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Leach, WSU staff prepare for crucial spring practices

PULLMAN – The assembly of Mike Leach’s first recruiting class at Washington State may have, in a way, offered a guideline for what to expect from the Cougars when they begin spring football practices this week.

Leach and his assistants did as much as a new coaching staff could do prior to signing day on Feb. 1, noting afterward that piecing together a class in two months is not a task for the meek.

And in the same spirit, they’ll try to accomplish as much on the field as they can during a 15-practice schedule that begins Thursday and concludes April 24.

As much as Leach’s hire re-energized the WSU fan base, there is still a great deal of work to be done before the Cougars can consider themselves prepared for their Sept. 1 opener at Brigham Young. The on-field aspect of that begins in earnest on Thursday, when Leach and his staff finally get their first look at WSU’s returning players in a true practice setting.

With a couple of distinct challenges.

“It’s a little taller order for us,” Leach said Saturday. “Every year, you want to evaluate and then, of course, sharpen your skills. In our case, we have to install our package and teach it to everybody. This isn’t going to be a case where you teach it to some and then you’ve got the older guys to help. In our case, we’ve got to teach it to everybody.”

What they’re teaching, at least, is no secret. Leach serves as his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, meaning he’ll have the duty of teaching his pass-happy, spread-out offense to quarterbacks Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday – and the rest of the staff, of course, will get busy teaching it to receivers, backs and offensive linemen.

There’s also the matter of deciding on a starting quarterback. Tuel and Halliday each ended the 2011 season injured. Tuel, a senior, said in January that he’s feeling fine, although the health of Halliday, a redshirt sophomore who suffered a lacerated liver against Utah, may be a bit more of an unknown. As a policy, Leach does not comment on injuries.

He said he’s not sure how he’ll divide the repetitions between the two quarterbacks, although he said it’s not imperative that they name a starter by the end of spring ball.

“We might have a front-runner leaving spring, but they’ll continue to battle it out,” Leach said. “We’ll keep it competitive until the end of camp.”

Then there’s the defense, which must learn the principles of new coordinator Mike Breske’s 3-4 alignment. And they’ll do it without former starting linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, both of whom were dismissed from the team after run-ins with law enforcement.

Leach said some position changes will be inevitable – movement at the thin linebacker position is certainly a possibility – but that he tries to avoid moving players around indiscriminately.

“As a new staff, there’s probably going to be quite a few,” Leach said.

“The other thing is, we’ve got to evaluate what we have. We’ve got plenty of guys with some talent and things so we’ve got to figure out how to put them in the right position out there on the field. What makes ours a little more unique is we’re kind of starting from scratch with it.”

Leach said scrimmages will be held “whenever we need to,” likely on Saturdays, with the certain exception of March 24. NCAA rules do not allow contact during the first two practices, and contact may only occur in 12 of the 15 practices.

In addition to meetings and film study, Leach’s famed “midnight maneuvers,” late-night conditioning sessions held during the winter, have already taught him some things about his players.

“I thought some competitive aspects emerged,” Leach said. “You could see guys develop and be a little more competitive. You could see kind of some leaders emerge a little bit. I thought it was very good. The other thing is with regard to working hard, nobody really knows how hard they can work. Everybody can work harder than they think they can.”

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