What you need to know on Cougs before kickoff
Say this for WSU's defense: if they're going to go down, they're going to go down swinging. Don't be surprised if the attacking Cougar defense gives up some gigantic plays – it's going to happen this year. The aim is that more good will come out of the aggressive approach than not -- that WSU will force enough turnovers, make enough sacks, force enough errant throws and more to balance out the times when the opponent puts together a one-play, 70-yard touchdown drive via a wide open receiver.
Talk about a challenge. More than half of the expected starters on defense for the Cougs at BYU – 6 of 11 – will be making their first collegiate start. Only one is a true freshman but six first-time starters would almost certainly mean plenty of growing pains on D in 2012. The good news is, based on what we've seen since fall camp practices began, the Cougs will get better on D as the year goes along. They're not untalented as much as they are inexperienced and playing in the Pac-12 does present a steep learning curve. The expected first-time starters: DL Steven Hoffart, DL Ioane Gauta, DL Matthew Bock, LB Darryl Monroe, LB Eric Oertel, S Taylor Taliulu.
Speaking of the d-line, whither Toni Pole? The nose tackle missed some time with injury during fall camp and once he returned, Gauta looked to have solidified his hold on the starting NT position. Pole appeared in 10 games last season, starting three, and something tells us we'll still see, at the least, plenty of Pole in rotation.
Two guys you won't see on the sidelines are assistants Eric Morris and Jeff Choate. Morris, WSU's inside WRs coach, is following in the footsteps of Dana Holgorsen and Lincoln Riley in the coveted role of serving as Mike Leach's eye in the sky. "Coveted" because the last two guys who were Leach's eyes in the booth are now the head coach at West Virginia (Holgorsen) and offensive coordinator at East Carolina (Riley.) Meanwhile, Choate, the Cougar linebackers coach, will be defensive coordinator Mike Breske's go-to man, helping with coverages and on a direct line to Breske throughout the game.
Dominique Williams has been the quiet man. The wideout missed a large chunk of fall camp to injury but since he's been back, he's been getting a lot of reps. Williams is primarily the backup X-receiver behind Marquess Wilson and Wilson is obviously going to play a lot this season. But the receivers are somewhat interchangeable in Leach's offense (outside-to-outside, inside-to-inside) and there's plenty of rotation that goes on -- don't be surprised if Williams makes a splash this season, and sooner rather than later.
At the H-receiver, it's been interesting this past month. Gino Simone and Brett Bartolone battled most of camp and both figure to see plenty of reps this season. Then in just the last week Rickey Galvin, who began fall camp as the No. 1 running back before being switched to wide receiver and who had played mostly at the Y-receiver spot behind Andrei Lintz, began running more at the H and is now listed as the starting H-receiver on WSU's official depth chart released a few days ago. Confused? Leach hopes BYU is, too.
Speaking of running back, it certainly looks like a committee approach for the Cougs in 2012. Teondray Caldwell, Carl Winston and Leon Brooks should all see touches.
Plan to see a lot of true freshmen playing in 2012. Leach has made plain he doesn't much care what year a player is – his standard rule of thumb is that if he's good enough to be in the two-deeps, as WRs Gabe Marks and Brett Bartolone, RB Teondray Caldwell and S Taylor Taliulu are, then they'll play. Also keep in mind that linebackers make up the heart and soul of special teams, and so Jeremiah Allison, Feddie Davey, Kache Palacio and Khalil Pettway are all strong candidates to hit the field tonight as well. CB Ray Ford is another who may see playing time in 2012.
WSU's special teams this season will have a new look and hopefully for Cougar fans, it will be a positive, eventful change. There's a brand new punter and kickoff specialist (Mike Bowlin), primary kickoff return man (Brooks, also the punt returner) and a new "starter" at long snapper. Alex Den Bleyker might not be a known name but he took over the long snapping duties the last three games of 2011. A sophomore out of Moreau Catholic in Fremont, Calif., Den Bleyker was rated a 5-star long snapper and 14th in the nation by Rubio Long Snapping coming out of high school. Also, keep an eye on the kickoff return man. Brooks looks like the guy but the Cougs may not be done tinkering with that spot yet.
Bowlin's first touchback tonight will equal WSU's total of all last year. In 2012, expect that kind of output multiple times a game -- and not only because Bowlin has a booming leg. NCAA rules changes this year include moving up kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line. And touchbacks in the end zone will bring the ball out to the 25-yard line, rather than the 20. The stated reasoning is more touchbacks should equal fewer injuries. Also in play, we suspect, is the NCAA rules committee's long standing fascination with trying to speed up the game. Naturally, kickers have been working more this offseason on trying to spot the ball at or near the goal line – sometimes the goal will be to try and pin opponents inside the 20-yard line rather than giving them the 25.
The starting five on the o-line has looked set for a while now – LT John Fullington, LG Wade Jacobson, C Elliott Bosch, RG Jake Rodgers, RT Dan Spitz – but what about the guys behind them? Three in particular come to mind – Gunnar Eklund is suited to tackle, Taylor Meighen is likely the guy behind Bosch and Matt Goetz is the guy at either of the guard spots. Other shuffling that could also be in play as one example, is if one of the tackles gets dinged up, Jacobson or Rodgers would slide over to that spot and then one of the above three comes in to fill their spot inside.
Nolan Washington looks to have solidified his starting corner job for BYU opposite Damante Horton. But that doesn't mean that's it as far as the Cougar cornerbacks go. Depending on down and distance, what package the Cougs are running, etc., other guys like Tracy Clark and Daniel Simmons will be in there, too. For Clark, one thing his play will not be is boring – he might even earn a nickname like "Wild Ride" this season. There are times he'll provide stick-to-you-like-glue coverage – really good stuff. And then other times, the lapses are pronounced. Rahmel Dockery has been running with the scout team of late and it looks like he's a guy that will redshirt – maybe. Dockery has been coming on after an adjustment period following his move from WR to CB. Running with the scout team, he picked off Jeff Tuel twice in recent days.
Your safety starters are: Deone Bucannon, and then all indications point towards Taliulu at the other spot. One thing about that safety position, though. Taliulu is a true freshman, and BYU is expected to throw a sophisticated running attack at the Cougs. Although Tyree Toomer hasn't run with the 1's much since Taliulu emerged, Toomer, for any deficit he may have shown last year in pass coverage, is an excellent run stopping safety. Write it down -- you haven't seen the last of Tyree Toomer, and that's a good thing for Coug fans.
At linebacker, the starters have been well known for some time – BUCK Travis Long, SAM Eric Oertel, MIK Darryl Monroe, WIL Chester Sua. But what about rotation or if someone, thought forbid, gets dinged up? Just our take but we think you could see Cyrus Coen for either Oertel or Monroe, Jared Byers for Monroe in the middle, and Justin Sagote spelling Sua. And then of course there's BUCK Logan Mayes, whose sack-happy performance in the spring game is still echoing around Spokane. WSU's base is the 3-4 but they'll still be multiple up front – it all depends on opponent, down and distance, etc. How much will they change it up? Only Breske and Co. knows.
Injured players tend to be out of sight, out of mind for fans and pundits alike. And Leach not only provides no injury information, he doesn't even acknowledge they exist. Two players who could have figured in WSU's starting plans, OT Rico Forbes and DL Robert Barber, earlier this month suffered ACL injuries requiring season-ending surgery, CF.C reported. And an almost-certain starter on the d-line, Xavier Cooper, has missed nearly all of fall camp with an undisclosed injury, attending practice in a boot. Cooper, who we expect back at some point, remains listed as the starting LT on the d-line -- so we might as well get this obligatory reference out of the way: If Cooper is somehow out there tonight on the first defensive snap, he'll have to change his name to Willis Reed.
GAME INFO: The Cougs face off against BYU tonight at 7:15 p.m. in Provo, Utah. Washington State is an 11.5 point underdog virtually across the board in Las Vegas as of Thursday morning. (Opening line: 13.5) The game will be broadcast to a national TV audience on ESPN. The radio broadcast is on 770 KTTH in the greater Seattle area. Click here for more radio station listings.