Forget rebuilding seasons. Washington State has entered the reloading stage with its football program. The Cougars overcame the loss of key stars on both sides of the ball by putting together their finest season yet under head coach Mike Leach.
Washington State earned a school-record 11 wins capped by a 28-26 victory over Iowa State in the 2018 Alamo Bowl. The Cougars ended the season ranked No. 10 in both the AP and Coaches polls. Gardner Minshew ran the Air Raid to near perfection, throwing for 4,779 yards, 38 touchdowns, and only nine interceptions while completing 70.7 percent of his passes in his lone season in Pullman.
Replacing Minshew will be a major concern for Washington State entering 2019. If the Cougars can get a quarterback to fill his shoes, there are three reasons why Leach can keep things rolling in the Pac-12 North.
1. Washington State returns tons of experience on offense
The quarterback picture may be muddled with Minshew's lone season in Pullman now in the books. Gage Gubrud, a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington, could take over as the signal-caller if the NCAA awards him a sixth season of eligibility. If not, seniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon and redshirt freshman Cammon Cooper will be in the mix to take the reins.
Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have the benefit of four returning starters on the offensive line and multiple playmakers coming back at the skill positions. Kyle Sweet was the only senior in the receiver rotation in 2018. Dezmon Patmon, Davontavean Martin, and Easop Winston all finished with more than 650 receiving yards last season and are back as primary targets for a new quarterback. Patmon and Winston, in particular, were able to stretch the field with Patmon averaging 13.4 yards per catch and Winston averaging 12.6.
2. The Cougars' defense won't regress under Tracy Claeys
There was some concern a season ago that Washington State's defense would suffer with Alex Grinch departing for Ohio State. That anticipated step back never happened. Claeys came in and kept things moving in the right direction. The Cougars finished in the top third of the Pac-12 in rushing defense (141.7 ypg), pass defense (218.1), and total defense (359.5).
Replacing top tackler Peyton Pueller is a concern. Still, Washington State returns standouts like Jahad Woods, Skyler Thomas, Marcus Strong, Dominick Silvels, Willie Taylor III, and Will Rogers III. Strong led the team with three interceptions. Silvels was the co-leader in sacks with 4.5. There's more than enough difference-makers to keep the Cougars as tough to deal with on defense as they are to deal with on offense.
3. Leach knows how to recruit to his system
Filling holes is becoming easier and easier for Leach because he knows exactly what he needs to make the Air Raid run as smoothly as a new car engine. Washington State has won eight or more games in four consecutive seasons. The Cougars are loaded with plenty of receivers who can master routes and kill opposing defenses with speed and intelligence.
It comes down to finding a quarterback who can step up as a leader and embrace the Air Raid with the same zeal as Minshew. Leach should be able to plug in a new signal-caller without any trouble. He has had one of the top passers in the Pac-12 each year since taking over the program. It isn't wise to bet against Leach's ability to mold another quarterback to fit his system.
— 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.