Washington State Football: 5 Questions Heading into 2012
With new head coach Mike Leach coming to Pullman, Cougar fans are eager to see what the future may hold.
After WSU finished only 4-8 overall and 2-7 against Pac-12 foes, they made the decision to release Paul Wulff.
WSU then hired Leach, who came to town riding a wave of optimism, especially considering his predecessor led WSU to a 9-40 record during his career.
Leach, on the other hand, led Texas Tech to an 84-43 record during his tenure, along with 10 consecutive bowl games.
Obviously, Cougar fans have a lot to be excited for in regards to the hiring of Leach.
However, questions still remain, which must be answered, if the Cougars want to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
Offensive Line Play
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As with most football teams, the line plays an integral role in the success of the offense.
However, with Leach’s eccentric offense the line’s production is even more important.
Leach uses his offensive line a little bit different than most coaches, as he spreads his lineman about three feet apart.
This gives the lineman time to react to pressure put on from defensive ends coming off the edge, according to Leach.
However, if the defensive line attempts to shoot the gap, the linemen will close the gap between them.
With the departure of three starters from last season in David Gonzales, Andrew Roxas and B.J. Guerra, the Cougs entered the spring with some question marks up front.
However, the Cougars found solid starters after spring ball in John Fullington, Wade Jacobsen and Matt Goetz, according to the Spokesman Review.
With incoming transfer Niu Sale coming in the fall, the line could look radically different from what it looked like during spring practices.
Last season, the Cougars allowed 40 sacks.
They will surely need to cut down that number and Sale could definitely aid.
Sale is listed at 6’3” and 300 lbs. and would add some bulk to the line.
Regardless, the line will play the most crucial role for WSU next season.
If they give Jeff Tuel time to operate, the Cougs could be in for a big year.
New Defensive Schemes
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After defensive coordinator Mike Breske was hired, the Cougars made the decision to switch to a 3-4 defense.
Under Wulff, the Cougs mostly played in a base 4-3 and much of spring ball was spent on transitioning to the new system.
Breske called himself an “aggressive” play-caller, according to ESPN, and Cougar fans should expect to see the WSU defense looking for more takeaways next season.
Breske also said WSU’s defense is ahead of the curve in regards to adapting to the new defense. That is a good sign for the Cougs, considering there were only 15 practices during spring ball.
In the switch to the 3-4, the WSU defense will now feature an additional linebacker at the “buck” position.
Senior Travis Long, who led the team in sacks last season, has transitioned nicely into the role, according to Cougfan.com.
Long could ease the burden of learning a new defense if he can consistently wreak havoc in the backfield.
Nonetheless, there is still uncertainty in the secondary, as spring ball seemed like musical chairs for cornerbacks and safeties.
The Pac-12 features some of the more potent offenses in college football so WSU will need a smooth transition into their new defensive schemes.
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Wilson has proven every season that he is capable of being one of the top receivers in the country.
However, during spring practices, Leach questioned Wilson’s consistency and work ethic, according to Cougfan.com.
Wilson was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2011 and surely is a crucial part of the WSU offense.
However, Leach was remarkably candid when he spoke of Wilson’s play.
Wilson does have some serious upside and that drew comparisons to former Leach standout receiver Michael Crabtree.
But Leach was quick to shoot down those comparisons, saying Crabtree had great work ethic.
Wilson finished last season with 82 catches for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns, while playing with three different quarterbacks throwing him the ball.
Leach’s criticism of Wilson came before WSU’s spring game, and Wilson seemed to respond, as he turned in another strong performance.
He finished the game with 149 yards on only four catches, including an 84-yard touchdown on the third play of the day.
If Wilson can harness his ability and Leach can mold him into a top five receiver in the nation, both Wilson and the Cougs could achieve huge statistics.
However, if Wilson does not adjust to Leach, the Cougs will need to find another consistent receiving threat.
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Even though running backs aren’t the darling of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, the running backs will play a more important role than one would think.
First of all, it will be a running back by committee this season in Pullman, according to ESPN, with Rickey Galvin, Carl Winston and Marcus Mason splitting time.
However, the running backs will play a crucial role in both swing and screen passes.
Short passes are an integral part of Leach’s offense, and by having running backs that can pick up nice chunks of yardage on passing plays, the offense will surely benefit.
Along with the three aforementioned backs, Leon Brooks, who racked up 56 all-purpose yards in the spring game, will get some reps.
With those four coming out of the backfield, hopefully the Cougs will be able to keep opposing defenses guessing on where the ball will end up.
Nonetheless, if the running backs fail to make an impact on the aerial attack and can’t produce in the ground game, the offense will be too one-dimensional.
The running game ties into the offensive line play, but the backs must be able to net positive yardage when they are given carries.
With a solid running game, secondary to the passing attack, the Cougars could be poised for a solid offensive campaign.
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As if opposing defenses weren’t enough, WSU will also have to get lucky in regards to injuries next year.
After suffering through a 2011 campaign where they lost Tuel to injury two different times, the Cougs are hoping for better luck in the upcoming season.
Even after Tuel was injured, his backup Connor Halliday got hurt as well. Halliday lacerated his liver against Utah, and was seemingly still recovering from the injury during spring, according to Cougfan.com.
Regardless, WSU will need better luck with injuries in 2012 because there is a lack of depth on the roster.
If any of the crucial playmakers on either offense or defense miss an extended period of time, WSU could be left with no reliable backup to step in.
If WSU can capitalize on these points heading into 2012, Cougar Nation could be in for a very memorable season.