Washington State’s football players will put on their helmets and hit the practice field on Saturday, marking the beginning of the 2016 season. And so much more goes into it than that.
For the Cougars, who begin their season as they always do under Mike Leach, at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston, Idaho, the actual mechanics of holding their first practice pale when compared with the logistics. Players must be signed into dorms at nearby Lewis-Clark State College, meals must be figured out, equipment transported.
Coach Leach has so much to think about before he gets to a running back corps he calls the best group of running backs he’s ever had, or a receiver, Gabe Marks, who he says “literally might be the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached.”
“What you’re trying to do is make moving parts run together perfectly without any friction at all,” Leach said. “There’s always going to be a hitch, and you’re never going to plan perfectly, but you try.
“And I’ll be honest with you, some of that over-planning can be a waste of time. Because in the end, you want to have the best framework and stuff that you can, but there’s a whole bunch of coaches — us included, hopefully to a lesser degree than the others — wringing their hands and pulling their hair out trying to be perfect.”
The Cougars enter camp with understandably high expectations following last year’s nine-win season, and the importance of these initial practices should not need to be impressed upon a Pac-12 team that lost its 2015 season-opener to FCS Portland State.
WSU has depth like it’s never had under Leach, particularly on offense. Those running backs he speaks so highly of? One of the four might have to switch positions just to get on the playing field.
“We don’t have enough reps for four running backs,” Leach said, hinting that a move to receiver might be likely for the odd man out.
(Potential spoiler: Keith Harrington came to WSU as a wide receiver and Jamal Morrow is the most productive pass catcher out of the backfield the Cougars have ever had.)
Because Leach’s precamp teleconference was his first major media availability since the Sun Bowl, he addressed a laundry list of items.
Quarterback Peyton Bender, who transferred, might return to the team, but it did not sound like Leach thinks it is very likely he will. But the coach has confidence in redshirt freshman Tyler Hilinksi, who he says has the best feet of all the WSU passers.
Leach is confident in the new starters on the offensive line — left tackle Andre Dillard and left guard Cody O’Connell — and acknowledged that building depth behind the starting linebackers will be a priority during camp.
Marks, his roommate Parker Henry and sophomore cornerback Darrien Molton are the three “very elite” hard workers on the team, although Morrow’s infectious enthusiasm has led to more energetic offseason workouts than Leach has yet seen.
And it is that energy, more than a returning stanout starting quarterback (Luke Falk), a deep stable of running backs and a stout defense that has Leach excited for the upcoming season.
“The biggest thing is overall excitement for the season,” Leach said. “With that you generate motivation to improve and the focus is specifically to do that and off it goes. I think we’ll start camp on a very high note. I think that we will continue to improve from there.”