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2017 COUGAR OUTLOOK: Offense

WASHINGTON STATE HAS much of the same cast returning on offense this season with seven starters back. The Cougar O has a one of the top QBs in the nation in Luke Falk, lots of firepower at running back, a decent number of fifth-year seniors and what should be a more athletic offensive line and receiving corps. The Cougs, in short, have a chance to be really good on offense in 2017. But there are also significant unknowns. And you can start with the wideouts.

Notable losses:
WR Gabe Marks, WR River Cracraft, C Riley Sorenson, RG Eduardo Middleton, WR John Thompson.

Top returnees:
QB Luke Falk (R-Sr., 6-4, 216); LT Andre Dillard (R-Jr., 6-5, 295); LG Cody O'Connell (R-Sr., 6-8, 354); RT Cole Madison (R-Sr., 6-5, 318); OL Frederick Mauigoa (So., 6-3, 289); OL B.J. Salmonson (R-Sr., 6-4, 296); RB Jamal Morrow (R-Sr., 5-9, 201); RB Gerard Wicks (R-Sr., 6-0, 227); RB James Williams (R-So., 5-11, 199), WR Tavares Martin Jr. (Jr., 6-1, 185); WR Robert Lewis (R-Sr., 5-9, 165); WR Isaiah Johnson-Mack (So., 6-3, 216); WR Kyle Sweet (Jr., 6-0, 190); WR C.J. Dimry (Sr., 6-5, 201); RB Keith Harrington (R-Jr., 5-8, 195); WR Kyrin Priester (R-Jr., 6-1, 190); WR Anthony White Jr. (Fr., 6-1, 165).

Up-and-Comers/Ones to watch:
WR Renard Bell (R-Fr., 5-8, 195); WR Dezmon Patmon (So., 6-4, 207); WR Grant Porter (R-Fr., 6-2, 178); WR Easop Winston (Jr., 5-11, 170); OL Robert Valencia (R-Jr., 6-6, 295); OL Noah Osur-Myers (R-So., 6-4, 312); OL Drew Norvell (R-So., 6-4, 307); OL Keenen King (R-Fr., 6-4, 324); OL Josh Watson (R-Fr., 6-4, 264); OL Nilsson Gaisoa (R-Fr., 6-5, 315); OL Christian Haangana (R-Fr., 6-4, 374); QB Tyler Hilinski (R-So., 6-3, 206); CB Zaire Webb Fr., 5-10, 165).  Note: Except for those who enrolled in January, members of the 2017 recruiting class are generally not included in this preview because there are too many unknowns about who might play and who might redshirt in 2017 until they arrive to WSU and start competing in fall camp.

What to look for in '17:  The Cougars should be more athletic, and faster, at wide receiver. As great as that sounds, it does not necessarily mean better. The potential is clearly there to be more explosive, but replacing the heady production of Cracraft and Marks will be a tall order. It's the biggest unknown from this chair on offense and especially when considering the Cougar WRs corps -- both inside and outside -- diminished greatly when one piece, Cracraft, was removed from the equation late last season due to injury. No, the drop off shouldn't have been that pronounced. But it was.

Putting on our prognosticator hat: More athleticism in the receiver corps would logically point to more WR screens.  And more speed in the wide receiver corps would logically mean more deep throws. We expect Falk to increase both in '17, and at all four wideout positions.

Falk had great numbers last season but he also received fan criticism during the final three-game slide. While Falk certainly wasn't in peak form during that stretch, the offensive line didn't do him any favors. Fans watching TV live and/or following the ball likely didn't see how many times Falk got whacked last year, and it was a lot. 

When it comes to quarterback play for the Cougs in 2017, yes, Falk needs to improve his production while under pressure. And for what it's worth, his adjusted QB rating was only 35th nationally in 2016.  That said, Falk is one of the best in college football and he can carve up most anybody IF he has a reasonable amount of time.  WSU needs, in varying ways, to do a better job of protecting him over the course of this season. If they do, a double-digit win total is likelier than not.

WSU may look to find additional ways to get its running backs the ball, as a veteran-laden group returns coming off a very productive season (2,649 yards from scrimmage, 2nd among Pac-12 RB groups).  The Cougs had 362 rushing attempts last season, the second-most ever for a Leach team. So if their total touches are to increase, they'll likely come in the receiving game. And that could be something to see, if you agree with the assessment that none of the four 'backs have reached their ceiling as a receiver.

The offensive line received a lot of praise this past season and much of it was justified ... but not for its work the final three games. As o-line coach Clay McGuire told CF.C, the Cougar OL gave up too much push late in the season and against the better defensive fronts. 

The good news up front looking ahead to this season is that the o-line, much like the receivers, will be more athletic. (Again, that doesn't automatically equate to being better but it's a positive). Fans should see the unit laying blocks in the second level more often. 

Mauigoa is the leading candidate to replace Sorenson at center (keep an eye on Salmonson here too) with Valencia in our book the leading candidate to replace Middleton. But athleticism isn't the same thing as experience, and WSU will have to replace a lot of it in multi-year starters Sorenson and Middleton. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Salmonson begin the spring as the No. 1 right guard. But Valencia has a lot of buzz surrounding him and could be the starting right guard come September. If Salmonson becomes a starter, great. If Salmonson instead becomes that 'solid, versatile guy in the bullpen' that's not bad either.

With Dillard, O'Connell and Madison all returning, plus Mauigoa, Valencia and Salmonson, and also young up-and-comers like Osur-Meyers, King and others, the o-line has the potential to be better in 2017 than last year.  But the unit has to correct what went wrong in the final three games if they are to take the next step.

Three keys on offense in 2017:
1. Solidify the o-line and key reserves, keep Falk upright.
2. Yards after contact/catch from the wide receivers.
3. Even more of an increase in production from Cougar RBs.

A stat to improve: Red zone scoring.  WSU scored on 59 of 71 attempts (83 percent, No. 7 in Pac-12).  WSU also turned the ball over on downs six times in the red zone, more than any other Pac-12 team.  The good: 50 of its 59 red zone scores were TDs.

Final thought:  The Air Raid is most effective when several receivers contribute.  The loss of Cracraft proved devastating -- particularly so on third downs and in the red zone. The receivers simply must do a better job getting open.  Newcomers Winston and White Jr. figure to get long looks this spring.

But watch out for Bell in the slot, his athleticism is off the charts. As a second-year freshman, he'll need to stay healthy and translate all that promise into production on Saturday.  Also, look for Sweet to rise up, he's going to be asked to carry a load in a way that he hasn't his first two seasons. In looking back over the TV broadcasts (imperfect though they are) it was apparent from this chair Sweet was open more often than he initially appeared. The guess here: that's a timing issue between him and Falk. With Sweet and Bell now likely to get substantially more practice reps with Falk, look for a growing familiarity between the Cougar QB and those two to pay dividends.

On the outside, much of the focus this spring will be on Martin (and possibly Priester).  And that is a big storyline.  But from this chair, the two outside receivers for whom the spring is most important?  Johnson and Patmon.

Both will be second-year sophomores this season, and they need to be productive sophomores. Both are very big, athletic types -- they probably don't yet realize how good they can be in 2017. The only way they will find out is to work their tails off and exhibit a Cracraft-like work ethic. 

The other WR issue here is coaching. In talking to new inside receivers coach Derek Sage, his focus on fundamentals and coaching style feels like just the tonic needed headed into spring. And with outside receivers coach Dave Nichol, he now enters Year Two at Washington State and you would expect to see some benefit now that those players have a year under their belts in Nichol's meeting room.

Stay tuned for the CF.C outlook on defense coming soon.

NOTABLE NOTE:
It hasn't always been this way under Leach at Wazzu but in 2017, all those yards added up to points.  WSU had the No. 2 scoring offense in the Pac-12, and No. 18 nationally, at 38.2 ppg this past season.


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