1. What were the core questions that you had hoped would be answered by Spring Practice? Were conclusions reached?
Brian: Can Connor Halliday work the read progression in the Air Raid? Connor had some problems seeing the field last season, choosing to force balls into coverage rather than work his way down a progression. Most of us believe this problem was a result of limited spring/summer reps last year during the install, and a little of his personality, but ultimately correctable through film study and physical reps. The spring practice session was a good checkpoint to see if Connor was working on his field vision and understanding of the offense. He looked like he's progressing; some good decisions, some bad ones, but the timing of the offense looked a quite a bit sharper and Connor played distributor better than we'd seen from him last season.
Can the offensive line be average? The offensive line was the worst unit on the field last season, and not just in any one game, I'd stack their credentials up against anyone in the nation. A lot of Coug fans were looking for any sort of sign they wouldn't hold that prestigious honor again next year. There were 6 offensive lineman on the active roster by the end of the season, 6. Coach Leach has said if the season started tomorrow 4 of 5 starting lineman would be walk-ons. How the previous coaching staff thought a recruiting effort that didn't involve offensive lineman was sustainable is beyond me. Despite the DOOM of that statement, there's some promise of these guys being average this year...and that would be a huge step forward.
Mark: WSU has a lot of wide receivers and Mike Leach and Co. have been able to bring in some quality prospects, but none of the receivers are very established. Gabe Marks and Dominique Williams had stretches of solid play last season, but I was hoping a few players would settle into defined roles during the spring.
Marks made a lot of big plays during spring, but struggled with drops as well. He wasn't the only one as drops were a consistent problem this spring. Based on reports, it seemed the receivers took turns standing out in practice. As a result we're pretty much right where we started, a lot of names on the depth chart, but very little idea of who will be the main contributors this season.
Williams seemed poised to take over for Marquess Wilson this season, but he had a quiet spring.
Jeff: To illustrate just what a disappointment the offense was last season, let me be the third one to pick a question on that side of the ball: Can the Cougs put together a competent offensive line? Ever since Paul Wulff took over in 2008, WSU has ranked among the worst in the country in any metric generally attributable to the offensive line, such as yards per carry and sacks yielded. There was some hope that last year would be better under Mike Leach, but they struggled with the wide splits, particularly in terms of executing against twists and stunts from faster defensive lines. Unfortunately, spring didn't bring relief - the line routinely was getting beat by four down linemen (without blitzing) in the spring game. Some of that was attributable to key guys sitting out (which obviously is normal in spring), but it was troubling all the same as it demonstrated that the depth just isn't there yet. This is a scary prospect.
2. Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?
Brian: We covered that recently here if you want some more information. When Coach Leach took the job last year he brought in Jim Mastro, a co-innovator of the Pistol with Chris Ault at UNLV, to coach running backs. A lot of us immediately assumed this was to integrate some of the Pistol formations, and/or running schemes into the Air Raid. That didn't really happen last year. They tried some pistol formations, but abandoned it a few games into the season. Whatever they wanted to accomplish, the personnel, execution or some combination of both weren't up to snuff.
Mike Kuchar, of XandOlabs.com recently tweeted "WSU RB coach Jim Mastro tells me he and Mike Leach spent time this Spring meshing air raid concepts from Pistol formations. Oh boy.", giving us the impression some much needed changes in the running game could be expected for this fall. We aren't sure how the concepts will be merged; whether Leach will adapt existing Air Raid plays to pistol formations, incorporate some of the pistol play designs into the offense, or combine the two schemes in some novel way. Either way, it'll be exciting to see what these two great offensive minds can come up with when given an entire off-season to solve a problem.
3. What players emerged on offense? On defense?
Brian: With Jeff Tuel departing for the NFL, only two viable QB candidates remained on the roster for the spring. Tyler Bruggman, a consensus four start recruit from Arizona, will join the team in the fall and who knows how well he'll fit in, but for now we have RS Junior Connor Halliday and RS Freshman Austin Apodaca. Most see the starting job as Connor's to lose, despite what Coach Leach is saying publicly about an open competition. Austin really had a strong spring, exceeding what most thought he'd be capable of coming off his RS season running the scout team. Austin has a very different skill set than Connor, he's highly accurate with intermediate routes significantly more mobile, Austin could be a legitimate running threat outside the pocket.
Connor played well enough to cement him as the starter in the eyes of the public, but Austin proved he can be more than a back-up and might just push Connor throughout the summer and fall camp.
Jeff: Kristoff Williams is a receiver whose potential has been a major source of discussion since he stepped on campus. Physical (6-2/216) and fast, he showed up at the same time as Marquess Wilson and was actually thought to be the more likely one to contribute immediately. Nagging injuries popped up in that first camp and have held him back ever since. He started to come on in the second half of last season, and he ended up catching seven balls for 136 yards in the spring game.
Kache Palacio stepped into the Buck (rush linebacker) spot this spring with Travis Long graduated and heir apparent Logan Mayes out for the spring with what appeared to be a leg injury. (Mike Leach doesn't discuss injuries.) The sophomore is light for the spot - just 217 pounds on the spring roster - but he played well enough to earn a couple of sacks in the spring game.
Mark: Despite issues with drops, Marks stood out offensively. He made big plays, just like he did over the first few games of his freshman season. Consistency, however, will be the key as Marks faded badly last season and WSU will be relying on him even more this season.
Defensively, sophomore defensive end Xavier Cooper has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. WSU has a large hole to fill in replacing Travis Long and while Cooper doesn't play the same position, he should be able to help fill the void of Long both as a pass rusher and a vocal leader.
4. What are your biggest worries coming out of spring ball for the fall?
Brian: Any offense is constrained to the capabilities of the big guys up front. If the line struggles, the offense will struggle. There should be healthy competition with 10 solid lineman competing to be starters. How much improvement they've made remains a question mark until we see them go live in a game, unfortunately that first opportunity is against an SEC defense in Auburn. This is very worrisome, not only the first test of the season being against an SEC defensive front, but the thought of another season with a terrible offensive line. Watching the Air Raid stagnant because the line can't block is like having a firework but no fuse. You know it'll be awesome if you could just get past step 1 of the ignition.
Mark: WSU has quarterback issues last season and it doesn't appear time has solved that problem. Connor Halliday and Austin Apodaca were both OK during spring, but I'm not sure either are either 1. ready to run the offense or 2. a good fit for the Air Raid.
When you pass 80 percent of the time, it would be a little beneficial to have a solid quarterback and I'm not sure WSU will have that this season.
Jeff: The defensive backfield. The front seven proved itself pretty capable last year, leading to a better-than-expected performance from those guys. (I'm becoming convinced that Mike Breske is actually a wizard.) But the back end still struggled at times. If those four can get their stuff together - particularly the safeties, where senior free safety Deone Bucannon is a tackling machine but not one much for coverage - then this could actually be a pretty good unit. I'm worried that won't happen, though.
5. Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the pack?
Brian: WSU should compete this year although I'm not sure the record will be very good. That sentiment was even shared publicly by our AD, Bill Moos, who basically just said not to worry about this season and year 3 will be when we start to see the rebuilding pay off. Not very inspiring. I'd expect them to be good enough to beat who they're supposed to this year, something that didn't happen last season (*cough* Colorado *cough*, gross) and maybe even steal a win or two. 5 wins would be a solid season, 6 would be a dream come true...our schedule isn't doing us any favors. The PAC12, and the north in particular is very strong this year, I think the Cougs will be somewhere near the mid-bottom with 4-6 wins.
Mark: I would expect WSU to be a top 10 contender this season ... in the Pac-12. "They should be better than last season" has been the unofficial WSU motto for at least five years. Maybe this will be the year it comes true?
Jeff: Pretender, sadly. The schedule does the Cougs no favors: Road games against Auburn, USC, Cal, Oregon, Arizona and Washington all await, and they'll play Stanford in Seattle, a venue in which they normally don't play their best. So while there's no doubt in my mind the team will be better, I see four wins as the most probable outcome. But watch out in 2014!
6. Any frosh you can't wait to get on campus?
Brian: Leach landed the largest recruit in WSU history in Cody O'Connell at 6'8" 350lbs. The young man from Wenatchee, WA is a beast of a lineman, already repping 225lb on bench 25 times and maxing out at 390lbs. He's a huge, athletic, nasty lineman that could compete for a starting spot if they don't elect to redshirt him. Leach has a history of putting lineman in the league, more so than his QBs or WRs at Tech, and I think Cody could be one of the best pro prospects at WSU in a few years once he gets in a college strength training program. The next sizeable recruit is 6'5" 320lb offensive lineman Riley Sorenson, who'll also be at WSU in the fall. It is amazingly gratifying to see a coach address a need immediately with recruiting.
Mark: He's not the most-heralded recruit in the class, but I'm excited to see what Charleston White does when he gets to campus. White is an athletic wide receiver/defensive back from Texas who proved to be elusive in the open field. I'd love to see what he can do as an inside receiver, but he'll probably redshirt and move to corner.
Jeff: Peyton Pelluer. The son of former WSU and New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Pelluer, Peyton was a tackling machine at middle linebacker for one of the top programs in Washington. The linebackers are deep, so he might not play much, but his aggression and ability to hit like a ton of bricks should earn him some time on special teams. And who knows - he might even force his way onto the field on regular downs.
7. Who will you miss the most from last season? Who will be stepping up to fulfill those shoes?
Brian: WSU played a ton of freshman and sophomores in key positions last season. There are a couple of note, which Mark and Jeff will talk about, but this Coug team is extremely young, returning 359 starts combined on offense and defense. That is good enough for the 8th most returning starts in the country, a tally like that isn't possible without a lot of young guys getting playing time.
Mark: WSU is going to struggle to replace Travis Long who was not only the best defensive player on the team, but also one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. The BUCK linebacker plays an important role on WSU's defense.
Logan Mayes has been waiting in the wings at BUCK and he will certainly be in the mix next season, but he's one of a few players who should see significant time on the field. Junior college transfer Ivan McLennan had a good spring and should also be in the mix.
Jeff: Jeff Tuel. After being jerked in and out the lineup, the QB really started to come on at the end of the season, seeming to finally both grasp the Air Raid and win Mike Leach's trust. Had his injury two seasons ago been handled properly, he could have been back this year for a fifth year. But since his appeal for a medical hardship was a long shot, he's moved on to the Buffalo Bills. That means Connor Halliday will almost certainly start the year as his replacement, and while he has a fair amount of starting experience already, his proclivity for winging the ball into dangerous spots earned him a place on the bench last season. As Brian talked about above, he's the great unknown.
8. Any particular Pac12 match-up/rivalry you are looking forward to this Fall?
Brian: The PAC12 should be a great conference to watch next season. WSU vs Cal should be great with the Mentor/Protege story line. And Cal has ran all over WSU for an entire decade, if you beat us it'll be a nice change of pace just to see it happen through the air.
Mark: I'm looking forward to any Pac-12 game WSU has a legitimate shot of winning so that will most likely be Colo ... /checks schedule ... oh WSU doesn't play Colorado this season? Crap.
Jeff: Arizona State. The Cougs play the Sun Devils on Halloween night in a Thursday ESPN broadcast and hoooooo boy the crowd is going to be loud and lubed up. If WSU is going to pull off an improbable win, that would seem like a good place to do it.
9. What are the specific injury concerns coming out of this spring?
Mark: By the end of spring, it seemed half of WSU's roster was standing on the sideline with some sort of injury. While most of the injuries don't appear to be severe, they are still cause for concern. The defensive line was hit especially hard as both Ioane Guata and Toni Pole sat out large chunks of spring.
I know this is a major surprise, but WSU's roster isn't exactly loaded with 300-pound defensive tackles. WSU was significantly better with Guata on the field last season and with the lack of depth behind him, he may be the most important player on WSU's defense. Pole is solid in his own right and there is a major dropoff at defensive tackle following the top two.
Brian: What are you talking about Mark? Coach Leach doesn't release any injury information. Everyone is happy, healthy, the coaching staff is just thrilled to have them around, and they are doing exactly what is asked of them.
10. Based on what you've seen, who is ready to take a major leap this fall?
Brian: Linebacker Darryl Monroe was a key figure on defense last year, and could develop into one of the top linebackers in the conference this season. He plays in the middle of Coach Breske's 3-4, is very stout against the run and Breske isn't afraid to fire him up the A gaps. The 4-3 scheme is aggressive, often stunting on the majority of plays in any given series, and Monroe is a very athletic part of what should be an above average front seven for WSU. Last season a safety led the team in tackles, Monroe will hopefully take some of that burden and cause some ruckus in the backfield every once in a while.
Mark: WSU had major issues at safety in recent seasons (see GIF below) and for a brief period to open last season, freshman Taylor Taliulu appeared to be a potential solution. He started the season-opener, but was soon out of the rotation completely.
Going from the starting safety to never seeing the field in three games was a dramatic shift and defensive coordinator Mike Breske hinted at confidence issues being part of the reason. Tailulu is an impressive athlete and has a lot of potential if he is able to move past whatever issues kept him off the field last season.
Jeff: Teondray Caldwell. The running back flashed some potential last year when he had some actual space to run, and if the offensive line can put together some competent performances, he could be the kind of gashing runner Leach covets. He has a nice burst at the hole and is shifty in space. He was banged up a little last year as a true freshman, so here's to hoping a year of strength and conditioning has prepared him better.
11. Explain the Marquess Wilson departure. Is this an isolated incident of a player just not getting along with new coaches, or a where-there's-smoke indictment of Mike Leach's program?
Jeff: It was an isolated incident ... and it wasn't. Obviously, no other player had as public of a spat with the coaches as Wilson. But he wasn't alone in his unhappiness with the change in regime: About 20 guys left the program in the first 12 months of Mike Leach. Most of them were guys who probably didn't belong in a Pac-12 program to begin with, but still -- there was plenty of grumbling on the way out. The difference between Paul Wulff and Mike Leach in terms of expectations and how players are dealt with is stark, and the transition from one to the other was difficult. Wilson was just the most high profile example of that.
I'm pretty convinced the situation with Wilson mostly was a case of a young man and a coach who just didn't get along, with both sides allowing the situation to escalate to a point it didn't need to. The truth is that Wilson probably never would have chosen to come to program coached by Leach with his, um, very direct method of critiquing performance. Different players respond to that differently -- for example, it's been said that in the very same workout that prompted Wilson to walk out, Travis Long asked for more in a "you will not break me" sort of way. It's fine line between discipline and "abuse." Some players respond to it. Some don't. Wilson obviously needed to be motivated in a different way, but Leach chose not to, for whatever reason.
Mike Leach isn't for everyone. That much is clear. As he loads up the program with his guys, I imagine you won't hear this stuff popping up anymore.
12. Some folks were expecting the Wazzu offense to go blitzkrieg last year. What happened? Is this the year where everyone should be afraid, very afraid, of being Coug'd?
Brian: That was a major question that started surfacing in the middle of the season when everyone simultaneously took off the rose tinted glasses and realized the offense just wasn't clicking. We actually addressed it at some length in this post if you're interested in a deeper explanation.
Most everywhere Leach installed his Air Raid, it was replacing a run oriented offense. WSU already threw the ball a lot, and had a deep history of a one-back passing offense. We felt there was a lot of "un-learning" of the old system that had to happen before the both the QBs and WRs could execute the new Air Raid system consistently. There were some large differences in not only game philosophy, but the mechanics at both positions. Compound hesitation/poor reads at the quarterback position and sub-par route running from the receivers, with a completely incompetent offensive line and the lack of success is a little more understandable.
They were able to put up some yardage, but it wasn't efficient yardage. Yards per target rates and completion percentage were both well below what Leach would like, judging against his output at Tech. And a lot of it came between the 30s, finishing drives was a problem all season. Yardage needs to translate to points or it's not a very worthwhile statistic to accumulate.
This offense really needs to score at least 31 points per game. If Connor is able to get his completion rate up around 65-70%, by taking a greater advantage of the intermediate and running back routes, and the offense increases it's red zone efficiency, they're very capable of 4 TDs a game. The receiver corps will cause match-up problems for anyone this season, with Gabe Marks poised to be a breakout star in the PAC12.
Leach doesn't call running plays often, averaging around 23 attempts per game over his career, but the production from the running game needs to improve greatly. 8% of the total offensive yardage came from running plays, the next lowest was Oregon State at 28%. By increasing that productivity, something they might be doing with some Pistol, space will open up in the intermediate defensive coverage. Linebackers will be held in check a little more than they were last season, opening up space for the receivers to do some damage.
There's a lot that needs to happen for this offense to be successful, a lot more than just being able to throw and catch like we originally thought heading into last season. The Cougs look like they're on track to do some exciting things and compete, but the real "look out" season just might be 2014.
13. Who do you want to punch in the face?
Brian: David Stern. Not football related, but that man is in need of a strong, open-handed slap from a gentleman. Seattle and Sacramento are at each other's throats, and the NBA under Stern has done nothing but foster that hostility. This situation is crazypants and neither side has deserved any of it.
Mark: Lane Kiffin. I mean, who doesn't? His face is just so punchable.
Jeff: Steve Sarkisian. Because.
Man, who doesn't want to punch Sark in the face? Our thanks to Brian Anderson, Mark Sandritter, Jeff Nusser from CougCenter for answering these pressing questions.