It only took two seasons for Mike Leach to turn a perennial Pac-12 doormat into a bowl team.
The Cougars went to three straight bowls from 2001-03 but hadn’t been back to the postseason since. Leach capped his first season with a remarkable comeback win over archrival Washington and that catapulted Washington State to its best record in a decade.
And, of course, he did it with a record-setting quarterback.
Connor Halliday returns under center in 2014 — now with expectations to not only reach the postseason but to win a bowl game and post a winning record. Halliday should have loads of weapons to work with in terms of pass-catchers and ball-carriers, as the top 13 receivers on the roster a year ago will be back this fall — 10 of which caught at least 25 passes. It’s protecting Halliday with three new linemen and establishing a running game that should be the focus of Leach and company this spring.
Improving the 102nd-ranked defense in the nation would help Washington State’s chances at making the postseason as well.
Washington State 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 6-7 (4-5 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: March 27
Spring Game: April 29
Three Things to Watch in Washington State's 2014 Spring Practice
Replace three O-line starters
Leach will never build an offense that focuses on the running game but developing some sort of balance on offense would go a long way in helping Wazzu compete for Pac-12 titles. Not to mention, it would likely help keep his quarterback upright and healthy. And with four guys who started along the O-line departing the offense, this is a major area of concern this spring. Elliott Bosch is gone from the center position after receiving All-Pac-12 honors a year ago and guards John Fullington and Matt Goetz have moved on as well. Filling the void up the middle of the offensive line will be critical for the Cougars this spring. Joe Dahl got 13 starts a year ago and is expected to slide from guard to tackle in 2014. Gunnar Eklund was the team's left tackle in 2013, but he is taking Dahl's spot on the interior. Having Eklund and Dahl back this spring should help ease the transition there. Filling the voids around these two big bodies is really the only offensive question marks on this team.
Find leadership on defense
First-team All-Pac-12 safety Deone Bucannon led the Cougars in tackles (114) and was one of the best players in the nation at his position. Linebacker Justin Sagote was No. 2 on the team in tackles with 106 stops a year ago. Both are gone from a defense that wasn’t all that great a year ago. Leach’s teams have never been elite on this side of the ball but in the Pac-12, where quarterbacks and offensive playmakers reign supreme, some semblance of defensive fortitude would go a long way to make Washington State a contender. Names like defensive end Xavier Cooper (who led the team in sacks a year ago), linebackers Darryl Monroe and Cyrus Coen (the top two returning tacklers) and safety Taylor Taliulu will need to step into leadership roles this spring. Finding a voice in the defensive huddle that can lead and motivate is critical for a defense that needs improvement across the board.
Rebuild the secondary
There is good news and bad news with the Cougars' secondary. Three of the team’s top four cornerbacks have moved on, including all-league coverman Damante Horton. Two of the top three safeties are gone as well, with the loss of Bucannon being the biggest blow to the defense. That’s the bad news. The good, however, is that the WSU secondary was one of the worst in the nation a year ago, ranking 112th in passing defense and 89th in pass efficiency defense. Daquawn Brown and Taliulu return with some experience but this unit needs to be addressed this spring in a league with elite quarterback play. Mitchell Peterson, Isaac Dotson and Tracy Clark need to take the next step in their development process during spring camp.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 5-7
Leach is an excellent coach and a proven offensive commodity. In just two short seasons the Cougars have returned to West Coast relevance and are competing for postseason berths already. What’s more exciting is the amount of overall production returning to what was the fourth-best passing attack in the nation last year. The schedule offers plenty of opportunities to steal wins but the Cougars will play three of the top four teams from the South with the exception of UCLA. The out-of-conference slate could provide three wins if WSU can start hot and the Cougs should be more than capable of snagging three league wins. A second straight trip to the postseason should be the expectation in Pullman this spring.