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Washington State Cougars 2018 Spring Football Preview

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Mike Leach College Football

Mike Leach College Football

A new chapter starts for Washington State. The Cougars face a big question as to if this chapter will be as successful as the one preceding it.

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Washington State is poised to endure a rebuilding season in 2018 with the departure of stars such as Luke Falk and Hercules Mata'afa. Falk owns several Pac-12 career records, including total offense (14,086 yards), touchdown passes (119), passing yards (14,481), completions (1,403), and attempts (2,054). Mata'afa was a consensus All-American last season after leading the Pac-12 in sacks (10.5) and tackles for a loss (22.5).

How well head coach Mike Leach can fill those holes will offer a barometer on how much staying power the Cougars have as a factor in the Pac-12 North. Washington State piled up 26 total wins and reached three straight bowl games over the last three seasons — the best run of success in Pullman since enjoying three straight 10-win campaigns from 2001-03. Leach has his work cut out for him, with the graduation of 19 seniors, and major holes to fill at quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, on both lines and in the secondary.

5 Storylines to Watch During Washington State's Spring Practice

1. Who will be Washington State's new quarterback?

The graduation of Falk and the tragic suicide of Tyler Hilinski in January dealt a major blow to the offense. Hilinski was expected to be the starter after serving as Falk's backup last season. Now the Cougars must find an answer among an untested crop of returning underclassmen and newcomers.

True freshman Cammon Cooper could be the favorite to land the starting job. Cooper's skills seem tailor-made for the Air Raid offense. The former four-star recruit has a strong arm and makes smart decisions in the pocket. Cooper led Lehi (Utah) High School to its first Class 5A championship last fall and rewrote the record book along the way. He ended up setting single-season state records for passing yards (4,726), completions (331) and touchdown passes (58) as a senior.

Cooper's biggest competition could eventually come from East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew. Minshew announced, via Twitter, his intention to transfer to Pullman. He will enroll in the summer and not be available for spring ball. Minshew threw for 2,140 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 174-of-304 passes for the Pirates last season.

2. Who will step up on the defensive line?

Replacing a player who made as many game-changing plays as Mata'afa is never a simple task. With him on the defensive line, Washington State ranked among the top four in the Pac-12 in rushing defense each of the last two seasons.

Nnamdi Oguayo could end up taking on a larger role. Oguayo is the top returning tackler on the line with 34 tackles and 7.0 tackles for a loss last season. The junior has eight career sacks in his two seasons with the Cougars. True freshman RJ Stone could carve out a spot as a pass rusher. The son of former NFL lineman Ron Stone totaled 143 tackles and 20 sacks over his final two seasons at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California. Derek Moore made a pair of starts when Oguayo missed time because of injuries and showed tons of big-play potential.

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3. Who will emerge as the lead receivers?

Replacing the Pac-12's career passing leader at quarterback is tough enough. Washington State has the added wrinkle of replacing its top two receivers from a year ago. Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack both transferred out of the program in the offseason after combining for 130 catches that went for 1,386 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The door is open for returning receivers like Tay Martin, Renard Bell, Kyle Sweet, Dezmon Patmon and Jamire Calvin to step up and take on a bigger role in the offense. All five had at least 300 yards and 30 catches last season. Bell led the way with 538 yards and three scores on 40 receptions. James Williams also is a reliable option out of the backfield. He tallied 482 yards and three touchdowns on 71 catches a year ago.

Newcomers Rodrick Fisher and Calvin Jackson Jr. both have the skills to be instant contributors in the offense this fall.

4. Will the offensive line show improvement?

Washington State has some holes to fill on the offensive line. That's not entirely bad news, given how weak the pass protection was throughout last season. The Cougars allowed 44 sacks in 13 games for a total loss of 317 yards. They ranked 126th out of 130 FBS teams a year ago in sacks allowed.

New offensive line coach Mason Miller will try to turn that around. His track record at Nevada suggests he can help Washington State become better at protecting the quarterback. Last season, with Miller coaching the offensive line, the Wolf Pack allowed just 16 sacks all season — which tied them for 16th among FBS teams in that category.

5. What will the defense look like under a new coordinator?

Leach's staff underwent quite a bit of turnover in the offseason. Perhaps the biggest change was the departure of defensive coordinator and secondary coach Alex Grinch to Ohio State. Grinch spent three seasons with the Cougars and turned them into a formidable defensive team during his time in Pullman.

Tracy Claeys came aboard as the new defensive coordinator in January. Darcel McBath moved up to cornerbacks coach and Kendrick Shaver joined the staff as safeties coach. Claeys previously served as a defensive coordinator and then head coach at Minnesota before being fired following the 2016 season for supporting a team-led boycott in response to 10 Golden Gophers being suspended over their alleged role in a sexual assault case.

Minnesota ranked fourth in the Big Ten in total defense (348.8 ypg) and fifth in scoring defense (22.1 ppg) in his lone full season as head coach. The Golden Gophers routinely ranked in the upper half of the league in scoring defense during his tenure as defensive coordinator from 2011-15

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.