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Mike Leach gets weirder (and Washington State gets better) with age

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2018 was supposed to be a setback year for Leach and Wazzu. It was anything but.

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Eastern Washington v Washington State
Mike Leach
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

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

Each year, it seems Mike Leach becomes a little more Mike Leach.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Leach started talking to his team about pirates and swords and nearly eight since he wrote a memoir with a pirate-themed title. Since, he’s moved on to writing a book about Geronimo (nearly five years ago now), lecturing anybody who will listen about sovereign immunity, endorsing a presidential candidate (only fair, since said candidate once endorsed him), and, most recently, teaching a course about warfare and tactics (in which an assignment is, naturally, to draw up football plays) and visiting the Middle East.

It seems age makes an eccentric more of an eccentric, which, considering where the bar was originally set, is awfully impressive. But it also seems that age has made this eccentric football coach ... a better football coach.

It really shouldn’t be like that. Thirty years ago, Leach and Hal Mumme, one of his first bosses, worked to create a revolutionary, pass-happy vision of football, and 22 years ago, when Mumme was named Kentucky’s head coach, they took it to major college football.

In the years that followed, after Leach had embarked on his own career trail and Mumme had been fired from Kentucky, Mumme became something of a football gypsy, constantly working somewhere new — Southeastern Louisiana, New Mexico State, McMurry University, Bellhaven University, etc. His next gig will evidently be as an offensive coordinator in the XFL.

When I reference Mumme now, it’s mostly in calling someone a “Hal Mumme type” — one who influences others who end up succeeding more than he does. (Hello, NFL Chip Kelly.)

Leach, however, has held two football jobs in the last 20 years and won in both. And while Mumme’s tactical and/or leadership model began to wither under scrutiny, Leach gets better the longer he is in a job.

He averaged seven wins over his first two seasons at Texas Tech, then 8.4 over his next five, then 9.3 over his last three. It took until his ninth year for him to break through to double-digit wins in Lubbock. At Wazzu, he did it in his seventh. He has pulled off something few coaches ever manage: four consecutive years of improvement.

(This is neither here nor there, but hot damn, was Wazzu bad in 2008-09.)

That this streak reached a fourth year is mind-blowing. There was reason, both football-based and not, to believe that Leach’s Cougars were due a setback last fall.

He had briefly accepted the Tennessee head coaching job in December 2017, and it can be hard to win your players back after something like that. Plus, his staff experienced a drastic amount of churn, and he brought in nearly 10 new assistants, including a new defensive coordinator to replace Alex Grinch, an inspired hire and the new Oklahoma defensive coordinator. On top of all of that, his team (and its remaining staff) had to reckon with the death of a teammate in Tyler Hilinski.

In last year’s preview, I wrote that the best-case scenario was that “Leach’s weird brand of steadiness could create normalcy where none should exist.” But I thought that would result in maybe a top-50 S&P+ ranking and seven wins or so.

Instead, with a mustachioed grad transfer throwing to a pretty green receiving corps (among Wazzu’s 10 leading receivers, there were four freshmen and sophomores and one senior), the Cougs somehow improved by more than a touchdown per game offensively, and until the slightest of fades at the end of the year, Wazzu was in the S&P+ top 25.

WSU dropped a controversial September decision to USC and suffered its annual Apple Cup loss to rival Washington (for all his strengths, Leach hasn’t figured out how to beat Chris Petersen yet) but swept the other 11 games. The Cougars beat Pac-12 South champion Utah, beat Oregon for the fourth straight year (and by double digits for the third straight), beat Stanford for the third straight year, survived a thrilling Alamo Bowl against Iowa State, and finished 10th in the AP poll, their best finish in 15 years.

Whew.

In terms of personnel and staffing, the turnover has been minimal this offseason. By comparison, anything would be. Leach snared another grad transfer — this time Gage Gubrud from nearby Eastern Washington — to potentially lead an offense that returns a vast majority of last year’s touches. His offensive line is experienced, as well, though his defense has been thinned out a bit. A fifth year of improvement feels like too much to ask, but, well, so did the fourth year.

Offense

When Gubrud originally committed to Washington State after three years at EWU, I was, for a moment, incredibly intrigued. Gubrud is an athletic dude — he did, after all, put up 99 non-sack rushing yards while throwing for 475 when the Eagles upset Leach’s Cougs back in 2016.

Might he add a rushing element to the Leach attack?, I wondered. Might Leach use Gubrud’s athleticism in different—and then I stopped thinking and made fun of myself. Leach doesn’t change his offense.

Leach’s system is and will always be based around throwing the ball more than everybody else in college football. While the average FBS team runs the ball about 60 percent of the time on standard downs, Wazzu ran just 32 percent of the time last year. While the average team runs about 35 percent of the time on passing downs, Wazzu ran 18 percent of the time. Might Gubrud be inclined to scramble a bit more here and there? Sure, maybe. But Leach isn’t changing a damn thing.

Eastern Washington v Washington State
Gage Gubrud (8)
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Of course, we don’t know for sure that Gubrud will be the starter. Seniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon have both seen the field here and there, and four-star redshirt freshman Cammon Cooper is waiting his turn as well.

Still, none of those guys have Gubrud’s track record. Despite missing parts of each of the last two seasons with injury, he’s still thrown for 9,984 career yards and 87 touchdowns. He’ll probably reach 10,000 yards within his first three throws of his seasons, and assuming he’s the starter, he’ll hit 100 touchdowns by mid-year at the latest. Still, if Gubrud gets hurt again (as he did this spring), the backups appear qualified.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington State
Dezmon Patmon
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The QB of choice will have one hell of a receiving corps at his disposal. Six players were targeted at least 66 times last season, and the only one who doesn’t return is running back James Williams. (Williams’ backup, Max Borghi, was also a member of the 66-Plus Club.)

In Tay Martin, Borghi, and inside receiver Jamire Calvin, Wazzu boasts a nice set of efficiency guys. In Easop Winston Jr. and Dezmon Patmon, however, they’ve got the kind of proven vertical threats that make Leach’s air raid attack particularly difficult to stop. This is an efficiency-first attack in the same way that the triple option is, which means that containment and strong tackling are just about your only ways to get off the field. But when Wazzu is gashing you with big plays, too, there’s really no defensive solution beyond “hope desperately that you can get pressure on the QB quickly.”

Almost no one is able to do that, either. Wazzu ranked first in the nation in sack rate allowed, a paltry 1.9 percent. Even on blitz downs (second-and-super-long, third-and-5 or more), opponents only dragged Minshew down for a loss 4.1 percent of the time (11th in FBS).

Granted, all-conference left tackle Andre Dillard is gone, a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, right tackle Abraham Lucas returns after posting second-team all-conference honors as a freshman, and three other starters are back, too. The quick-passing nature of the offense keeps the QB’s jersey pretty clean, anyway, and a good line makes that job twice as hard.

Defense

When Leach hired Grinch, the defense’s improvement was remarkably linear. The Cougs improved from 97th to 77th in Def. S&P+ in 2015, then to 60th in 2016 and 30th in 2017. WSU’s 2017 offense was far less consistent than normal because of QB injuries and another young receiving corps, but the defense picked up the slack, and the Cougs won nine games all the same.

Grinch left to become Ohio State co-coordinator after 2017, however, and Tracy Claeys’ first year as his replacement was marked by inconsistency. The good moments were still excellent — the Cougs held five opponents to 20 or fewer points (and, not surprisingly, went 5-0 in those games). But they gave up 7.3 yards per play and a 48 percent success rate in their two losses, and they got gashed by Oregon State (37 points, 6.5 yards per play), Stanford (38 points, 6.7 yards per play), and Iowa State (only 26 points, but 7.8 yards per play) as well.

The pass defense was strong — 33rd in passing marginal efficiency, first in passing downs sack rate (if you fell behind the chains, your quarterback was getting hit) — but if you were decent at running the football, you didn’t have to pass. Wazzu was 115th in rushing marginal efficiency, and once you crossed into the red zone, the Cougs had no answers: they were 122nd in success rate between the 11 and 20 and 107th inside the 10.

Valero Alamo Bowl - Iowa State v Washington State
Willie Taylor III
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Continuity on the two-deep is at least decent this year. Seniors only made 38 percent of last year’s tackles, and of the 11 players to make at least 20 tackles, seven return. Plus, of the six players to record at least three sacks (Claeys’ pass rush was as diverse as it was effective), four are back: end Will Rodgers III and linebackers Dominick Silvels, Willie Taylor III, and Jahad Woods. None of them are seniors; Wazzu will be defined by its pass rush for a while.

Of course, it might still be defined by poor run defense, too. Rodgers and end Nnamdi Oguayo return up front (so does sophomore Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, who had 2.5 sacks among his 6.5 tackles), but last year’s top two defensive tackles do not. Only a couple of likely contributors weigh in over 280 pounds, and none topped 300 as of their latest weigh-in (290-pound sophomore Jesus Echevarria came the closest). For that matter, none of the major linebackers top 235. This is a speedy but light unit.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Iowa State vs Washington State
Jalen Thompson (34)
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary doesn’t have much size either, but that’s less of a concern. Veteran safeties Skyler Thomas and Jalen Thompson (combined: four tackles for loss, four INTs, 10 pass breakups) return, as does corner Marcus Strong (two TFLs, three INTs, five PBUs). But depth has thinned considerably. No other returnee logged more than 6.5 tackles. That probably tells you why Leach signed four JUCO DBs. A couple will need to contribute immediately.

Special Teams

For three years, Leach had maybe the most consistently awful special teams unit in the country. Wazzu ranked 120th or worse in Special Teams S&P+ each year from 2014-16 but hopped to 79th in 2017 and sustained its gains last year (74th). Place-kicker Blake Mazza was scattershot as a freshman (only 6-for-9 on field goals under 40 yards but 4-for-6 over 40), but punter Oscar Draguicevich III was excellent, and Travel Harris was decent in kick returns. They’re all back.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug New Mexico State 121 29.3 95%
7-Sep Northern Colorado NR 41.2 99%
13-Sep vs. Houston 73 8.6 69%
21-Sep UCLA 63 8.3 68%
28-Sep at Utah 17 -9.0 30%
12-Oct at Arizona State 49 0.5 51%
19-Oct Colorado 68 9.7 71%
26-Oct at Oregon 20 -7.4 33%
9-Nov at California 60 3.0 57%
16-Nov Stanford 32 1.3 53%
23-Nov Oregon State 105 20.8 89%
29-Nov at Washington 15 -11.3 26%
Projected S&P+ Rk 36
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 20 / 71
Projected wins 7.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.7 (49)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 61
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 4.6
2018 TO Luck/Game +1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (58%, 64%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 9.7 (1.3)

Primarily because of turnover at quarterback and defensive back, Wazzu’s four-year run of improvement is projected to come to an end. The Cougs are projected to slip slightly to 36th.

Yes, they were projected to slide last year and didn’t. Maybe they keep the streak going. Still, at 36th they’re projected favorites in nine of 12 games. Playing at Utah, Oregon, and Washington will likely cut short any hopes of winning the Pac-12 North, but there are still lots of wins on the table here.

There’s no telling where Leach’s odd mind will take him next offseason or the one after that. But in-season, he’s coaching as well as he ever has.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.