Past helps Leach navigate ‘hectic' schedule

WASHINGTON STATE COACH Mike Leach considers himself somewhat of an expert on taking on large endeavors in a short timeframe. During his Monday teleconference, Leach compared preparation for Saturday's New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State to his short engagement to his wife. He discussed that, the progression of several players and much more.

Leach, who has guided 11 teams to bowl appearances in 12 seasons as coach, said he still hears a certain message from family and friends after the conclusion of the regular season. With more than a three-week gap between the Apple Cup and bowl game, Leach said those around him sometimes refer to it as a "vacation."

"It couldn't be further from the truth," he said. "It's always hectic."

But Leach has firsthand experience to help his combat the challenge. He and his wife, Sharon, were engaged only two weeks before they married.

"That was a stroke of genius," said Leach, adding that he would reduce that timeline to three days if he could do it again.

He said that experience with multitasking prepared him well to handle the rigors of simultaneously trying to balance practices and recruiting during December. Leach said that is challenging because several coaches, including himself, have been out of Pullman making in-home visits with recruits. Meanwhile, Leach strives to devise a practice schedule that enables younger players to gain experience while also preparing veteran players for their bowl game. In addition, finals were last week for WSU students.

While that can create a logistical nightmare, Leach said the positives far outweigh those challenges.

"The extra practices are way more important than people realize," he said.

That also leads into the offseason. The Cougars (6-6) have doubled their win total from 2012 (3-9). CSU (7-6) also is bowl eligible for the first time since 2008 under coach Jim McElwain. Both Leach and McElwain are in their second seasons with their respective programs. For the Cougars, Leach said they benefited from having a full offseason together. When he was hired in late 2011, he said he still had to hire a new staff, including a strength coach.

"We had an incredible offseason," Leach said. "We're going to have an even better one this year. I think both teams will be better next year."

ALONG THOSE LINES, Leach was asked about some of the program's most improved players from last season. Junior running back Marcus Mason was among those mentioned. Mason led WSU with 424 yards on 83 carries. He also finished second on the team with 49 receptions. Leach said Mason is "conscientious and wants to do everything right," which caused him to think too much on the field. That began to change, Leach said, earlier this year when Mason became more familiar with the offense.

Mason's development also highlights the importance of the running back in the Air Raid offense. Because of the volume of passes thrown, the role of a running back can be overlooked by some. But Leach noted that when junior quarterback Connor Halliday threw an NCAA-record 89 passes in a 62-38 loss Oct. 19 at Oregon, "our running back position touched the ball more than anyone that game." Leach said the key to the Air Raid is finding space and the contribution of running backs in the passing game helps them accomplish that.

Along with Mason, Leach also was pleased with redshirt freshman wide receiver River Cracraft, who had 489 yards on 37 receptions. He said Cracraft immediately exceeded his expectations when he became a starter.

Senior safety Deone Bucannon did not necessarily surpass Leach's expectations, but the Walter Camp Second Team All American recipient was a cornerstone to helping WSU end its 10-year streak without a bowl appearance.

"He's an incredibly physical guy," Leach said. "The most important thing in football is to be physical. If a guy ever doubts the importance of being physical, Deone can reinforce it."

On the offensive side, WSU's backup quarterback, redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, is a Colorado native. Given the Cougars' opponent that naturally led to questions about Apodaca's progression. He completed 21 of 42 passes for 187 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions this season. Leach said Apodaca is "ahead of schedule" in his development, but beating out Halliday was a difficult task. Halliday completed 412 of 656 passes for 4,187 yards, 28 touchdowns and 21 interceptions this year.

"Halliday's experience level is what put him ahead," Leach said. "Halliday is an incredible talent in his own right. He was going to be tough to beat out in any case."

Leach said Halliday and the offense, which averages 423.2 yards per game to rank 53rd among Football Bowl Subdivision programs, can be better next year as most of the starters return.

As for the Rams, they averaged 461.2 yards per game to rank 28th in FBS. Much of that success has come behind running back Kapri Bibbs, who has rushed for 1,572 yards. But Leach said Bibbs is not CSU's only threat.

"They're a tough, hard-nosed team," he said. "They're a very enthusiastic team. The highest praise you can give a team is there's no apparent weakness. There's no key vulnerability."

Several of those players came from high schools in Texas. Leach was asked if he regretted not offering scholarships to some of those players when he was at Texas Tech, including senior center Weston Richburg. He said some players, including former Texas Tech standout Wes Welker, who now is a wide receiver with the Denver Broncos, develop significantly between high school and college. He used former Chicago Bears star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who played at New Mexico, as another example of that.

"Coming out of high school, he wasn't the guy everyone thinks about now," said Leach, noting that his predecessor at Texas Tech, Spike Dykes, did not offer Urlacher a scholarship. "There's not a team in the nation that doesn't wish they didn't have Brian Urlacher."

Leach also noted that two starters on his offensive line, senior center Elliott Bosch and sophomore left tackle Gunnar Eklund, originally were walk-ons. Another starter, sophomore left guard Joe Dahl, is another walk-on who has not received a scholarship yet.

Cougfan Top Stories