sure, it’s getting a makeover following the loss of starting quarterback Luke Falk, top outside receivers Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, an All-American offensive lineman (Cody O’Connell), and an All-American defensive lineman (Hercules Mata’afa). What might drag his program down is everything else.

  • There was an evening this past winter when, for all intents and purposes, he was no longer Washington State’s head coach. He was prepared to accept an offer to become Tennessee’s head coach before Tennessee things happened, and the AD was fired before Leach could officially take the job. This became public knowledge, and he had to return to Pullman as if nothing had happened.
  • He had to replace a ton of assistants this offseason. Name the reason — better job offers, a creeping feeling of instability, etc. — but a lot of guys left, and Leach had to bring on a new defensive coordinator (Tracy Claeys), cornerbacks coach (Darcel McBath), safeties coach (Kendrick Shaver), OLBs coach (Matt Brock), offensive line coach (Mason Miller), and outside receivers coach (Steve Spurrier Jr.), plus a new strength coach (Tyson Brown) and assistant strength coach (Amir Owens).
  • One of the departures was of the best hire Leach has ever made. Coordinator Alex Grinch transformed Wazzu’s defense from barely-top-100 to, in 2017, a top-30 unit (per S&P+), but he left to become DC in waiting (more or less) at Ohio State. The Claeys hire was an astute one — Minnesota had a top-40 defense in each of his last three years in Minneapolis, as either DC or head coach — but Grinch set the bar high. If there’s a difference between Leach’s performance at Tech and Wazzu, it’s that he averaged only 3.4 one-possession finishes per year in Lubbock and has averaged 5.5 in Pullman. Grinch was a big part of navigating those.
  • This is more than just an item in a list, but there’s also the matter of Tyler Hilinski’s death. The junior-to-be took his own life in mid-January. The Wazzu community responded, but between the assistant coach turnover — a bunch of players lost their staff dads to other jobs — and Leach’s brusque changing of the subject this spring, it’s hard to glean just how well Leach or his players have handled the news.

Leach’s weird brand of steadiness could create normalcy where none should exist. And if that’s the case, then this will be an extremely familiar year in Pullman. S&P+ projects the Cougars 41st — they were 41st in 2016 and 39th in 2017 — with a record somewhere around 7-5.

Offense

2017 Wazzu offensive radar

The spring battle to replace Falk primarily pitted walk-on Trey Tinsley against fellow junior Anthony Gordon, and both looked decent in piloting Leach’s pass-heavy, “take what the defense gives you” attack.

Four-star true freshman Cammon Cooper or redshirt freshman Connor Neville could still become factors, but Leach added a veteran presence by signing ECU graduate transfer Gardner Minshew.

Minshew’s arrival at ECU was ill-timed. The product of Brandon, Miss., found the two-deep just as the Pirates were falling apart after the firing of popular head coach (and former Leach assistant) Ruffin McNeill. He was the primary signal caller in 13 games at ECU, and despite decent production, he went 1-12. Still, he’s familiar with an air raid-esque attack and is talented enough to have briefly accepted an offer to transfer to Alabama.

East Carolina v Houston
Gardner Minshew
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Consider this a quantity thing: between Minshew, Tinsley, Gordon, Neville, Cooper, and Leach’s track record, the odds of a steady QB emerging are high.

Similarly, despite the loss of Martin and Johnson-Mack (combined: 1,386 yards, 7.3 yards per target, 49 percent success rate), it’s hard to worry too much about a receiving corps that changes names from year to year and never stops producing. The next two outside receivers on the list are Dezmon Patton and Tay Martin, who combined for similar numbers on fewer targets: 7.5 yards per target, 49 percent success rate.

The new QB will also have a seasoned set of inside receivers. Last year’s three primary slot guys — Kyle Sweet, Renard Bell, and Jamire Calvin — are all back.

They combined for a reliable level of production (7.1 yards per target, 52 percent success rate), but Bell is particularly interesting. The sophomore had the second-highest catch rate among WSU’s primary wideouts (73 percent) and the highest per-catch average (13.6). He was dynamite early in the season (first seven games: 21 catches, 389 yards, 18.5 per catch) before leveling off (19, 149, and 7.8, respectively).

NCAA Football: Colorado at Washington State
Renard Bell
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Leach signed five freshman wideouts and a JUCO (Calvin Jackson Jr.), so it’s possible that newcomers could fill in the depth chart behind Patmon and Martin out wide. Still, this looks like the same old Wazzu receiving corps we’ve come to know pretty well.

If there was a shift in last year’s philosophy, it came with the use of the running back position. Wazzu backs combined for 216 carries (down from 284) and 169 pass targets (up from 152) in 2017; somehow Leach figured out ways to lean even more toward the pass, even as it pertained to RB usage.

One of two primary backs returns this fall: James Williams. Jamal Morrow was more effective than Williams in the ground game, but Williams was more efficient in the passing game. Combine that with the loss of both guards (O’Connell and B.J. Salmonson) and the return of two-year starting left tackle Andre Dillard, and there’s even more reason to throw the ball. As if Leach needed such motivation.

Defense

2017 Wazzu defensive radar

Washington State’s offensive attack was as reliably strange as ever in 2017, throwing the ball more on standard downs (69 percent of the time) than the average team does on passing downs (65 percent).

But the Wazzu defense was simply ... reliable. The Cougs completed their absurd transformation under Grinch, who inherited a defense ranked 101st in Def. S&P+ three years earlier and improved to 74th, then 63rd, then 29th.

Grinch established an aggressive, efficient identity that occasionally got them into trouble — Arizona and Khalil Tate torched them to the tune of 58 points and 11.5 yards per play — but overall held opponents to 17.4 points per game (with two shutouts) and 4.2 yards per play in their nine wins.

But that’s probably all we need to say about last year’s unit, as this year’s defense will look almost entirely different.

Claeys’ Minnesota defenses were a little less aggressive and a little more capable of preventing big plays, but he still got aggressive when he had the pieces. His 2016 Gopher defense did rank 24th in havoc rate (combined tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays), after all. And while the loss of three of last year’s top four linemen (including Mata’afa, one of the best defenders in Wazzu history) hurts, he’s still got some attacking pieces.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington State
Peyton Pelluer
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It starts at linebacker, where a couple of exciting sophomores will pair up with a key senior. Peyton Pelluer was a major piece of Wazzu’s 2016 defense but broke his foot three games into 2017 and received a sixth year of eligibility. He will re-assume his spot in the middle of the linebacking corps, while Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers, who combined for 17.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks in their freshman campaigns, will pin their ears back.

This could be a dynamite combination, though they will depend on the guys up front occupying blockers. Junior end Nnamdi Oguayo is back, but he’s the only returning lineman who made more than 6 tackles last year. Leach signed a couple of JUCO transfers (tackle Pono Lolohea and end Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei) who might need to contribute.

Everything should be reasonably fine if the line holds up. The linebackers is loaded, and the secondary returns two awesome attackers in safety Jalen Thompson and nickel back Hunter Dale (combined: 13.5 TFLs, three sacks, 11 passes defensed). Veteran corners Darrien Molton, Sean Harper Jr., and Marcus Strong are all back, too.

Mata’afa was devastating, a one-man identity setter with 22.5 TFLs and 10.5 sacks. His presence defined this havoc-heavy attack. Most of last year’s complementary pieces are back, but we’ll see how much the losses of Grinch and Mata’afa affect the mentality.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Washington State vs Michigan State
Jalen Thompson
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

For perhaps the first time under Leach, Wazzu’s special teams unit wasn’t an outright weakness. Granted, it wasn’t a strength (79th in Special Teams S&P+), but it was at least neutral.

Unfortunately, that was due primarily to Erik Powell, who made nine off 11 field goals over 40 yards, ranked seventh in FG efficiency, and then graduated. Without Powell, Wazzu — with the least efficient kick return game and one of the least efficient punting games in the country — would have ranked in the triple digits in Special Teams S&P+.

The kick returners (Renard Bell, James Williams) and punter (Kyle Sweet) are back, and Powell isn’t. Time to start from scratch.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Wyoming 72 3.6 58%
8-Sep San Jose State 129 27.0 94%
15-Sep Eastern Washington NR 27.5 94%
21-Sep at USC 15 -11.1 26%
29-Sep Utah 28 -1.5 46%
6-Oct at Oregon State 110 12.6 77%
20-Oct Oregon 23 -3.4 42%
27-Oct at Stanford 20 -9.0 30%
3-Nov California 65 6.5 65%
10-Nov at Colorado 89 7.5 67%
17-Nov Arizona 33 0.2 50%
23-Nov Washington 4 -16.1 18%
Projected S&P+ Rk 41
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 74 / 30
Projected wins 6.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.0 (57)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 46 / 52
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -6.1
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 55% (49%, 61%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (1.4)

First, I really think Claeys is an underrated hire. There might be no topping what Grinch did, but Claeys’ defenses were always crafty and interesting, as evidenced by their shutdown of Wazzu in the 2016 Holiday Bowl. This won’t be a top-30 unit in 2018, but it should still have an identity and some fun ideas.

Combine that with the simple fact that a Leach offense is a Leach offense is a Leach offense, and Wazzu could still be a tough out and seven-win team. That’s what S&P+ is projecting, and it’s not in any way far-fetched.

This really has been a tough offseason, though, and it’s not impossible to see how Leach’s strange normalcy could backfire. And if it does, if Wazzu is less sure of its identity (and its head coach) than normal, then that could introduce a backslide to 4-8. Betting against a Leach team winning eight games is dicey, but it might be a safer bet than usual.

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