Washington State Football: 5 Breakout Players for the 2012 Season
With the 2012 campaign inching closer, Washington State Cougar fans have a lot to look forward to.
The hiring of Mike Leach and the installation of his air raid offense are just a few of the new additions to the upcoming season.
Following the release of Paul Wulff, Leach was hired as a potential savior for the Cougs, who finished last year with a disappointing 4-8 record.
Some have speculated that the Cougs will be bowl bound under Leach, who guided Texas Tech to 10 consecutive bowl games during his tenure.
Along with the coaching overhaul, Martin Stadium has now been renovated and will feature a new press box and luxury seating.
The Cougar football team seems to be heading in the right direction, and under the tutelage of Leach, WSU could be primed for a big turnaround.
Here are five under the radar players who will make an impact for the Cougs this year.
Gabriel Marks, Wide Receiver
Although he has not played a single down of college football up to this point, Marks could turn out to play a major role for Wazzu.
Marks enters this season as the No. 39 wide receiver prospect, according to Scout, and was the only 4-star recruit brought in by Leach.
With a superstar receiver already in place on the outside in Marquess Wilson, anticipate Marks to carve out a niche in the slot.
Marks seems to fit Leach’s offensive style perfectly, as he has extremely reliable hands and is able to find space throughout the field. From the slot, he will be able to get off the line easier and make plays over the middle of the field.
He lacks a secondary burst of speed, but Marks is not that big and will fit in perfectly as a slot receiver. Furthermore, he has been improving his route-running during the offseason, which will please the coaching staff.
He is also versatile and has the ability to move into the backfield for handoffs and screens, which makes him that much more valuable.
Marks may not get as much attention as some of the other WSU receivers, but he will certainly make an impact, especially considering he’s only a freshman.
Xavier Cooper, Defensive End
Cooper is an interesting prospect to say the least.
He is entering his redshirt freshman year, and he hasn’t played a down of Pac-12 football, but through spring practices, Cooper was a downright beast.
He is big, as he measures at 6’4” and 280 pounds, but he is also fast considering his size.
With a lack of pass rushers along the defensive line, Cooper could be a godsend for defensive coordinator Mike Breske this year. He will certainly get a starting spot if he continues his hot play from spring ball.
Cooper has a non-stop motor and has an uncanny ability to find the quarterback.
Although he has only matched up against his fellow teammates up to this point in his WSU career, he will undoubtedly repeat his performance when matched up against the rest of the Pac-12.
Cooper voiced his mindset about opposing quarterbacks while discussing spring practices.
“We can’t take the quarterback down, but (during) game time, we’re coming down, we’re going to rip his head apart,” Cooper said.
It’s that kind of mean streak and attitude that is crucial in the trenches.
If Cooper can keep up his level of play and his will to get after the quarterback, WSU could see him blossom into a top-tier pass-rusher.
Damante Horton, Cornerback
Horton had a very solid 2011 campaign, where he was easily the Cougars’ best cornerback.
He finished with four interceptions, while he was usually matched up with the opposition’s top receiving threat.
However, with a new coaching staff in place, expect Horton to fully embrace the role of shutdown corner. Athlon Sports even has him as a member of the preseason all-conference second-team.
At times last season Horton’s coverage was suspect. By watching his instincts he is excellent when the ball is around him, but while the ball is in the air, Horton oftentimes looked lost.
That began to change during spring ball, as Horton looked more athletic than any other cornerback wearing crimson. He was flowing smoothly throughout the field and was locating the ball out of the quarterback’s hand, rather than when the receiver was making a play on it.
With the addition of a new coaching staff, Horton should flourish and turn into a premiere coverage corner who can be counted on to match up against the Pac-12’s finest.
With Breske running the defense, the Cougs will be looking for interceptions. It should not be out of the question for Horton to haul in his fair share during the season.
Chester Sua, Linebacker
Sua did see limited action last year during his freshman campaign, but his role will be expanding next season.
He steadily improved over the course of last year, yet was largely stuck behind Alex Hoffman-Ellis. With Hoffman-Ellis moving on to the NFL, Sua will likely line up at WIL backer in the new look 3-4.
The transition to the new base defense will help Sua, who is fast enough to play either inside or outside. He has good enough instincts that he can be counted on to chase down the ball-carrier from the back side.
Sua will need to step up, after the dismissals of both Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell. Sua is certainly still learning and adjusting to college football, but his ability is uncanny.
With his speed, he can certainly occupy the weak side and is surprising talented in pass coverage. He must improve on his consistency as he showed flashes throughout spring, yet was also reprimanded during practice by linebacker coach Jeff Choate.
Sua may be the Cougars’ best hitter, as he delivered a couple punishing blows during spring to the wide receivers.
As he continues to learn and adjust to a new defense, Sua will get more comfortable and eventually thrive in the Pac-12.
It’s only a matter of time until he puts it all together, and when that happens, receivers better watch out.
Andrei Lintz, Tight End
Lintz has garnered quite a bit of attention already due to his emergence in Mike Leach’s offense.
After catching only eight passes in his college career because he was more of a blocking tight end, Lintz has emerged after spring ball and is expected to be a dual threat tight end.
Leach is already seemingly salivating over the thought of using Lintz in his pass-happy offense, as he is a matchup nightmare, he is simply too fast for linebackers, yet too big for safeties and cornerbacks.
Leach described Lintz as grizzly bear who must use his hands more effectively to escape from the line. Lintz’ frame is similar to a grizzly bear, as he is listed at 6’5” and 252 pounds, yet he has the mobility of a shifty receiver.
Leach has hinted that he will use him in a variety of ways. He will use him as an interior receiver, a traditional tight end and will also keep him into block, in order to keep the defense guessing.
Regardless, Lintz is headed for a monster 2012 campaign because Leach will be able to use his versatility.
With a healthy Jeff Tuel delivering him the ball, Lintz should find a nice home in the back of the end zone.
He will be a mainstay on the offensive side of the ball and with Marquess Wilson on the outside, the defense will have to pick their poison when it comes to the Cougar offense.