Will 4 new WSU coaches spark winning ways?

FOUR NEW assistant coaches at Washington State this season mark the biggest staff turnover during Mike Leach's tenure on the Palouse. But there won't be any grace period for any of the four, not with the Cougars coming off a 3-9 season that Bill Moos had long pointed to as when WSU would turn the corner. The Cougs need to win in 2015. Is the newly formed staff up to it?

Background: Mike Leach fired special teams coordinator Eric Russell midseason after the special teams meltdown against Cal in October. Defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Mike Breske and BUCK (outside) linebackers coach Paul Volero were dismissed the day after the Apple Cup loss. Outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons left for Oklahoma during the stretch run before Signing Day.

Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs: Alex Grinch in his first season is expected to have an immediate impact on a defense that has long struggled. His first significant move has been to add a nickel back to the base defense in place of the SAM linebacker. Grinch has never been a coordinator -- but his body of work as the safeties coach for Missouri was impressive. Six of the Tigers’ 12 interceptions last season came from the safeties. He spent three seasons with Missouri, with Mizzou going 23-5 the last two years. Before Missouri he coached the Wyoming secondary for three years and was at New Hampshire alongside Chip Kelly from 2005-08. Kelly called Grinch a “stud,” and “a real rising star” when he was hired by Leach.

Special Teams Coordinator: Eric Mele took over for Russell on an interim basis to finish the Cougars’ season. Mele was organized, hard-working and energetic, Leach said after the season when he made the move permanent. He could have added persistent, too. Mele, you may remember, called Leach out of the blue and flew to Key West three times on his own dime to get Leach’s attention when Leach was between jobs. Now Mele will have a chance to make his mark and turn around the Cougs’ special teams.

“RUSH” (Outside) Linebackers: Hired in January, Roy Manning has been a jack of all trades in his short coaching career. He served as a defensive assistant at Cincinnati before returning to his alma mater, Michigan, as an offensive graduate assistant. Then he was running backs coach at UC before it was back to UM as the outside linebackers coach in 2013, and then the cornerbacks coach in ‘14. Manning also brings a lot of enthusiasm to the practice field, a decided change from the low key Volero. As the Cougars outside linebackers coach, Manning is expected to bring immediate salvation to a position WSU has struggled to find consistency at. The renamed position, RUSH from BUCK, offers an indication of what WSU plans to do there. Manning played in 15 games in the NFL over three seasons.

Outside Wide Receivers: Leach filled the vacancy with a pretty obvious choice: WSU offensive analyst and former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell. Harrell’s position group meetings this spring were more involved than Simmons’ and he brought more energy to the practices. Following a short career in the NFL, Harrell joined Leach last season. The best thing Harrell has going for him in his new role at Washington State is the experience he received playing in Leach’s system. As a quarterback, Harrell needed to know everything about the Air Raid and the receivers. WSU is replacing three of four receiver starters but with plenty of talent in the cupboard the expectations are high and fans are looking for the Cougs to not only reload but to improve at outside receiver. There are three key elements for all four of the new WSU assistant coaches.

A fresh start. The WSU defense needed an overhaul, and they got one. Grinch and Manning were fiery and introduced a new energy during spring ball. Both need to take advantage of the fresh start and push the defense to a new level. Players can take time to adjust to new assistants but WSU doesn’t have that luxury in 2015. Doubling their win total and becoming bowl eligible is the expectation and much of that will be dependent on the defense.

Young talent and experience. There is only one returning upperclassman (Taylor Taliulu) in Grinch’s secondary. The defensive backs are in their sponge phase where they soak up everything they learn, but they’ll need to learn fast in order to keep up with the offensive power in the Pac-12. For Harrell, he has a combination of young talent and experienced players. Harrell should have the easiest time because of that experience and because of his background. Mele will probably have the toughest time, if only because the special teams were the weakest part of WSU’s game last season. But that also means they have the room for the most improvement. The outside linebackers are a veteran group and it will be Manning’s job to get more consistency and production out of them.

Structure. There is almost always a transition period with new coaches. I believe the defensive side will see the biggest improvement over the season, but will also have the most growing pains in the beginning. Expect the offense to be improved but generally around the level we’ve come to expect under Leach: high-powered and explosive. Spring ball showed a lot of high intensity moments and a few more skirmishes between the offense and defense than in years past, possibly indicating a changing identity. The special teams could be hardest of the four to watch, but there will be improvement this season – how could there not be? Cougar fans were spoiled with Andrew Furney and unless Matt Abramo comes out firing on all cylinders, all indications are that field goal tries will again be an adventure. But improvement on the kickoff/punt coverage and return teams may be even more important. Special teams is the third phase in football and it can provide a thrill. It can also provide a high level of frustration if your team can’t stop the opposition. Mele will be expected to create the most immediate turnaround for his unit in ‘15.

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