PULLMAN – For all the anticipation over Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, the most intense directions given by Washington State’s coaches may actually involve the shortest passes the Cougars will throw.
And throw, and throw, and throw.
WSU spends 10 minutes during the first part of each of its spring practices working on its screen passing game, a perhaps overlooked facet of an offense predicated on picking up large chunks of yardage through the air.
“Screen is such a precise play timing-wise that you’ve got to really hammer the point home, because there’s not a lot of leeway for error,” said WSU running backs coach Jim Mastro. “And so the screen game is big. That’s why we do it every day for 10 minutes. It’s got to be precise.”
It wasn’t precise enough on Thursday – well, something involving the running backs wasn’t, anyway. They were put through a series of conditioning drills in the sand pit on the west end of the practice field, sprinting and bear-crawling for so long after practice that they were unavailable to be interviewed.
That was the result of a “bad day, mentally,” Mastro said.
“They had some mental busts they shouldn’t have had on simple stuff,” Mastro said. “To me, that’s just lack of focus. So there’s self-motivation, reward motivation and fear motivation. Well, today had to be a fear-motivated day.”
And on Tuesday, Leach stopped the screen drill and made the offense perform 30 up-downs before they could continue, saying afterward that “if we have to teach work and effort, we’ll get the effort one way or the other.”
So, yeah, there’s a bit of an emphasis here.
But they’re making strides, otherwise. Leach said Thursday that junior running back Leon Brooks has done some positive things in the screen game – he turned a screen pass into a 40-yard touchdown on Tuesday – but that each of WSU’s backs have shown a decent ability to catch the ball. Mastro said his running backs have only dropped two passes the entire spring, which he termed “absolutely amazing.”
“These guys all catch it pretty smooth, honestly,” Leach said. “And that was a pleasant surprise, and then I was thinking, ‘Well, who catches it better than the other guy?’, and that’s hard to distinguish, too.”
Leach said it’s important for any team to develop a reliable screen game. But it’s perhaps even more crucial for a team like the Cougars, who are going to be throwing so often that defenses might be tempted to cheat up toward the line of scrimmage and blitz more often.
“If you want to drop back and throw, you have to get the defense running at different angles,” Leach said. “You can’t just let them get their weight on their knuckles and come forward the whole time.”
Mastro says WSU has the right personnel to have success throwing screens. Each of the running backs in the rotation right now – Brooks, Rickey Galvin, Carl Winston, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell – is 5-foot-9 or shorter.
“The screen game’s always naturally good with littler guys, because they can hide behind those linemen,” Mastro said. “Brooks has done a good job. Teondray’s done a good job.
“This offense, that’s what it’s kind of made for – littler, quick guys. It’ll fit their strengths well.”
On top of all that, inside receivers coach Eric Morris said the team keeps a tally in the locker room of how many quality blocks each of the receivers makes.
“In the end, if we can get everybody to buy in and be on the same page then it’s pretty lethal out there if we have everybody blocking and busting their tails,” Morris said.