An impressive list: Recruiting diamonds in the rough under Mike Leach at Washington State

RECRUITING IS MORE art than science, and so are the ratings systems. Washington State has been on both sides of that coin. Top-flight recruits sometimes don’t pan out or leave before they can get started -- and overlooked talent finds the right opportunity and something just “clicks.” The list of those belonging to the latter is a lengthy one under Mike Leach.

Despite countless hours of evaluating and researching prospect’s tendencies and talent levels, there really is no way to tell with 100 percent certainty a player will be successful at the Power 5 level. A fifth star doesn’t mean an addition 200 rushing yards a year and a 2-star recruit’s ceiling isn’t just a special teamer.

Since I’m an eternal optimist, I went ahead and looked at some of the “overachievers” in the Leach era, starting with his first recruiting class at WSU that was put together over about eight weeks after Leach was hired.
2012: 2-star defensive end Destiny Vaeao
Vaeao was a solid contributor as a sophomore in 2013 with 24 tackles, 3 1/2 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions. He was good, but not great, as a junior with 14 tackles in 10 starts. But Vaeao soared to new heights in a senior campaign that saw him rack up 41 stops including 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks along with second team All-Pac-12 honors. When it was all said and down, the 2-star recruit who never redshirted posted 84 tackles (47 solo) and got to the quarterback seven times during his Cougar career, with 19 tackles for loss. In his rookie season in the NFL this year, he’s played in every game for Philadelphia with 13 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble.

2013: 2-star guard Cody O'Connell, 3-star safety Isaac Dotson
O’Connell is the overachiever of this group of overachievers. “The Continent” has always had the size, he was 6-foot-8 and 350 pounds out of high school, but the 2-star recruit massively transformed his game this season at Washington State. A first-year starter in 2016, it was hoped back in August that O’Connell could do a credible job in his first season as a starter and that his expected growing pains wouldn't be overly detrimental. Instead, the Wenatchee product was of the biggest stories of year in becoming only the second unanimous All-American in WSU program history (Jason Hanson). O’Connell, along with another overachiever later in this list, helped the Cougar offensive line become one of the best in the nation this season
Dotson was ranked the No. 85 safety prospect nationally in the 2013 class and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  But he became a mainstay for the Cougars in the 2016 season – at linebacker. The Cougar WIL was fourth on the team in tackles (64) and visited the backfield consistently with six tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries. Throw in two interceptions and the former high school quarterback has ably made the transition to becoming a productive member of the Wazzu defense.

2014: 2-star offensive tackle Andre Dillard (pictured above); 2-star defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa
While O’Connell had the bulk coming into high school, the man he shares the left side of the offensive line with has added 50 pounds since joining the Cougars and cracking the starting offensive line. Dillard in 2016 was assigned the task generally considered the most important on an offensive line - protecting Luke Falk’s blind side. And while it seemed early on as though the legacy Cougar would contribute in his time at Washington State, he has arrived early, exceeded expectations and helped the offensive line not miss a beat in replacing current Detroit Lion Joe Dahl and longtime starter Gunnar Eklund.
Mata’afa, a 2-star prospect out of Lahainaluna, Hawaii, went under the radar in recruiting largely because he wasn’t, well, large. Entering college, he stood at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, minuscule compared to other defensive lineman in the conference. But Mata’afa makes it work and then some. Still undersized at 6-2, 255 pounds, his natural strength is immense and he posted 45 tackles, 12 1/2 tackles for loss and four sacks in his first season starting, leading to a first-team selection on the Pro Football Focus All-Pac-12 team.

2015: 3-star cornerback Darrien Molton
Molton was the No. 128 cornerback in the 2015 class. In just two seasons and without the benefit of a redshirt year, he was the Cougars second-leading tackler (71) behind only linebacker Peyton Pelluer. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound cornerback is generally held to be the Cougars’ top corner and will be one of the Pac-12’s more seasoned defensive backs in the coming years.

2016: 2-star corner back Robert Taylor (JUCO)
Taylor made big plays on both the defense and special teams in the Cougars’ eight-win season. In the secondary, he was top-five in tackles with 54 and recovered three fumbles in 2016. He also didn't waste a lot of time in coming from City College of San Francisco to live up to his nickname, Run It Back Rob, in ending the inglorious streak of Wazzu not having a kick returned for a touchdown since 2003 with his 100-yard mad dash against Arizona State.

AS IT STANDS NOW, Washington State has 21 known commitments in its 2017 class. You can bet at least one, and maybe more, will overachieve and find both the field and appreciation among the Cougar faithful earlier than expected.

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