PULLMAN, Wash. — Year two for head coach Mike Leach starts with what he hopes is a more a more communal effort on his Washington State football team.
After dismissals and departures derailed 2012 — the Cougars won a measly three games — Leach hopes his group has bought in to his coaching style that can rankle players.
Although the shakeup was expected when Leach brought in his new Air Raid offense and a whole new approach to the football culture, the changes were still shocking.
“We have had a great offseason,” Leach said. “It started in January, worked incredibly hard.”
Such positivity from Leach is counter to what was often heard last year. At one point, he called many of the Cougars’ seniors “dead corpses.”
“It’s funny, this day and age people ask questions but they don’t always want honest answers,” Leach said. “In the midst of that, I mean, you know, if somebody is a zombie or corps, I’m the head zombie or corps. Anything with regard to a team effort or coaching, if you don’t like the way your players are playing, that’s about how well you’re coaching, you know?”
But just last week the team had yet another setback when redshirt freshman cornerback Rahmel Dockery, counted on as at least a talented backup, left the program to, as the phrase goes, pursue other options. The former Tacoma (Wash.) prep star had academic issues in the past, but there was no official word on the reason for his departeur
Yet, simultaneous to the breaking of that bad news was something new and positive for Cougars fans.
In Friday’s scrimmage, true freshman wide receiver River Cracraft established some Raid in the Air Raid attack by establishing himself as a key target for quarterback Connor Halliday.
Cracraft was sensational, catching six passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns.the
“He’s excited to play,” Leach told the media. “There’s a trust factor that develops between you and the quarterback so then he’s looking for you, he knows what you’re going to do and he trusts what you’re going to do. He’s played hard from, really, day one.”
Leach said Halliday will be the first quarterback after splitting time with the since-departed Jeff Tuel last year when Halliday had a 52.2 percent completion rate and 15 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.
“What I’ve been impressed is as a leader he takes the team on his shoulders and he’s one of the guys I think brings people together,” Leach said.
“The most significant role that a quarterback plays is enhancing the skills of the other players around him. You know, I mean each team you go out there with has an arsenal of weapons and his ability to utilize most effectively those tools in a sharp, crisp, timely manner is huge as far as maximizing offensive effort.”
Two more wide receivers to watch are Gabe Marks and Vince Mayle.
Marks was second fiddle much of last season to disgruntled Marquess Wilson, who left the team. Marks finished with 49 catches for 560 yards and two touchdowns in the Cougars’ pass-happy offense.
Mayle has good size (6-3, 225 pounds) and an odd story. He is a junior college transfer who has played receiver only last year. He didn’t play football at all the prior two years and was a running back and linebacker in high school.
Safety Deone Bucannon is aware of the new “targeting” rule that says if a defenseless player is hit in the head, the player delivering the blow is automatically ejected. Bucannon was known for hard and, at times, high hits under the old rules that he received flags for. “It’s definitely a rule that’s going to be hard to abide by, going full speed, but at the same time, you know, whatever helps the other players for player safety,” Bucannon said.
Kicker Andrew Furney kicked a 60-yard field goal last year, the longest in the nation. He’s one of the few locks on a fluctuating Cougars team. Furney was second-team All-Pac-12 after 14-for-20 on field goals.
Washington State hopes it’s not starting a death march right away. The Cougars open at Auburn, then travel to USC before hosting Southern Utah and Idaho in one of the more odd schedules in America.
Though Auburn was just 3-9 last season, opening at an SEC school is never a case of Smurfs and rainbows. Meanwhile, the Trojans still have a deep and talented roster despite their bungled 2012. The Cougars were 1-5 on the road last year, beating hapless 2-11 UNLV.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Cougars open with consecutive road games (the opener is Aug. 31 at Auburn) before dealing with consecutive lightweights. After traveling to Auburn and USC, Washington State hosts Southern Utah and Idaho. Then Stanford heads to Pullman to close a busy first month.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Protecting the quarterback. Washington State throws and throws some more — everything is predicated on Leach’s Air Raid approach — which means more attempts and more sacks. Halliday was sacked 22 times last year in just 291 attempts (WSU gave up a nation-worst 57 sacks last year). The Cougars will need to take big steps defensively if they expect to make it to a bowl game. Washington State gave up 33.1 points and 425.9 yards per game (163.3 rushing yards, 262.6 passing yards) last season. On the bright side, Washington State lost by seven points at Oregon State and at Stanford and by eight points versus UCLA at home, so it could be on the verge of turning a corner in Leach’s second season at the helm with a lot of starting experience returning. Now just how good those starters is the major question.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Running game. With the same philosophy at Texas Tech, Leach was still able to find and use capable backs. Not last year in Pullman. The Cougars ran for 349 yards. As a team. For the whole season. Off the field, the Cougars may need to focus on school work or the new playbook or something to stay out of trouble. Five Cougars were arrested since the beginning of 2013. The charges ranged from DUI, to attempted theft to assault and burglary.
TOP NEWCOMER: WR Vince Mayle: The 6-3, 230-pound junior college transfer is a big receiver who could be a matchup nightmare for opponents in the red zone. He scored 16 TDs a year ago at Sierra College in Northern California.
–Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange and Lindy’s contributed material for this story.