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the Gekko Files: Previewing WSU Football in 2015

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The crimson and gray are trying to get back to bowl contention. Is 2015 the year?

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2014 was not a fun year for WSU head coach Mike Leach.
2014 was not a fun year for WSU head coach Mike Leach.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for your interest in joining the fight for this urgent cause.  As many of you know, the use of leeches in the medical sciences is a practice that goes back centuries.  Leeches were first used in ancient Indian societies by physicians who sought treatments for various pains and diseases of the skin.  The Greeks recognized the value of leeches in treating diseases of the blood.  Indeed, many cultures have discovered the virtues of leeches and that tradition continues today.

If you happen to cut off your ear in hopes of earning the affection of a woman who you then discover is having an affair with your little brother, your doctor may well use leeches in reattaching it.  If you happen to accidentally amputate your index finger in a canned beer accident - a phenomenon that is relatively common in Pullman - your doctor will likely use leeches to repair the damage.  If you accidentally lose a toe because you initially liked the way that the goat's nibbling felt - also, remarkably, a common problem in Pullman - leeches may well be used again.

You see, ladies and gentlemen, a leech's kiss is comprised of a several proteins and natural anticoagulants that not only promote healing but optimize the continuous flow of the patient's own blood to the injured area.  In short, leeches are good for you.

I have good news, ladies and gentlemen. Leeches are in no way an endangered species and they have the potential to benefit mankind for a very long time.

The bad news?  Another kind of Leach is in danger.  Like the other, this Leach is also good for you.  And, just like the other, he is a phenomenon in Pullman.

This Leach benefits mankind in several ways:

But this Leach, ladies and gentlemen, is in danger.  Real danger.  The simple truth of the matter is that society will see the disappearance of this species of Leach if something is not done immediately.

Is it too late? Can this Leach ... the "Mike" Leach ultimately be saved? Let's peek in the Gekko Files and find out.  Oh, and watch out for the bears.

2014 Recap - What I Said

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

Here were some of my verbatims:

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....

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. ....

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...

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...

Yeah, I may have been a little too bullish on this one.  But I wasn't the only one.

The Cougs opened 2015 with a lot of optimism.  They were coming off a bowl game in Mike Leach's second season, they had a stud QB, and they felt that their young D was turning a corner.  It took all of 10 seconds and a Rutgers 78 yard TD pass in the first play of the first game to put the trajectory of WSU's season in jeopardy.  Though WSU would make a game of it, they would ultimately fall in their "home" game against the Big 10 foe.

A road trip to Nevada in Week 2 turned into another loss and, before Cuog fans could shotgun a Natty Light, bowl hopes for WSU football were out the window.

You all know how everything else turned out.  The Cougs got decimated by injuries - including a gruesome leg injury to starting QB Connor Halliday.  They struggled with a youthful offensive line.  They couldn't establish their running backs in either the rushing or passing attacks.  They had special teams failures that led to the mid-season firing of their special teams coach.  It was disaster after disaster, crisis after crisis, mess after mess.

As the season concluded, WSU fans were left wondering if Mike Leach was going to be the man to return WSU to its former glory.  2015 arrives with a sense that this is a bit of a make or break campaign for the quirky Coug coach and his vaunted Air Raid attack.

Previewing 2015: The WSU Cougars

The Offense
Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Mike Leach OL Depth
WR Depth
QB Experience
RB Performance
WR Dom Williams
WR River Cracraft
OT Joe Dahl

QB Peyton Bender (RS)
WR Barry Ware (RS)

When was the last time we talked about WSU's offensive line being a strength?

It's hard to talk about a Mike Leach offense and call out the talents of specific players as differentiators.  WSU's offensive philosophy is all about forcing the defense to make tradeoffs and then taking whatever is left open.  As such, nobody spreads the ball out like Mike Leach.  Last year, the WSU offense had 9 different players receive 40 or more targets in the passing attack.  They were led by now graduated Vince Mayle with 163, but six of those nine are returning in 2015.  Senior WR Dom Williams figures to be the breakout guy who will step into Mayle's starting "X" role.  In addition, former #1 receiver Gabe Marks is back from a red shirt year while guys like junior River Cracraft and senior Tyler Baker project as significant contributors.  It's an excellent unit overall.  If you were going to have any questions here, it would be around who in the second level of the two deeps can emerge in a Cougar offense that relies on receiver rotations.

The real secret to WSU's offense, however, is the offensive line.  Yup, you heard me right.  The Cougars offensive line projects as one of the rising units in the PAC 12 in 2015.  WSU's projected two-deep returns every single player that was in last year's two-deep.  It is made of five seniors, three juniors and two sophomores.  The leaders of the unit are LT Joe Dahl and big (320lb) C Riley Sorenson.  When your two best guys on a unit that boasts 83 career starts are your LT and C, you should expect a great year.  And I think the Cougs offensive line will really shock some people this season.

That's good news for the Coug backfield which doesn't project quite as well.  Sophomore Luke Falk is the current favorite to reprise his role as starting QB.  Falk had mixed success in relief of Halliday a year ago.  While he showed good mobility and a certain flair for making plays, he struggled with mistakes and seemed to take too many hits.  He'll have to hold off Peyton Bender during camp if he hopes to take the field in Week 1.  Bender is a classic pocket passer who stands 6'4" with a pretty big arm.   Accuracy and knowledge of the offense seem to be the big things holding Bender back.  But he's young and with some upside.  It would shock nobody if he won the job outright.

This should be an interesting year for the Cougs offense.  The receivers and line are fully stocked and ready to roll.  If a QB can emerge to make the right calls, get the ball to the open players and avoid the crippling negative plays, this offense could really hum.  If they get anything out of RBs Gerard Wicks or Jamal Morrow, all the better.  But those are big "ifs".  I sense that the Cougs are destined for some pretty steep ups and downs as the season wears on.

The Defense
Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Alex Grinch Rush Defense
DL Experience
Man Coverage
Big Play Prevention
LB Kache Palacio
DL Destiny Vaeao
LB Jeremiah Allen
DT Thomas Toki
S Kameron Powell

OLB Jeremiah Allison is looking to establish himself as a leader for the Cougs.

I expect that the next few paragraphs might become highly contested points of debate in the comments section below because, well, I'm going to make a case that the WSU defense may actually be the strength of the team in 2015.  At the very least, I think it is fair to say that the improvements we should see in the WSU D should erase any declines that the offense might see.

I'm particularly bullish about the Cougs defensive line.  WSU will be shifting to more of a true 4-3 in 2015 and will put on the field a rotation that features four seniors, two juniors and a sophomore.  Like their offensive line, this is an experienced group of grown men.  DE Kache Palacio led the team in sacks a year ago and returns to play that Kikaha-style end role.  DT Destiny Vaeao enters his third season as a starter and a run-stopper.  Senior Daryl Paulo is a reliable 3T guy who fills an important role.  While I don't necessarily see any breakout stars, I will be keeping my eye on true freshman DT Thomas Toki, a 300 lb beast who looks ready to compete in the PAC right now.

As interesting as the d-line is, the linebackers could be even more so based on the young talent on hand.  OLB Jeremiah Allison is the key returning starter.  He led the Cougs in tackles a year ago and racked up 3.5 sacks.  He'll have a few new starters playing next to him.  Sophomore Peyton Pelleur got valuable experience a year ago and projects as a competent MLB if he can hold off a threat from 255 lb thumper RFr. Chandler Leniu, assuming that they don't end up playing together.  There is a lot of potential with this linebacking corps, but depth is going to be a major issue.

The weak link for the Cougs is that secondary.  On one hand, you would expect it to be better based solely on the fact that they won't have the same MASH unit they had to deal with a year ago.  On the other hand, the pieces that they will roll out don't look all that great even when healthy.  Their two best pieces might be sophomore CB Charleston White and sophomore S Suilaman Hameed (will he overtake Taylor Taliulu?).  In fact, White led all freshman CBs in the nation a year ago with 14 pass break ups.  Beyond that, the Cougs will be mixing and matching their pieces.  A few young players and bevy of JUCO transfers are all going to be counted on to compete in this patchwork unit.  If you are looking for a breakout, keep your eye on young corner Marcellus Pippins who had a mini-breakout game in the Apple Cup with 5 tackles, 1 TFL and a pass break up.

Three Questions and a Comment: Jeff Nusser, Editor, Coug Center

1. We are in year four of the Mike Leach era. Is this a make or break year for the Coug coach?

It's funny that you ask that - I was actually just talking about this with another one of our writers the other day. We were discussing just how different this feels than the fourth year of Paul Wulff, which ultimately led to his firing. That felt much more "make or break" than this one. In fact, this doesn't feel that way *at all*. I think that largely has to do with the fact that AD Bill Moos is all in on Leach, and has the coach's back at every turn - including giving him a raise before last season.

That's not to say all fans are satisfied; a pair of three-win campaigns in the first three seasons isn't what anyone envisioned, and there is a segment of the fanbase that thinks we aren't getting our money's worth. From my vantage point, those fans seem to be the same ones who thought Wulff got a raw deal. That's a minority viewpoint, though the ranks of the discontented will certainly grow if WSU doesn't get back to a bowl game this season.

2.  The Cougs lost a lot of playmakers off of last year's roster - most notably Connor Halliday and Vince Mayle. What should Pac 12 fans expect to see as the Coug offense evolves in 2015?

It's reasonable to expect the quarterback play to take a step back as we move from a record-breaking senior to Luke Falk, a sophomore who only has started a handful of games, and it's never easy to lose your top wide receiver. However, the offense should still be good -- and perhaps even better.

Nobody can reasonably expect Falk to play up to Connor Halliday's level, but he displayed excellent command of the Air Raid in his limited action last year. He was inconsistent -- particularly in terms of taking care of the ball against ASU and UW -- but that's to be expected of a freshman thrust into the limelight, and there's hope that he can give the team solid play. Additionally, while Mayle was a workhorse, there's reason to believe the wide receivers will be deeper across the board. Dom Williams -- Mayle's backup last season and now replacement -- is a more explosive downfield threat than his predecessor. One-time four-star recruit Gabe Marks returns from a redshirt to man the other outside spot, and there are some who thought that inside receiver River Cracraft was the team's best receiver before getting injured -- myself included.

If the offense is going to improve, it likely will come down to one thing: A dramatic step forward from the offensive line. It's a group that returns all five starters from a year ago, and improved performance there would shore up WSU's top weakness: Effectiveness running the ball in power situations. The Cougars piled up a ton of yards last year, finishing seventh nationally in total offense. But they were just 46th in scoring, and that's largely due to poor red zone conversions -- 84th nationally in scoring percentage (thanks, kickers!) and 51st nationally in TD%. A matured offensive line -- which will be blocking for what likely is the best group of running backs WSU has had in years -- could make a massive improvement in points scored, even if the team isn't piling up as many yards.

3. What one or two things have to happen in 2015 for WSU to take the proverbial next step to "contender" in the Pac 12 North?

Oh, I can't really imagine a scenario where WSU is contending for a division title. But if we're talking pie-in-the-sky dreams? The defense has to be vastly, VASTLY improved. Leach has made a lot of strides in terms of improving both the overall talent level and performance of the offense, but Mike Breske's reign as defensive coordinator was an unmitigated disaster. While the Air Raid was finally taking off, Breske's unit was giving up more than 38 points per game last season, despite having similar recruiting rankings as the offense. The most visible train wreck? WSU losing to Cal while scoring 59 freaking points.

WSU recruited hard to that side of the ball this cycle, particularly in the secondary, including a number of junior college guys. Leach also fired Breske and hired Alex Grinch as his new defensive coordinator. Grinch has never been in charge of a defense before. Unless he's truly a prodigy and the incoming talent is transcendent, it's hard to imagine WSU doing more than shooting for six or seven wins.

The one upset that Coug fans have circled on their schedules this season is ...

... Oregon (but only because you begged me to say that). The Cougs have played the Ducks reasonably tough for long stretches of games for a few years now, and had a good chance to beat them last season. Maybe this is the year they can break through for a signature Mike Leach win.

(I would have said Washington, but that won't be an upset when we take back the Apple Cup.)

Predicting 2015: The Cougars

I know that many people are down on the Cougars going into 2015 and that a few of you (ahem, Kirk) are projecting a veritable dumpster fire kind of campaign.  The implication being, of course, that said dumpster fire will end up burning hot under Mike Leach's seat as the Cougs head into the new year.

I'm not seeing that at all.  In fact, I see something that looks like a competitive football team taking shape.  I love that depth and experience that the Cougs boast on both sides of their line of scrimmage - every starter back on both sides from a year ago - and I think that this is a building block that all teams would love to work with.  In addition, there is no question that the Cougs have the offensive weapons to score points in bunches.

The big questions, of course are at QB, RB and in the defensive secondary.  While most teams have questions, these three seem to be pretty significant and have the potential to really derail the Cougs and cause them to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (dare I say to "Coug it") at least once or twice this year.

I also don't love this WSU schedule.  They have just four home conference games this year and two of those are Stanford and ASU.  They have to go on the very long road trip to Rutgers in Week 2.  They have no BYEs during the conference schedule.  They have to travel to Seattle for the Apple Cup which is going to happen the day after Thanksgiving.  Yeesh.

Still, I can't help but think that the Cougs are going to shock a few teams this year.  I could easily see four conference wins on this schedule which should put them squarely in the middle of the PAC 12 North and lead to a return to the post season for Mike Leach and crew.