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the Gekko Files: Previewing Washington State Cougars Football in 2018

End of the suffering or end of an era? 2018 shapes up as a pivotal year for WSU and coach Mike Leach

Washington State v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Bill Connelly pointed out in his preview of WSU that it has been a tumultuous offseason for Coug Nation.

Actually, “tumultuous” is an understatement. Words can’t really describe the calamity that was the untimely passing of Tyler Hilinski and the tribulation that those around him, and by extension, those invested in the program and its kids, have endured. Forget about trying to figure out how to take the “next step” on the football field. This program has a more fundamental task of simply trying to figure out how talk about it with each other so that the process of healing can really begin.

But, at some point, football matters will come back to the forefront. And, as they do, the program will have to begin to digest all of the other noise not related to Tyler Hilinski that they have had to grapple with. Let’s go down the list, shall we:

With all of this going on, it is kind of hard to remember that WSU went 9-4 a season ago and was in the hunt for the North Division title all they way up until the Apple Cup. Even after the drubbing of the Apple Cup, there were not too many Coug fans who didn’t think that their team was on the cusp of something great.

But do they still feel that way today?

There is so much to discuss. Let’s get it on with the Gekko Files.

Washington State Offense

WSU Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
short passing game QB experience WR Tay Martin QB Gardner Minshew (txfr)
perimeter speed RB depth WR Kyle Sweet RB Max Borghi (TFr)
pass blocking OL Andrew Dillard WR Calvin Jackson (txfr)

Washington State is tied with Colorado for the fewest returning starters (10 by my count) among PAC 12 teams. The only difference between the two is that WSU has to install a new quarterback into Mike Leach’s Air Raid. So who are the candidates?

There are actually six players all vying for the opportunity to replace the graduated Luke Falk for the opportunity to be the next pinata ... errr ... I mean “gunslinger” to operate the Air Raid. Of those six, I think that there are four real candidates: East Carolina grad transfer Gardner Minshew, junior Anthony Gordon, junior Trey Tinsley, and true freshman Cammon Cooper.

If the results of spring are to be tabulated, you’d have to say that Tinsley came out the clear leader while Cooper seemed destined to redshirt. But, we shall see how the rest of it develops. Leach didn’t bring Minshew over just to be a sixth QB riding the pine. I expect that he and Tinsley will be the two primary competitors this fall. But, hey, don’t count out the dark horse candidacy of John Bledsoe - the 6’3” redshirt freshman son of Coug legend Drew Bledsoe. You never know.

Washington State v Utah
Meet WSU’s next star receiver: Davontavean Martin
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

One thing to watch with whomever takes over is the turnover situation. WSU won 9 games a year ago despite giving the ball up 31 times (worst in the PAC). Compare that to 17 the year prior. There is no way that WSU can be as careless with the ball in 2018 and still hope to compete for the division. The next QB will have a big say in that.

Whomever is throwing the ball will have a revamped group of Coug receivers to work with. Losing both Tavares Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack from their outside positions is a big blow. But WSU is always reloading receivers and, frankly, I’m not sure either of those two were among the best two receivers on the roster.

Sophomore Davontavean (Tay) Martin might actually hold that title. At 6’3” and 180 lbs, Martin really broke out as the season passed the halfway point a year ago. When you look at him, it is hard not to see a little Randy Moss in his game. He’s lanky, fast, and blessed with the ability to pick the ball out of the air under duress. He has superstar written all over him, but still has to get stronger in order to take the next step.

Kyle Sweet is another productive receiver, though he plays mostly on the inside. He’s back and can certainly be counted on for 80 catches and 500 yards. He will be joined by his former partner in crime Robert Lewis, a former starter who was lost to injury last season but was awarded a sixth year by the NCAA.

After those guys, there are plenty more talented receivers to throw into the mix. Renard Bell (keep an eye on him this year) and Jamire Calvin are both very productive inside guys while Dezmon Patton seems destined to start on the outside. If any of those guys falter, keep in mind that Leach also signed five true freshman and one juco transfer into this class. The transfer, Calvin Jackson, Jr., seems like a real find and a player who will have an impact from day one. He might be a good bet as a breakout player as could true freshman Rodrick Fisher (6’2” 190).

But what about the running back situation? In Leach’s Air Raid, those guys are just as important to the passing game as the inside receivers. WSU may have lost both Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow, but James Williams is back. And he is really good.

Williams caught 80 balls a year ago to go along with 92 rushes. So experience isn’t the issue. The big concern is that Williams isn’t all that effective as a runner (on those occasions when that is required). Falk got better over his last two seasons at checking into run plays when the opportunity for easy rushing yards was there and it became a big part of their offense. So running is a consideration.

There isn’t much behind Williams in terms of running talent. The Cougs will be relying on a rotation of journeyman Keith Harrington and true frosh Max Borghi to fill out the corps. Depth is a real concern here.

I’d also count depth as an issue on the offensive line. The Cougs are facing the tough task of replacing three starters - two of whom were postseason award recipients - on a line that started the same five players in every single game the year prior (how often does that happen anymore?). Fortunately, one of the two returning starters is an All PAC 12 honorable mention left tackle. Senior Andrew Dillard replaces both Cole Madison and big Cody O’Connell as the face of the Coug big uglies. He is joined by fellow starter, junior OC Fred Mauigoa as a pretty good foundation for the rebuilding line.

But where will the other starters come from? Much will be asked of young guys like T Abraham Lucas, Josh Watson and G Noah Osur-Myers (now that G Alec Kuzmack has left the program). The Cougs have done a nice job building depth and will have a full competition this fall comprising a lot of sophomores and juniors. Whomever emerges will have to excel under the strange conditions that WSU installs with their setback formations and wide line splits. The Cougs didn’t put out the most effective offensive line a year ago which, I believe, is one reason for their high turnover rate and high sack rates (44 ... last in the PAC; 82nd in the nation in adjusted sacks allowed rate) last year. It has to get better.

I should also take a moment to acknowledge that the Cougs will be replacing a kicker. Erik Powell - the holder of the longest FG conversion in FBS last season (56 yards) - has graduated after a strong year. The early candidates to replace him are Arkansas grad transfer Blake Mazza and sophomore Jack Crane.

Washington State Defense

WSU Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
big play prevention interior line size LB Jahad Woods DL Jonathan Lolohea (txfr)
CB depth pass rush experience LB Peyton Pelleur LB Fa'avae Fa'avae (RFr)
inside linebacker play S Jalen Thompson DB Damion Lee (RFr)

Ah, we now arrive to the real crux of the discussion. WSU’s offense will always be what it is: good enough to win, but not good enough to dominate most of the time. The key to WSU’s run last year was a defense that really broke through. Under the guidance of Alex Grinch, WSU’s D became one that both prevented teams from getting ahead of the sticks while creating extreme pressure against opposing offensive lines. The Cougs were very stout in run defense (4th in the PAC) and among the best in the nation in behind the line penetration (3rd in the nation in adjusted sack rate). All of this fed a total of 28 turnovers generated which went a long way to offsetting those 31 that were given up by the offense.

Washington State v UCLA
MLB Peyton Pelluer is back for a sixth year to help lead a rebuilding WSU defense.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

But much of the credit for that defense has to be given to people no longer associated with the program. Grinch is gone replaced by former Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys as the DC. Also gone are key players like DL Hercules Mata’afa, NT Daniel Ekuale, LB Isaac Dotson, LB Frankie Luvu and S Robert Taylor.

This will be a different D in 2018.

I think that the secondary has the potential to be the anchor unit for that D this season. Jalen Thompson, with 4 INTs, 2 PBUs, and 5.5 TFLs, emerged as an absolute stud at safety a year ago. Likewise, cornerback Hunter Dale (8 TFLs) showed that he can be effective at both covering inside receivers and supporting the run defense.

There is a nice mix of experience and youthful talent behind those two guys. Darrien Molton is back and will be an every down contributor at corner. I also expect junior Marcus Strong, senior Sean Harper (6’2”), and a couple of redshirt freshman - Isaiah Love and Damian Lee - to play key roles as the season goes on. Keep an eye on Harper as a potential surprise starter when the season opens.

Beyond Thompson, there is some concern about the lack of experience at safety. Robert Taylor’s open free safety job will come down to two players - Deion Singleton or Skyler Thomas - each of whom brings something very different to the table. Singleton is a middle of the field thumper while Thomas is the quicker, cover-oriented safety. This is a good start. But keep in mind that an injury or two could make WSU really young, really fast in their secondary. That would be a big burden no matter how much you like the talent they are beginning to stockpile.

Linebacker is a developing situation. Jahad Woods, who plays a Keishawn Bierria-like role for WSU, is an emerging star and, along with senior ILB Peyton Pelluer, the foundation of a pretty good one-two punch. Coug fans are also really excited by the athletic Justus Rogers, particularly as a blitzer who might be able to pick up some of the sacks that graduated with Mata’afa and Luvu.

After those guys, experienced depth becomes a real issue. Logan Tago is available as a bigger backer who can also drop down to the defensive line. WSU is also counting on a couple of younger players with high potential to contribute on the outside. Tristan Brock, a junior, and former transfer Chima Onyeukwu both have the physical skills to contribute but haven’t yet converted that to on-field impact. The WSU linebacking situation could quickly become a strength if either (or both) can translate those skills into productivity.

Coug fans are probably most worried about the defensive line and for good reason. It is hard to overstate just how disruptive a force Hercules Mata’afa (10.5 sacks, 22.5 TFLs while playing on the inside!) was and just how physical Daniel Ekuale played. They were the anchors of what was otherwise a very small and not deep defensive line.

There are no disruptors of Mata’afa’s nature ready to take over, whether on the inside or at an end. There are, however, some experienced upperclassmen who can at least fill out some depth while we wait for newer players to emerge. DE Nnamdi Oguayo is the key name to know and the one guy who could emerge as a new playmaker. The junior had 7 TFLs and 4 sacks a year ago.

Also back are senior Nick Begg and walk-on Taylor Comfort, both of whom are undersized interior guys who will each have to play more this season.

Among the newer players, the one prospect that jumps out is juco transfer Jonathan (Pona) Lolohea. He’s a 310-lb maneater from Hawaii who is expected to start right away. While not very explosive, his tape shows a lot of power and an ability to take on multiple blockers. If he could pop, it would be of huge help to a defensive line that won’t have a lot of depth available to it.

One Breakout Player

RB Max Borghi

If you didn’t already know about Tay Martin, he would have been an easy choice. But we here at the Gekko Files like to challenge ourselves by finding the more hidden diamonds in the rough.

Borghi, the true freshman running back, enrolled early and played through the entire spring. By most accounts, he was the most explosive of the three WSU tailbacks competing and seemed to have already beaten out Harrington for the role of James Williams’s top backup.

I think Borghi right now is the most natural running back on the roster. He also has good hands - a must if you want to see playing time in the Air Raid. Whether or not he can block effectively remains to be seen. Still, I can see him putting up Jamal Morrow types of numbers this year - 500 yards rushing, 4-5 TDs and a 5.5+ ypr average. That would be a stellar campaign should it come to pass.

Projecting the Cougars

This could be a really rough year for WSU if their issues at QB, offensive line, and defensive line don’t come together this fall.

While there is certainly offensive potential, in particular with that receiving corps, there is little else of a proven offensive nature upon which Mike Leach can hang his well-worn Coug ball cap. The best case scenario really is that Minshew, who went 1-12 as a starter at East Carolina, explodes as the second coming of Vernon Adams and leads the offense to a 33 points per game average just like it was a year ago. A more realistic scenario is that one of the QB candidates comes in as a less efficient version of Luke Falk with, perhaps, better ball security. 30 points per game on average might be the best that WSU can hope for. Not bad, but not enough.

If 30 points is the threshold that the defense has to defend it is going to have to be even better than it was a year ago. And I just don’t see that.

More likely is that WSU’s defense will be less effective in rush defense and (much?) less proficient in generating havoc plays on the outside. Even if you are optimistic that the secondary will take the “next step” in big play prevention, a regression of two to three points surrendered per game seems very likely. That would put WSU at, you guessed it, 30 points surrendered per game.

30 points scored versus 30 points against is obviously what a .500 team looks like.

The schedule then becomes a big factor in determining whether or not bowl eligibility comes to fruition. This is where the Cougs might just catch a break. They have a pillowy soft out of conference slate with at Wyoming (which is actually a bit of a trap game), San Jose State, and Eastern Washington. Their in-conference lineup includes five home games and a soft landing at the end of the season. Their three games before the Apple Cup are Cal, at Colorado, and a 50/50 affair at home versus Arizona.

I don’t see WSU competing with UW and Stanford for the North this year. But if things go right, WSU could lock up bowl eligibility by that Colorado game. Getting to seven or possibly eight wins would be a great accomplishment given the nature of the retooling underway and all that WSU has endured this year.

If things don’t go well WSU could drop down to the five-win plateau. Should that transpire, I could see the Coug faithful turning on Leach pretty quickly. Keep in mind that the AD in place did not hire him and had to endure the embarrassment of the Tennessee fiasco. Failure to get to the post-season could well mean the end of Mike Leach’s days in Pullman.

We shall see.