2015 COUGAR OUTLOOK: Offense

WASHINGTON STATE’S OFFENSE provided no shortage of entertainment in 2014 as quarterback Connor Halliday and wide receiver Vince Mayle produced statistics that would be impressive in a 16-game NFL schedule. The Cougars easily produced the top passing offense among Football Bowl Subdivision programs and ranked seventh in total offense with an average of 517.5 yards per game.

But entertaining does not mean efficient.

Despite the offense’s gaudy statistics — Halliday passed for 3,873 yards and 32 touchdowns in just nine games — WSU ranked just 45th among 125 FBS programs in scoring offense at 31.8 points per game. And in the red zone, the Cougars scored only 80.3 percent of the time, which ranked 82nd.

Notable losses:
WR Rickey Galvin; QB Connor Halliday; WR Vince Mayle; WR Isiah Myers; RB Theron West.

Top returnees:
WR Tyler Baker, 5-10, 181, sr.; WR Brett Bartolone, 5-10, 185, jr.; WR River Cracraft, 6-0, 199, jr.; OL Joe Dahl, 6-4, 303, sr.; OL Gunnar Eklund, 6-7, 305, sr.; QB Luke Falk, 6-4, 208, so.; OL Sam Flor, 6-4, 306, jr.; WR Robert Lewis, 5-9, 162, so.; OL Cole Madison, 6-5, 300, so.; OL Eduardo Middleton, 6-5, 318, jr.; WR Gabe Marks, 6-0, 181, jr.; RB Jamal Morrow, 5-8, 187, so.; OL Jacob Seydel, 6-6, 295, sr.; OL Riley Sorenson, 6-4, 321, jr.; RB Gerard Wicks, 5-11, 211, so.; WR Dom Williams, 6-2, 190, sr.

WR Zaire Andre, 5-10, 157, fr.; QB Peyton Bender, 6-0, 183, fr.; OL Andre Dillard, 6-5, 245, fr.; OL Carlos Freeman, 6-3, 300, so.; WR Calvin Green, 5-10, 170, so.; OL Sean Krepsz, 6-5, 328, so.; RB Austin Hall, 5-10, 178, so.; WR Keith Harrington, 5-7, 174, fr.; FB Thomas Hearn, 5-11, 223, sr.; OL Cody O’Connell, 6-8, 335, so.; WR Daniel Lilienthal, 6-2, 199, RSr.; WR Drew Loftus, 6-2, 193, RSr.; OL B.J. Salmonson, 6-4, 289, so.; WR Dewan Lee Thompson, 5-8, 164, so.; WR Barry Ware, 6-2, 213, fr.; WR Marcus Wyke, 6-3, 218, so.

What to look for in '15:
The “Air Raid” might be synonymous with statistics, particularly at quarterback, but Mike Leach's worked with offensive linemen during his time as an assistant and never downplays the significance of the position. Despite the volume of passes thrown in his system, Leach’s teams at Texas Tech protected the quarterback.

But line play has not been a strong point at WSU since the early 2000s when the likes of Calvin Armstrong and Derrick Roche mauled their counterparts. While the Cougars’ line improved during the season, WSU still tied for 109th among 125 Football Bowl Subdivision programs with 36 sacks allowed. Granted, WSU attempted an eye-popping 771 passes. But in 2007, the Red Raiders allowed just 18 sacks despite 763 pass attempts.

Expect that to change this season as Leach has made a concerted effort to recruit linemen since arriving at WSU. Dahl has an opportunity to be the first Cougars’ lineman drafted since Zach Williams in 2011 and Eklund returns alongside to give WSU an experienced left side. All five starters from the Apple Cup, which includes Sorenson (center), Middleton (right guard) and Seydel (right tackle) return, as does Cole Madison.

Wide receiver long has been the deepest position group in the program and that did not change in 2014. That enabled the Cougars to redshirt Marks, who led the team with 74 receptions in 2013, and Bartolone. Their reemergence would be significant because the unit graduates Mayle, (who had nine touchdowns and set single-season program records for receptions (106) and yards (1,483) and could play in the NFL) as well as Galvin and Myers. Ware (6-2, 213) is similar in size to Mayle (6-3, 219) and is a logical candidate to compete for time at the outside receiving spots with Marks and Williams. The battle for playing time inside figures to be competitive. Cracraft, who 771 yards and eight touchdowns on 66 receptions, is a virtual lock for one starting position. Baker (27 receptions) and Lewis (41) figure to be challenged by the speedy Green and Harrington for playing time. Green also practiced at outside receiver late in the season and might see time there again in an effort to get the most talented players on the field.

The competition for the starting quarterback job will be the most interesting since Halliday and Jeff Tuel battled for the position in 2012. Falk, who completed 156 of 243 passes for 1,859 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and started the final three games of the season, could position himself to be the program’s longest starting signal-caller since Alex Brink. But expect Falk to be pressed by Peyton Bender and Tyler Hilinski, who arrives in January and who high school runs a version of the Air Raid.

Morrow and Wicks were steady as the two primary running backs, but the offense would benefit from them progressing more as runners in 2015 as they averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Leach shifted through a variety of starting running backs during his first two seasons, but Morrow seems entrenched in the role now given his multifaceted abilities. He finished fourth on the team with 61 receptions, while Wicks had 16 receptions in nine games.

Keys to the season:
Halliday acknowledged that he struggled to grasp the intricacies of the Air Raid during his first two seasons. In 2013, WSU lost all three games where Halliday threw three interceptions or more. Falk won his first start against Oregon State when he did not turn the ball over -- then lost the next week when he threw four interceptions at Arizona State.

Simply put, next year’s starter must limit his mistakes if the Cougars are to return to a bowl.

It also would be helpful if the starting signal-caller remained upright. Only Tuel (2010) and Halliday (2013) have avoided missing starts because of injuries during the last seven seasons. Depth and youth will no longer be an reason for the offensive line, which is projected to return all five starters, not to perform well.

While the Air Raid is most effective when several receivers contribute, it would be helpful for Marks to return to form with the departure of several top receivers. Marks has displayed his playmaking ability — he had 143 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions in 2013 at Oregon — against elite competition. But he was also quiet and fumble-prone toward the end of the ’13 season. He did not have more than five receptions during the final five games.

The Cougars also need to become more productive in the red zone - they scored on 80 percent of red zone chances, with 64 percent of them TDs. Those numbers would be enhanced by further development from Morrow and Wicks in '15.

COMING SOON: Our 2015 outlook on the Cougar D, schedule and special teams ...

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