Philadelphia, PA – There is a new captain at the helm of Washington State University's football team. With the landmark hiring of Mike Leach back in January, the Cougars are hoping college football's favorite pirate can restore a sense of pride to a stagnant program.
Bringing Leach to Pullman is just one of a number of high-profile hirings made by Pac-12 Conference teams this off-season, as Rich Rodriguez is the new man at Arizona and Jim Mora, Jr. takes over at UCLA.
Leach is best known for his years as head coach at Texas Tech. During his tenure with the Red Raiders, Leach resurrected football in Lubbock while establishing himself as one of the most gifted offensive minds in the college game.
In 10 seasons, Leach's charges went 84-43 and appeared in 10 straight bowl games, while piling up yards at a record pace via the coach's trademark 'Air Raid Offense'. Before Leach, the Red Raiders were a team that hovered around .500 in the Big 12 Conference, but the controversial coach turned them into a contender and even led the squad to an 11-2 record and a Big 12 South Division co-championship in 2008.
Unfortunately, Leach's reign at the school ended horribly as he was fired at the end of the 2009 season after being accused of the mistreatment of former Texas Tech player Adam James.
But after two years away from coaching, as he worked as an analyst, Leach is back patrolling the sidelines.
"I'm thrilled to be back coaching," said Leach during the press conference announcing his hiring earlier this year, "There's nothing like the unity and the working together with the team. I think that all for one and one for all is the part you miss the most. There's big challenges but there's big payoffs too."
Although the hiring has garnered much greater national attention than when Leach first took over at Texas Tech, Washington State fans are hoping that their new coach can work the same magic in Pullman that he did in Lubbock.
The Cougars have been residing near the bottom of the Pac-10/12 standings in recent years, posting a combined record of 9-40 over the last four seasons while also suffering a eight-year bowl drought.
Although his resume' is highlighted by his offensive contributions, Leach takes over a team that has really struggled on the defensive side and his initial moves have been geared toward rectifying those issues.
The Cougars ranked 82nd in the nation in total defense in 2011, while coming in 95th in scoring defense (31.8 ppg). Leach's offenses might light up the scoreboard with alarming regularity, but wins are hard to come by when you allow the opposition to do the same.
To address the Cougars' defensive deficiencies, Leach hired Mike Breske as his defensive coordinator. Breske was the DC at Montana, which ranked 26th in the nation (FCS) in total defense in 2011 and finished the season at 11-3. Leach also made big changes to the defensive personnel, dismissing linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekopi Kaufusi, who were both starters a season ago, during spring drills.
The changes did not stop there though as senior defensive end Travis Long will be asked to play some outside linebacker in the 3-4 system that Breske will be introducing this season.
On offense, Leach should have little trouble getting the current crop of talented playmakers to instill his high-octane attack.
Despite going a mere 4-8 in 2011, the WSU offense was rather effective, especially through the air. The Cougars ranked ninth in the country in passing (322.3 ypg) and that was with quarterback Jeff Tuel, who started all 12 games in 2010, bogged down most of the season by injury.
Tuel played in only three games a year ago, but started two of them after a 2010 campaign in which he completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns. The senior got the majority of the first-team reps in spring practice, and all indications point to his being the starter this fall.
Leach may have even lucked out and found his next Michael Crabtree, whom he coached to two Fred Biletnikoff Awards at Texas Tech, in junior Marquess Wilson. The 6-4 standout receiver earned Second-Team All-Pac 12 honors in 2011 after logging 85 receptions, 1,398 yards and 12 touchdowns. Wilson will undoubtedly get the ball and get it often in Leach's offense, and he could conceivably improve those numbers as a result.
Although it would be a lot to expect Leach to turn a 4-8 team into a powerhouse, the Cougars could surprise some people and a bowl bid would not be a total shocker.
With the talent on offense, the Cougars will definitely put points on the board, but the key could be the Cougars' schedule. Washington State's non- conference slate should be manageable and with a virtual home game against Oregon in Seattle and no matchup with USC, the Cougars could quietly climb the Pac-12 ladder.
Still it's far too early for Leach or Cougar fans to get ahead of themselves. Right now, the team needs to just focus on winning games on a consistent basis.
"I tend to have one-day plans," said Leach upon being hired, "Win one game a week."