New coach Mike Leach should have the Cougars back in the mix for a bowl game.
By: Steven Lassan | 5/21/12, 9:41 AM EDT
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#51 Washington State
Pac-12 North PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Mike Leach, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Leach | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Breske
New coach Mike Leach ushers in a wide-open passing attack, which is perfect for Washington State considering the number and quality of skill players in Pullman.
Quarterback Jeff Tuel could be the third-best quarterback in the Pac-12 behind USC’s Matt Barkley and Washington’s Keith Price. In the Spring Game, Tuel completed his first 15 passes and finished 19-of-21 for 285 yards. Tuel is expected to beat out Connor Halliday, who threw for nearly 500 yards in a November win over Arizona State last year. But Halliday suffered a lacerated liver the next week against Utah and was limited in the spring.
Slippery running back Rickey Galvin will get more receiving than rushing opportunities, but Tuel will throw the bulk of the time to an array of wideouts, featuring Marquess Wilson, who caught 82 passes for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Leach had issues with Wilson’s work ethic in the spring. Wilson also needs to be a better blocker and more physical. If it all comes together, he could become Washington State’s version of Michael Crabtree, who set Big 12 records while at Texas Tech.
Washington State has weapons galore, but Tuel may not get much time to throw. The biggest question mark for the offense is the line, where injuries have weakened an already suspect group.
Leach fully delegates defensive responsibilities to coordinator Mike Breske, who plans to blitz and blitz and blitz some more. The high-risk approach will have Cougars attacking from every position.
Shifting from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the Cougs expect a big season from Travis Long as a hybrid end/linebacker. Long is athletic enough to cover tight ends and is still the team’s best pass-rusher.
Linebacker Chester Su’a is a tough grinder who has a nose for the ball. Returning from an Achilles injury last year, Darryl Monroe will start in the middle and might be the most physical player on the team. The Cougs are set with starters at linebacker and are starting to build some depth. Logan Mayes, son of former All-American WSU running back Rueben Mayes, had 4.5 sacks in the Spring Game.
On the back end, Washington State will count on Deone Bucannon and Tyree Toomer to prevent deep balls from killing the Cougs.
Andrew Furney was 14-of-16 on field goals last year, and he should continue to handle the placekicking duties this year, certainly from shorter range. But keep an eye on junior college transfer Michael Bowlin, who dazzled in the spring as a punter and a long-range kicker. Rahmel Dockery, a true freshman, could be in line to be the primary punt and kickoff return man.
With Mike Leach, the Cougars could return to their first bowl game since 2003 when they beat Vince Young and Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Given an abundance of talent at the skill positions, WSU should be in a number of shootouts. The success of the season hinges on the protection that Tuel gets from his offensive line, which was hit by injuries in the spring.
The switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense will be key as well, particularly at linebacker, where the Cougs need several players to step up after Leach dismissed two projected starting linebackers — C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi — for off-field transgressions.
Based on Leach’s record at Texas Tech, an eight-win season is not out of the question, though a six-win season would be acceptable for the bowl-deprived Cougs.