For someone whose public persona is largely centered around his unpredictability, Mike Leach is just about the most consistent commodity in all of college football.
Washington State finished the 2018 season with a record of 11-2, a school record for wins. That marked the 12th season in Leach’s 17 as a head coach where his team won 8 or more games. Consider that Leach only has 2 seasons out of those 17 with fewer than 6 wins, both of which came during his first 3 years at WSU.
That consistent high level of performance is difficult outside of the sport’s ‘blue bloods’ much less at WSU and Texas Tech, two places which have proven notoriously difficult for sustained success. Go find Pullman, Washington on a map. It’s about as far away as you can get from large population hubs of any school in a 'power 5 league' and to some degree that explains the challenges of winning there.
The Cougs' record-setting season last year was one of the biggest surprises in all of college football. The prior off season the team dealt with the tragic death of QB Tyler Hilinski and significant turnover on the coaching staff, including DC Alex Grinch leaving for Ohio State. But the addition of grad transfer QB Gardner Minshew and a stingy defense led to the best season in many years on the Palouse.
Some of those same ingredients are there for another good season in 2019.
The Cougar Offense:
Gardner Minshew was a great 1 year stop gap at quarterback for the Cougs in 2018. Minshew had an ability to extend the pocket with his legs and even take off and run occasionally that few of Leach’s QBs have possessed historically.
Having an unsettled QB competition, like the Cougs currently have, coming out of spring practices is usually a sign for concern. But Leach had an incredible track record at Texas Tech of turning career backups like Sonny Cumbie, BJ Symons and Cody Hodges into effective and prolific starting QBs. Last year’s success with Minshew, who had a forgettable career at ECU prior, proves Leach can still get new QBs up to speed quickly.
The most interesting name in the Cougs QB competition is Gage Gubrud, a 3-year starter at Division 1-FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington who’ll be using his final year of eligibility at Wazzu. Gubrud had an incredible sophomore season in 2016, throwing for 5,160 yards and 48 TDs, just barely finishing behind Steve McNair’s FCS record for single-season total yards. His coach Beau Baldwin left to be Cal’s OC and his numbers declined a bit in 2017, but he looked on pace to have a big season last year before breaking a toe and missing the season’s final 10 games.
Gubrud ended up missing spring practices with a lower leg injury and gave a bit of a leg up to his main competition: fifth year seniors Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley. Tinsley saw the most action of any backup QB last year, completing 7 of 9 passes and throwing a TD. Gordon was definitely the more impressive of the two in the Crimson and Gray spring game. I think it’ll either be Gordon or Gubrud when it comes time to name a starter.
It is just about certain that this offense is going to run less than just about anyone in FBS. WSU was 129th nationally in rushing yards per game last year, but also had 24 rushing touchdowns. Leach actually had 2 running backs he used quite heavily last year: the now-departed James Williams and sophomore Max Borghi. He just didn’t use them in the typical way.
Williams had 122 carries and 93 receptions last year and I expect Borghi’s numbers to be similar, if not higher, as he was used heavily as a freshman (72 rushes, 53 receptions). The Cougs also got a super late addition in Deon McIntosh who started his career at Notre Dame and rushed for 368 yards as a freshman there in 2017. McIntosh was dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules and was a 2nd team NJCAA All-American at Eastern Mississippi CC last year.
The Cougs' receiving corps returns a bunch of experience, including three players with starting experience at the outside receiver positions: junior Tay Martin, who led the team in receiving yards, senior Dezmon Patmon (led in yds/reception) and senior Easop Winston Jr (tied for team-lead in TDs with Martin). The group doesn’t lack for size and both Martin and Patmon are listed at 6 foot 3 or taller.
There’s a little less experience at the inside receiver positions with Kyle Sweet graduated, but junior Jamire Calvin led all Cougar inside receivers in receptions (42) and receiving yards (497) last year. Sophomore Travell Harris also started 9 games last year, caught 27 passes and was an all-conference return specialist. One of the most interesting stories I picked up from WSU spring practices was 6-foot 4 redshirt freshman Kassidy Woods moving to inside receiver, despite his atypical size for the position.
Given the unique challenges of blocking for Leach’s unique pass happy offense it is great news for Coug fans that nearly the entire WSU offensive line returns. They lose Andre Dillard, an All-Pac 12 left tackle, multi-year starter and 1st round draft pick. But every other player who started a game last year returns.
You’d be hard pressed to find a WSU freshman who performed better than sophomore Abraham Lucas last year. Lucas started all 13 games, mainly at right tackle, and was named a Freshman All-American and 2nd team All-Pac 12.
At arguably the most challenging position: center, the Cougs have senior Frederick Mauigoa who was Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 last year and will be entering his 3rd year as a starter. Junior Liam Ryan also started all 13 games last year, specifically at left guard, and was named the 6th best pass blocking guard in the country by Pro Football Focus. Ryan’s opposite at right guard, junior Josh Watson, started every game but the Alamo Bowl.
The only area where this Cougar offense lacks experience is the area (quarterback) where Leach has shown a consistent ability to find effective first year starters. That is kind of a terrifying thought if you’re a team that has WSU on the schedule.
The Cougar Defense:
If there’s been any legitimate criticism of Leach, a coach who has won so consistently at hard jobs, its that his team’s defenses have been kind of hit or miss. I don’t entirely buy this criticism, especially looking at how bad Texas Tech has struggled defensively since he was forced out there.
But his first 3 defenses at WSU were varying degrees of not good and that didn’t change until he brought in Alex Grinch from Mizzou in 2015. Grinch immediately cut 11 points off the Cougs’ scoring average in his first year and by his final season (2017) had one of the best pass defenses in the country.
Leach aced the replacement hire, bringing in former Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys when Grinch left for Ohio State. The 2018 Cougar defense created a lot of havoc (turnovers, sacks etc.) and were good against both the run and the pass. This side of the ball does have more questions than the offense.
Every level of the Cougar defense is affected by graduation or other unexpected departure to some degree and up front is no exception. They do return two defensive ends with starting experience: junior Will Rogers III and senior Nnamdi Oguayo. Rodgers leads all returning defensive linemen in tackles (23) and TFLs (7.5) and led all linemen last year with 4 sacks. Oguayo appeared in 10 games last year, but really struggled staying healthy and played less than his freshman and sophomore seasons.
The Cougs play a 3-man front and lost their every game starter at the interior nose tackle position. The best returning candidate to take over there looks like senior Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei who played in 12 games last year.
Regardless of alignment or scheme specifics, most defenses succeed or fail based on the ability of their run stuffing middle linebacker. The Cougs lost an outstanding one in Peyton Pelluer at their ‘Mike’ linebacker position. Junior Justus Rogers, a former QB who started 4 games at linebacker in 2017, is one of the interesting names to replace him. I saw multiple outlets that cover Wazzu mention specifically their concern about replacing Pelluer.
One of the key returners is junior Jahad Woods who started all 13 games at the weak side (‘Will’) linebacker position and finished #2 on the team in tackles (82) behind Pelluer and forced a team-best 4 fumbles last year. Sophomore Willie Taylor III also started the last 10 games of 2018 at the RUSH linebacker position and had 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and a team-best 6 QB hits. Junior Dillon Sherman had 30 tackles last year and after playing as a rotation linebacker the last 2 years could push for starts.
The secondary lost their top cornerback (Darrien Molton) and two of their top safeties (Hunter Dale, Jalen Thompson) as well.
Senior Marcus Strong led the Cougs with 3 interceptions last year and was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the Alamo Bowl away from a 4th (this also cost Strong a touchdown). Out of the returning players, junior George Hicks III who had 7 tackles last year is the next most experienced.
Not coincidentally, WSU's 2019 recruiting class features 3 junior college cornerbacks who enrolled in January: Daniel Isom (Iowa Western), Derrick Langford (City College of San Francisco) and Shahman Moore (El Camino College). Isom in particular was a standout from the WSU spring game.
The safeties return more experience, although Bryce Beekman (Arizona Western) is another early enrollee junior college defensive back who will compete for a significant amount of reps in the fall.
Probably the biggest unexpected loss on either side of the ball was Jalen Thompson being declared ineligible due to an NCAA violation and enrolling in the 2019 NFL Supplemental Draft. Thompson was a 3-year starter and multi-time All-PAC 12 selection.
This puts even more pressure on junior Skyler Thomas who started all 13 games last year and led all defensive backs (3rd on team) with 76 tackles to go along with 2 interceptions. Out of the returning Nickel backs there’s not much experience and I could see Beekman or some other incoming player getting the most reps at this position.
This season will be the true test of whether or not Grinch’ defensive culture will stick at Wazzu with two graduating classes worth of players gone and the ‘architect’ now gone for multiple years.
The Cougar Special Teams:
Interestingly enough, both the Cougs’ placekicker and punter are Texas natives among the 5 Texans on the WSU roster. Junior Oscar Draguicevich III (Hutto) was an Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 punter and had 15 punts downed inside the 20 yard line. Sophomore Blake Mazza (Plano) showed impressive range in his first season, going 4 for 6 on field goals from 40+ yards but was frightening inconsistent inside of 40 yards (6 of 9).
Travell Harris had a healthy 27.6-yard average on his kick returns and was named Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 as the Cougs primary kick returner.
The situation is less settled as last year’s primary punt returner (receiver Kyle Sweet) graduated and no returning player had more than 2 punt returns last year. I think there’s a good chance Harris ends up being the primary kick and punt returner this fall, but that’s far from certain.
Presumably next year's starter at long snapper will be redshirt freshman Tyler Williams because as of right now he's the only long snapper listed on the roster.
Wazzu will win at least 8 games this year with at least one earlier season surprise loss and an end of season lost to in-state foe Washington. This is certainly the least bold prediction I will make in the entire preview series.
The more I think about this team, the more I believe that Leach will eventually go with an incumbent 5th year senior at QB (probably Anthony Gordon) even if Gage Gubrud has an impressive lower-level resume. The Cougs are so experienced at every other level of the offense that I think either Gubrud or Gordon will be fine.
However, defense will be a challenge for the Cougs. They lost enough guys who were key contributors a year ago to make me have doubts. The run defense in particular is going to suffer from losing a multi-year starter at middle linebacker and the pass defense will suffer from the losses of players like Jalen Thompson, Darrien Molton and Hunter Dale.
The schedule doesn’t do the Cougs too many favors either. They have 2 easy wins to start the year (New Mexico St, Northern Colorado) and their longest road trip of their season to play UH in their final non-conference game.
The Pac-12 schedule isn’t kind and there’s a stretch from late September through late October where Cougs go on the road 4 times in 5 weeks. Those 4 games (Utah, Arizona State, Oregon, Cal) are all ‘toss ups’ where the home team will probably be a slight favorite to some degree. Going 2-2 over that stretch would be a big deal, but I think that might be a bit optimistic.
However I look at them, I can’t see the Cougs being worse than 8-4 when next year’s regular season is done, although 7-5 wouldn't shock me either.
Matching Up with Houston:
Given how many new players will still be figuring out their role in the Houston secondary (and defense generally), the thought of playing the most pass happy team in the country doesn’t fill me with confidence.
At least these players will have experience going against the assorted challenges and absurd talent of Oklahoma about 2 weeks prior. I don’t expect Oklahoma and Wazzu to look that similar offensively, but the coaching staff will have a better idea which players can handle facing a challenging offense.
There’s also at least a non-zero chance Leach hasn’t figured out which QB is a better fit, and of course that would be to Houston’s benefit.
I don’t think Wazzu can consistently stop D’Eriq King, and specifically Houston’s passing offense. That will probably cut both ways though and we could see easily 900+ passing yards between the 2 teams in this game when its all said and done.
This is a toss-up, but from a Houston perspective I like that this will be Wazzu’s first game away from Pullman. Plus this isn't just their first road trip, but first game against serious competition. You can only get so much from 2 weeks of football, but simply by virtue of opening the season with Oklahoma I think Houston will be more battle-tested.
It may come down to which team has the ball last, but I am optimistic about Houston's chances in this one.