Grueling work in the offseason helped the Washington State Cougars improve their bodies, but the Cougars’ biggest improvement might be above the neck.
“It all starts with the attitude,” running back Gerard Wicks said. “This year, the team attitude has totally changed.”
“Totally different feel,” wide receiver Gabe Marks agreed. “The energy is so much higher.”
The 2014 Cougars fell apart on the field and in the locker room during a 3-9 season. Washington State led the nation in passing, but were doomed by bad defense and bad attitudes.
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“I think that’s the biggest thing that was missing last year — not a real ‘tight’ locker room,” quarterback Luke Falk said. “We’ve got it this year.”
“Most definitely,” linebacker Jeremiah Allison said.
Wicks said some players “just weren’t buying in” and “went their separate ways” after games and practices last year. Falk, the redshirt sophomore who replaces all-time WSU passing leader Connor Halliday, has drawn considerable praise from teammates for his work ethic and leadership in the offseason.
“We just did a lot more things outside football,” Falk said. “That brought everyone together.”
“He (Falk) got the barbecues together, he got the meetings together,” Wicks said. “He really got everything started.”
It remains to be seen if the Cougars can get started reviving a program that has not experienced a winning season since 2003. Mike Leach, the highest-paid state employee at $2.75 million a year, has won fewer games (three) in two of his first three seasons than predecessor Paul Wulff won during his final season (four). As an added bonus, Wulff’s five-year contract paid him only slightly more ($3 million) than Leach makes annually.
The Cougars have more experience than last year’s painfully young team, but the secondary remains painfully short on experience. After giving up nearly 39 points and 445 yards per game last season, the Cougars lost their best defensive lineman (Tacoma’s Xavier Cooper passed up his senior year to turn pro) and best defensive back (Daquawn Brown was kicked off the team for undisclosed disciplinary reasons).
Leach fired veteran defensive coordinator Mike Breske and brought in fiery young Alex Grinch. Though he has no experience as a coordinator, Grinch split the past six years as a secondary coach at Wyoming and Missouri. The Tigers, playing in the powerful Southeast Conference, went 23-5 the past two years.
“Coach Grinch is a real intense coach, so we feed off his energy,” rush linebacker Ivan McLennan said. “My position coach, Roy Manning, he’s always ‘turned up’ out there. He’s always barking and wanting us to do (things), so he brings us energy, too. Coach Wilson (linebackers coach Ken Wilson), too. All the coaches.
“It’s just different this fall.”
The Cougars had glaring breakdowns on defense and special teams last year, and Leach said he believes the defense lacked direction at times. Senior safety Taylor Taliulu says Grinch has solved that problem.
“Communication is cleaned up,” Taliulu said. “We know exactly what we are doing at all times.”
The Cougars are expected to run the ball more after leading the nation in pass attempts and ranking last in rushing attempts (and yards) all three years under Leach. Passing remains paramount in Leach’s offense, however, and Falk averaged 476 passing yards (and threw 10 touchdown passes) in his three starts last year after Halliday went down with a broken leg.
Falk lacks Halliday’s powerful arm, but he is more mobile and played in an offensive system similar to WSU’s in high school.
“Smart guy,” Marks said. “He puts you in good positions (to catch passes); he’s not going to get you murdered out there, you know what I mean?
“He knows how to read defenses. He knows his offense like the back of his hand.”
Falk says WSU’s deep and talented group of receivers rank with the nation’s best. All five starters return on the offensive line, and Wicks has looked sharp. Now, if the team can stay united …
“It’s just fun to be around (teammates),” Falk said. “I really don’t ever go home that much. I like to just sit in the locker room and hang out.”
After victories, it’s even more fun.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS TWO-DEEP ROSTER
2014 record: 3-9, tied for fifth in the Pac-12 Conference North (2-7). Returning 14 starters.
2015 Pac-12 media poll predicted finish: Fifth (Pac-12 North)
The skinny: Luke Falk appears to be a worthy replacement for career WSU passing leader Connor Halliday. After Halliday’s senior season ended with a broken leg against USC last year, Falk started the final three games and completed 63 percent of a whopping 184 passes for 1,427 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. “He’s just got such a leadership (quality) to him,” offensive tackle Joe Dahl said. Wide receiver Gabe Marks also praised Falk, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone watch as much film as he has since he’s been here.” Dahl added, “He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever met.”
Backups: Dahl says No. 2 quarterback Peyton Bender possesses “a cannon for an arm,” but that arm occasionally needs a GPS to find its target. Tyler Hilinksi, who graduated from high school early so he could join the Cougars for winter and spring workouts, passed for 2,738 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions last year at Upland High in Claremont, Calif. He’s set to redshirt.
The skinny: The Cougars seem determined to run the ball more after finishing last in the nation three consecutive years in rushing attempts and yards. Leach remains in love with airborne footballs, however, and running backs are often employed as receivers. Gerard Wicks, second on the team in rushing behind Jamal Morrow when both were redshirt freshmen last year, packed on muscle after spending long hours in the weight room. “You’re going to see all of his hard work pay off,” Dahl said. “He’s an incredibly talented kid.”
Backups: Morrow’s 61 catches ranked second in the nation among running backs last season, and he led the Cougars with 87 carries, 351 rushing yards and 4.0 yards per carry. However, he did not find the end zone, and Wicks accounted for all but one of WSU’s five rushing touchdowns. The coaching staff raves about flashy freshman James Williams, but they would prefer to redshirt him. Redshirt freshman Keith Harrington also shows promise.
The skinny: The Cougars are loaded with talent and depth at the receiver positions. That comes in handy for a team that has led the nation in pass attempts during each of Mike Leach’s three years as coach. “I think we have one of the best receiving corps in the nation,” Falk said. “There’s not one guy I’m not confident in, so that’s really a luxury to sit back there (in the pocket) and see who’s open.” Gabe Marks, who had the luxury of redshirting last year due to WSU’s receiver overload, led the 2013 Cougars with 74 receptions and seven TD catches (tied for first). Dom Williams is big and explosive, and River Cracraft and Robert Lewis make gutsy catches in traffic.
Backups: Sophomore Kyrin Priester might be the Cougars’ top NFL prospect. He ran into problems with the coaching staff at Clemson and was given the boot after appearing in one game last season, but the NCAA waived the standard redshirt year for transfers when Clemson signed off on it. True freshmen Tavares Martin Jr. and Kyle Sweet have been bright spots in fall practices. C.J. Dimry, a 6-foot-5 junior college transfer, creates nightmares for smaller defenders on “jump balls” in the end zone.
The skinny: The Cougars return all five starters, led by Dahl, an NFL prospect. He gave up just one sack last year, though Connor Halliday was not the most mobile of quarterbacks. Long known for his hard work, Dahl is stronger and fitter than ever after sweating profusely in offseason workouts. “You just look at the guy,” Falk said, “and you know he’s worked his butt off this season to look like a freakin’ freak.” Gunnar Eklund, another in-state product, is a fifth-year senior like Dahl. Both came to WSU as walk-ons.
Backups: The Cougars like to think they have some prime beef that just needs a bit of aging in true freshmen Cedric Bigge-Duren (6-foot-6, 308 pounds), Noah Osur-Myers (6-4, 321) and Amose Sakaria (6-2, 308). Older players likely will be called upon to spell starters this season.
The skinny: Another ghastly performance by WSU’s defense cost defensive coordinator/secondary coach Mike Breske his job after last season. Replacement Alex Grinch is brimming with intensity, but that won’t help much if the defensive line is not more dominant than a year ago. End Darryl Paulo loves Grinch’s emphasis on improving WSU’s pass rush. “He brings a lot of energy,” Paulo said. “We feed off of that.” The Cougars suffered a major loss when tackle-end Xavier Cooper, a former Wilson High School standout from Tacoma, passed up his senior season to turn pro.
Backups: The Cougars appear to have improved depth on the defensive line. A lack of manpower led to weary linemen a year ago, which contributed to some of the worst defensive statistics in the nation (38.6 points and 442.2 yards allowed per game). Redshirt freshman tackle-end Hercules Mata’afa has a great name to go with great pass-rushing skills.
The skinny: The Cougars have talented, active linebackers in Jeremiah Allison, Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan on the outside. Look for all three to hound quarterbacks as part of Grinch’s beloved blitz packages. “Coach Grinch demands perfection out of everybody,” Allison said. “He’s really hands on. We don’t want to disappoint him.” Allison ranked second on the team with 78 tackles last year, Palacio had a team-high 61/2 sacks, and McLennan makes highlight plays.
Backups: Frankie Luvu, one of seven American Samoa natives on the roster, is a player to watch as he continues to become acclimated to a more advanced form of football in the United States.
The skinny: The development of the secondary — or lack thereof — might be the key to Washington State’s season. Opponents routinely toasted WSU’s young defensive backs a year ago, but the players did gain experience. The secondary remains young, with senior Taylor Taliulu the only upperclassman with starting experience in a Pac-12 game. Charleston White is being called upon to replace Daquawn Brown, who was kicked off the team for undisclosed disciplinary reasons after leading the team in tackles last season. True freshman Darrien Molton has been impressive in fall drills. Isaac Dotson and Darius Lemora figure to share time at the nickel back position. Junior college transfer Shalom Luani is a helmet-jarring safety.
Backups: Marcellus Pippins, who started the final two games last year after his redshirt was pulled with three games left, starts the season behind Molton on the depth chart. JC transfers Kirkland Parker and Treshon Broughton need to contribute.
The skinny: Special teams coach Eric Russell was fired at midseason last year, and some improvement was seen after Eric Mele replaced Russell. Kyrin Priester and Tavares Martin Jr. possess the type of speed and moves that could make them premier return men if the blocking is there. True freshman punter Zach Charme has a big-time leg. Field-goal kicker Erik Powell went 2 for 5 in limited action last year as a redshirt freshman.
Backups: Gabe Marks does not have blazing speed, but he’s fearless and has good field vision, so he could be dangerous on punt returns. WSU’s kickers and punters are unproven.
WASHINGTON STATE 2015 SCHEDULE
Sept. 5 vs. Portland State, 11 a.m., Pac-12 Networks
It’s a $525,000 payday for the cash-starved Vikings, who lost, 59-21, at WSU last year.
Sept. 12 at Rutgers, 12:30 p.m., ESPN2 or ESPNU
WSU is 1-5 in nonconference games outside Pullman under Leach, including a lackluster 41-38 loss to Rutgers in Seattle last year.
Sept. 19 vs. Wyoming, 5:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
USA Today ranks the Cowboys (94th) even lower than the Cougars (84th) among the 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Oct. 3 at California, TBA
Bears won, 60-59, in a shootout in Pullman last year.
Oct. 10 at Oregon, TBA
Mighty Ducks should make it nine in a row against the Cougs.
Oct. 17 vs. Oregon State, TBA
WSU should be favored over the rebuilding Beavers.
Oct. 24 at Arizona, TBA
Anu Solomon returns after passing for 294 yards and five touchdowns in 59-37 romp at WSU last year.
Oct. 31 vs. Stanford, TBA
The big, physical Cardinal poses problems for WSU’s many young players in particular.
Nov. 7 vs. Arizona State, TBA
The Sun Devils have averaged 51 points in winning the past three meetings with WSU.
Nov. 14 at UCLA, TBA
The fifth WSU opponent in a six-game span that is currently ranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
Nov. 21 vs. Colorado, TBA
The Buffaloes have yet to win more than two league games since joining Pac-12 in 2011.
Nov. 27 at Washington, 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m., Ch. 13 or FS1
The Cougars haven’t won at Husky Stadium since 2007.
Capsules and rankings by Howie Stalwick, contributing writer