2013 Cougar Football Outlook: OFFENSE

GROWTH HAS BECOME a popular word in the vernacular of Washington State football fans the last several seasons. But that aptly sums up what the Cougars will look to accomplish on offense in 2013 after coach Mike Leach's Air Raid offense ranked just 95th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams at the end of the 2012 season.

Notable losses: OL Wade Jacobson, 6-6, 300; WR Gino Simone, 6-0, 184; QB Jeff Tuel, 6-3, 221, (pending NCAA ruling on medical redshirt); WR Marquess Wilson, 6-3, 188; RB Carl Winston, 5-8, 192.; WR Andrei Lintz, 6-5, 260.

Top returnees for 2013: WR Brett Bartolone, 5-10, 179, SO.; OL Elliott Bosch, 6-4, 271, R-SR.; RB Teondray Caldwell, 5-8, 189, SO.; OL Gunnar Eklund, 6-7, 286, R-SO.; OL John Fullington, 6-5, 300, SR.; WR Rickey Galvin, 5-8, 178, R-JR. (injury status remains unclear); OL Matt Goetz, 6-4, 272, SR.; QB Connor Halliday, 6-4, 189, JR.; WR Gabe Marks, 6-0, 167, SO.; WR Isiah Myers, 6-0, 176, jr.; WR Bobby Ratliff, 6-2, 194, jr.; OL Jake Rodgers, 6-6, 300, jr.; WR Dominique Williams, 6-2, 187, so.; WR Kristoff Williams, 6-2, 209, jr.

Up-and-comers: QB Austin Apodaca, 6-3, 180, R-FR; OL Sam Flor 6-4, 296, R-FR; OL Joe Dahl, 6-4, 272, R-SO.; OL Denzell Dotson, 6-2, 308, R-FR.; OL Eduardo Middleton, 6-5, 294, R-FR.; OL Rico Forbes, 6-6, 283, R-SR; OL Pierson Villarubia 6-4, 275; WR Drew Loftus, 6-2, 184, R-SO; WR Bennett Bontemps, 5-11, 198, SR.

Waiting to see if they'll make their mark in 2013: QB Cody Clements, 6-2, 205, R-SO; WR Mansell Simmons, 6-4, 214, R-SO; RB Theron West, 5-7, 171, R-JR.

Look for: More air yards, longer drives, more TDs. Even without Wilson, who had a team-high 813 yards and five touchdowns on 52 receptions before he left the team with two games remaining, the receivers should improve next season.

The inexperienced unit regressed from 2011, one could argue, when Wilson set WSU's single-season record for receiving yardage (1,388), while being complemented by sure-handed seniors Isiah Barton and Jared Karstetter. In addition to Wilson's struggles to adjust to the new coaching staff, depth was limited to the point that the Cougars' second- and third-leading receivers were true freshmen.

The inexperience showed at times with poor route running, blocking and drops – issues that should be correctable with experience and work. Leach called Bartolone, who finished with 435 yards and four touchdowns on 53 receptions, the team's most consistent receiver. He appears to be a lock at one of the four starting receiving positions along with Dominique Williams, who supplanted Wilson as a starter.

Williams seemed to improve each week and had a monster, game-high 143 yards on eight receptions in WSU's 31-28 overtime win in the Apple Cup. He appears ready to emerge as the Cougars' bona fide No. 1 receiver.

But Marks, who finished with 560 yards and two touchdowns on 49 receptions, has the rare ability to play inside or outside receiver in Leach's offense. The explosive Marks, a four-star recruit who headlined Leach's first recruiting class at WSU, could be a break-out candidate next season. He appeared to be on that path this year with a hot start, but tailed off as the season went along.

Along with those receivers, others among former coach Paul Wulff's recruits could vie for starting positions or figure into the rotation. Galvin, if he returns from injury, caught nine passes at one inside receiver spot before a fractured forearm ended his season after three games.

Ratliff, who has been lauded by coaches for his blocking skills, Myers and Kristoff Williams also saw significant playing time in 2012. It felt at times as if Ratliff was about to really break out this season, but it never came to pass. The same could be said for Myers. And Kristoff Williams is a rare combinatoin of strength and receiving skills. Is 2013 the year one or more of them puts it all together?

And, as always, wide receiver will always be a priority in recruiting. As Bartolone and Marks showed, true freshmen can compete for starting positions. Grayshirt Robert Lewis is expected to enroll in January and could be an inside receiver. Highly regarded Texan Demarcus Ayers, California's River Cracraft and junior-college transfer Vince Mayle, a big, physical receiver, are among the 2013 verbal pledges.

The questions: One of the bigger near-term storylines during the coming weeks will be whether the NCAA grants Tuel a fifth season of eligibility. Athletic director Bill Moos recently told CF.C he puts the odds of that occurring at 20 to 30 percent.

Even if he is granted an extra year of eligibility, Tuel said he has taken pains to say he's undecided on whether he would return. He seemed to indicate that was much more likely in the immediate glow of the Apple Cup win. Tuel's return would give the Cougars two quarterbacks with significant experience in Leach's system.

But the biggest storyline of the offseason will be about transforming the offensive line into a productive unit. Washington State is simply not going to be able to win games until they get the o-line to at least a serviceable level -- and about the only game they reached that mark was in the regular season finale.

Leach frequently mentioned the unit's lack of depth and talent by noting two starters came to WSU as walk-ons -- Bosch and Eklund. He also said at one point that the former was the most consistent player on the offensive line.

The question here is how much of their 2012 performance was due to a change in scheme/coaches and how much was because of size and talent deficiencies up front for WSU. The Cougar o-line probably averaged about 270-280 pounds much of the season.

Depth should improve next season – Leach said he only had five healthy linemen during the Apple Cup, six in the weeks immediately prior. That forced all of them to take every snap – as Dahl, a transfer from Montana, Dotson, Middleton, Flor and Villarubia come off redshirt seasons.

Rico Forbes, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during fall camp, should vie for a starting job. Niu Sale could also be in the mix but he was also absent from practice for the last month, whether that's due to injury has been left unanswered by Leach and WSU.

Leach places an emphasis on recruiting offensive linemen but he has to bring in some junior college talent for 2013 -- the projection is for five prep and two junior college o-linemen in the recruiting class. The Cougs are simply not stocked with enough 300-plus pound veterans to run the Air Raid at a high enough level and the upcoming season will be a prime opportunity for JC o-linemen to make their mark.

Mitchell Bell, who previously committed to Arkansas and has scheduled a visit next weekend to WSU, is among those who fit into that group. But many junior-college o-linemen can also have a learning curve in jumping levels and ideally, the Cougs would see both incoming JUCO talent and redshirt freshmen ready to push some of the returning starters that are perhaps better suited to backup roles.

Both Tuel and Halliday suffered injuries behind a line that allowed an FBS-worst 57 sacks. Granted, the Cougs attempted a school and Pac-12 record 624 passes this season -- and no one in the FBS this season attempted more throws than did WSU.

But there were many a time WSU couldn't keep three rushers from getting to the quarterback in short order, let alone four or more.

The unit was not any better run blocking as WSU also ranked last in FBS with an average of 1.38 yards per carry. To be fair, it needs to be pointed out WSU all but abandoned the run at times, with Cougar running backs getting 10 or fewer carries in some games. Indeed, Washington State ran the least on any FBS team this season -- 252 carries. Compare that with 428 carries for Washington, 514 for Stanford and 550 for Arizona State.

Still, the central fact remains -- there were oodles of times when a WSU running back had no lane to exploit and carries went for no gain.

Winston led the team with just 280 rushing yards, a far cry from the school-record 1,900 rushing yards in 2005 by Jerome Harrison. Caldwell, who had 269 yards on 55 carries, might be WSU's best back since Harrison, but figures to see significant competition in the form of incoming freshmen in the 2013 class. But the running game will not be fully fixed until the blocking improves up front.

Offensive keys to the season: It all starts with the offensive line. The constant hurrying and sacks brought out the worst traits in both signal-callers as Tuel at times looked for a way out before he had to. Halliday, meanwhile, held the ball too long at times and frequently did not appear to go through his progressions as adroitly as was necessary.

Injuries and inconsistencies resulted in Leach, who likes to settle on one quarterback, having a quick hook and rotating both during the season.

Assuming Tuel, who completed 211 of 332 for 2,087 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions this season, is not granted a fifth year, and Halliday is your starter in 2013. He completed 152 of 291 passes for 1,878 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2012. The slender Halliday has missed time during each of the last two seasons with injuries. Staying healthy could be crucial as none of the quarterbacks behind him, including Gilbertson, have yet thrown a pass in a game.

Apocada, who redshirted this season, moved past 2011 signee Cody Clements on the depth chart and figures to vie with four-star recruit Tyler Bruggman to be the program's quarterback of the future. Both also could contend to serve as Halliday's backup, although Leach likely would prefer to redshirt Bruggman.

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