6 key WSU spring football storylines

PULLMAN -- Spring ball at Washington State kicks off in less than two weeks -- and with it will come a decided sense of newness out on the Palouse. Three new assistant coaches on Mike Leach's staff make for one of the top crimson storylines headed into the first of 15 spring practices starting on March 26.

1. Three new faces on the coaching staff:
Mike Leach after the season opening loss to Rutgers last year said the defense was too vanilla and didn't have an identity. And now two of the four assistant coaches on defense are new: the defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach and outside linebackers coach. A new outside receivers coach makes for three new assistants this spring.

Alex Grinch will have the task of improving a secondary that only recorded one interception last season, and a defense that had only three. The spring will be his first opportunity to translate the defensive schemes and tweaks on paper to the field.

Roy Manning will take over the outside linebackers, which is thankfully a position with depth and experience -- Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan are both back. How much they will be asked to do things differently at the BUCK under Manning and Grinch remains to be seen this spring.

Finally, over on offense, Graham Harrell is the new outside receivers coach - his first gig as a college football assistant. But the former Texas Tech quarterback knows Leach's system like the back of his hand, and he knows the wide receivers on the team. Still, he faces a good-sized challenge in replacing both outside receiver starters.

Special teams coach Eric Mele took over midway through last season but this will in some ways be his debut, too. Last year he went from an administrative position to trying to stop the bleeding on the field in a matter of days. Now he has the whole offseason to work towards making the Cougar special teams (at least) serviceable. It will be intriguing to see how much time is allocated in practice towards special teams - in years past under Leach it hasn't been a overly large block.

Coming off a 3-9 season in Leach's third year, none of the new assistants can enjoy much of a grace period - results are needed now and an upward glide path apparent by the end of the spring would go a long ways.

2. The battle at quarterback begins:
Which Luke Falk is on display this spring - the one who looked magnificent against Oregon State or the one who struggled against ASU and UW? Peyton Bender figures to serve as his chief competition. He has a quick release and a stronger arm but all that really matters when it comes to the quarterback is who can move the offense down the field and into the end zone. The Cougs don't figure to have too much of a problem with the first, the latter has been the bugaboo on Leach's first three seasons.

What it figures to come down to is decision making and reads. Tyler Hilinski enrolled at Washington State early out of high school and should get plenty of looks this spring to see how far along he is but for Hilinski, a true freshman who was finishing up his high school exams a few months ago, to move ahead of either Falk or Bender this spring would be a complete stunner.

It would also go against Leach's history for him to name a starter coming out of spring, he prefers to keep that decision under wraps until well into fall camp. But it should be telling to see who gets the most reps with the No. 1 unit in the latter half of the spring session.

3. Back-filling at wide receiver:
Where to begin with the WSU wide receivers? Redshirt senior Dom Williams (6-2, 190) and junior River Cracraft (6-0, 199) come into the spring as the leaders of the receiving corps. Williams, an outside receiver, caught nine touchdowns and Cracraft, an inside receiver, caught eight last season. Each gained at least 650 yards through the air.

After that there are a lot of questions. Redshirt-sophomore Robert Lewis (5-9, 162) last season have 41 receptions, 370 yards and two touchdowns. He spent time at both the Y and H last season. Sophomore Calvin Green (5-10, 170) can play on both the inside and outside, too. He had 13 catches for 68 yards. With Vince Mayle, Isiah Myers and Rickey Galvin gone, Green's numbers and turns figure to increase. Redshirt senior Tyler Baker (5-10, 181) did reasonably well coming in for an injured Cracraft with 22 combined catches in three games.

Barry Ware (6-2, 213) and Zaire Andre (5-10, 157) used their redshirt seasons to gain valuable reps in Thursday Night Football. Ware in particular is being looked at as a possible starter this spring. Both looked reliable at times and inexperienced at others last year. Add in redshirt senior Daniel Lilienthal (6-2, 199), who made a lot of plays in TNF, and the Cougars have options at receiver this spring.

Oh, there's also another guy at wide receiver named Marks.

4. What to expect from Gabe Marks:
The Z wide receiver who led the Cougars in receiving yards and receptions in 2013 redshirted last season. With the depth at wide receiver, the Cougars decided to redshirt Marks to allow him two more full years of playing time.

Marks was very active in practice last season: he even lined up at times at quarterback on the scout team. At receiver in Thursday Night Football, he looked like a former starter going against youth - a man among boys. The TNF quarterbacks utilized him often, and he made them look good at times with some acrobatic catches.

Marks was also one of the players regularly jawing at others and was in the middle of tussles during practice. He wasn't shy about celebrating an exceptional catch, either.

Mele has said Marks could possibly return kicks or punts this season as well. With Marks' athleticism, it's not about what he will do this season at wideout. It's about how much. WSU needs Marks his season to pick up where he left off -- and to have eliminated some of his 2013 late-season drawbacks (drops and turnovers).

5. Will the Cougs run it (a little bit) more?
The Cougars last season led the nation in passing yards (477.7 per game) but the rushing numbers (39.8 ypg, 125th in FBS) were low even for a Leach team. Leach wants his running backs to lead the conference in all-purpose yards and while the bulk of those are designed to come in the passing game, whoever wins the 2015 quarterback job is expected to check to the run more based on what the defense is showing than Connor Halliday did.

HREF=//washingtonstate.scout.com/a.z?s=137&p=8&c=1&nid=8428890>Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks come in as the incumbents but Keith Harrington was explosive in TNF. Will one of them emerge to grab the lion's share of the reps or will spring, the time for experimentation, feature a three-headed attack over the 15 practice sessions? And will their be more of a willingness to run it with Morrow, Wicks or Harrison in the red zone and near the goal line this spring?

6. Who will emerge as leaders this spring?
Halliday, Xavier Cooper, Cyrus Coean and other seniors from last year are all gone. Spring is when the new set of leaders will emerge.

Offensive lineman Joe Dahl has been described by o-line coach Clay McGuire as a quiet leader by example. Jeremiah Allison is the incumbent starter at the WILL and an obvious leader for the defense.

If Falk wins the starting job at quarterback, the leadership groundwork has already been set. Offensive lineman Gunnar Eklund told CF.C that Falk likes to take the offensive linemen out to CD's BBQ in Moscow. Falk is known for spending long hours in the film room, something that should in turn have more members of the offensive team joining him more and more.

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