It has been a very busy year for a humble and quiet man out of the Palouse by the name of Mike Leach. First, he engineered a breakthrough season for his Washington State Cougars with an 11 win record. Then he went on to win the PAC 12 Coach of the Year on the shoulders of a grad transfer QB known for a brilliant porn ‘stache that obfuscated his on-field accomplishments. To top it all off, he simultaneously ran his spring practices while teaching a class called “insurgent warfare and football strategies“.
That is not a bad way to spend six months for the former law student out of Pepperdine.
But football is a funny sport and fans have a way of focusing on the age-old question “what have you done for me lately?”. And Coug fans, as patient as they are, do have a tendency to occasionally focus on the negative even in the midst of a breakout season like 2018.
Consider for a moment that last season saw Washington State extend a bunch of winning streaks against PAC 12 rivals. They have now beaten Stanford three straight years, Oregon for four straight years, and Oregon State for five straight years. Yet with several starters gone from last season, and with still no end in sight to their Apple Cup drought, Coug fans are looking at 2019 with a cautious eye.
Are fans too pessimistic when it comes to the Cougs? Does WSU have the horses to maintain their momentum? Does Mike Leach with all of his high-flying, air-raid tendencies have the discipline to turn Washington State into a multifaceted college football powerhouse? And, importantly, is a Apple Cup victory in there near term future?
These are all great questions. Let’s put away our “Insurgent Warfare” textbooks and open today’s Gekko Files.
By now, we all know what Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense is all about. No matter who is at the controls you can expect huge raw numbers in the passing attack year in and year out. But that does not always mean that Washington state has good seasons on the offensive side of the ball. In 2017 WSU finished ninth in the PAC 12 in total offense with 5.56 yards per play. They improved on that number substantially in 2018 and finished second in the PAC 12 with 6.13 yards per play. Same playbook, different results.
There were a few obvious contributors to that improvement. The arrival of QB Gardner Minshew seems like an obvious factor. But I would argue that there was a dramatic step-up in overall offensive line play that characterized the difference between those two seasons. The Coug offensive line reduced their sack total from 44 in 2017 to just 11 last season. That kind of dramatic improvement in pass protection was obviously a key factor in unlocking more plays for Minshew and his offense.
The bad news for Washington state is that the best player from that unit a year ago, Andre Dillard, is now a first round pick in the NFL. The good news is that the remaining four starters from that class all return. The emerging star of this group is sophomore RT Abraham Lucas. At 6’7” 320 pounds, Lucas could make the shift to left tackle and take up an All-PAC 12 residency. C Frederick Mauigoa has 26 career starts and is the graybeard of this bunch. Guards Liam Ryan and Robert Valencia round out the rest of the starting lineup. I expect that Ryan might shift to one of the two open tackle positions and create a competition among several younger players at Guard. Regardless, this projects to be one of the top offensive lines in the PAC.
A stable line is a great starting point for a team trying to break in a brand new quarterback. And although every Coug quarterback is virtually guaranteed to lead the conference in total passing, it is not always the case that every Mike Leach quarterback has a good season. The battle for the WSU QB position will come down to two players: transfer Gage Gubrud, and veteran Anthony Gordon. Gubrud is the odds-on favorite given his track record of success at Eastern Washington and the fact that he has the bomber’s mentality that Mike Leach loves. But Leach adamantly argues that we can’t count out Gordon after his strong showing this past spring.
Max Borghi is an emerging star at tailback and that is good news for the Cougs. He brings to the table a toughness between the tackles, an ability to wiggle through tackles, and a great sense of finding open spots as a passing option. There is not much depth behind the multi-talented Borghi. Sophomore Cole Dubots, a converted linebacker who moonlights as a track star, brings a gym rat mentality to the RB room and is the likely second back. Beyond those two, depth is a concern. Former Notre Dame running back Deon McIntosh, who was signed away from junior college just weeks ago (read into that whatever you may) looks destined to pass Dubots sometime soon. This will be a situation to watch as we all know how much better WSU is when they have significant contributions from their backs as both receivers and rushers.
The receiving situation is obviously a bright spot for this team going into 2019. The Cougs return just about every significant contributor from last year‘s squad. The two stars on the outside are Junior Tay Martin and Senior Dezmon Patton. At 6’4”, 225, Patton is a star who has breakaway speed (13.8 YPC) and great hands. Martin (8 TDs) is a solid all around guy who benefits a great deal from the attention that Patton and the other deep threat, Easop Winston Jr (8 TDs), demand from opposing defenses.
The inside receiver rotation includes four guys who all played last year including veterans Renard Bell and Jamire Calvin. There is plenty of depth among these guys to cover all of the receiver positions even before we start talking about a couple of the physically gifted true freshman that Leach brought in to this last class.
This is a good offense that may not be able to recreate Minshew’s Player of the Year magic but has the potential to stay in the top third in the league in scoring.
On the defensive side of the ball WSU was defined last year by an inability to force teams into passing downs and a sieve-like red zone defense that mitigated an otherwise strong perimeter pass rush. DC Tracy Claeys has the opportunity to bring back much of the two-deep that he had last year, but there is some significant churn in areas that are red flags for a D that wants to improve on it’s #59 Defensive S&P+ ranking from last year.
Pass rush is surely the strength of this defense. In particular, WSU returns what looks like a great ability to generate pocket pressure through both the blitz and through straight-up defensive end play. At d-end, they return their top two rotation guys featuring havoc-star Will Rodgers III and senior Namdi Oguayo. Both are bigger men who are good at using their hands to unstick themselves from offensive linemen. Rodgers has the quickness and instinct to turn that space creation into effective penetration (4 sacks, 7.5 tackles). Oguayo has some of the athleticism to do the same, but hasn’t really put it together on the field yet. Depth will come from a deep stable of young players who are all of the long-and-rangy types that Claeys prefers.
The rest of the pass rush is made up of a couple of good-looking RUSH linebackers. The combination of Willie Taylor III and Dominick Silvels produced 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season. Though Silvels led the two in sacks with 4.5, it is Taylor who is the more intriguing prospect. At 6’4” 235 pounds, Taylor has both the length and the speed to create penetration in the pass rush. When you watch him on film you see a constant push into the opponent’s backfield and decent closing speed. Just a sophomore, Taylor still has room to grow.
Between their ends and their RUSH linebackers, I would expect that WSU will be able to put together another strong season sacking quarterbacks. The concern comes when you look at the back half of the pass defense. WSU’s secondary was absolutely ransacked during the off-season. The Cougs lost six defensive backs, three of whom transferred and three graduates whom made up the entire cornerback rotation. Another prospect, Kedron Williams, took a medical retirement in the Spring. And if all that weren’t enough, the Cougs also lost their best defensive player in safety Jalen Thompson when he was ruled ineligible and went on to become part of the NFL supplemental draft.
What returns for Tracy Claeys in his defensive backfield are a couple of starters, a couple back-ups, a handful of JUCO transfers and a lot of crossed fingers. Safety Skylar Thomas is a decent starting point. He is one of those players whose style of play is to seek out contact despite his smaller frame. The other returning starter is CB Marcus Strong. He’s another smaller type of corner who can make the occasional play (3 INTs, 5 PBUs) but who isn’t the kind of guy you can leave unprotected in man coverage.
Beyond that, the Cougs are going to have a completely new defensive secondary rotation. There are a couple of interesting redshirt freshman options who can help fill out the safety and nickel roles on the team. Among them are 6’4” Patrick Nunn and 6’1” Halid Djibril. Of the four incoming JUCO transfers at least two look like promising prospects. In fact, it would appear that former NIU starter Daniel Isom has the inside track to start at the other corner position. As all of these new players get acclimated and the rotation gets established, one might predict that some struggles might entail.
The Cougs are also going to struggle turning the corner with their rush defense. The good news is that I think there is more potential there than what most fans outside the Palouse realize. Much of this potential lies in the ability of Claeys to develop the linebacking core of Jahad Woods (moving from weak side to middle in place of Peyton Pelluer), Justus Rogers, Dillon Sherman and Karson Block. Physically, this a speed-over-size kind of unit that hasn’t had a lot of production (outside of Woods) but also has lacked frequent opportunity. My optimism stems from the fact that there is some depth here even if one or two of those guys can’t stay on the field. Sophomore Fa’avae Fa’avae and a trio of good looking incoming freshmen all will compete.
The middle of the defensive line, which has been plagued by a lack of size in recent years, has some upside. The key is a former freshman All-American and West Virginia transfer Lamonte McDougle. The 5’11” 300 pounder is an athletic big man who will give the Cougs the kind of inside girth they have been seeking. Senior Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, if he doesn’t give way to a younger player, is the other presumed starter on the interior.
The rest of the rotation is made up of younger players still growing into their frames. Sophomores Jesús Echavarria (295 lbs) and Dallas Hobbs (290 lbs) can take some snaps while redshirt frosh Ahmir Crowder (280 lbs) looks like a breakout candidate who could challenge Aiolupotea-Pei for snaps. The key here is that there is some depth to draw upon even if it is still a bit on the smallish side and lacking experience.
I’m not sure that when you put it all together that this defense will outperform the 2018 edition, but it sure feels like there is more upside than downside even after you factor in the disarray of the secondary. An improvement in overall D fueled by their continued strength in the pass rush and a slight uptick in rush defense seems very plausible to me.
One Breakout Player
QB Gage Gubrud
Count me among the many that aren’t buying any of Mike Leach’s claims that there is an honest QB competition happening in camp. As a grad transfer, Gubrud has one year to play one season. There is no point in burning a scholarship on him if there wasn’t a high likelihood that he will be a key contributor.
For those who don’t know much about Gubrud and his style, he is somewhat unique when compared to other recent WSU signal callers. He has mobility, a plus arm and a cool demeanor. While at EWU, he was known as a bit of a riverboat gambler type who excelled at keeping plays alive and improvising. Kind of like Vernon Adams with more size but less pure athleticism.
I see no reason why he wouldn't succeed in the Air Raid. He has more than enough support from the receiving corps, he has a strong running back available and he has enough escapability to compensate for a developing offensive line when looking for big plays. He may not have the charisma or the facial hair of Gardner Minshew, but I think he does have more upside. The key will be limiting his turnovers as he adopts to the playbook. If he does that, he’ll be the next Cougar star.
Projecting the Cougars
I think the Cougars have the opportunity to build on the overall quality of the team even if they struggle to replicate the magic that helped to fuel last season’s 11-win campaign. Challenges with RB depth and secondary play seem inevitable and are compensating factors to be sure. But I really like the upside that comes with the passing attack and the young defensive line rotation.
The schedule won’t be as nearly friendly this year as it was last year. The out-of-conference schedule looks mostly winnable although the week 3 matchup against Houston now under the direction of former Leach protégé Dana Holgorsen does not look like a gimme. The in-conference schedule is much more challenging than last year. It features five road games including at Oregon and at UW. Missing USC seems like a bit of a break, but WSU would have matched up well against Arizona, their other miss.
I believe a tougher schedule takes one or two wins off of last year’s conference game ledger, even with what I think will be a better overall team. That said, the post season and a run through the Top 25 for most of (if not all of) the season seems likely.