Washington State Football: Why Cougars Will Surprise the Pac-12 This Season
After a lackluster 4-8 record a season ago, the Washington State Cougars will be looking to turn some heads this year.
The Cougs fired head coach Paul Wulff after the season and brought in Mike Leach, a favorable move according to many around the conference.
Leach reached a bowl game in each of the 10 seasons he coached at Texas Tech, and his arrival in Pullman brought lofty expectations.
Perhaps unfairly, Leach has been coined to resurrect the WSU team and raise them from a bottom-dweller to a bowl-caliber team.
His first year will be a transition year, yet Cougar fans should be excited at the prospect of Leach coming to work with an already talented squad.
The Cougars will surprise some teams next season, especially if those divisional foes count on seeing the easygoing WSU of years prior.
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The biggest reason the Cougars will surprise teams this year is because of their new head coach.
Leach is riding into Pullman with an 84-43 record at Texas Tech and a host of accolades alongside him. As a Red Raider, he coached a perennial contender that featured some of the top offensive threats in the game.
From Michael Crabtree to Graham Harrell, Leach was able to find success with his athletes, and designed an offense where they would thrive.
As Leach turns his focus to WSU, he finds himself in a very comparable place to Texas Tech. Before he was hired by the Red Raiders, the team finished right around .500 each season, but Leach was able to guide them to four nine-win seasons and one 11-win season.
Texas Tech was a similar to situation to Pullman, where the location is a tough sell to recruits, yet Leach found success recruiting to Lubbock. He will definitely find success recruiting to Pullman.
In the upcoming season, Leach will have some tricks up his sleeve, as he has had some time to think about it, after a three-year coaching hiatus.
Leach has a zany offense where he spreads the ball to multiple receivers. That offense will do wonders in the Pac-12 North, which featured four teams who had seven wins or less.
After Paul Wulff went 9-40 during his four-year career, Leach will be a godsend for Cougar fans that are ready to see a coach that isn’t afraid to test the odds. For instance, Leach is a maestro with statistics and will break down percentages on fourth down to determine if he believes his team will convert.
Wulff does not compare to Leach, and Leach will prove that next season.
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Fans may be quick to write off Tuel after his 2011 campaign where he appeared in only three games due to injuries.
However, Tuel could be in for a bounce back year, where he is out to prove that he is still an elite quarterback in the Pac-12.
He had a monstrous 2010 season for the Cougs, where he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns versus only 12 interceptions.
That was while he was only a true sophomore and the team was in flux, to say the least. Tuel simply performed week in and week out, and without the nagging injuries he faced in 2011, fans would have been able to see a repeat performance.
As he enters his senior season, Tuel will be gearing up to boost his NFL draft stock, while playing in Leach’s pass-first offense.
Leach has produced record-setting quarterbacks in Harrell and Kliff Kinsbury while at Texas Tech, and Tuel should be the next quarterback in waiting.
The weapons are around him on offense, as WSU ranked ninth in passing offense a season ago. With more experience along the offensive line and a solid core of receiving threats, this year will be a big one for Tuel, and he will want to show fans that his 2010 campaign was no fluke.
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Wilson is a bit of an unknown when it comes to his role in the upcoming season.
When Leach came to town, fans instantly began comparing Wilson to Michael Crabtree and began projecting the junior-to-be wide receiver as the next darling of Leach’s offense. However, Leach was hesitant to make any comparisons between the two, saying Wilson lacked work ethic and consistency.
With the harsh criticism, Wilson exploded in the WSU spring game, tallying four catches for 149 yards and an 84-yard touchdown catch.
With Leach’s offense installed, Wilson will no doubt play a crucial role in the success or failure of the 2012 season. Wilson possesses all the skills necessary for a downfield threat, yet the question marks surrounding him are bothersome.
If Wilson can live up to his untapped potential and show the skills that made him a second-team All-Pac-12 receiver, he could be one of the best receivers in the country this year.
The Pac-12 is loaded with receivers this year, with Robert Woods and Marquis Lee at USC, and Keenan Allen at Cal, yet Wilson may be the best of them all.
He is a warrior when the ball is in the air, and although Leach’s offense doesn’t focus on vertical threats, Wilson will get a few looks per game where he can shine down the field.
Wilson is not physical enough at the line of scrimmage, but if he works on getting stronger and more physical, the Pac-12 could be in for a challenge when they attempt to gameplan against Wilson.
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After a year where they ranked 95th in points allowed, the Cougar defense will be in for a major overhaul.
With new defensive coordinator Mike Breske coming to Pullman, the Cougs have switched to a 3-4 defensive front.
Along with the base package, WSU will also play a more opportunistic style of play on defense, as they will look for takeaways at all times, according to Breske.
Last season, WSU only mustered a measly eight interceptions and 17 sacks, and Breske will certainly be looking to improve on those numbers.
With safety Deone Bucannon entering his junior season, the Cougs have the playmakers necessary to force turnovers, it’s just a matter of the schemes at this point. Breske has already converted senior Travis Long to the “buck” linebacker position in order to force more pressure.
With Long anchoring the front seven, the secondary should have an easier time collecting interceptions down the field.
Alongside Long, the Cougars will feature defensive end Xavier Cooper, who missed last season with academic eligibility concerns.
However, Cooper was a force during spring workouts, and has indicated that he will be a force come fall.
With a potent pass rush, the Cougar defense could force enough pressure in order to force turnovers and give the ball back to their prolific offense.