1. The Defensive Line
I have no doubt that DC Alex Grinch and defensive line coach Joe Salave'a will find the right guys but it is going to be crucial for the 2016 group to have similar depth to what we saw this season.
Although Hercules Mata'afa was a revelation in his redshirt freshman campaign he is a much different body type than Destiny Vaeao or Darryl Paulo (pictured above). WSU must find enough guys who can plug up the middle as these two did so effectively this year.
In addition, I think the loss of Ivan McLennan and Kache Palacio at the Rush will be even tougher to fill because both were so adept at rushing the passer and still holding up against the run.
2. The Offensive Line
Although it hurt to see Joe Dahl injured and out of action the last four regular season games, it may have been a blessing because it allowed some younger guys to get important playing time.
The ability for this group to gel after losing Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund next year will be crucial for the success of the Washington State offense. We have witnessed what the Air Raid looks like when the quarterback is not comfortable in the pocket, and it will be vital to keep Luke Falk healthy next season.
3. Offensive Growth
Last offseason Mike Leach and his staff did a great job testing the waters of some new offensive concepts. Although they didn’t all make it past the chopping block and on into the game plans for this season, some of the new wrinkles really added to the Air Raid. The addition of new screens, sweeps and trick plays complimented the tried and true concepts that made this offense successful in the first place.
However, like Art Briles, Dana Holgorsen or Kliff Kingsbury, there has to be continued innovation to have long term success in the Air Raid (and in any offense, for that matter).
WSU had huge improvements in fourth-down conversions and red zone scoring from last year to this year -- and I believe it is tied to an increased use in the running game and a wider variety of play calls. Additional new offensive concepts are needed in '16.
All the jokes have already been made about the Sun Bowl weather yet I can’t help but admire how mentally tough this group of young men were in El Paso. The defense rose up in the second half to help an offense that had a hard time finishing drives in the snow. It seems like a long time ago that very same defense couldn’t even stop Portland State, also in an adverse weather situation.
I have mentioned it before, but the Sun Bowl only strengthened my belief the theme for this year was overcoming adversity. Leach and Washington State found a way to respond to adversity time and again, which is the main reason they went 9-4 this season after a 3-9 record the year before.
The Sun Bowl was nerve wracking to watch because neither team was all that consistent on the day, instead showing flashes of breaking out. I just wasn’t sure which team was going to figure it out first. What really impressed me was the way the WSU athletes matched up with the Hurricanes.
It wasn’t so long ago that a matchup against Miami would have meant getting “out-athleted” across the board. That they did not truly speaks to the way Leach and his staff have recruited the last few years.
Athletically, the Cougars can hang with anyone.
Despite a strong start in the Sun Bowl, WSU became stagnate offensively in the second half. I felt like most of that came from a reliance on too many drop back passes. A healthier mix of RB screens, WR screens and quick passes would have helped take the pressure off of Falk, who struggled at times with the weather.
Still, this group did enough down the stretch to help seal a victory. And I really loved seeing Falk pull the ball on an inside zone play to seal the win because he felt the defensive end crashing hard on the running back.
The bowl game was won by the Cougs' defensive performance in the second half. The forced fumble by nose tackle Robert Barber on Miami’s second to last drive was a monumental play. Once again, this goes back to the improvement of the defensive unit in forcing turnovers.
Grinch has instilled a mentality around taking the football away in his first season, and it paid huge dividends this year. Grinch also did a great job in the game of utilizing personal and showing different looks to confuse Miami QB Brad Kaaya.
What is exciting for Cougar fans is how little truly needs to be addressed this offseason -- a typical offseason usually requires more. The offensive line, although young and despite having to replace the left side, has great depth and talent from what I've seen. And almost the entire offensive skill group is returning in '16. Defensively, a much improved secondary is returning four of five starters.
This turnaround year at WSU happened at a perfect time with a team that has a special quarterback who will still only be a junior next season, dynamic skill players and an improving defense. The Sun Bowl, and this season as a whole, showed me Washington State is going to be a team to reckon with in 2016.
RELATED STORY: 2016 WSU Defensive Outlook
ABOUT ALEX BRINK: He authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on Cougfan.com but once upon a time, Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State. And from 2004-2007, he threw for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history -- and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing five years in the Canadian Football League: three campaigns with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons in Montreal (2013-14). He is the quarterbacks coach at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore., and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.