Crimson confidence brims in Culver City

CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Confidence percolated like a strong brew at the nearby Starbucks. At Friday's Pac-12 Media Day at the sprawling Sony Studios Lot in this L.A. suburb, where Mike Leach and Cougs' safety Deone Bucannon and center Elliott Bosch held court, the three men spoke of a much improved football team.

The media types weren't buying it. They picked the Cougs to finish last again in the North Division. But Leach, Bucannon and Bosch were selling their stocks as convincing as a Dale Carnegie convert. Though neither of the three was predicting a conference title or anything brash, they promised Wazzu would mix it up with some of the best this season..

"I don't think there's any question. We're definitely better," Leach said..

"We expect to win every game because of all the hard work we've done," Bucannon added..

Leach, who worked his magic at Texas Tech before becoming head coach at WSU last year, heads into his second season after enduring his worst campaign—and only losing one—in 11 as a head coach. The Cougars staggered to a 3-9 mark overall, 1-8 in conference, their lone Pac-12 victory coming over arch-rival Washington in the season-finale, ending an eight-game skid..

With Leach's history, even the most jaded Coug fans have to believe this season will be much better than last year. After all, his players have had a year to digest his formula of success, one that allowed him to compile an impressive 84-43 record at Texas Tech before last season's disaster..

"We had a great end to (last) season, a great winter, great spring, a really good summer and I think everyone is excited we're going to carry this over into our first game," said Bosch, who played every down last season and will be one of the anchors of the Cougs' improved offensive line. "Everyone is just on the same page. To be a good team and to win, we have to work hard. Mike Leach doesn't have any magic dust to sprinkle on us. It's just going to take a lot of hard work and everyone to put in the time.".

Time has been an ally for the offensive line..

"The biggest thing is we were really inexperienced last year," Bosch said. "With a year under our belts, with more experience, and also this spring, we were able to get our starting group and have them play together for most of the spring. Last season, we had a mix-match of guys each week and it was different. Playing like that you have no cohesiveness..

"We also have a lot more depth. And that creates competition. All of those are good things and will help us.".

Said Leach, "We've got a lot more depth (on the offensive line), so some of those guys will fight it out. There's more bodies to work with, for sure. Gunner (Eklund) kept getting better all year long. I think they'll definitely make strides. I also think quarterback wise, we'll be quicker and more decisive and be able to help them out more than we did last year. Receiver-wise, I think we'll improve there and have the ability to get to space and look for the ball. So, I think that will help also.".

Eklund, a 6-7, 300-pound sophomore, will man the left tackle spot, while sophomore Joe Dahl (6-4, 290) is expected to start at right guard. The experience of senior right guard Matt Goetz (6-4, 270) and senior right tackle Rico Forbes (6-6 300) also is expected to pay big dividends..

They will be counted on to protect junior quarterback Connor Halliday, the frontrunner to start over redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, who threw for 1,874 yards and 15 touchdowns, but was dogged by 13 interceptions in nine games (five starts). Though Halliday realizes he has to cut down on the picks, last year's experience should benefit him, Leach said..

"He's just got to go out there compete well, play well, tune up his skills and maintain control," Leach said of the 6-4, 190-pounder from Spokane. "Connor has a bigger bank of experience. He's got a really good arm and he's a quick learner. The other thing is he's kind of emerged as leader on our team. Gets a lot out of everybody around. Real positive enthusiasm, encouragement for his teammates (and) things like that.".

Defensively, Leach says Bucannon (6-1, 215), a preseason Jim Thorpe Award nominee, will lead a unit that potentially could give conference foes trouble. Bucannon said sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe (6-1, 235), an All-Pac 12 honorable mention pick as a freshman, will create havoc and open some eyes..

Said Leach, "Just getting older and better and keep improving. We were really young over there and I thought they got better and better as the year went on.".

Notable Notes: Wazzu's visit to Cal on Oct. 5 means Leach will match wits with former assistant Sonny Dykes, now the head coach for the Golden Bears. "I'm excited (for) him," Leach said. "Sonny was my (graduate assistant) at Kentucky, so I've known him for a long time. I hired him at Texas Tech. Looking forward to it. He's kind of a laid-back guy. One thing I thought he did a pretty good job of was a lot times you're tempted to tell somebody to work on these 10 things. Well nobody can solve 10 things. Let's start with somewhere between one and three. I thought he was pretty good that way." … Though the Cougs start with road games at Auburn (Aug. 31) and USC (Sept. 7), they will really encounter stiff tests with Stanford (Sept. 28), at Cal, Oregon State (Oct. 12), at Oregon (Oct. 19) and at Arizona (Nov. 16). Three of those teams—Stanford, Oregon State and Oregon are among the contenders picked by the media expected to make a run for the Pac-12 title. … Leach said he doesn't see much difference in recruiting in the Pac-12 compared to his days in the Big 12. With the exception of more ground to cover, Leach said there are plenty of similarities. "It's pretty similar. The conference is a little more spread out but still your stronger spots are within the footprint of the conference. Of course there's a big population down here in Southern California, but there's also direct flights, so it's pretty easy to get back and forth. Southern California kids will leave. They've always had the inclination to kind of go anywhere. That's been helpful. I thought our reception here would be good but it was better than I expected. If you think about it, when Washington State has been the best they've always had quite a few guys from Southern California. I thought it was important we get back in that."

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