11 way too early predictions on 2014 Cougs

THERE ARE A whole lot of data points yet to come in recruiting, offseason workouts, spring ball and fall camp regarding the Cougars in 2014. But we've pulled out our crystal ball and deliver some way too early predictions on all of that and more…

Washington State has 20 known commitments and ranks No. 47 nationally on scout.com -- where will they finish in the national rankings and just how important is that final ranking?

Ryan Witter: The recruiting stuff is just a forecast, but it seems like it tracks pretty well with who winds up in the top 10 of the polls at the end of every season. But outside of those usual 10 or 15 schools who dominate college football, I think the recruiting rankings are probably harder to figure out. The Cougars almost always come in around the 40s or 50s in recruiting. As long as Coach Leach gets players he really likes and fit his system, it isn't important at all how they rank.
Barry Bolton: The Cougs appear most likely to finish about where they historically do, in the high 40s to low 50s. It's important from a PR standpoint, in generating buzz around a program. But every year there are teams that climb, and fall, in ways their previous recruiting class rankings would never suggest.
John Witter: WSU will finish in the Top 50, but it is of no importance other than being another future selling point (albeit a small one) for those schools finishing in the top 20.
Braulio Perez: I think 39th and 6th in the Pac-12. I think where they finish in the conference rankings is more important because it showcases how the coaches are able to go out and land guys from other Pac-12 competition.
Chris Chancellor: With the system heavily weighted towards 4- and 5-stars, I think they land another four-star commit or two and end up between 35th and 40th.

Mr. X, so named the Signing Day surprise on Cougfan.com, has become a relic of the past in recent years with the massive increase in recruiting coverage. I predict there will be a) no surprises or b) at least one surprise and here's the guy, or position, I'm predicting will drop a few jaws in and around Cougar Nation on Signing Day in February:

Ryan Witter: With Twitter around, I think surprises with top players are probably not likely. Someone who isn't on the radar could be a surprise on signing day but not anyone who is well known.
Barry Bolton: The odds are firmly against it but I think there's still a guy or two out there who might not show up on the radar until the very end. And if I had to guess, I'd say he's a cornerback.
John Witter: No surprises these days.
Braulio Perez: None.
Chris Chancellor: Olajuwon Tucker. Might as well celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Michael Bumpus eschewing an opportunity to grayshirt at USC with another stunner. Similar to the Bumpus situation, the Trojans again appear to be pursuing players they hold in high regard with limited scholarships remaining.

Who will be the breakout Cougar player of the spring session:

Ryan Witter: Riley Sorenson. The Cougars will have holes on the O-line and the coaches loved his progress as a true freshman. Honorable mention choice is defensive back Charleston White.
Barry Bolton: Darius Lemora. He'll help bring some instant and needed stability to the safety position by the end of the spring session.
John Witter: Tyler Bruggman. He'll have Cougfans going "hmmm" when it comes to the QB decision.
Braulio Perez: Isaac Dotson. With the loss of Deone Bucannon, Casey Locker and others, a young safety is going to have to step up and make some plays. Dotson has the size and speed to be a Pac-12 starter. Couple that with his work ethic and I think you've got a playmaker.
Chris Chancellor: Isaac Dotson. Anyone who watched Dotson play at Newport High has seen his playmaking ability. Only an injury prevented him from seeing extensive time as a true freshman in 2013. Given the Cougars' inexperience in the secondary, Dotson and others, such as safety Darius Lemora, will have every opportunity to win starting jobs.

My No. 1 player to watch on DEFENSE this spring:

Ryan Witter: Chester Sua. He has experience and a lot of potential and I think he'll be hungry after redshirting this season. And Justin Sagote's departure creates a starting chance for him.
Barry Bolton: Kache Palacio and if he can challenge to become an every down type starter at the BUCK.
John Witter: LB Peyton Pelluer. He could develop into a real gamer.
Braulio Perez: Daquawn Brown. "Cheetah" saw some time on the field in his first year as a true frosh and played well while on the field. There were also times he struggled a little bit in coverage. With a full offseason of training, I'm looking forward to see how he's progressed and how much he can improve this spring heading into fall camp.
Chris Chancellor: Chester Sua. A four-star recruit in 2011 out of Hawaii, Sua has not yet lived up to his potential and did not play a down last season, apparently due to injury. But some players take longer than others to emerge, (see linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis.) Does Sua, who will be a redshirt junior, have the desire to make a similar transformation or will he be buried on the depth chart?

My No. 1 player to watch on OFFENSE this spring:

Ryan Witter: Carlos Freeman. The quarterback of the OL the last two years (Elliott Bosch) is gone so finding a new center will be a top priority. Freeman redshirted this season but sounds like he could be perfect. Or maybe Sam Flor.
Barry Bolton: Brett Bartolone. He all but disappeared after a breakout freshman season and spring will be huge for him to grab back some of the limelight.
John Witter: Riley Sorensen. With 3/5 of the 2013 o-line gone, his development is key.
Braulio Perez: Gerard Wicks. He redshirted this fall and received plenty of praise for his performances while running with the scout team. He's a big-bodied back who also has
some good speed. I think he could come in and make a push for playing time during spring ball and on into the season.
Chris Chancellor: Tyler Bruggman. The redshirt freshman was coach Mike Leach's first hand-picked quarterback recruit and perhaps the most decorated signal-caller to sign with the Cougars since Ryan Leaf in 1994. At the very least, he will be expected to compete with Austin Apodaca for the backup job, which is significant because WSU has struggled to keep its starters healthy for multiple years since Alex Brink exhausted his eligibility after the 2007 season.

Who will be the breakout player of the fall camp session:

Ryan Witter: Carlos Freeman, Sam Flor, Chester Sua, Charleston White or Riley Sorenson.
Barry Bolton: Assuming everyone on the current verbal commit list follows through and signs, Ngalu Tapa will be that rare inside d-lineman type that shows he's ready to contribute as a true freshman.
John Witter: Tristan Vizcaino. He's a Best in the West performer, a great athlete (a heckuva high school WR), smart (Ivy league schools pined for him), and he could be the first Cougar player since Jason Hanson to handle kicking and punting duties.
Braulio Perez: Freshman CB Kevin Griffin. There's something about this kid's style of play that makes me believe he can jump right in next year and see plenty of time with the 1s. He's a tall, athletic CB who provides white on Rice type defense. Look for him to see the field on Saturdays next season.
Chris Chancellor: True freshmen wide receivers have emerged as starters in each of Leach's first two seasons as Brett Bartolone (2012) and River Cracraft (2013) emerged as reliable possession receivers. But the Air Raid desperately could use an explosive playmaker to take off in 2014. Do not be surprised to see Calvin Green, or possibly Keith Harrington, step into the other inside receiving position that produced little last season.

Who will start the season at QB in 2014:

Ryan Witter: Connor Halliday.
Barry Bolton: Connor Halliday. Bruggman has loads of potential but Halliday has experience and he learned as the year went along, making much better decisions in the second half of the season.
John Witter: Connor Halliday.
Braulio Perez: Connor Halliday, hands down.
Chris Chancellor: Connor Halliday. He is the most familiar with the offense and it showed down the stretch as Halliday only threw more than one interception in one of his final five games.

The 2014 breakout Cougar freshman who spent this past fall redshirting:

Ryan Witter: Carlos Freeman.
Barry Bolton: Lemora but since I already named him earlier, Daniel Ekuale will make waves in 2014 on the defensive line and Cole Madison will do the same on the o-line.
John Witter: Safety Darius Lemora. He was ready for prime-time in 2013 were it not for an injury.
Braulio Perez: OL Cody O'Connell. With the loss of three starting hosses, several guys are going to have to develop a little quicker than maybe expected. However, Cody is a massive guy, who impressed the coaches this year with his play during practice.
Chris Chancellor: Gerard Wicks. He could give Leach another receiving option out of the backfield, along with Marcus Mason, that presents problems for opposing defenses.

What WSU position group will see the most improvement in 2014:

Ryan Witter: Quarterback. Connor Halliday improved a ton over 2013 and he'll be a fifth-year senior in 2014 and in his third year in the Air Raid. If the OL protects him he's going to be scary good.
Barry Bolton: Defensive line. Some of that wild inconsistency will level out and the pass rush should be better because of it. What will help most, however, will be that the Cougs should be able to rotate more.
John Witter: D-line. Another year older, another year wiser and a good stable of young guns that will make a positive difference. Look for an all-league season from Xavier Cooper and watch for the emergence of Robert Barber.
Braulio Perez: Running Backs. I know the Coug backs Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason averaged five yards per carry, but there were games where the WSU ground game was downright abysmal. With Wicks and fellow RS back Jamal Morrow ready to go next season, I think the depth is there for the Cougs to run the ball a little bit more.
Chris Chancellor: Wide receivers. Several first-year Cougars, such as Cracraft and Vince Mayle, started and made significant contributions. Given the volume of returning receivers, it only makes sense for this unit to continue to improve.

What, bar none, will be the biggest surprise of the Washington State 2014 season:

Ryan Witter: No surprises, just wins.
Barry Bolton: The Cougar defense will shed it's ‘good one play, porous the next' identity by generating a more consistent pass rush and sport their best total defense ranking in years.
John Witter: The defensive backfield. Losing an All-American (Buccanon) and all league honorable mention (Horton) would leave one to anticipate a bleak forecast in this area. Not so. The Cougars have a group of young, talented DBs that could awaken the echoes of the Thompson, Coleman, Trufant, David days. Look for Daquawn Brown and Isaac Dotson to improve on their true freshman campaigns and keep an eye on redshirt freshmen Darius Lemora and Charleston White.
Braulio Perez: Connor Halliday cuts his interceptions in half. If the Cougars want to get back to a bowl game, Halliday has to take care of the football and not make the really bad decisions we saw too much of in 2013. I think he does just that in 2014.
Chris Chancellor: The secondary will be better than it appears on paper. There is legitimate reason for concern here given that Associated Press first-team All-America safety Deone Bucannon has graduated, but there is some emerging talent at safety in Dotson and Lemora, and I've also got my eye on David Bucannon. Also, the transition to playing as a true freshman at cornerback is easier than other positions. It helps that Marcellus Pippins and Markell Sanders will be available for spring ball and Daquawn Brown saw extensive playing time as a true freshman in 2013. WSU's coaching staff also is pursuing multiple highly touted cornerbacks in the final weeks before signing day.

It's folly to make a win-loss prediction (regular season) considering the Pac-12 slate has yet to be announced, there's a full winter conditioning session yet to come, an official signing class, plus spring ball, summer workouts and the all-important fall camp session. But let's boldly plow ahead anyway. Washington State's final 2014 regular season record will be:

Ryan Witter: 8-4. Opening with Rutgers instead of Auburn and getting the Apple Cup in Pullman has to be worth two wins.
Barry Bolton: I'm tempted to say 7-5 but I'm going to go big and post 9-3. For that to happen, Washington State needs to get on a roll and stay there and doing that is most dependent on one thing: confidence. WSU had it coming out of the gate in 2013, with the way they showed up at Auburn and USC. But that confidence took a huge hit in Week 5 and they never truly got it back for any appreciable length of time. In Mike Leach's third year, that confidence takes hold out of the gate once again but this time, it lasts.
John Witter: 8-4. Provided the revamped o-line and DBs play up to their potential.
Braulio Perez: 7-5. When you look at the Cougs non-conference schedule, going 3-0 seems very likely. This year's team showcased they could win on the road this year, and I expect them to win a couple next season as well. Should take care of business with most of the conference home games too.
Chris Chancellor: 7-5. There only are a handful of redshirt seniors remaining from the 2010 and the '11 class largely has washed out, which again leaves WSU without a lot of experience in a competitive Pac-12. Despite that, there is enough incoming and returning talent to expect the Cougars to take another step in Leach's third season. Taking advantage of a soft nonconference and capitalizing on five Pac-12 games in Pullman will be essential for them to accomplish those goals.

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