Mike Leach leaves behind a bundle of passing offense records, a string of five consecutive bowl appearances and shoes that’ll be hard for his successor to fill. After eight years in Pullman, the “Pirate” has steered his ship to the SEC, but not before leaving Washington State’s program in a significantly better place than where he found it.
The Cougars found his replacement on the sandy shores of Honolulu, hiring Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich, who, like Leach, combines a polarizing personality with a potent passing offense. Rolovich won Mountain West Coach of the Year honors after leading his alma mater to a 10–5 record and instantly endeared himself to WSU fans when he cited how many days remained until the Apple Cup during an introductory press conference. COVID-19 wiped out spring camp, so the Cougars still haven’t held an official practice with Rolovich, and they’ll be in hurry-up mode to install his run-and-shoot offense when fall arrives. They’re the only team in the Pac-12 without a returning snap at quarterback, and they desperately need to mend the defense after allowing 36.6 points per game in conference games last year.
Previewing Washington State's Offense for 2020
Although they’ve had a quarterback selected in each of the last three NFL Drafts, the Cougars have lacked continuity at the position. It may finally bite them. The top three on the depth chart graduated, including record-holder Anthony Gordon, making WSU one of the country’s least experienced teams under center.
Cammon Cooper, a redshirt sophomore once considered the country’s 15th-ranked pro-style high school QB, isn’t short on natural ability, but he and strong-armed redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz needed spring ball to develop in Rolovich’s system. That may not prove as challenging for incoming freshman Jayden de Laura, who won two state championships as a run-and-shoot QB for Honolulu powerhouse Saint Louis.
Junior running back Max Borghi is solid between the tackles and even better in the open field. He’ll have more rushing opportunities in Rolovich’s offense and should alleviate the pressure on the QB after accumulating more than 1,400 all-purpose yards and 16 TDs last season.
Leach bred some of the Pac-12’s best receivers, and even as the top three graduate, who is left is more than sufficient. The Cougars return three players — Tay Martin, Renard Bell and Travell Harris — who had more than 500 yards in 2019. Calvin Jackson Jr., coming off a redshirt year, and Jamire Calvin, who was injured last year, should also have opportunities to start.
The offensive linemen are accustomed to the Air Raid’s wide splits and will have to adjust, but the group has 77 starts under its collective belt and returns two potential pros in tackles Liam Ryan and Abraham Lucas.
Previewing Washington State's Defense for 2020
Things can’t conceivably get much worse for a group that gave up 50 points in the second half of a 67–63 loss to UCLA last season and saw its defensive coordinator walk out just two weeks later. Still, fans need to be patient. A 4-3 base defense will take shape under new coordinator Jake Dickert, whose Wyoming team allowed just 17.8 points per game last season — the second fewest in the Mountain West — and specialized in containing the run, a big weakness for the 2019 Cougars.
Returning starters Dallas Hobbs and Will Rodgers III will be trusted to anchor the interior defensive line positions, but the Cougars may need players like Willie Taylor III — a “Rush” linebacker last year — to grow more comfortable playing with a hand in the dirt.
Jahad Woods was one of the league’s most productive linebackers last season with 141 tackles. His motor has never been an issue, but it’s time for him to assert himself as a leader. Justus Rogers and Dillon Sherman are experienced linebackers who’ve spent three years flanking Woods.
Two years after the Cougars lost QB Tyler Hilinski, the team was rocked again in the offseason by the death of Bryce Beekman, a 13-game starter at free safety. The secondary members, led by nickel/safety Skyler Thomas and cornerbacks Derrick Langford and George Hicks III, will have Beekman at the forefront of their thoughts when the season opens.
Related: Ranking the Pac-12 Coaches for 2020
Previewing Washington State's Specialists for 2020
Blake Mazza, a Lou Groza Award finalist last season, had the highest field-goal percentage in school history, making 20-of-21. Oscar Draguicevich III, a fellow Texan, watched his punts fly 45 yards on average, which would’ve ranked second in the conference if he had had enough punts to qualify. Harris, an elusive slot receiver, could handle both kickoff and punt return duties for a second straight year.
The Cougars have a chance to come out of their non-conference schedule unscathed, and a 5–0 start may be feasible for a team that visits Oregon State and hosts Cal to open Pac-12 play. For that to happen, though, the transition from Air Raid to run-and-shoot will need to be smooth, a quarterback will need to emerge and the Cougars will have to show steady improvement on the defensive side.
Expectations in Pullman may not mirror those in Los Angeles, Eugene or Seattle, but Leach spent eight years raising the bar, and any season that doesn’t finish with a bowl game is considered an unsuccessful one at WSU.