PULLMAN – Mike Leach has a reputation for being a great offensive mind and a great interview. Not necessarily in that order.
Leach’s droll sense of humor doesn’t always come across in print, but Washington State’s new football coach had reporters howling more than once during his weekend teleconference from the Bohler Athletic Complex.
Only two reporters were in the small room where Leach’s teleconference took place – most people phoned in – and that amused Leach.
“We have a tremendous crowd here,” Leach said dryly. “You’re missing an incredible time.
“I mean, there’s popcorn and there’s beautiful girls in the background. There’s refreshments, and I think a band is going to play here a little later, so come out here next time so you can join in on all the fun.
“OK, let me see: Who’s out there in the crowd? So many people have their hands up. OK – you, way in the back? Do you have a question?”
Leach, who played rugby but not football at Brigham Young – Washington State’s host for Thursday’s season opener (7:15 p.m., ESPN) – recalled how he met his wife when the two were students at BYU. Leach would often join Sharon and her roommates to watch television.
“You’d go there and they’d be watching ‘M*A*S*H’ or something like that, and I’d change the channel to watch ‘Gunsmoke’, ” Leach said. “I mean, can you imagine watching ‘M*A*S*H’ or even ‘Saturday Night Live’ when ‘Gunsmoke’s on? It’s almost sacrilegious to anything American.
“I tried to get ’em back on track, which I think I did successfully. Sharon was a bit of a tough case, so I had to marry her where I could keep an eye on her a lot more frequently.”
WSU’s depth chart, released Monday, listed two true freshmen starters: wide receiver Gabe Marks and free safety Taylor Taliulu. A third true freshman, Teondray Caldwell, is listed as one of three potential starters at running back (along with senior Carl Winston and junior Leon Brooks).
Redshirt freshmen slated to start are defensive tackle Xavier Cooper, from Tacoma’s Wilson High School, and middle linebacker Darryl Monroe. Cooper has rarely practiced lately because of a foot injury.
Marquess Wilson, WSU’s record-breaking receiver, said Leach’s offense is “a better system” than the one he thrived in the past two years.
Wilson said he’s confident the Cougars can improve on last year’s 4-8 record.
“Effort-wise last year, we weren’t where we are right now,” he said. “We’re more of a team. We practice hard together. We have a mindset that we’re winners.”
Senior linebacker Travis Long said effort will definitely not be an issue for the many young players on WSU’s defense.
“They’re really hungry to play,” Long said. “They’re busting their butt out here. They’re getting better every day. They’re taking to coaching. Defense is going to win games.”
Sports Illustrated has tabbed Marks as the Pacific-12 Conference’s “impact freshman.” The magazine predicts the Cougars will finish 6-6, including 4-5 (fifth place) in the Pac-12 North. … A BYU spokesperson said a near-capacity crowd of 60,000 or more may be on hand Thursday. … WSU is nearing a sellout for its home opener Sept. 8 against Eastern Washington. … Leach, who was known to draw up plays during class at BYU, credits many of his offensive ideas to BYU’s revered coach at the time, LaVell Edwards. … Nine BYU players recently made a home visit to devoted fan Don Terry, who is fighting an uphill battle against cancer. … No alcohol is allowed anywhere on campus at Mormon-run BYU. … Leach has siblings and other family and friends in Utah who plan to attend the game.
Cougars’ Opponent this week
BRIGHAM YOUNG (0-0, INDEPENDENT)
7:15 p.m. Thursday, LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah
TV: ESPN. Radio: 710-AM, 96.9-FM, 104.3-FM
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (66-24, eighth year)
Last year: Finished 10-3 in first year as an independent. Defeated Tulsa in Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, 24-21.
Against WSU: BYU leads the series, 2-1. BYU won the last meeting, 50-36, in 1990 in Provo.
STAte connections: Five BYU players hail from Washington, including two starters, brothers Spencer Hadley (linebacker) and Preston Hadley (cornerback), from Connell.
Did you know: Mendenhall, a former Oregon State player and assistant coach, has guided BYU to a bowl games in all seven of his seasons as coach of the Cougars.
Scouting report: The “other” Cougars – BYU, that is – have 29 seniors and 14 returning starters (seven on each side of the ball). Riley Nelson wrested the starting quarterback job back from former Skyline High School (Sammamish) star Jake Heaps midway through last season and posted a 6-1 record. Heaps has since transferred to Kansas. Nelson is a gutsy scrambler who passed for 19 touchdowns last season. His favorite target, Cody Hoffman, averaged 24.4 yards per kickoff return. On defense, BYU has a talented outside linebacker in 6-foot-3, 235-pound Kyle Van Noy. He led the 2011 squad with 50 solo tackles, 15 tackles for loss, three interceptions (tied) and seven sacks.
2011 STATISTICAL LEADERS (RETURNING PLAYERS)
ThursdayWashington StateSept. 8Weber State
Sept. 15at UtahSept. 20at Boise State
Sept. 28HawaiiOct. 5 Utah State
Oct. 13Oregon StateOct. 20at Notre Dame
Oct. 27at Georgia TechNov. 10Idaho
Nov. 17at San Jose StateNov. 24at New Mexico StateHowie Stalwick, contributing writer