July 24, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Mike Leach killed a bear in the offseason. If he could kill a bunch of Huskies during the season, that would be a lot more fun. Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
The excitement is palpable in Pullman, where the hire of Mike Leach has energized a fan base that hasn't had anything to be excited about in far too long. Few doubt that Leach will turn things around in Pullman, the question is of timeline. Offensively, Washington State has the weapons to put up a ton of points in Leach's air raid attack, but just how well the Cougars can perform on the defensive side of the football will determine if they will be going bowling this season for the first time since 2003.
When healthy, the Cougars were actually pretty good offensively last season, and that should improve with Leach at the helm. Jeff Tuel is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference--and one of the most underrated in the nation--and the fact that he was injured for much of last season was, in my opinion, one of the biggest factors that derailed Washington State's season last year. I believe that Tuel is an ideal quarterback for this system and will excel this season. Tuel will have one of the nation's best receivers in Marquess Wilson, who could have a record-breaking season in this offense. Behind Wilson, the Cougars are short on experience. However, they have a lot of bodies who will be given an opportunity to step up. File away names such as Dominique Williams, Kristof Williams, Andrei Lintz, and Gabriel Marks as potential impact players at the receiver position.
The running game isn't heavily emphasized in Leach's offense, but they should also have a lot of opportunities to catch teh football. Washington State have three returnees on the shorter, speedier end in Rickey Galvin, Carl Winston, and Marcus Mason. None are going to rush for 1000 yards, especially in this system, but they will have some opportunity to make catches in space. However, the key to the offense will be the offensive line. They lose two honorable mention Pac-12 players, and return three starters. But their entire blocking system will change under Leach. Leach's offense don't require the quarterback to hold onto the football for long periods of time, but the line did allow nine sacks in the spring game. They will have to improve.
Leach is going run a hybrid 3-4 at Washington State, but in addition to concerns over general talent and depth (good, deep defensive talent is usually the last thing to come in a rebuilidng job) is the fact that only three starters return among the front seven. The defensive line wasn't terrible last year, getting 19 sacks while allowing 157 yards per game, and they return three starters from that line. Lenard Williams and Anthony Laurenzi will continue on the line, while Travis Long will move to the hybrid drop end position to get some good looks at the quarterback. Washington State isn't super deep on the line, and they have to fid a new starter, but its a position that should be something more than mediocre.
Linebacker is the big concern here. Tackling machine Alex Hoffman-Ellis graduated, and one of Leach's first moves was to boot CJ Mizell from the team. Leach is going to have to piece together a linebacking corps that is young and short on experience. Chester Su'a, who had four starts last season, looks promising, but its wide open after that. The secondary wasn't great last season, but they return the entire two deep and should improve significantly. I think WSU will be okay (not great) with the front four and back four. Its how the linebackers play that will determine whether this is a middle of the pack defense, or a bad one.
The Cougars open up at BYU, followed by games with UNLV and Eastern Washington. In conference play, they miss USC and Arizona. Back to back road trips to Stanford and Utah are going to be really tough.
The range for this team seems to be 5-7 wins, and six or more would be seen as a major success in Pullman. To me, the opener at BYU is really big. If they win that, I like their chances to be bowl eligible. If not, they probably need an upset somewhere along the way.