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the Gekko Files: Previewing Washington State Cougar Football in 2016

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The Cougars are out to prove that 2015 wasn't a fluke. But was it?

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars won nine games in 2015.

Nine games, ladies and gentlemen. Nine.

The more I say it, the more real it becomes.

To put nine games in context, consider that the last time the Cougs even finished a season with a winning record was the last time they won at least that many. In 2003, WSU finished with a 10-3 record.

You remember that 2003 Cougar team, right? That was the season that WSU marched into Husky Stadium with a gaudy 2-loss record (losses to highly ranked Notre Dame and USC being the only blemishes on their record) and took a whipping at the hands of a home underdog Husky team. That same WSU team, which featured Cougar legends such as WR Jason Hill, DE Mkristo Bruce, LB Will Derting, and QB Matt Kegel (who the Gekko happens to know personally and can attest is an awesome guy).

It's been all downhill since then. 2015 started out looking like a downer as the Cougs pulled out one of the ugliest losses in PAC-12 history: a crushing 24-17 defeat at the hands of FCS doormat Portland State. Cougar fans were beside themselves after that Week One loss with many calling for the head of their celebrated coach, Mike Leach.

But the Portland State fiasco seemed to turn on a light bulb. The Cougs reacted with a stretch of games where they outperformed expectations and what the "efficiency stats" suggested they ought to. They won games that they were supposed to win (Wyoming, Oregon State, etc.), they won games that they were not supposed to win (Oregon, Arizona, UCLA), and they were competitive in losses that were supposed to be blowouts (Stanford, Cal).

Until their destruction in Husky Stadium, which will forever go down as the "Apple and Whine Cup" due to Coug fan insistence that the absence of star QB Luke Falk was the difference between a win and loss, the Cougs were having nothing short of a remarkable season.  But that Apple Cup performance, along with some statistical analyses that suggests there may have been a bit of luck involved in WSU's record, have people wondering if that success is sustainable.

UW fans may not wish to acknowledge it, but the Cougs are back. Just how big a threat they are in a crowded and talented North Division is the only relevant question.

And the Gekko has the answer.

WSU's Offense:

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Graham Harrell Passing Attack
Red Zone Efficiency
Explosive Plays
Pass Protection
QB Luke Falk
WR Gabe Marks
QB Tyler Hilinski (RFr)
WR Isaiah Johnson (TFr)

QB Luke Falk wants to make a case that he's the top returning QB in the PAC-12.

I often struggle forecasting the WSU offense not so much because I can't interpret the talent, but because I'm still a novice with Mike Leach's Air Raid. It is relatively difficult for me, as such, to identify the factors that are going to lead to offensive success or to tag the players that are going to break out. Two seasons ago, I didn't see River Cracraft coming because I didn't understand the importance of his position in the scheme. Last year, I missed the breakout of the running back committee because I didn't understand how Leach looks at the rush game.

I have no clue what I'll miss in this preview, but I'm sure my Coug fan friends will point it out to me. One thing I am sure of is that the receiving corps is going to be fine.

When assessing WSU's receivers, you have to keep in mind a few things. First, at minimum, Leach requires a healthy cadre of at least seven or eight rotational players. Second, RBs count as receivers. Third, speed is far less important than route and ball skills. Fourth, just catching passes isn't enough. The math of the Air Raid is such that a four-yard reception is equivalent to a 1-yard rush when you risk-adjust for the number of passes and the odds of an incompletion in WSU's attack. Receivers have to do something with the ball for this offense to succeed.

2016 might well be the year of the receivers in the PAC. Teams like Oregon, Stanford, USC, Arizona State, and Cal all can claim to have "great" receiving corps. WSU might well be right there in the conversation as the top. It is a balanced, experienced, savvy group. It is led by a darkhorse PAC OPOY candidate in WR Gabe Marks, who led the team in targets, receptions, yardage, and TDs a year ago. He's a quick guy with unbelievable hands and an ability to break free for the occasional big play.

The rest of the corps is defined by experienced role players and it is deep. Senior River Cracraft is back after a down year that was defined more by a lack of targets than a lack of production with the ball. Junior Robert Lewis and sophomore hybrid Keith Harrington each caught more than 50 passes apiece out of their slot roles. There is plenty of production here.

If there is a concern, it is where the big plays are going to come from. Big Dom Williams is gone, leaving no obvious successor to blow tops off of secondaries. Young players like sophomore Tavares Martin and true freshman Isaiah Johnson are going to get chances based on the fact that they may be the only "big" receivers on the roster. Otherwise, it remains to be seen if one of the more experienced receivers can make that transition.

Part of the responsibility of generating big plays in this offenses will fall to junior QB Luke Falk. Falk enters this season as one of the favorites for PAC-12 player of the year. As a QB, it is easy to understand why. Falk plays the game with a pro's approach. He is disciplined in how he executes the offense, comfortable making decisions, and ridiculously accurate with the ball. He's a big QB, 6'4" 214 lbs. Despite his frame, he doesn't flash a ton of arm strength, which could explain why WSU's explosive play rate is so low.

Big plays are the key to WSU taking the next step. The RB situation, which is made of up of some surprisingly good players in big back junior Gerard Wicks and scatback junior Jamal Morrow, doesn't produce enough to move the chains consistently enough to help WSU sustain drives (WSU's opponent-adjusted drive success rate - the rate at which a series produces a first down or a TD - was just 54th in the nation). This is probably more a factor of opportunity than capability. Nevertheless, there is talent and depth in this unit if Leach wants to use it.

Up front, WSU is replacing one of the best linemen in the recent history of WSU, Joe Dahl. Replacing him will be tough on an offensive line that was just "average" a year ago. However, if I'm a Coug fan, I'd be pretty optimistic. The pieces that return are really good starts. OG Eduardo Middleton, a mountain of a man at 325 lbs, was an All-PAC-12 player a year ago and looks solid. Senior C Riley Sorenson and junior OT Cole Madison are also returning starters. The depth of experience thins quickly after that, but many of the players ready to step in are at least older, more mature players; sophomores and juniors. I know that WSU fans are excited about sophomore LT prospect Andrew Dillard, a longer, slighter, more athletic lineman. I'm bullish on this line, particularly as run blockers. I do wonder if they are quick enough to be good pass protectors, an area they struggled in a year ago.

WSU's Defense:

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Alex Grinch Pass Defense
Pass Rush
DL Depth
LB Speed
DL Hercules Mata'afa
DB Shalom Luani
LB Garrett McBroom (JUCO)
DE TJ Fehoko (RFr)

DE Hercules Mata'afa was a breakout as a freshman and is one of the top DL in the PAC-12.

Defense in Pullman has long been considered a luxury in much the same way the locals consider indoor plumbing. For much of the past decade the Cougs have set the floor on just how low defenses can sink, statistically speaking. Mike Leach promised to reinvigorate the defense when he took over at WSU - a curious sentiment from a coach more known for blitzing bears than for blitzing QBs.

The good news is that the WSU pass defense has emerged as a strength. Though they generated just 13 interceptions in 2015, they allowed only 13 passing TDs on the year (second to UW's 11 in the PAC) and demonstrated a strong ability to cover pass-happy PAC-12 offenses in space. The returning star is breakout senior S Shalom Luani, a JUCO transfer who participated in 90 tackles and led the team in INTs with four.

Beyond Luani, the Cougs return seven more players with game experience including starting CBs Parker Henry (senior), Darrien Molton (sophomore), and Marcellus Pippins (junior). Combined, it is a deep group that excels in defending the pass. Henry, a big nickelback, really flashes as a disruptive player. If there were a critique, it would be that the unit is a bit small and not very stout in supporting run defense. However, the Cougs play a Nick Holt-ish version of "bend-don't-break" and this secondary excels at making DC Alex Grinch's system work.

The linebacking corps isn't quite as settled as the secondary. MIKE Peyton Pelluer might be WSU's most important defender. Though he is small for a middle backer, he plays the game with the same kind of grit as former Husky MLB Cort Dennison. He's a willing defender who will put his nose up into a hole just to see what happens.

The Cougs are replacing Pelluer's former partners in WILL Jeremiah Allison, RUSH Ivan McClennan and RUSH Kache Palacio, all of whom were very productive players. Junior Isaac Dotson, who has been a big DB for most of his career, could slide up to WILL. If not, the veteran junior Frankie Luvu might be in for a turn. Beyond those guys, we are looking at a crop of JUCO transfers and converted DBs to fill out the depth.

What happens with the RUSH backer is also a significant question. McClennan and Palacio generated 12 sacks between them and were a big reason that WSU was 16th in the nation in "disruptive" defensive plays a year ago. There are few experienced bodies available to take on this role. If junior Dylan Hanser can't win this job, I frankly have no idea who will. It's a huge question mark.

The RUSH backer is part and parcel of the defensive line, which also happens to be a unit in transition. Gone are ends Destiny Vaeao and Daryl Paulo, big losses from a unit that had lost Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper a year prior. The Cougs struck gold with the breakout of pass rush terrorist Hercules Mata'afa in 2015. Mata'afa, now a sophomore, is the only thing resembling a pass rusher that WSU has, but he is a good one.

Despite Mata'afa's presence, WSU is clearly rebuilding the line. Robert Barber is a serviceable NT who has just one untested backup - sophomore Ngalu Tapa. The 3T position looks like it will be manned by junior Daniel Ekuale, who will be challenged by a lack of size to fit the position. Young players are going to get a chance to contribute. Some names to watch for are sophomore 3T Kingston Fernandez and redshirt freshman T.J. Fehoko.

In all, it is fair to be concerned about WSU's D-line. They rotated very few players a year ago and lucked out with relatively good health. However, it leaves them light on experience going into 2016. This unit could be real weak link for what otherwise looks like an improving defense overall.

One Breakout Star

DE T.J. Fehoko

I'll probably regret this pick (because I think true freshman Isaiah Johnson might really emerge as an outside guy for Luke Falk), but Fehoko is a player that I like. He came to WSU a year ago as one of the more touted recruits that the Cougs had ever landed on their defensive line. At 6'1" and 250 lbs, Fehoko shows both power and speed as a pass rush specialist. He looks like the slimmed-down version of Hau'oli Kikaha.

While Fehoko may appear to be a Hercules Mata'afa clone and his clear backup heading into 2016, I'm having a hard time seeing how WSU is going to be able to afford to keep him off the field. Given that there are no other obvious pass rushers to backfill for Palacio and McClellan, I think Grinch will find many ways to get the versatile Fehoko on the field. When he gets there, I believe that we'll all see what kind of natural and instinctual player he can be. I'd look for 40-50 tackles and five or six sacks for the redshirt freshman.

Others who might garner some breakout attention include RB James Williams and NT Ngalu Tapa.

Predicting 2016

After going through my research and this analysis, I can understand why Coug fans are excited for this team. Take away all of the positive momentum from a team that won 9 games (by the way, UW has only won 9 once since the last Rose Bowl year) and you still see a team with a lot going for it. A star QB, a bright young secondary, a killer receiving corps, and the makings of a decent offensive line. Those are all good things.

I'd even go so far as to guess that WSU will be better on offense than they were a year ago. I do think that the line will take a step up, and the emergence of a rushing attack makes Leach's Air Raid more dynamic (if he has the discipline to use it). I admit to being pessimistic about WSU's ability to create more explosive plays, but I could see them turning the ball over less which would serve to magnify what is already an efficient red zone offense.

The defense, however, will be markedly worse than it was a year ago. The front seven isn't particularly deep and it lacks the same disruptive powers that it flashed a year ago. In addition, there was a certain amount of luck - 11 fumble recoveries were 2nd best in the conference - in WSU's emergence as a turnover-producing machine. That kind of luck tends to regress.

WSU's schedule will help. Though they have a tough road trip to Boise State early, this is a five-home-game conference schedule with misses against USC and Utah. They also get three of their last four conference games at home, including the Apple Cup. It might be the best schedule in the PAC-12 when you consider home games, misses and layout.

In all, I think that WSU is a six-win team that might find a seventh thanks to the favorable schedule. I do like WSU's offense and I am impressed with the young players that are starting to produce. I obviously have concerns about where the pass rush will come from and if they can stop any PAC-12 rushing attack. I also think that you have to risk-adjust the QB situation to account for both the lack of depth behind him (Falk will surely miss some snaps over the course of a season, just as every WSU QB does) and the lack of a proven deep guy.

Call it a good-not-great year for a team that is transitioning, but nevertheless on the rise.