Coach Leach has built a remarkably steady machine in Pullman, with four consecutive 8+ win seasons and surviving the loss of quarterbacks, coaches, and other key personnel. This offseason has presented another set of departures of important players that, while small in number, are potentially huge in impact, and will test just how well constructed that machinery is.
The schedule gets a bit tougher - still no Power-5 team in the non-conference, but Houston in NRG Stadium is a harder match than any OOC game they played in 2018, missing Arizona and USC from the South instead of ASU and UCLA, and playing Utah, Oregon, ASU, and Cal on the road ... plus the Apple Cup is back in Seattle.
Thanks to Jeff Nusser from Coug Center for his insights into the team. This was a fun interview to record, lots of extra depth and great stories (including a recounting of the amazing 1988 Aloha Bowl, complete with Denny Erickson trying to break up a brawl on Christmas), and a meeting of the minds on the merits of the Huskies.
Offense - #13 in S&P+
This offense doesn’t have a lot of questions to answer, just one big one: how to replace the transformational #16 QB Minshew. After three stationary quarterbacks, Minshew was a pleasant surprise by adding a previously missing component to this offense: mobility and evasion. We’ll see how much of a mark he’s left on the program with the next QB choice.
Entering Spring ball there were two longtime members of the roster in contention, both redshirt seniors and former Jucos who transferred to Wazzu in 2016: #18 QB Gordon and #10 QB Tinsley. Gordon looked well ahead of Tinsley in the Spring game, and the consensus is that it’ll be him or the transfer from Eastern Washington, #4 QB Gubrud. He sat out Spring with a leg injury, but I’ve watched him a lot over his four years with the Eagles and there’s a lot to like: he’s got a a deep-shot arm and was a fearless runner in their spread-option offense.
Leach has a great track record of making the right choice here and having seen both Gordon and Gubrud it’s hard to believe he could go wrong. The pick will probably tell us something about possible variations in this offense, however - Gordon looked more “Minshew-esque” to me in the sense of working the efficiency throws that are the staple of this offense, and when the pocket collapsed, dancing laterally with his eyes downfield and looking to make a throw. Gubrud has a livelier arm and set of legs, and I would expect him to take more high risk/reward throws, as well as tuck the ball and run it more often when under pressure.
Either QB will have an excellent receiving corps to throw to, as they’re returning 80% of their receiving yards and seven of their top eight wideouts: #12 WR Patmon, #1 WR D. Martin, #8 WR Winston, #6 WR Calvin, #5 WR Harris, #85 WR C. Jackson, and #81 WR Bell. They lose #17 WR Sweet, but add an intriguing prospect who’ll take his number, #17 WR K. Woods, a rangy slot man with some impressive catches in the Spring game. I have nothing to add about this high quality group, they’re ideal for the system and should easily make the transition to the new QB.
This offense has incorporated running backs much more in recent years, and unlike some other air raid systems, not really as pass-pro blockers but rather as checkdown receivers or as surprise rushers. It was clear from film study that these are option calls the QB makes in response to the defensive alignment instead of called in from the sidelines ... another reason why getting the right QB is even more vital in this offense than usual.
Wazzu is losing the first of their two powerful backs in #32 RB Williams, as well as third-stringer #24 RB Harrington, but return #21 RB Borghi. This system requires a second back to carry the load, however, and I wasn’t thrilled with the two guys who got the most reps in the Spring game, #39 FB Markoff and #23 RB Dubots; both seemed a step down from Borghi as the backup last year. Jeff tells us to watch for the new transfer #16 RB McIntosh, who played for Notre Dame in 2017 and EMCC (of Last Chance U fame, though he wasn’t there for filming) in 2018 with some fairly impressive stats; I haven’t been able to see a lot of tape on him and he didn’t arrive until the summer.
The line lost the great #60 LT Dillard to the NFL, who was first pick of any Pac-12 player. However they return the rest of their starters, a deeply experienced group who avoided much injury trouble last year: #63 LG Ryan, #69 C Mauigoa, #65 RG Watson, and #72 RT Lucas.
Jeff tells us that rather than plugging in a new tackle, he expects Ryan to move from LG to LT and longtime backup #74 OG Valencia to take the vacated guard spot. I’m not wild about that move, Ryan’s build looks much more like a guard to me, and I haven’t seen much out of Valencia in his long tenure in Pullman.
I also think that, while Jeff is probably right that an air raid system is less prone to injury than most, depth is a question here. They lost #55 OL Osur-Myers to Utah, who was a good sixth man in 2017 but not needed in 2018. Besides one JC, #78 OL Price, the rest of the offensive line roster is a small group of walk-ons or lightly recruited and seldom used players, plus about a dozen freshmen who’ve never taken a snap.
I had a peculiar and somewhat unpopular opinion about this line in 2018: they did well against the blitz, but paradoxically when defenses rushed four or fewer (including a couple embarrassing times when Utah rushed only two), they’d let through pressure at a much higher rate than most Pac-12 lines I observed. The scheme and Minshew disguised this well, maintaining a high completion-to-sack ratio that the rest of the media (who’s not as devoted to studying tape as your faithful film reviewer) mistook for having an unbreachable wall of linemen. I think this raises the stakes -- yet again -- on the QB choice, who will tend to have less time to make a decision and require fancier footwork than many of his conference counterparts.
Defense - #59 in S&P+
There was a downtick in performance from the previous year, but I was still fairly impressed with DC Claeys’ first year in Pullman, considering the loss of a huge talent from 2017 in Hercules Mata’afa and that his defensive scheme at Minnesota was almost the polar opposite of former DC Grinch’s system. He adapted well to the talent he had and kept the defense mostly on track, with the familiar 3-3-5 featuring a lot of pre-snap stemming from the line and using fast, aggressive play to make up for size problems.
This is the most puzzling unit on the team, and Jeff tells us the one that had Claeys the most concerned as well. I wasn’t thrilled with their coverage performance in film study and noted their tendency to get a lot of pass interference flags.
They lost three defensive backs to graduation: the corners #3 CB Molton and #2 CB Harper (who got injured mid-season), plus the nickel #26 DB Dale. They return two lightly used backups, #36 DB Williams and #18 CB Hicks, but from watching them I doubt they’re in contention for starting spots. So it was confusing when three more DBs elected to transfer out, including #22 CB Singleton, who I recall as a much anticipated recruit and good looking when called to action after a starting corner was ejected for targeting last year.
Adding to all of these issues is that Wazzu’s best defender, #34 S Thompson, was lost last month to an eligibility problem and entered the supplemental draft (the Cardinals picked him up).
So in a base nickel that only returns two meaningful players -- #25 S Thomas and #4 CB Strong, both of whom should keep their starting spots -- Wazzu drew heavily on the Juco market with four additions to the defensive backfield: #26 S Beekman, #8 CB Isom, #5 DB Langford, and #24 DB Moore. Jeff tells us that Isom looks to have the other corner spot secured (he seems awfully short to me but apparently gave a good showing in the Spring game), and the other three will probably get the remaining two starting spots plus the primary backup job. EDIT: Late-breaking news, apparently in Fall camp Isom has been playing at strong safety instead.
It’s hard to predict the effect that many new faces will have on this unit, and it’s hard to overestimate the loss of Thompson to the cohesion of the squad. And so I’d be hard pressed to say this group is going to get better in 2019 … but then, Claeys wouldn’t have made such wholesale changes to the personnel if he didn’t think he were trading up.
Considering how slimly built everybody on this front was in 2018, it’s remarkable how much production they got in this scheme. But it looks to get even slimmer in 2019, as they’re losing #45 DL Tago, #56 DT Comfort, and #89 DL Begg. And while they return their most intriguing player, #30 DL Oguayo, they’ve never gotten consistent play out of him - he was absent for much of the 2018 Fall camp and Jeff tells us he was nicked up for most of the year … I think there’s something else going on here because he’s an incredible pass rusher when he’s on, but only had nine tackles on the entire season.
Jeff tells us there’ll be two new additions who I haven’t seen much of, #9 NT McDougle -- a freshman All-American at West Virginia who redshirted in 2018 after transferring -- and #95 DL Crowder who played in just two games as a true freshman and kept his redshirt.
The edges of the line look to be in good shape in terms of returning production: #27 DE Taylor and #92 DE Rodgers, who are fairly productive off the edge and well suited to this defensive scheme, as well as backups #90 DL Aiolupotea-Pei and #84 DL Echevarria.
At linebacker they’re returning almost everybody, but losing arguably their most important guy in the middle, #47 LB Pelluer. The plan appears to be to move #13 LB J. Woods from WILL to MIKE, but I’m skeptical that this works out since I haven’t seen the same command of the field from Woods. But the rest of this unit -- #41 LB Sherman, #50 LB Block, and #37 LB Rogers, plus #20 LB Silvels (a pass rush specialist) -- put up respectable tackling numbers in 2018, so there’s some decent depth and experience here.
Advanced stats have had a hard time pinning down Wazzu’s defense over the years. For one thing, they tend to oscillate wildly from season to season, particularly their passing defense which can swing from the top to the bottom of the scale and back again in a three-year span; for another, different systems disagree about the quality of the Cougs’ defense far more than I’m used to seeing when comparing analytical models of various Power-5 teams.
But the one area where there is a lot of consistency over time and across systems -- and backed up by my own observations watching film -- is that they’ve never had a great rush defense. In S&P+ this squad ranked #102 against the run last year, and I think that’s mostly due to not having anyone with Mata’afa’s production. We’ll have to wait and see if this group can provide the muscle inside that Wazzu was lacking last year.