Washington State may have been ahead of schedule when the Cougars reached a bowl game in 2013, even if they finished with a losing record after the collapse against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl. After a 3-9 season, Washington State needs to get back on track in the fourth season under Mike Leach. The Cougars will have a new quarterback who got his feet wet last season and a new defensive coordinator, so this may be an uphill climb.
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Previewing Washington State’s Offense for 2015
Little-known redshirt freshman Luke Falk filled in admirably when starter Connor Halliday went down against USC, throwing for 346 yards and two touchdowns. He won his first start by tossing five touchdowns at Oregon State and showed impressive poise and mobility while finishing the season with 13 touchdown passes and more than 1,800 yards in just six games.
The Cougars return their top two running backs — Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks — and add explosive former receiver Keith Harrington to the mix. Throw in the fact that WSU also returns all five starting offensive linemen, and it’s a good bet that the Cougars will run the ball a fair amount more this fall. In fact, while the Cougars have been exclusively a shotgun team since coach Mike Leach arrived at WSU in 2012, he says that the quarterbacks could be under center as often as 25 percent of the time in 2015, in part to give the running backs better angles.
On the one hand, the Cougars lose two of the most productive receivers in school history in Isiah Myers (78 catches, 12 touchdowns) and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Vince Mayle (106 catches, 1,483 yards). But the Cougars will get back Gabe Marks, who redshirted last season after leading the Cougars in catches (74), yards (807) and tying for the team lead with seven touchdowns in 2013. Marks and playmaking receiver Dom Williams will start at the outside positions, while speedster Robert Lewis will be inside along with River Cracraft, who provides consistency and was a favorite target on third downs.
Previewing Washington State’s Defense for 2015
Defensive coordinator Mike Breske was dismissed during last season’s disappointing campaign. Leach hired Alex Grinch, the safeties coach at Missouri, to replace him. Grinch’s emphasis is on speed, and in spring practice the Cougars worked almost exclusively out of a nickel defense.
Defensive end Xavier Cooper left early for the NFL Draft, but replacing his five sacks is doable. Potentially more challenging will be finding a nose tackle to replace Kalafitoni Pole, WSU’s starter in the middle of the line the last two seasons. Making things more difficult, two of the true nose tackles on the roster, Robert Barber and Ngalu Tapa, both missed the spring with injuries.
Jeremiah Allison and Peyton Pelluer return to head the linebackers, of which typically there will be only two on the field at one time. Getting to the quarterback will be an emphasis for Grinch, and indications this spring were that the weak-side backer will spend a lot of time in opposing backfields.
Darius Lemora started 10 games at safety for the Cougars last year, and he will take over as the full-time nickel back. Marcellus Pippins and Charleston White each played well at times last year, and they will get looks at cornerback along with junior college transfer Treshon Broughton following the dismissal of Daquawn Brown, the team’s leading tackler. Sulaiman Hameed and Isaac Dotson were the starting safeties during spring practice, but four-star junior college signee Shalom Luani joins the mix this fall.
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Previewing Washington State’s Specialists in 2015
Erik Powell lost his starting job to Quentin Breshears after hitting just 2-of-5 attempts to start the season, but it looks like the coaches will give him another shot. Since Jordan Dascalo left the team after starting each game as a freshman, Powell will have a chance to assume punting duties as well. Expect incoming freshman Matt Abramo to also figure into the mix.
After making their first bowl game in a decade in 2013, the Cougars backslid last season. Experience and depth are still issues, but the hope in Pullman is that the coaching changes combined with an infusion of junior college talent will help this team get back to the postseason.