PULLMAN – Mike Leach firmly believes the 2018 recruiting class is his best at Washington State, and the sixth-year Cougars coach isn’t just saying it for effect.
Highlighted by a running back who chose WSU in favor of Stanford and a quarterback who spent his summer slinging footballs at the prestigious Elite 11 camp, the Cougars’ 24-player haul appears on the surface to be stronger than any Leach has assembled during his tenure on the Palouse.
It’s an impressive group, no doubt, and certainly not suggestive of a program that’s dealt with hardship at almost every level since losing to Washington in late November at the Apple Cup. The Cougars had to deal with the distraction of Leach’s rumored departure to Tennessee, then the actual departure of four assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Two top wide receivers were on the roster when December began, but not when it ended, and in mid-January, WSU tragically learned about the suicide of the quarterback whom most anticipated would start for the Cougars this fall.
Despite all that, Leach pieced together the country’s 44th-rated class, according to ESPN, and one that ranks seventh in the Pac-12. WSU signed four more players on Wednesday to supplement the 20 high school and junior college prospects that inked with the Cougars during the early signing period.
Leach intentionally left a few more scholarships open, potentially so the Cougars can bring another quarterback on board before spring camp. Tyler Hilinski was previously the only one of the group who’d taken a collegiate snap and his death left WSU especially young and inexperienced at the position.
Former Syracuse quarterback Mo Hasan recently visited Pullman and the Cougars reportedly have shown interest in Penn State’s Tommy Stevens as a potential transfer.
“We might,” Leach said of bringing in a quarterback. “We deliberately held a few scholarships back and we’ll see what’ll surface from there.”
On Wednesday, the Cougars added a variety of positional players from a variety of backgrounds. Two were previously committed to other Power Five programs before coaching changes. One was plucked from the Juco ranks. The other has only a few years of American football under his belt.
The fax machine in Pullman lit up early Wednesday morning when WSU received its first letter from Tyrese Ross, a defensive back from Jacksonville, Florida, who played his final high school season at Westlake High in Atlanta. Ross initially planned on playing for Dan Mullen at Mississippi State but reopened his commitment when Mullen accepted the job at Florida.
“Very explosive defensive back, he plays extremely hard,” Leach said of Ross, whose father, Dominique, played for the Valdosta State teams coached by Leach and Hal Mumme in the early 1990s. Leach believes it might be the first time he’s inked the son of a former player.
Calvin Jackson Jr., a wide receiver from Independence Community College in Kansas whose father played for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, officially joined the Cougars on Wednesday, giving WSU its fifth pass-catcher of the 2018 class. A one-time Toldeo commit, Jackson Jr. maintained a relationship with former Rockets assistant Derek Sage – a bond that proved handy when Sage left to become the outside receivers coach at WSU.
The Cougars filled another positional need by adding their fifth offensive lineman, Blake McDonald, out of San Ramon Valley High in Danville, California. McDonald decommitted from UCLA when former coach Jim Mora was fired and gave his oral commitment to WSU on Saturday. McDonald, at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, is a “big, strong, nasty offensive lineman who I think is going to get stronger and better.”
WSU’s most intriguing pickup was a defensive lineman who’d not stepped onto a football field in the United States up until two years ago. Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, a transfer from Riverside City College, played rugby in his native New Zealand and was only introduced to football when he decided to join a club team in Australia in 2013. At 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, he projects as a defensive end, but could move inside to defensive tackle if he’s able to bulk up.
“He runs real well for a guy his size. He’s really explosive,” Leach said. “The thing is, is just continue to develop him because athletically, he’s really good. Our biggest role is to get familiar as quickly as we can with football and the techniques and the things we want him to do.”
The NCAA’s installment of an early signing period was ultimately beneficial for the Cougars – if for no other reason than because they were able to knock out most of their work before four of Leach’s assistants left for jobs elsewhere.
Running backs coach Jim Mastro was extremely influential in persuading high-profile tailback Max Borghi to sign with the Cougars over Stanford, and there’s reason to think Borghi would’ve given WSU’s Pac-12 North rival another look – or perhaps flipped to the Cardinal – when Mastro left for Oregon, had the early signing period not been in place.
“I thought it worked out pretty well,” Leach said of layering in the early signing period. “…Typically these rules are lousy or temporary. I think this one went remarkably seamless, all things considered, because you’re talking about a pretty far-reaching rule that encompasses a lot of things, but I thought it really did go quite smoothly. Smoother than I thought it would, too.”