No shortage of intrigue as Leach forms staff

TRYING TO get a read on how Mike Leach will fill his staff at WSU offers an extra dose of guesswork because he's been out of the game for two years. Moreover, one of his right-hand men at Tech for all 10 seasons there, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill, is now a head coach himself -- one who brought a host of Leach disciples with him and turned two into coordinators.

McNeill has been the head man at East Carolina for the past two seasons. Fittingly, the team is called the Pirates.

But it's hard envision McNeill jumping ship from an $800,000-per-year head job in Conference USA (at his alma mater, no less) for a coodinator's role in the Pac-12.

Among the former Leach assistants that McNeill brought to ECU are Brian Mitchell and Lincoln Riley, who serve as the Pirates' defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively. Both were position coaches for Leach at Tech. While coaching in the Pac-12 offers more prestige -- and money -- it seems unlikely that either would take a position with the Cougars without being offered a coordinator's position.

Another factor could play into it: Would Leach be comfortable with a wholesale raid of McNeill's staff given how close he and McNeill have been over the years?

In addition to Leach's absence from the game for the last two years, another key factor adds intrigue to the staff hunt: For the first time in school history, WSU is willing to spend big money on its assistants.

The total to be split among Leach's nine assistants will be $1.8 million. That's a $500,000 increase from the just-concluded Cougar season, and it figures to open many more doors of consideration.

Other than the report Saturday that David Emerick, Leach's recruiting coordinator and "chief of staff" at Texas Tech, is planning to leave Arizona to rejoin his old boss in the Palouse, the grapevine on the assistant coach front has been almost eerily quiet.

Based on two things -- conversations with various sources we believe could have insight, and good ol' educated guessing -- we've come up with ideas on how Leach's staff could take shape.

  • Defensive coordinator
    Several pundits have said this hire could define whether Leach succeeds or fails with the Cougars. "Regarding his DC, it's well known that Mike spends game day with his face buried in that wrinkly scrap of paper he calls his play sheet," stated a recent article published at "He spends meeting time with the offense, and lots of that time in small film study sessions with the quarterbacks."

    Former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, who was an assistant at Oklahoma when Leach was as well, is an intriguing name, but ESPN's Adam Rittenberg reported Friday that he is being courted by Ohio State and possibly Nebraska and Iowa.

    Two other notables with Leach ties are Houston defensive coordinator Ron Harris and Baylor's Brian Norwood. The former could be a strong candidate if he is willing to leave Houston, where he has coached since 2003. With a quick-strike offense that ranks 118th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in time of possession, Harris' defense often is left on the field. Despite that, the Cougars ranked 60th in total defense before Saturday's 49-28 upset loss to Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game. Houston was ranked 16th in pass efficiency defense this season. Harris was Leach's defensive line coach from 2000-02.

    Norwood faces a similar time-of-possession predicament at Baylor, but his defense ranks in the bottom half in FBS in several categories. He was a well-regarded safeties coach at Penn State from 2001-07, where the Nittany Lions ranked in the top 25 in pass efficiency four times.

    Leach has no ties to outgoing UCLA defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, who was successful in that role at South Florida and Cincinnati before joining the since-fired Rick Neuheisel this year.

  • Defensive line
    If Leach can lure Harris to serve as his defensive coordinator, he will handle this role. Charlie Sadler served in this role for Leach's final seven years with Texas Tech, but the Texas native has not coached since.

    Leach said in the past that he is not in favor of retaining assistants from previous staffs. It could make sense to make an exception here, though. Todd Howard only was on Wulff's staff for one year. He previously coached at UCLA, where he mentored All-Americans Justin Hickman and Brian Price in 2009. He also has NFL coaching experience. Unless Harris accepts the position, Leach might do well to retain Howard.

  • Linebackers
    McNeill guided this group throughout Leach's tenure with the Red Raiders. Could that leave the door ajar for Chris Tormey, a long-time former head coach who joined this Cougars as linebackers coach this past season? He's also a former DC, at UW, and an exellent recruiter with deep West Coast and island ties.

  • Safeties
    If Norwood is pried from Baylor to serve as Leach's defensive coordinator, he also will fill this role. Leach's safeties coach during his last six years with the Red Raiders, Carlos Mainord, has retired.

    If Leach is looking for a coach with Northwest ties, UCLA secondary coach Tim Hundley could be a possibility. A former defensive coordinator at Washington and UTEP, Hundley is an Oregon native. His recruiting responsibilities at UCLA included the Northwest. In addition, he also mentored safety Rahim Moore, who earned All-American honors, with the Bruins.

  • Cornerbacks
    Unless Leach views Mitchell, who had the 58th-ranked defense among FBS schools this year at ECU, as a candidate for defensive coordinator, he likely will have to find someone else to fill this role. Mitchell's predecessor at Texas Tech was the late Dave Brown, a member of the Seattle Seahawks' Ring of Honor.

    Craig Bray, who had stints at WSU under Dennis Erickson and Price, and has coached both cornerbacks and safeties at many college stops, is available with the sacking of Dennis Erickson and staff at Arizona State. There are other Cougar connections here if Leach wants to make inroads into the family history. A pair of former WSU standout defensive backs from 1990s, Greg Burns (with Erickson ASU) and Torey Hunter (at Idaho), are well thought of. Another former WSU player, Ronnie Lee, also has coached defensive backs at both Michigan and Minnesota.

  • Offensive line
    This hire is significant as Leach's system requires his offensive linemen to spread out and run more than traditional lines. When successful, it is supposed to negate defensive ends from applying pressure.

    Robert Anae, who coached the Red Raiders' offensive linemen from 2000-04, would seem a natural to join Leach's staff at WSU. He's available with the coaching change at Arizona. Anae could fill multiple roles at WSU. From 2005-10, he was the offensive coordinator and inside receivers' coach at BYU. He moved to Arizona this past season, where coached offensive linemen (and was run-game coordinator) with Bill Bedenaugh, another former Leach assistant. Both Anae and Bedenaugh could be candidates to serve as Leach's offensive coordinator.

    Bedenaugh, who started four years on the offensive line at Iowa Wesleyan, coached Red Raiders' running backs from 2002-04 and also could fill that role at WSU. Leach's last offensive line coach at Texas Tech, Matt Moore, remains in that duty with the Red Raiders and could be a consideration, as well. Moore's unit allowed just 18 sacks in 763 pass attempts in 2007.

    Despite his pedigree, Steve Morton seems unlikely to be retained because of the system change and the availability of others with experience in Leach's system.

  • Offensive coordinator
    See Anae and Bedenaugh above, and Kliff Kingsbury below.

  • Inside receivers
    Another former Arizona assistant, David Nichol, figures to be a candidate for this role at WSU. Nichol coached outside receivers for the Wildcats since 2008, but previously directed inside receivers in '06 at Baylor. Nichol was a graduate assistant from 2003-05 with the Red Raiders, where he worked with offensive linemen. He was a student assistant at Tech before that.

  • Outside receivers
    Mike Levenseller is considered one of the best technicians in the land and has been WSU's lead recruiter in the South Puget Sound since the early '90s, but if Leach wants fresh faces Levy wouldn't get a look. His name has been synonymous with Cougar football for the better part of four decades.

    Perhaps more likely to be targeted for this position is former Leach assistant Dennis Simmons, who spent two seasons with Leach at Tech before moving on to McNeill's staff at East Carolina.

  • Running backs
    Bedenaugh could fill this role if both he and Anae join the staff. Clay McGuire, a former H-Back with the Red Raiders who also coached running backs there for two years under Leach, could be a consideration as well. He followed McNeill to ECU, where he also serves as the special teams coordinator. The Pirates only averaged 3.3 yards per carry this season, though.

    Steve Broussard, a standout WSU running back in the late 1980s who was an assistant at the school under Bill Doba and Wulff, could put his name in the hat with Erickson's departure from ASU. Broussard was the receivers coach and recruiting coordinator this year at ASU, where he has put together one of the top-ranked classes in the conference.

  • Quarterbacks
    Leach might take the role of position coach with this group as FBS teams are limited to nine full-time assistants. Other options could include merging cornerbacks and safeties into one job, which is frequently done in college football, or having the special teams coach also run another unit.

    If this position is open, Leach is probably making his first call to Kingsbury, his first record-setting quarterback with the Red Raiders. Kingsbury is a Texas native who now is a co-offensive coordinator at Houston under Kevin Sumlin.

    Leach also could consider Eric Price, who served as his father Mike's quarterbacks coach at WSU from 1998-2000. The younger Price has coached in the NFL with the Jets and Chiefs and served as the offensive coordinator at UTEP and, for the last two years, at Memphis. He faced Leach twice in his time as OC at UTEP and lit up the scoreboard. He could be attractive for two reaons: he has a pass-first mindset and comes from a coaching tree Leach respects; and he could fill the cultural bridge between Leach and Cougar Nation. Price was born in Pullman and is married to a Pullman native.

    If Leach strictly is looking for a quarterbacks coach, Jason Gesser might have an opportunity. Leach often featured younger staffs during his later years with the Red Raiders as some of his top assistants, such as Sonny Dykes and Dana Holgorsen, left to become offensive coordinators and eventually become head coaches. Gesser, 32, just finished his first year as the running backs coach at Idaho.

  • Special teams
    Dykes and Holgorsen were among the most notable assistants by Leach's tenure at Texas Tech. But do not forget Eric Russell. He spent just one season with the Red Raiders, but his work with special teams was impressive enough to be a nominee for the Frank Broyles Awards in 2009. At North Texas, the Mean Green ranked No. 1 in punt return defense and No. 3 in kick return defense in 2003, and No. 5 in kick return defense in 2005 under Russell.

    He now is the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at Tennessee, but there are a couple of factors that could persuade Russell to follow Leach to follow. Perhaps the most significant is that Russell is an Idaho native -- he played quarterback at Spokane Falls Community College and later graduated from Idaho. Another reason is coach Derek Dooley is on the hot seat after finishing last in the SEC East with a 1-7 league record. The Volunteers had a 5-7 overall record, which marks their second straight losing mark under Dooley. Those woes cannot be attributed to Russell, whose unit ranked 11th among FBS schools in kickoff return yardage defense.

    Manny Matsakis, who was the Red Raiders' special teams coach from 2000-02, might be another candidate. Matsakis left Texas Tech to become the coach at Texas State and also has experience at Kansas State and Wyoming and the Canadian Football League.

    McGuire could come to WSU in a combined role as running backs and special teams coach, but his units at ECU have not fared well in national rankings.

    It seems unlikely that Ungerer will be retained after his unit allowed an FBS-worst four kickoff returns for touchdowns this season.

    Leach will make his first public appearance as WSU's head coach this Tuesday. He'll be introduced in Pullman at a noon press conference in the CUB senior ballroom, and then head to Seattle for a 6:30 p.m. gathering with reporters at the Fairmont Hotel. Given the pressing nature of building his staff and the limited time before the holiday quiet period in recruiting, WSU is planning to schedule opportunities for him to meet and greet alums at later dates.

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