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the Gekko Files: WSU 2014 Preview

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Shiver me timbers, the Pirate of the Palouse is up for a go in the Gekko Files. Let's all try to stay dry and keep our eyeballs in their sockets as we explore the prospects for Washington State in 2014.

Mike Leach never wears a hat.
Mike Leach never wears a hat.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I'd like to take a moment a tip my hat to the Coug faithful.  This is a storied and proud fanbase that has had to endure a decade of brackishness and irrelevance in a college football world that threatened to run completely past them.  As a matter of fact, they did do that 62 times over the last 10 years.

During that long stretch of futility, Coug fans stuck to their guns and never gave up hope.  They kept their spirit alive and, in doing so, they demonstrated their worth in a myriad of ways:

  • They kept the Ol' Crimson tradition on ESPN Gameday alive, even going so far as to elicit a police escort when Gameday arrived in Seattle last season



  • They traveled all over the world, coach class (obviously)

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  • They gave us Popcorn Guy

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    via cdn1.sbnation.com

  • They continued their tradition of marrying within their Coug families and wearing their Coug colors to their own weddings

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  • They demonstrated, on national television, the true value of a WSU education

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By their actions and their perseverance, Coug fan is an inspiration to all those who have ever felt despair or who have lost their way in troubled times.  They have demonstrated a zeal for life that shows us of how lovely the truly bizarre can be.  They have also reminded us that the best of us cannot be so unless we have a Coug to compare ourselves to.  For that, Coug fan, I thank you.

This Gekko File is for you.

2013 Recap - What I Said

In my Gekko File from a season ago, I was not overly optimistic about the chances of WSU and head coach Mike Leach.  However, with upsets over Arizona and USC, WSU outkicked their coverage in terms of my W's and L's projection.  Unfortunately, it helped them little in the standings as they finished right where I had projected.  Here is the accountability table:

Predicted Div Finish 5th
Actual Div Finish 5th
Predicted P12 Record 2-7
Actual P12 Record 4-5

Here were some of my verbatims:

I think that the Cougars have the pieces in place to take a pretty good step forward in 2013 and the opportunity to be as good as the Beavers...

... I see this being a 3 to 4 conference win type of season for Mike Leach - one where he pulls off a big upset somewhere along the line (Stanford, maybe?) and challenges for bowl eligibility

Long time readers of the Gekko Files know that I write the team specific write-ups before I actually sit down and pick the games one by one (which explains why my verbatim projects a "3-4 win" season while my accountability table projected a 2-7 record).  As it turns out, I should have trusted my initial take on the Cougs as that first "big upset somewhere along the line" almost happened in Week 1 when the Cougs traveled to Auburn and almost upset the eventual NCG representative from the SEC on their home turf.  Of course, it did happen, the very following week when WSU traveled to USC and upset Lane Kiffin and the Trojans in Los Angeles.  After a few cupcakes, Coug fans were a very optimistic bunch heading into the rest of their P12 play.

The optimism ground to halt pretty quickly after a beat down vs Stanford in a game where Kevin Hogan actually threw for more yards than Connor Halliday.  A bounceback win vs Cal couldn't stop a downward slide that saw WSU drop three straight to OSU, Oregon and ASU.  With bowl eligibility threatened, the Cougs did rally in time to win two more before watching UW hoist the Apple Cup in the last home game for Keith Price and friends.  The Cougs were relieved when their six wins turned out to be enough to get to the New Mexico Bowl, but they would ultimately leave the field empty handed after losing to Colorado State in a barn-burner of a game.

In the end, it was kind of a weird season for WSU.  The return to a bowl game after a ten year absence was a major accomplishment, in particular given the conference and division that the Cougs had to navigate to get there.  However, you would have expected a Mike Leach coached team to have gotten there on the backs of their offense.  In fact, their offensive F/+ was just 54th in the nation - a stat that was matched by their defensive F/+ - also 54th in the nation.  One could argue that it was the flashes of physical dominance, in both the USC and the Arizona games, where WSU played their best football of the season.  This is not unlike the surprisingly physical beatdown of Nebraska in UW's Holiday Bowl matchup with them a few years ago.  What we are left with, in the end, is the kind of Jekyll and Hyde season that you see out of some teams that are finally emerging from a long, stale slumber.  The big question is whether or not that awakening will continue into 2014.

For that, we need to check the Gekko Files.

Previewing 2014: The Cougars

If you could pick two words that you'd most closely associate with Mike Leach, what might they be?

"Master Technician"

"Court Jester" (my goodness, if I could string together and stream his press interviews into a 24-hour online channel, I'd never sleep.  He's so damn funny).

"Bear Hunter"

No?

How about "Air Raid"?

Leach has been patiently installing the system and the personnel required to run the foundation for his entire program, the Air Raid, over the past few years and he's finally reached the point where it is truly ready to threaten the rest of the teams in the Pac 12.  Let's start our preview on offense.

The Cougs best position group is probably their receiving corps.  It's a good thing given the fact that WSU usually has four of them on the field at the same time.  The starting lineup as it stands now features some pretty significant players.  The outside positions are manned by a couple of seniors in Vince Mayle and Kristoff Williams.  Both are very similar physically - in the 6'3" range and about 210 lbs.  As the "X" receiver, Mayle is the more physical of the two, but both have good ball skills and are a tough match-up for opponents.  The inside guys are Soph River Cracraft and Sr Ricky Galvin (H-back).  Cracraft was a revelation last year as a possession guy out of the slot.  He's a classic "back-breaker" type of player who looks like an easy cover until you see that he's got two yards of separation and has just moved the ball eight yards on your defense.  Galvin and his partner Calvin Green will split duties out of the H-back position.  Should any of the receivers need a breather, the Cougs can run out JR Dom Williams - another tall lanky guy who caught 40 balls himself a year ago.  I've gotten this far, and I haven't even mentioned the Cougs leading receiver from a year ago - Gabe Marks - who caught almost 80 balls.  Along with Arizona, WSU's receiving corps is amongst the best in the Pac.

Triggering the offense falls into the hands of the gunslinger, Connor Halliday.  Halliday is a tall, gangly senior QB who has a pretty good arm and has developed pretty well in this offense.  Let's not pretend that Halliday is a world beater at QB.  His accuracy is average and his decision-making can be erratic.  He's also not particularly mobile.  On the flip side, you only have to be in his presence a few minutes to see that his personality is the mirror image of Mike Leach and that he has the full confidence and respect of his team.  He's a great kid who gets tons of chances.  His goal is to get to somewhere over 800 passing attempts in 2014 (he had 715 a year ago).  When he's not passing the ball, he'll be handing off to Sr. Theron West who will benefit from the focus opposing D's have on the pass.

The Coug O-Line continues to be a weak spot for Leach and Co.  This is still a pretty young unit who will not be starting a senior in 2014.  This is a total rebuild job, folks.  While the Air Raid is meant to compensate for that to some degree, this could be an epic fail point for the entire program.  Two starters return on with OG Gunnar Eklund and LT Joe Dahl.  Beyond that, there are big-time questions.  The good news is that Leach has been building this unit back up and the contenders for the open positions are sophomores and juniors as opposed to younger players.

Defensively, the Cougs will try to build on top of a pretty big set of bodies anchoring their defensive line.  Jr. DT Xavier Cooper and Sr NT Toni Pole are a couple of names familiar to Husky fans.  Together with DE Destiny Vaeao, the Cougs have a starting trio of true 300 pounders.  I don't know if they can generate much of an outside pass rush, but, with Cooper in particular (he had 5 sacks in 2013), they have the ability to generate an inside pass rush and really disrupt teams with true drop backs like OSU, Cal and UCLA.

The back seven is where you start to have questions.  The rock of the group is ILB Darryl Monroe.  He's very similar to John Timu in both build and playing style.  He's the leader of a small and quick linebacking corps that features upper classmen Cyrus Coen, Tana Pritchard and Kache Palacio.  Palacio plays the "BUCK" position and will be leaned on for pass rushing - he had four sacks a year ago to go along with 6.5 TFLs.  I like him as a break-out candidate for WSU.

All of these guys will have to be pretty good at handling the spread teams they'll face because the secondary is a source of plenty of concern.  A position of strength a year ago with Deone Bucannon and Damante Horton, the Cougs have five DBs to replace.  There are no proven pieces, although Soph CB Daquawn Brown is a guy that lots of people are buzzing about.  If he is good enough to earn a starting role, he could lock down that spot for a few years.  The only set position is Sr FS Taylor Taliulu, a reserve a year ago.  Filling the slots around him is a huge story line in fall camp.

Three Questions and a Comment: Mark Sandritter, Coug Center

1. What is WSU's best position group heading into 2014?

Wide receiver and by a wide margin. WSU has quality depth at a couple other spots, but it is nowhere near the depth at wide receivers. Nearly the entire group from last year returns, minus Bobby Ratliff. There is experienced two-deep depth at all four receiver spots. With a couple of promising freshman, the Cougars are legitimately 10-deep at wide receiver. The group as a whole is probably more solid than spectacular. That could change some if Vince Mayle, Gabe Marks or River Cracraft take a step forward. Even if they don't, WSU can rotate heavily which helps when you put the ball in the air 60 times per game.

2. What unknown player is going to become a household name to Pac 12 fans in 2014?

Is Xavier Cooper at that level yet? If not, he is be my pick. He's received a little pre-season notoriety from some of the All-Pac-12 lists and season awards. Cooper is a versatile player who plays multiple spots and is solid against the pass and run. He's probably not going to be a double-digit sack guy, but could be in the 8-9 range while anchoring the line. For Seahawk fans, Cooper is essentially a more athletic version of Red Bryant. He's 6-foot-4, 300 pounds but agile and athletic. He has the potential to be an All-Pac-12 first or second team type this season.

3. Which game on your schedule is most likely to go the route of an upset - either for or against you - in 2014?

Tough to say since only a couple of WSU's games have odds at the moment. The Cougars are an 8-point favorite against Rutgers, which could be an upset alert game. Depending on who is favored when WSU travels to Nevada, I could see that as being a possibility. The same can be said for WSU at Utah. The Cougars' win against USC last year wasn't exactly awe-inspiring, but it did happen and USC comes to Pullman this year. Maybe lightning will strike two years in a row.

Opponents should fear WSU in 2014 because of...

...Air Raid. WSU is going to throw a lot. A lot of teams throw a lot, but WSU really throws a lot. That can be an adjustment for defenses, especially corners who really have their stamina tested. The Cougars have shown glimpses of effectively running the Air Raid, but haven't been proficient like Mike Leach's Texas Tech teams were. They started to click on those levels the second-half of last season. If they continue that progress and take a step forward with a deep cast of receivers, the offense could pose serious problems for defensive coordinators.

Predicting 2014: The Washington State Cougars

I think that there is no question that Mike Leach is beginning to change the culture at WSU.  He has implemented a whole new system and has demonstrated an ability to get more production out of more limited players compared to others who have inherited such dire turnaround jobs.  The Cougars have a lot of good things going for them as they head into 2014, but the big question is whether or not it is enough to propel them upward in the North standings.

Similar to the Arizona Wildcats, I think this is the year that WSU turns the corner and becomes a serious threat to any given team on any given Saturday.  The offense now has enough weapons in the passing game to generate big plays against even the more stout of Pac defenses.  On the flip side of the ball, there is just enough talent built around legit P12'ers like Monroe, Cooper and Pole to make some stops and generate some turnovers.  However, the Cougs are not completely through all of their growing pains.  That offensive line is a critical weak spot, at least on paper, and their depth chart is lacking in defensive players with the size and athleticism to stand up to the rigors of a Pac 12 schedule, in particular in that Linebacking corps.  Additionally, that defensive secondary is going to have some significant growing pains if the Cougs defensive front three (and their BUCK) cannot generate consistent disruption in the offensive backfield.  Clearly, there is talent here, but that talent may not be fully baked.

From a scheduling perspective, things actually look just "ok".  They get to host five home games this season, they get a BYE in week 11 (just in time for the Apple Cup) and they get to miss UCLA.  On the flip side, their home schedule includes at least three games that they'll be underdogs in (Oregon, USC and UW) and the other team that they miss is Colorado.  Summed up, the schedule is kind of a neutral for the Cougs who, I expect, could have as many wins on the road as they do at home this year.

The Cougs are better this year and I expect that their play will show it - particularly in the passing game.  Everybody should expect that Cougar offense to improve in its overall consistency and efficiency.  That said, I don't expect that they'll win many more conference games than the four they won a year ago, but I do think that they'll beat OSU and that should be good enough to get them to fourth in the Pac 12 North.  Given that there could be some drama in two of their OOC games (Rutgers in Seattle and @ Nevada), it is also possible that the Apple Cup could be the difference between a bowl game or no bowl game for the Cougs.  We all know how crazy Apple Cups in Pullman can get.  That ought to be a good one.