LOS ANGELES – Before festivities begin in Hollywood Wednesday morning, it’s more than likely Mike Leach’s 2018 Washington State team will be projected to finish near the bottom half of the Pac-12 North – fifth seems to be the consensus thus far – when the conference removes the cloak from its official preseason poll.
But for the seventh year in a row, the WSU coach who seems to grow more unpredictable and controversial with every passing year, should again be one of the most riveting characters at Pac-12 Football Media Day at the Hollywood & Highland Entertainment Center.
Leach will hold court from 9:30 to 9:55 a.m. and the coach will be joined by two of the Cougars’ leaders, senior receiver Kyle Sweet and junior safety Jalen Thompson, who happen to hail from the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Media Day begins at 8 a.m. and coverage can be found on the Pac-12’s YouTube page. A full schedule of events can be found here.
Below are five Cougar angles and five Pac-12 angles to keep an eye on as the media masses converge on Hollywood.
Surely, Leach will be pressed about his dilemma at quarterback. Don’t expect the coach to reveal anything groundbreaking, although for the first time he’ll speak on the record about offseason addition Gardner Minshew, who hadn’t signed his letter of intent by the time the Cougars put a bow on spring camp.
Nonetheless, Leach isn’t entering Media Day with a starter in mind and he won’t leave it with one. But QB competitions tend to stir up conversation this time of the year and six Pac-12 schools will hold open auditions this fall. None of those seems to be a bigger question mark than the one in Pullman.
It’s inevitable that Leach and both players could, and most likely will, be questioned about the death of teammate Tyler Hilinski, who shook the college football world when he took his life in January. Many national print and television outlets have covered Hilinski’s death and delved into the deeper conversation it raised about the mental health of college athletes. More recently, the focus has been on the impact of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which was found in the brain of Washington State’s presumptive starter after an autopsy.
Similar to his colleagues, Leach likes to kick his feet back during the offseason and take his mind off of the X’s and O’s that consume the vast majority of his calendar year. Occasionally, he likes to kick his feet back, unlock his iPhone, open up Twitter and share with his 106,000 followers a doctored video of an old President Obama speech. Then watch the social media firestorm that ensues because of it.
Expect all of it to resurface on Wednesday: the tweet, the video and even the Twitter tiff with USA Today columnist Dan Wolken, who should only be allowed into the day’s festivities if he’s armed with a 30-ounce Big Gulp.
The Cougars lost two of the top defensive assets in the conference this offseason: coordinator Alex Grinch, who left for Ohio State, and defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, who thought he could capitalize on a dazzling junior campaign and chose to leave early for the NFL. Outside linebackers coach Roy Manning and a handful of other defensive pieces, including Isaac Dotson, Daniel Ekuale and Frankie Luvu, won’t be returning to the Cougars this fall, so expect Thompson to have his hands full with questions about the team’s rebuild on the defensive side of the ball and what’s changed under first-year DC Tracy Claeys.
As we mentioned above, WSU probably won’t attract any first-, second- or third-place votes in the preseason media poll. Washington could, and should, take the unanimous No. 1 standing. Stanford and Oregon will scrap for Nos. 2 and 3. WSU and Cal will jostle for 4 and 5. The Cougars lost an abundance of talent from last year’s roster, but Thompson, Sweet and a handful of their teammates were playing for the Pac-12 North heading into the Apple Cup each of the last two years. Not to mention, they’re 5-1 against the Cardinal and Ducks in their last six tries. Both will be asked about the perception of this year’s squad and I imagine it’ll be hard not to take even a fourth-place prediction slightly personal.
Kelly Green to Kelly Blue
The Pac-12 certainly lost some of its luster when Chip Kelly left Oregon so he could try his hand in the NFL – a largely unsuccessful experiment that led Kelly back to the conference last spring as Jim Mora’s replacement at UCLA. Will his transformative offense still produce points in the same conference six years later? Will Kelly have the pieces to shake up the Pac-12 South right away? Or will the Bruins continue to underachieve in one of the country’s top recruiting hotbeds? Kelly won’t have any of those answers Wednesday, but his return does bring a certain familiarity back to the annual media event.
Just about every offseason, the NCAA presents a set of rule changes and Media Day – be it the SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 – gives coaches their first platform to riff on the revisions. Leach has traditionally been an opponent of rule changes – “there’s several rule change committees that impact this and it’s so bureaucratic and boring that I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of it because it’s like studying the tax code or something like that,” he said last year – but the recent modifications have garnered mostly positive feedback. The two biggies: Division I athletes can now transfer freely, without any restrictions from their current school, and football players can now play up to four games without burning their redshirt. Seems OK, right? We’ll see if the WSU boss agrees.
Khalil and Kevin
Arizona’s coup of former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin probably ranks as the second-most popular Pac-12 coaching hire of the offseason. On Tuesday, we learned a little more about what happened behind the scenes to make that happen. More was brought to light about the conversations between star QB Khalil Tate and president Robert Robbins about the school’s coaching search in a Bleacher Report article that detailed Tate’s efforts to persuade administration not to hire Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo. Tate’s been sheltered from the media up to this point, but he and Sumlin will be be in the house for today’s gala.
Washington coach Chris Petersen and quarterback Jake Browning aren’t known to be colorful quotes and rarely turn heads in this type of setting, but they’ll attract plenty of attention as the representatives of a team that most expect to win the conference outright and vie for its second College Football Playoff berth in three years.
The Herm effect
The Herm Edwards Experience at Arizona State, regardless of whether it flourishes or fails, should be a treat for everyone in the Pac-12. Edwards is bringing NFL tactics to his job in Tempe and even introduced a “Formal Leadership Model” during his debut press conference with the Sun Devils. Oh, and speaking of that, he’s figured out the whole mascot thing by now, right?
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