Cougs: The team no one will want to play

THE SPRING SESSION at Washington State made it plain and the spring game hammered the point home: The Cougar offensive attack this coming year will be elevating defensive coordinators' stress levels. In Year 3 of the Mike Leach era, the Cougs, from this chair, will reach another critical point in the rebuilding process ... becoming that team no one wants to play.

The defense line looks improved up front, the linebackers appear to have plenty of caffeine in their ranks and the secondary has been uneven. All in all, the Cougar stop corps should be better than last year because of the push up front. But that's not the main reason why the Cougs will be such a tough matchup in 2014.

It's the offense.


Connor Halliday looks much more relaxed out there – he looks the part of a Pac-12, fifth-year senior quarterback. Sure, he's still going to get too greedy at times, he's still going to throw a bad interception here and there. Halliday likes to gamble and he hates to throw the ball away.

But those face-palm moments will be less this year than last. That process, frankly, began last year as Halliday tossed 17 picks through Week 7, but just five picks over the final five weeks. Halliday is a better quarterback than last year. And Halliday will have a whole lot of offensive weapons to use in 2014.

THE COUGS RETURN their top six pass catchers from last season.

Vince Mayle (No. 5) and River Cracraft (No. 4) have both upped their game a notch this spring. The same might have been said for Dom Williams (No. 6) and Gabe Marks (No. 1) had they not gotten dinged up.

Walk on Drew Loftus has emerged as a legit Pac-12 threat. Kristoff Williams (No. 3), when he plays physically, can produce highlight reels aplenty. Robert Lewis and Calvin Green have oodles of speed. Rickey Galvin and Isiah Myers are steady, solid threats out in the pattern and if he can get healthy, Brett Bartolone has a knack for finding soft spots in a zone.

And all of that is before taking into account the Cougar receiving threats coming out of the backfield.

Mike Leach'S GOAL each season is for his running backs to lead the conference in all-purpose yards. Theron West this spring has looked like a guy who can pile up the receiving hashes in 2014. So has Jamal Morrow. And that's before you even get to Marcus Mason, who sat out the spring game but who led the Cougs last season in all-purpose yards (842) and was the No. 2 pass-catcher for the Cougs last season. Teondray Caldwell is firmly in the mix too, as is Gerard Wicks.

What's been missing in the Air Raid the first two seasons at WSU is the running back who explodes in the passing game. Mason wasn't too far off last year with 49 catches. But Leach had two seasons where his top receiving running back caught more than 90 passes at Tech. And he had four more seasons where his top receiving RB caught 60 or more passes.

From where I sit, this is shaping up to be the year the running back position moves into the limelight at Washington State under Leach.

AND THAT WILL only be possible, as will all the offensive success stories, due to the offensive line. There's work to be done there, but the spring has also given tangible reasons to believe the unit will give Halliday the time to make good decisions.

WSU is replacing three o-linemen but Sam Flor, Riley Sorenson, Jacob Seydel, Devonte McClain and Cole Madison have meshed well with veterans Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund this spring session. The group also opened up some nice holes that led to big runs in the spring game.

And if the Cougs can run effectively, here and there and when Leach wants to mix it up, the Air Raid becomes even more difficult to contain.

THE AIR RAID stresses a defense, forcing them to cover more of the field side to side, and deep. A defense has to really be on their toes every snap. When executed properly, it's exhausting -- both physically, and mentally.

And based on what's unfolded this spring, WSU in 2014 is shaping up to be one exhausting team to play.

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