Today we're talking with the most intriguing team in the Pac-12 this season, the Washington State Cougars, newly captained by Mike Leach. Jeff Nusser of Coug Center was kind enough to take the time to answer several questions about the arrival of Mike Leach and the changes he is bringing to Pullman this season.
Jeff Tedford and the Bears have enjoyed tremendous success over the Cougs over the past several years, as it has been 10 years since we last lost to the Rose Bowl-bound Cougars in 2002. Will Mike Leach's offense be explosive enough to hold off the advances of General Pendergast? Or will Cal beat Wazzu for the 10th consecutive year? After the jump we'll learn more about what those lovable Cougs have been up to this offseason.
1. What were the core questions that you had hoped would be answered by Spring Practice? Were conclusions reached?
CougCenter: I don't know that anyone expected any questions to be answered -- when you're talking about a total overhaul of the program that starts with the hiring of Mike Leach as the guy to lead it, I think the best you hope for is to get a little insight into the coach and how he's going to do things. The odd thing about Leach is that we already knew a lot about him when he showed up; his book, "Swing Your Sword," is incredibly transparent about both his leadership philosophy and football strategies. Let's just say Leach did not disappoint, being as quirky and quotable as expected.
2. Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?
Ah, the beauty of canned questions! Yes, of course -- Leach brings his fabled Air Raid with him. In short, it's an offense that passes the ball more than 70 percent of the time and spreads the field horizontally and vertically to find weaknesses in the defense. Rather than get anymore in depth than that, I'll just send any of you who are interested in learning more about the Air Raid to Chris Brown, who wrote about 10,000 words on the matter here
. But I will say this: The offense probably won't look all that different to the untrained eye, given that WSU threw the ball as prolifically as anyone in the Pac-12 last year, a fact that seemed to go unnoticed by most. That tends to happen when your program loses 40 games in four years.
As for the defense, coordinator Mike Breske brings the 3-4 defense that seems to be all the rage, but as we saw in the spring game, it's more of a multiple-front look that can range from a 4-3 over/under look to a 3-3-5 or even 3-2-6. However the players are aligned, one thing is certain: Generating pressure to force opponents into mistakes will be the number one goal. One way or another -- either through a 3-and-out, an interception or giving up a big play -- Leach wants the ball back in his offense's hands as quickly as possible.
3. What players emerged on offense? On defense?
There were few surprises on offense -- Jeff Tuel
looked incredibly comfortable returning from season-ending injuries to run Leach's offense, and Marquess Wilson
was as explosive as ever. One name to keep in mind is Andrei Lintz. He's a tight end who was virtually unused under the previous coordinator, but in an odd turn of events, Leach sees him as a potential prime weapon from the inside receiver position. That's normally a spot where the smaller guys land, but he's incredibly athletic and at 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, Lintz poses a matchup nightmare for defenses.
On defense, senior Travis Long
is a guy who has been starting at defensive end since he was a true freshman. In Breske's new system, he takes the Buck position -- he's essentially a pass-rushing outside linebacker, but Breske will move him all over the field. Long comported himself well in the spring game. Two other guys to watch? Logan Mayes
, son of WSU and longtime NFL running back Reuben Mayes, is speedy coming off the edge and could make some noise as a situational rusher; and outside linebacker Eric Oertel
is a guy who bounced back and forth between offense and defense under Paul Wulff but seems to be flourishing in Breske's "just go get the damn ball" defense.
4. What are your biggest worries coming out of spring ball for the fall?
The offensive line and the secondary. The o-line was decimated by injuries in the spring, and the depth there appears to be awful -- the defense recorded a ton of sacks in the spring game (although many were of the "touch" variety). If the first five can stay healthy, then the unit might be OK. If not, it probably will end up being a very good thing that WSU has a competent backup quarterback in Connor Halliday
On defense, it's the secondary, which has been getting torched on a regular basis for the better part of four years. Given how often these guys are going to be on some kind of an island ... big plays might be a regularity.
5. Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the pack?
Six wins. That's all we ask, and given that the Cougs should be no worse than 2-1 after the nonconference schedule combined with the fact that WSU misses USC, it seems perfectly reasonable.
6. Any frosh you can't wait to get on campus?
Meh. Not really. There are guys who certainly will play and contribute (incoming WRs Gabe Marks and Robert Lewis
come to mind, given that Leach has been known to use up to 14 receivers in a season), but I don't know that there is an impact guy out there who is going to come in and light the world on fire. It's certainly possible -- I just have no idea who that would be! I'm the guy who thought Wilson needed to redshirt to "work on refining his technique," so there's that.
7. Who will you miss the most from last season? Who will be stepping up to fulfill those shoes?
Well, the nice thing about having a terrible team is that the guys who graduate generally aren't guys you're going to miss a lot. But left tackle David Gonzales
, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers and might make that team, is a pretty huge loss for all the reasons mentioned before. He was the best lineman on a line that already wasn't very good (which, incidentally, is probably the greatest indictment of Paul Wulff's tenure, given that he's a former offensive lineman himself). Because the unit was so terrible, Gonzales was a lot better than most fans realized. Replacing him will be paramount, and right now it's unclear who will be able to do that.
The team also will miss outside linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis
, who transformed himself from one of the team's most inconsistent players into one of its best tacklers. The one saving grace here is that Breske's system is designed to let linebackers go make plays, so the impact of his loss should be felt less.
8. Any particular Pac12 match-up/rivalry you are looking forward to this Fall?
Oregon at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Sept. 29 ought to be a nice measuring stick as to how far the program has come in the first month under Leach. There's an outside chance WSU is 4-0 heading into that one. Even if the Cougs have stumbled out of the gate, it should at least be a heck of a lot of fun to watch two offensive masterminds go at it.
9. What are the specific injury concerns coming out of this spring?
At the risk of sounding overly repetitive, the offensive line. The vast majority of the first unit missed spring ball, resting various ailments -- need those guys to stay healthy. The cornerbacks also were dealing with a lot of injuries in the spring. There's just not enough talent at those positions to sustain a high number of bumps and bruises.
10. Based on what you've seen, who is ready to take a major leap this fall?
I'd go with Lintz. He's probably not going to catch 50 balls, but I'd bet he's good for at least one eye-popping big play per game, especially when when the Cougs run God's Play/Four Verticals.
11. Who do you want to punch in the face?
Nobody. I'm a lover, not a fighter. I'm sure all you Berkeley tree huggers can appreciate that.
12. Who's got the best nickname on the team?
I don't know of any nicknames, really, but Jake Rodgers
has the best mullet
! Maybe we should just come up with a nickname for the mullet.
13. Which one of your assistant coaches is in the hot seat?
None! That's the beauty of having an entirely new staff!
14. How are fans feeling about the Pirate King as WSU head coach?
Excited! Really, really excited! Although, we're sort of over the pirate thing already, and will only become more annoyed with it as we anticipate the billion pirate references this fall.
15. What will be the biggest challenge for Mike Leach in implementing his offense in year 1?
To revisit a theme one last time, keeping his quarterbacks upright long enough to allow plays to develop. As I mentioned before, this offense really isn't all that different conceptually from what the Cougs were doing last year -- WSU ran a number of variations of Air Raid staple plays. It's not a surprise that Tuel and Co. seemed to grasp the offense quickly in the spring. But if the QBs only get less than three seconds to throw, that's going to make things difficult.
Additionally, the Air Raid is predicated on precision -- the kind that can only come through endless repetitions in practice. Even between spring ball and fall camp, there simply isn't enough time to repeat the routes as often as is necessary for them to become automatic in the muscles. This will only develop with time over the course of the season.