Script flipped: With several key pieces gone, Washington State must rebuild to stay in Pac-12 title discussion

Washington State coach Mike Leach is tasked with replacing key players and staff members from last season’s team. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

As offseasons go, there isn’t a college football team that experienced a more turbulent one than Washington State – and thus you won’t find a group more eager to get into a real game setting than the Cougars.

“Everybody’s looking forward to having a game,” coach Mike Leach said. “That’s the thing, in college you have a long camp and so then everybody’s looking forward to playing somebody else.”

After a wildly successful 2017 campaign that saw them go 7-0 at Martin Stadium, stage an upset of No. 5 USC and clinch their third consecutive postseason berth, the Cougars, just 19 days after the Holiday Bowl, were rocked by the suicide of quarterback Tyler Hilinski. His memory is sure to give strength to players and coaches at different points, but all of them are still carrying heavy hearts going into the upcoming season.

Leach was tasked with replacing 60 percent of his coaching staff, not to mention an All-American lineman on either side of the ball and a record-setting quarterback.

And in July, WSU was thrust into the national spotlight when Leach posted a doctored video of a Barack Obama speech from his Twitter account, stirring up controversy in both the athletic and political arenas.

But football’s back now and it couldn’t have come any sooner for the Cougars.

CAST

Offense: Simply put, there’s a heap of talent to replace. Luke Falk finished his college career with the distinction of being the only Pac-12/10 quarterback to have thrown for more than 14,000 yards, but don’t downplay the help he got from his accomplices – namely All-American left guard Cody O’Connell, All-Pac-12 right tackle Cole Madison, Swiss Army knife running back Jamal Morrow and sticky-handed receiver Tavares Martin Jr.

Naturally, QB is the position getting most of the buzz this preseason and the Cougars will likely replace Falk, a four-year starter who knew every detail of Leach’s Air Raid offense, with Gardner Minshew, a graduate transfer from East Carolina who’s officially been in the system for a month. But Minshew was one of the best passers available on the transfer market when the Cougars snagged the one-time Alabama commit, and he’s no stranger to high-volume passing offenses, having thrown the ball 219 times in his final four games at ECU last season.

Minshew isn’t working with a bare cupboard, either. WSU’s receiving corps loses two talented outside threats, Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, but some think it could still be the deepest unit in school history. By the end of his true freshman campaign, “X” receiver Tay Martin wasn’t too far behind Martin Jr., an All-Pac-12 player in 2016, and inside receivers Kyle Sweet and Renard Bell each contributed more than 500 receiving yards last year.

It shows how well the Cougars have recruited the running back position that fifth-year senior Keith Harrington – a former starter – may wind up being the third man on the depth chart this season. WSU returns shifty junior James Williams and the most intriguing tailback on the roster could be true freshman Max Borghi, who decided on the Cougars despite picking up heavy interest from Stanford.

Blending in three new starters on the offensive line could be a season-long endeavor, but at least WSU knows what it has in established left tackle Andre Dillard – a future NFL Draft pick – and center Fred Mauigoa, who started in all 13 games last year.

Defense: There was a good chance WSU would return at least one of its top two defensive stalwarts from 2017, though it seemed far more likely that would be Hercules Mata’afa, a junior defensive tackle who still had one season of eligibility left, rather than Peyton Pelluer, a fifth-year senior linebacker who was supposed to finish up with the Cougars last year.

But Pelluer’s back after receiving an extension-of-clock waiver from the NCAA and Mata’afa’s gone after leaving for the NFL a year early. No surprise, then, that the Cougars’ defensive line finds itself hurting significantly more than the linebackers.

Behind Mata’afa and nose tackle Daniel Ekuale, now with the Cleveland Browns, WSU generated some of the strongest pass-rush in the Pac-12 last season. Without both – and possibly also Nnamdi Oguayo, a quick defensive end who hasn’t practiced most of the preseason – it’s hard to imagine the defensive line can replicate its numbers from 2017. Defensive tackle Nick Begg will be the most experienced starter on the D-line, with just 14 game appearances under his belt, while nose tackle Taylor Comfort – a former walk-on – and D-end Will Rodgers III enter the picture without any career starts.

Pelluer is the veteran leader – or super veteran leader, if you will – of an otherwise young, but also experienced, linebacker unit. The sixth-year senior from Sammamish, Washington, and two other linebackers went down with long-term injuries last season, giving way to then-redshirt freshmen Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers and Dillon Sherman. All three of them are back in 2018.

The Cougars have star power in the defensive backfield with returning strong safety Jalen Thompson, whose instincts are every bit as impressive as his hitting. Cornerback Sean Harper Jr. has been one of the best performers – on offense or defense – during preseason camp and the lanky senior could be poised for a breakout season.

Special teams: If there’s a position more concerning than D-line at this point, it might be kicker. As of last week, the Cougars hadn’t decided on one and the top two options, Jack Crane and Blake Mazza, went just 7 of 13 on field goals in the team’s last two public scrimmages. The good news is both have strong legs if they can manage to straighten out their kicks. Transfers Oscar Draguicevich III and Oliver Graybar are in a similar battle for the punting job.

CREW

Coaching: It felt as though Leach spent as much of his offseason recruiting assistant coaches as he did players. The defensive coordinator (Tracy Claeys) is new. So are the offensive line coach (Mason Miller), the outside receivers coach (Steve Spurrier Jr.), the outside linebackers coach (Matt Brock), the safeties coach (Kendrick Shaver) and the cornerbacks coach (Darcel McBath). Oh right, the strength coach, too (Tyson Brown). Leach has never dealt with this much turnover in a single offseason – not at WSU at least – but he hasn’t whiffed on too many hires in his time with the Cougars, and it’s not unlikely that at least a few of the new guys will be better than the ones they replaced.

SPOILER ALERT

Most sports betting services seem to think four Pac-12 players have decent odds of winning the 2018 Heisman Trophy. The Cougars may need to show some urgency through their first six games because they’ll see all four in the final six. First off, Oregon and rising quarterback Justin Herbert at home on Oct. 20, followed by Stanford and star running back Bryce Love in Palo Alto on Oct. 27. Three weeks later, Arizona and dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate make their visit and one week after that, Washington and steady signal-caller Jake Browning will be in Pullman for the Apple Cup.