Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: It has been eight seasons since the Washington State Cougars last got a taste of the postseason. For the last four of those years Paul Wulff was the head coach and although he had his most successful season in 2011, at just 4-8 his time in Pullman came to end.
Enter Mike Leach, the offensive guru that last coached at Texas Tech. Leach will bring a big personality and radically new offensive scheme to a program that has become stale over the last decade.
Washington State won its first two games in blowout fashion last season but struggled with only two wins the rest of the way, a road victory over Colorado (31-27) and a defeat of Arizona State (37-27) at home. Sandwiched between those two wins was a five-game losing streak. After the win against Arizona State, the Cougars dropped their last two games, including a 38-21 defeat to rival Washington.
The Cougars' 4-8 finish illustrated how much a change in personnel and mindset was needed and the hiring of Leech certainly accomplished that.
OFFENSE: Mike Leach became well known for his 'Air Raid' offense while at Texas Tech and that scheme should fit nicely with the offensive weapons Washington State already has. The Cougars ranked ninth in the nation in passing (322.3 ypg) last season and will more than likely stay at the top in the category under Leach.
The key to any pass-heavy attack is quarterback play, and Leach has a very good one in Jeff Tuel. The senior was the starter to begin last season but he suffered a slew of injuries that sidelined him for much of the year. Tuel has a 60 percent career completion percentage and looked recovered in the spring game when he completed 19-of-21 passes for 285 yards two touchdowns.
Tuel will have one of the most talented receivers in the Pac-12, and possibly the nation to throw to in Marquess Wilson. A Second-Team All-Pac-12 selection last season. Wilson has the size (6-foot-4) and the speed to excel in Leach's offense. The junior caught 82 passes for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The rest of the receiving corps is weaker, with only 36 career receptions on the rest of the roster.
"Marquess showed in the spring game there's a reason why there's a big buzz about him and it's our job as a staff to get that out of him every day," wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons said of Wilson and how he has adapted to the new offensive scheme.
Big things are expected from freshmenGabriel Marks and Dominique Williams, who will get tested early.
Ricky Galvin led the team in rushing last year with 602 yards for the Cougars, who ranked 111th in the nation in rushing yards. Under Leach the Cougars will more than likely remain a team that doesn't rely heavily on the running game, but Galvin will be the starter with Marcus Mason the backup.
Center Matt Goetz is returning from injury as is left guard Wade Jacobson on an offensive line that returns three starters to learn the blocking patterns of the 'Air Raid' offense.
DEFENSE: It's clear that Washington State will not struggle to score this season but the key to the Cougars' rising in the Pac-12 will be the defense. The Cougars ranked 82nd in the nation in total defense last season causing Mike Leach to make some big changes. First he hired Mike Breske at defensive coordinator. Breske was the DC at Montana, which ranked 26th in FCS in total defense in 2011.
"There's new terminology and expectations both for coaches and players so there (is) a little bit of a learning curve," Breske said.
Leach also made big changes on personnel by dismissing former starting linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekopi Kaufusi during spring drills.
Losing depth at linebacker may be an issue for Breske, who will employ a 3-4 scheme with the Cougars. Travis Long will be the only returning starter at the position after a 2011 season in which he had 42 tackles with a team-leading 12 tackles for loss. The rest of the unit is young with freshmen Darryl Monroe likely to start.
"There is not a lot of game experience but that's not such a negative thing when your transitioning systems like we are. Everybody's a blank slate," linebackers coach Jeff Choate said of his unit.
Long may also be given opportunities at defensive end after the team's pass rush from last season was lacking. Defensive tackles Lenard Williams and Anthony Laurenzi both saw significant playing time last year but freshmen defensive end Xavier Cooper may be where the unit's success hinges.
While the Cougars retool on the front seven, the secondary should be a strength. Both starting cornerbacks and safeties return from last season, led by safety Deone Bucannon, who was third on the team with 60 total tackles. Damante Horton also put in a stellar campaign with a team-leading four interceptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: After setting a school record for field goal accuracy, Andrew Furney will return at place-kicker. The junior connected on 14-of-16 field goal attempts in 2011. Michael Bowlin will be the punter and will also handle kickoffs.
Junior Leon Brooks was the primary punt returner last season, while Mason is the teams most experienced kick returner.
OUTLOOK: There is a great deal of optimism in Pullman as the fall approaches. Leach is seen as the type of coach with the credentials and the confidence to bring Washington State back from the abyss with a high-octane offensive attack that can keep up with the powerful offenses of the Pac-12 elite.
The Washington State rendition of the 'Air Raid' begins on the road against BYU on Sept. 1. The Cougars then have a pair of home games book-ending a road trip to UNLV. At the end of September, Washington State plays Pac-12 North favorite Oregon in Seattle before traveling to face Oregon State. The Cougars also has road games against Stanford, Utah and Arizona State, but play two of their final three contests at home, including the battle for the Apple Cup with Washington.
The schedule is a demanding one, even without a date against USC, and will test the improving Cougars' ability to execute and win games in a brand new system. Still Washington State was improved last season and with the talent on offense and the experienced secondary the Cougars could end their bowl drought in 2012.