Washington State Cougars
Head Coach: Mike Leach (8th Season)
OC: Mike Leach (8th Season)
DC: Tracy Claeys (2nd Season)
Regular Season: 10-2 (7-2)
ESPN Football Power Index: 18
Offensive Efficiency Rank: 5
Defensive Efficiency Rank: 64
Special Teams Efficiency Rank: 56
Is QB as Simple as “Plug and Play” for the Pirate in Pullman?
The fabled tale of Hal Mumme’s Valdosta State coaching tree recounts how the Air Raid offense burst into the limelight of major college football. Atop of his long list of successful disciples sits Mike Leach who has mastered teaching his version of the Air Raid and has translated it into success at the Power Five level. After ten winning seasons in a row at Texas Tech, Leach has done the same in his last four in Pullman. He pulled Washington State out from the gutter and hoisted them up to the level of regular conference title contenders. The Cougars’ 11-win 2018 campaign was their most successful under Leach, and it came in a year when people were not expecting much.
Analysts are not letting Washington State fall too far off their radar in 2019 and the Cougars boast a #23 national ranking to open the season. There is hope the offense can continue to thrive despite the loss of Pac 12 Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Gardner Minshew. This season’s expected starter was former Eastern Washington star quarterback, grad transfer Gage Gabrud. Minshew’s former backups, however, have given him a run for his money and it has been reported senior Anthony Gordon will start week one. Whoever ends up starting will need to be accurate and make good decisions for an offense that depends on its signal caller to throw nearly 50 passes per game. Gordon is in his fifth year under Mike Leach, and although it is hard to imagine anyone producing at the same level as Minshew; he will have a lot of returning parts to work with.
Washington State uses their running backs primarily as pass catchers on check-downs and screen passes. They lose a very good receiving back in James Williams but return one in Max Borghi. Borghi was one of the most impressive true freshmen in the conference last season and is primed to have a tremendous career in Pullman. Depth is a little worrisome, however, so his health will be of the utmost importance. The Cougars return seven different receivers who each finished with over 200 receiving yards last season. They typically line up with four receivers split out wide. They have plenty of talent and experience in a receiving crop that rivals any of their previous ones. Dezmon Patmon is the most physical target on the outside, while Tay Martin may be the most athletic, and Easop Winston the most steady. All three had great seasons and will continue to be the top end zone targets. Calvin Jackson also had his moments and may have amplified his role with a strong offseason. Washington State has consistently produced matchup problems in the slot and return a few speedsters in Travell Harris, Calvin Jackson, and Renard Bell. Furthermore, many Cougars fans are excited to see what kind of impact redshirt freshman Kassidy Woods will have adding his 6-4 tight-end frame to the group inside. Overall, its a position that has a lot of everything and so much depth it is hard to keep tabs on.
One of the most critical components of success in Leach’s offense is the pass protection of the offensive line. After losing three starters, this line performed breathtakingly well yielding just 13 sacks on nearly 700 pass attempts. Though they lose their top performer, left tackle Andre Dillard, to the first round of the NFL Draft, the line returns four starters and should, once again, keep the quarterback clean. Abe Lucas was outstanding in his redshirt freshman season at right tackle and earned All-Conference honors along with C Frederick Mauigoa. Liam Ryan has emerged as the vocal leader of the group and shifts from guard to Dillard’s old home on the blind side at tackle. Josh Watson and Robert Valencia round out the starting lineup that should be one of the top pass-protecting groups in the conference. One of the reasons the Cougars pass so much and run so little is the wide splits of the offensive line. While it has helped their pass protection, it makes it challenging to run the ball against a heavier box. This is why execution is so important in Leach’s Air raid and it will be interesting to see how well the new quarterback operates on critical downs.
Overall this can be another great Cougars offense, but the execution of their new quarterback will likely dictate how how great. The offense was so efficient last season, they did not have to play as fast as they usually do and were able to protect their defense regarding field position and time of possession. Leach’s offense can be very effective but has taken its lumps against defenses with superior back-seven coverage and teams with a ferocious pass rush. The schedule should not be loaded with many defenses of that calibre and expect the Cougars offense to be high flying once again in 2019.
Defense Can Make or Break the Cougs
Washington State’s defense has flown under the radar but has been as critical as any part of their success in the last four years. They were not as efficient in 2018 as they were in the year prior, but their aggressive 3-3-5 scheme remained largely the same even through their defensive coordinator transition. Heading into 2018, the Cougars had to find a defensive coordinator replacement for rising star Alex Grinch who is now at Oklahoma. They found a gem in former Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys. The Cougars also had a lot of production to replace up front and did so admirably with an undersized defensive line. The unit loses two starters this year but hope lies in a couple players still looking to find their footing in the preseason, DE Nnamdi Oguayo and NT Lamonte McDougle. Oguayo is trying to become the player the staff for after playing banged up over the course of last season and McDougle is listed in the second string after his Freshman All-America campaign at West Virginia as a true freshman in 2017. DT Will Rodgers looks to become the leader of the bunch after impressing last season with his quickness and tenacity masking his 255 lb frame. Elsewhere in the trenches, redshirt seniors NT Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei and DE Karson Block figure to see plenty of snaps after playing rotational roles last season. Smaller, quicker defensive fronts have become the norm at Washington State. They have mastered the art under some great coaches but may continue to take their lumps against premier offensive lines.
The linebacking unit loses Peyton Pelluer after his eternal six year stay in Pullman but returns a very good one in Jahad Woods. Woods fits the demographic of the defense with his excellent speed and aggression. He will be accompanied by either veteran Justus Rogers or Dillon Sherman. The rush linebacker spot is locked down by their athletic speed rusher Willie Taylor and attacking linebacking play may continue to be the defense’s calling card in 2019.
The Cougars’ aggressive high risk-high reward scheme often puts their defensive backs on an island in man coverage. That task may prove more challenging this season for a group losing some key starters. They return one solid starter at cornerback in Marcus Strong but the second spot is up for grabs between Armani Marsh and George Hicks III who both have limited experience. The most critical loss in the secondary was unanticipated with Jalen Thompson losing his final year of eligibility due to an NCAA violation. Former starting safety, Skylar Thomas moves to nickel leaving the back end of the defense without any returning experience. Projected starters Bryce Beekman and Daniel Isom are in their first year with the program and it is hard to project how quickly they will get up to speed.
Overall there is enough defensively for the Cougars to remain adequate on this side of the ball, but there are certainly reasons to be uncomfortable. There should be better depth in the front six but the back end is worrisome. Tracy Claeys is among the top defensive coordinators in the conference and he will have to prove it again in 2019 for Washington State to be relevant in the North.
Will Wazzu Sustain its Stunning Success?
Washington State is always a hard team to read in the offseason. They blew the doors off their expected win total last season and have plenty of production returning. There are certainly some questions, however, particularly on defense so keep that in mind when deciding whether they have an outside shot of taking the North.