However, this year it seemed much too easy for people around the program to make excuses for this team. Too many times we heard about youth on defense, bad bounces and injuries. For those who want to lay 2014 at the feet of Paul Wulff, I want to kindly remind you that Mike Leach led a team full of Wulff recruits to a six-win season and the first bowl berth in 10 years in 2013.
Heading into the season, I believe this group of players bought into the hype. They read about the turnaround in 2013, how they were going to start the season 3-0 and how another bowl trip was inevitable. But things don’t come that easy in college football.
Every game and every opponent must be approached with the same focus and intensity. As the Cougar players and coaches evaluate this season, I hope that is an important lesson learned.
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Recruiting: I love the way Leach and his staff recruit on the offensive side of the football. They don’t care about national status or the number of stars a guy has next to his name, they simply go after productive football players. Just look at Luke Falk, Tyler Baker and Robert Lewis to name a few. These are players not highly recruited who were recognized by this WSU staff as under-the-radar types, and they became quality players for WSU in 2014.
This same attitude needs to be better implemented for the defensive side of the ball. I am reminded of great Cougs I played with like Husain and Hamza Abdullah, Will Derting, Scott Davis and Eric Frampton. All were lightly recruited, yet became excellent players for Washington State. As much as defensive football is about speed and strength, it is also about intuition and play-making ability. The WSU staff has to avoid the cookie-cutter recruiting mentality and find more “football players” on the recruiting trail.
Offensive innovation: The WSU offense was the best part about this 2014 team. But as productive as the Air Raid has been in Pullman over the last three years, there simply must be some growth in Leach’s offensive schemes if the Cougars are going to get to the upper echelon of the Pac-12.
I am not talking about wholesale changes to the playbook, but the best coaches I have been around are constantly evaluating their performance against the football landscape around them. They adapt to the changing environments.
It is not hard to see that Washington State was consistently beaten by teams that effectively rushed three or four defenders, thus allowing them to drop seven or eight in coverage.
With a relatively mobile quarterback and some playmakers at running back, the Cougars must develop some semblance of a running game. This will force defensive coordinators to put more defenders in the box, improving matchups in the WSU passing game.
Just look at how Leach disciples Art Briles, Dana Holgorsen and Sonny Dykes have improved upon the original version of the Air Raid here. Baylor averages 240 rushing yards per game, West Virginia 187 and Cal 149, while all three averaged more points per game than Washington State (31.8) this season.
The Washington State pass concepts are all fairly sound in my view, but as we have seen over the last three years there are issues in the red zone, short yardage situations and end of the game/ball control scenarios.
By increasing the emphasis on a running attack, even marginally, the Cougars could be a better offensive team in 2015 – and a difference-making offensive team that gets over that hump that separates good from great. Cougar running backs Jamal Morrow (pictured above) and Gerard Wicks look capable to me of making it happen in 2015.
Defensive backs coach: I have no idea what direction Mike Leach will go in hiring the new defensive coordinator. There are varying schools of thought on style and schemes, yet in the end success may simply come from how the coach teaches and motivates. Regardless, one thing I know I would like to see: the hire of a dedicated position coach who specializes in defensive backs.
It became apparent to me watching this season from afar that the corners and safeties are in desperate need of quality coaching in both fundamentals and pass pattern recognition. It takes a very special defensive coordinator to coach a position like defensive backs, as well as oversee an entire defense. It is too easy for some of the basics to get lost in the shuffle.
Too many times this year we saw Cougar safeties and corners peak in the backfield or bite on underneath routes just to get beat over the top. A coach whose responsibilities are specific to that position group can spend all week preparing his players for the patterns they will see and the techniques the other team will use.
Understanding wide receivers’ splits, alignment and leverage are what create a competitive advantage for a defensive back. In addition, the individual practice time spent on fundamentals is what leads to pass breakups or interceptions. A defensive coordinator’s primary job is to think big picture as it relates to the whole team, which can make it difficult to focus enough on the position-specific work.
A great example for me is how Chris Ball was able to develop defensive backs during his stints with WSU. And I believe it is important for the next staff in 2015 to include a coach like this who can focus solely on improving the play of Cougar defensive backs.
Final thoughts: Mike Leach has raised the expectations of everyone around the Washington State football program. With those expectations comes increased scrutiny. And especially following a 3-9 season in Year Three -- a point in time Bill Moos has long pointed to for when Leach and the Cougars would start winning with regularity.
That scrutiny will continue until a proven product has been put on the field. That said, I look for the Cougars to be an improved football team in 2015.
Leach knows what he wants and Moos is providing him the tools to be successful. Like any good organization, there must be honest evaluations from top to bottom and a recognition that there may need to be some changes to the process. That is the challenge that faces the Cougars this offseason.