Much of that improvement falls on the shoulders of quarter Connor Halliday, who completed 449 of his 714 attempts and threw for 34 touchdowns and a WSU-record 4,597 yards passing last season. However, Halliday was picked off 22 times.
“The biggest thing, and he's a very talented guy, and he's steadily improved and with a young supporting cast ended up fourth in the country in passing,” Leach said. “So clearly, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the entire nation.
“You might be rooting for your guy, and I don't care what you think, he's better than your guy is. And I think the biggest thing is we have all our receivers back.”
And about that Pac-12 media poll?
“I don’t worry about any of that,” said Leach, referring to the Pac-12 media picking his Cougars to finish fifth out of six teams in the North Division of the Pacific 12 Conference. “What do I care? That’s why they have the games.”
THE COUGS ALSO, Leach said, will be better than the one that folded like a wet tent late in the fourth quarter of their 48-45 loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl. Leach dismissed any notion that crushing defeat would have any lingering effects on the upcoming season. Indeed, he looked at it as a positive.
“Well, it's the first bowl (we’ve) gone to for 10 or 12 years,” Leach said. “I think it cracks the door open on what our potential is. The biggest thing we need to do is the same things over and over again -- just do it a little better. I think our entire team thinks our season overall could have been better, so now we need to take all the things we learned from last year and improve on it this year.”
AN IMPROVED offensive line also will contribute to Halliday’s and the Cougars’ success, Leach said.
“We're not going to have the smallest O-line in the league this year,” the coach said. “We're going to average about 310 (pounds) and be a little more athletic. Now we're going to have three redshirt-freshmen starting, but we're going to be bigger and more athletic.”
(Leach may have been referring to some sophomores there. The projected starters coming out of spring ball were junior LT Joe Dahl, junior LG Gunnar Eklund, third-year sophomore Sam Flor or second-year sophomore Riley Sorenson at center, fourth-year junior Jacob Seydel at right guard and redshirt-freshman Cole Madison at right tackle. Perhaps one redshirt freshman to watch for in fall camp is Cody O’Connell, who is slotted at right guard, and also third-year sophomore Eduardo Middleton, also a guard. Other redshirt freshmen o-linemen include Carlos Freeman and B.J. Salmonson.)
Still, the team will be pressed to replace the anchor of last season’s line, center Elliott Bosch, who graduated. Sophomores Riley Sorenson and Sam Flor are locked into a battle to replace Bosch as the starter.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to get them on the fast track,” Leach said. “First of all, the position is very competitive. Sorenson and Flor are very similar body types, similar skill sets, but we’ve got to get them on the fast track to pick up the game because they have to make the line calls. Both have done a respectable job. I’m not disappointed in it in any way.
“But they’re anchored to the ground by 310 pounds apiece, maybe more so the bull rush we’ll be better at. And as they develop their physical skills, I think that’s good. Plus it’s a competitive position. Are we going to replace his (Elliott’s) knowledge and skills of the game? I don’t know, but I think that end it’s going to be mitigated by the quality of our o-line.”
A major reason for that optimism has been the play of Dahl and Eklund.
“They’re playing better than ever, especially Joe,” Leach said.
Leach said special teams, a bugaboo last season, should be another asset for the Cougars in 2014.
“We’ve got some experience there, too,” Leach said. “We’ll shuffle it around some, but we’ve got a lot of guys who played special teams last year. The punter and kicker will be interesting because we’ll have some new faces there but I think we’ve got quality guys to work with.”
DEFENSIVELY, COUGAR MIDDLE LINEBACKER Darryl Monroe will lead a unit that he believes has all of the potential in the world.
“My personal goal is just to be the best player I can be,” said Monroe, who had 94 tackles, eight for losses, and two sacks last season. “To be accountable to my players, so they can have someone to count on. Lead the defense. Be the best defense in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country. As far as team goals, I expect (to play in) a BCS bowl and I expect us to have a great season. I want to give (fans) a great show.”
The show starts when the Cougars open the season Aug. 28 against Rutgers in Seattle. After non-conference games against Nevada and Portland State, the Cougars open the Pac-12 slate at home on Sept. 20 against conference favorite Oregon.