2016 COUGAR OUTLOOK: Offense

THERE’S A BOWL GAME to come but it’s not too early to take a long, in-depth look at the 2016 Cougs – who returns, who graduates and most importantly, what’s the outlook for Washington State in Year Five of the Mike Leach era? We start with the offense.

Notable losses
LT Joe Dahl, WR Dom Williams, LG Gunnar Eklund, OL Jacob Seydel, WR Tyler Baker, WR Daniel Lilienthal.

Top returnees
QB Luke Falk, QB Peyton Bender, RB Gerard Wicks, RB Jamal Morrow, RB Keith Harrington, LT Andre Dillard, C Riley Sorenson, C/OL Sam Flor, RG Eduardo Middleton, RT Cole Madison, WR Gabe Marks, WR Robert Lewis, WR River Cracraft, WR  Tavares Martin, WR Kyrin Priester, WR Kyle Sweet, WR C.J. Dimry.

Up-and-Comers
RB James Williams, QB Tyler Hilinski, OL Cody O’Connell, OL Cedric Bigge-Duren, OL B.J. Salmonson, OL Brandon Evers, OL Noah Osur-Myers, OL Amosa Sakaria, OL Davis Perrot, TE Nick Begg, WR Kaleb Fossum, OL Drew Norvell.

Eight starters figure to return on offense. At quarterback, the Cougs return everyone – and they’ll still be young in ’16 with nary a senior QB to be found on the roster. 

Falk, the starter, will be a fourth-year junior, Bender will be third-year sophomore and Hilinski will be a second-year freshman. Cody Brewer will of course be a true freshman after he arrives on campus. Among the walk ons, Christian Jorgenson, who will be a second-year freshman in ’16, was a pleasant surprise in his first season at WSU.

Falk is a star in the making (some would say he’s already there) and assuming he puts the injuries in the rear view mirror, the best is likely yet to come. The strides he made this season were huge, as evidenced by his first-team all-Pac-12 selection as but a sophomore and also the stat book: he leads the nation in passing (387.8) and the Cougs are also tops in the nation in red zone offense. He tossed 36 TDs in roughly 10 1-2 games against just eight picks.

The QB is always the key player on any offense but in a Leach offense, it’s just about everything given the number of attempts. And Falk’s ability to put the ball on the play side this season was pronounced -- combined with his decision making and ability and clutch play with the game on the line, and Cougar fans should be smiling wide that he has two more seasons in a WSU uniform.

Also, regarding Bender’s four Apple Cup turnovers, remember that Falk had five turnovers (4 INTs, 1 fumble) in his second start at ASU. Indeed, Falk didn’t begin to truly flourish until Week 2 of this season. Bender has all the physical tools, with seasoning the biggest piece to the puzzle he lacks.

Hilinski is continuing to learn the ropes, no doubt, but he’s confident under center and in the pocket and when he wasn’t on the scout team throwing off a card offered plenty of flashes. The best thing about Hilinski in his year was how many good, smart drives he led in Thursday Night Football, offering an early glimpse into his decision making.

The top WSU offensive storyline in spring ball and/or fall camp ahead of the 2016 season, though, might be at running back.

With Williams added to the mix, and the Cougs planning on (at most) a 3-man RB unit, the question naturally begs: might Harrington be moved back to a slot receiver spot?  Could Morrow?  Or will one or both of them outperform Williams? 

The WSU coaches like Harrington and Morrow at running back, but the ‘good problem to have’ seems ready to surface in 2016 – with four running backs for three game-day spots.

Williams is fast and has a good burst. He was impressive this season on the scout team going against the 1s and 2s on defense.  It followed that in TNF, he often owned the session against the youth on D.

But Wicks, from this chair, is the Cougs’ top running back after the season he put together (although an argument can be made Morrow, Mr. Everything, isn’t far behind). 

Running backs coach Jim Mastro and Leach would actually prefer to have one primary back – but only if he can ably do all of the things WSU wants from that spot. So far under Leach, it’s required a rotation.

But consider this when it comes to Wicks in looking ahead to 2016:  Wicks was the Cougs’ leading rusher this season (599 yards, 102 carries, 5.9 ypc).  Last year in nine games, he had 62 carries for 234 yards (3.8 ypc).  This season he caught 36 passes out of the backfield.  Last year he had but 16 catches.

What if Wicks in ’16 further improves his play in the receiving game and/or on the ground toting the rock?  Another good problem to have.  (By the way, Harrington led the running backs in receptions with 43 grabs and Morrow had 28 catches). 

You’re going to hear this offseason the Cougs gave up “a lot of sacks.”   But the total number is meaningless without context. 

WSU has surrendered 39 sacks this season. But the Cougs have attempted a whopping 685 passes in 12 games.  That figures out to one sack every 17.6 pass attempts.   Oregon has allowed an average of one sack every 9.7 pass attempts. USC has given up a sack every 12.7 pass attempts.

Now, do the Cougs have work to do when it comes to sacks allowed? Absolutely.  Falk (and Bender) held the ball too long at times this season. The o-line was primarily solid but had too many stretches where they allowed the pocket to collapse. And that offensive line has to replace two studs in Dahl and Eklund in 2016. 

The Cougs got off to an early good start on that task with Dillard at left tackle down the stretch. While he struggled in the Apple Cup, he did enough good things (plenty, actually) against UCLA and Colorado as an undersized 270-pounder to indicate he’s ready to play, and play well, as a third-year sophomore starter in the Pac-12.

The guard spot vacated by Eklund's graduation (assuming there isn’t a major shuffle) should be a battle royale in ‘16.

On paper, O’Connell would seemingly come into the first day of spring as the frontrunner, with Flor perhaps as the 1A. O-line coach Clay McGuire said towards the end of the regular season O’Connell was right there on the verge of playing on Saturdays. But there are any number of o-linemen would could seize the day before the Sept. 3 opener against Eastern Washington.

The list includes Bigge-Duren, Freeman, Salmonson, Osur-Myers and perhaps Brandon Evers.  Sakaria was bitten by the injury bug this season and remains an unknown and Perrot is also in the mix, though he hasn’t been as eye-catching as have Bigge-Duren and Osur-Myers among the true freshmen.

McGuire and Leach will no doubt say several times over the coming months that every o-linemen has to earn their starting job every day (the same going for every other position). But assuming returning o-line starters Sorenson, Middleton and Madison all lock down their spots in spring ball and fall camp, and considering the players listed previously, the Cougs’ o-line should be stout in ’16, even after losing Dahl and Eklund to graduation.

It’s expected most or all of the incoming o-linemen from February's signing class would likely redshirt but keep an eye on Keenen King, he might be among the most physically ready from the jump at 6-4, 302 pounds.

At wideout, the Cougs lose Williams but look to be in good shape at the X with Priester and Martin among those primed to compete for the starting job. Too little is known on Dimry after a season where he battle the injury bug but his 6-5 height is something the Cougs want to utilize.  

Cracraft had the quietest 48 receptions you’ll ever see before he was injured in Week 9, missing nearly four games.  Lewis, meanwhile, had a healthy 41 grabs this season. Assuming Cracraft locks down the Y and Gabe Marks returns for his senior season at the Z, the biggest wide receiver position battle in ’16 could come at the H between Lewis and Sweet.

Regardless of who wins the four starting wideout gigs, Leach is going to liberally rotate eight (usually) on Saturdays. And so don’t forget about slot man and walk on John Thompson, who came on strong by season’s end. He had 21 grabs on the year and will be a senior in '16. He could be a key ancillary piece to success.

Any of the incoming Coug are WRs in the class not yet signed could make an impact as a true freshman -- and any of them could redshirt.  Renard Bell, If he plays slot and not corner at WSU, is wicked fast and Grant Porter has an intriguing skills set.  But if we were to pick just one WR from the class to keep an eye on when it comes to playing early in that first year, it’s Stephen Houston at outside receiver.

With Houston’s combination of skills, at 6-foot-3, don’t be surprised if he’s turning heads as early as 2016.

Matthew Zimmer, who watched virtually every practice this season, contributed to this report.

NOTABLE NOTE:

Stay tuned for CF.C's 2016 outlook on the defense and special teams.


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