Soft-handed Cougar RBs catching coach's eye

PULLMAN — The assumption behind a Mike Leach offense is that running backs get lost in the shuffle and spend most of their time blocking. Think again. At Texas Tech, his backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards seven times in his last eight seasons. They also caught a ton of passes. True to that form, Washington State's backs have been going all directions in this first spring of the Leach Era.

And the softness of their hands has impressed the head man as well as running backs coach Jim Mastro.

"You know, they all catch it pretty good and that was one pleasant surprise," Leach said. "I always say so-and-so catches it like a running back with their fat, weight-lifting hands but these guys catch it pretty smooth, honestly. I think, well who catches it better than the other guy? And that's been hard to distinguish. I think (Leon) Brooks catches it particularly well but they all catch it pretty well."

Screen passes in particular have been a major focus this spring for Brooks and his fellow Cougar backs Rickey Galvin, Carl Winston, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell.

"It's important to everybody but if you want to drop back and throw you have to get the defense running at different angles," Leach said recently of screen plays. "You can't just let them get their weight on their knuckles and come forward the whole time. It's pretty good against blitzes and stuff like that."

In Leach's book "Swing Your Sword," he discusses how he loves different variations of screens and how they fit well into his offensive philosophies. He goes into detail on how screens are a great way to use a defense's aggression against them, and he doesn't mind if the plays sometimes get busted.

BROOKS HAS INDEED BEEN impressive receiving the ball out of the backfield this spring. There have been several plays during practices where he's been able to catch the ball, evade several defenders, and sprint his way for gains of 40-plus yards.

Galvin was WSU's top rusher last season with nearly 700 yards, and he also led all Cougar backs in receptions with 28 for 242 yards and a touchdown. He's been coming on strong in practice after missing several sessions earlier this spring because of an unknown injury (Leach doesn't talk about injuries). He told CF.C he's enjoyed every minute he's been working in the new system.

"I feel like this offense is basically the same as any other offense," Galvin said. "You might not be running the ball as much but we're going to be out in space running routes and catching screens. I like that personally because I enjoy being in space and making plays."

Perhaps what Galvin has enjoyed the most is working with new RBs coach Mastro, who has introduced elements of run-heavy Pistol offense into Leach's Air Raid.

"We have a different variety of backs so the coaches have given us all an opportunity to produce," Galvin said. "Working with the new techniques and coaches has been a lot better for us and I think the running back group is really coming up."

As for Mastro, he seems right at home with his new ground troops. Arriving in Pullman about three months ago from UCLA, he tells CF.C he's had countless meetings with the unit to get a feel for who they are as men and players.

On the field, Mastro is tough-nosed and firm, yet also positive. He'll be the first to congratulate a back after making a nice catch or great block, but at the same time he'll be the first to get in their face for a blown assignment.

"I'm going to treat them like men and they're going to understand there's a fine line and I'm not going to treat them like two-year olds," Mastro said. "They have to prove that they earn that respect. The kids all have great personalities though and I like them all. No bad apple in the bunch and they're all good kids which has been fun."

Mastro shares Leach's philosophy when it comes to the screen plays, and added that he's been impressed with how well all four backs have adapted to the changes.

"The thing is you have to make plays in space," Mastro said. "Running in space is kind of the approach and that's why we're running it (the screen) so much. They've picked it up and gotten better every day."

The Cougs will hold their annual Crimson & Gray Game in Spokane this Saturday at Albi Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m., but the parking lot will open for tailgating at 8 a.m., and two beer gardens will commence operations at 10 a.m. Cougar players and coaches will be on hand for autographs starting at 11 a.m., with free posters being handed out. WSU expects a crowd of 10,000-plus for the game.

The game will be televised live in the Greater Spokane region on SWX, and KXLY Radio will be broadcasting from the stadium for the first hour.

The game will not be the capstone to Leach's first spring season at WSU. He wants to take what he and his staff learn from the game and employ it in practice while it's fresh in players' minds, so the Cougs will hold one more practice next week.

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