"I think it's a byproduct of working hard for it," said Leach, adding that the Cougars also started 17 freshmen a year ago. "I think it starts in the weight room and when you're running sprints. There was almost a mentality [when I arrived] that the offseason was optional. Work hard if you want to."
Leach cautioned that WSU still is youthful and "we've got a long ways to go." During Saturday's 42-0 win against Idaho, the Cougars had four starters each on offense and defense that were either freshmen or sophomores.
That inexperience is one concern Leach has when his team faces the Cardinal (3-0, 1-0). Stanford had 10 sacks, including a pair when WSU reached the red zone on its final drive, during its 24-17 win last year against the Cougars.
"I think it's a concern," Leach said. "Stanford is big and physical up front. You can't attack the same spot or they will tee off on you."
WSU's inability to protect quarterback Jeff Tuel, who now plays in the NFL with Buffalo, was a significant reason behind the team's failure to pull off the upset at Stanford. The Cougars have allowed seven sacks this season, which is tied for 68th among Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but that has not been their biggest problem in the red zone.
WSU has scored on just 64.7 percent of its opportunities in the red zone, which ranks 111th nationally. Turnovers have been a significant issue as junior quarterback Connor Halliday has completed 124 of 187 passes for 1,288 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Leach said his team has to improve in that regard, but he also cited the caliber of some of the defenses the Cougars have competed against. For example, USC ranks fourth nationally in total defense.
The Trojans, who were upset 10-7 by WSU on Sept. 7, are the only Pac-12 team ranked higher than the Cougars in total defense. WSU, which has allowed an average of 264.8 yards per game, is 10th nationally in that statistic.
"I think getting older and everyone getting used to the package," said Leach, when asked about the improvement from a unit that ranked 81st in total defense nationally last year.