Leach tells fans Cougar D is explosive

SPOKANE – There can be something of a forced quality to the excitement that surrounds a spring game. It is, after all, just an intra-squad scrimmage. But once Mike Leach got the formalities out of the way, he began to express real enthusiasm about what Washington State has accomplished during the Cougs' spring session headed into Saturday's Crimson and Gray Game at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane.

“I know there are coaches who would like for the spring game to just go away,” Mike Leach told a Spokane Cougar Club luncheon Wednesday. “And there are some coaches who have devised some elaborate scoring system that only an accountant would understand.

“We’re not going to do that. We’re going to divide our team up as evenly as we can and we’re going to let them get after each other and we’re going to score it just like any other game.”

That should translate into a Saturday showcase for the marquee battle of the spring: sophomore quarterback Luke Falk vs. redshirt freshman Peyton Bender.

Leach has been adamant that the starting job will not be decided until well into fall turnouts, but he said both passers are ahead of where he expected them to be this spring.

“Luke Falk’s leadership has been impressive; he’s just done a great job managing the unit,” Leach said. “Peyton Bender really has a live arm – the ball just explodes out of his hand.”

That word, “explosive,” is one that was peppered throughout Leach’s talk -- especially as he talked about his defense.

Linebackers Jeremiah Allison, Peyton Pelluer, Greg Hoyd and Paris Taylor, along with BUCK Kache Palacio, each were singled out for praise as the coach ran through a highlight reel from a spring practice.

Allison drew extended plaudits from Leach for the way the senior rallies to the ball – racing across the field to make tackles along the sideline.

Defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao is a leader on and off the field,” Leach added. “He’s definitely a lead-by-example guy, but when he talks, people listen.”

Defensive end Hercules Mata’afa (pictured above), who starred during Thursday Night Football scrimmages in the fall as a redshirting freshman, has continued to impress, Leach said.

“You know what? Pound for pound, this guy is the strongest and most explosive player we have,” Leach said.

The secondary, Leach said, is still young and inexperienced.

“We’re trying to get that group as much experience as quickly as we can,” he said.

Overall, Leach said, he’s pleased with what he’s seeing from his defensive under new coordinator Alex Grinch.

“I think we’re running to the ball better, I think we’re doing a better job with blitzes and twists and stuff like that, and I’m pleased with the way Coach Grinch expresses what he expects from each one of his players,” he said. “I know I’ll be talking to him and he’ll say something and I’ll think to myself ‘I wish I could say things that way.”

Offensively, Leach is pleased at the way his offensive line is performing this spring. The starting five are bigger than a year ago – averaging 310 pounds amongst the returning starters.

“That whole unit is back and I think they’re all playing better,” he said. “At the same time, we have some guys pushing them hard for the starting job. If someone takes a job, they’re have worked their tail off to get it.”

Leach said that the offensive line, as a group, tends to “run” the locker room of a successful program, a direct result of the cohesiveness that develops from the team performing together as a unit. He’s beginning to see that with his linemen.

“Let me put it this way,” he said. ”When we got here there were six linemen on scholarship and three of them shouldn’t have been. Now we have 18 of them and they’re all fighting for playing time.”

Leach singled out a backup -- Cody O’Connell, a redshirt sophomore from Wenatchee who casts a giant shadow at left guard, where he’s pushing for playing time.

“This guy is 6-feet-9 and about 360 pounds and he has pretty good feet,” he said, highlighting a play where O’Connell pancaked a pancake rusher and cleared an area for Falk to throw. (O’Connell might not be quite so heavy anymore, he is listed at 335 pounds on the official roster).

But the highest praise the coach had was for the play of running back Keith Harrington, who is still listed on the Washington State roster as a wide receiver but has moved to the backfield.

“He’s just running the ball real well,” he said. “We have our two starters back from last year (Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow) and they were freshmen. But I don’t see them holding this guy off and I think we’ll see all three of them playing.”

Leach was asked if that enthusiasm would translate into a higher percentage of running plays in the Cougar playbook.

“I don’t really care much about percentages,” Leach said. “But I think that we’ll have a better yards-per-carry average.” Cougar running backs averaged 3.88 ypc in 2014.

Gabe Marks, who redshirted last year, and Dom Williams, both are stepping up as leaders in the receiving corps and Marks has impressed as a punt returner, Leach said. Redshirt senior Daniel Lilienthal, a walk-on, was also singled out for his hard work.

“He’s one of those guys who just developed late,” Leach said. “He’s a guy who developed in college.”

With both punters from last year leaving the program, finding someone to kick has been a priority.

“I think we’re going to be okay,” Leach said. “We have a recruit coming in in the fall, too.” (Matt Abramo).

Leach said there will be challenges during Saturday’s scrimmage.

“When you divide the team up the way we do it, trying to split them up as evenly as possible, you end up with guys playing side-by-side who haven’t played a lot side-by-side,” he said. “We’ll see how they handle it.”

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