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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cougars fire special teams coach

Russell let go in wake of failures in loss to Cal

Cal kick returner Trevor Davis’ two 100-yard returns for touchdowns against WSU helped get Cougars assistant coach Eric Russell fired. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Mike Leach didn’t wait until practice to make significant changes to Washington State’s special teams, dismissing coordinator Eric Russell two days after the Cougars gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns and missed a potential winning 19-yard field goal in WSU’s 60-59 loss to California on Saturday.

“We made a change at special teams, and while I think a great deal of coach Russell, but we wanted to split the special teams up among the assistants and the way he’s most effective is with him running the whole thing,” Leach said. “He’s a great coach. Yeah, I decided to make a change at special teams.”

Russell was also the team’s assistant head coach.

Firing an assistant coach in midseason is a rare move, but it’s not an unprecedented one.

The closest Leach has come before came in 2007 at Texas Tech, when defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich resigned following a 49-45 loss to Oklahoma State.

The Cougars (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) have struggled with field goals and kick coverage all season. The week prior to the Cal game, the Cougars gave up another special teams touchdown on a punt return at Utah.

Erik Powell started the season as the team’s field goal kicker but was replaced by Quentin Breshears after Powell missed two kicks of less than 40 yards at Nevada. The pair have combined to make just 6 of 11 field goal attempts this season.

The Cougars still have nine assistant coaches on staff because offensive quality control assistant Eric Mele has been promoted to fulltime assistant. Leach said Mele will retain many of his administrative duties and will also be in charge of special teams, albeit with help from other assistants.

Russell came to WSU from the University of Tennessee in 2012 as a highly-regarded assistant coach, one who had ties to both Leach and the Inland Northwest. He was nominated for the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2009 while at Texas Tech.

Upon his arrival, the Cougars saw immediate improvement on special teams. Last season the kickoff coverage team tied for first in the Pac-12 with Stanford with a net average of 42.5 yards per kick. The Cougars were also No. 4 in the conference with a punt return average of nine yards.

But this year the Cougars rank No. 10 in the conference in kickoff coverage and No. 11 in punt coverage.

Russell graduated from high school at St. Maries and played quarterback at Spokane Falls Community College before graduating from Idaho.

Halliday rising

Connor Halliday has been passing at a blistering pace this season and NFL general managers are taking notice, according to CBS NFL draft expert Rob Rang.

Rang says that Halliday’s strong arm and improved accuracy mean he’s likely to be picked in next spring’s NFL draft. Rang currently projects him to be picked in the sixth or seventh round.

“I think he played himself into the conversation last year,” Rang said. “This year the accuracy is better. The arm and the guts are still there.”

Halliday leads the country with 3,052 passing yards, nearly 1,000 more than Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty, who is No. 2 with 2,165. His 26 passing touchdowns are four more than the nearest player, Cal’s Jared Goff.

Rang added that if the WSU quarterback were to revert back to some bad habits he displayed in the past, such as forcing passes into coverage or throwing too many interceptions, it could scare off NFL teams.

Apart from his physical talents, Rang said the resilience Halliday has displayed throughout his career will appeal to pro scouts.

“He’s obviously a tough kid to take the hits that he has and get back up,” Rang said.

Leach says Wicks was in

The Cougars would likely have beaten Cal if Breshears’ short field goal had been good but according to Leach he never should have had to take it.

Two plays before the attempt running back Gerard Wicks appeared to cross the goal line but officials ruled that he was down a full yard short of the end zone. The Cougars quickly ran another play and the potential game-winning run was never reviewed.

After seeing the play on tape, Leach has no doubt that Wicks scored on the play.

“I mean he was clearly across the line,” Leach said. “I mean, there’s no question about that.”

Five plays were reviewed during Saturday’s game but not a potential game-decider near the end zone. Leach had one challenge remaining but using it would have meant risking the team’s final timeout.

Asked to comment on the process by which plays are reviewed, Leach said, “I think the process, without commenting on it, if a guy crosses the line he should be awarded a touchdown. That’s what I think.”