PULLMAN – Don’t overlook the power of team unity.
That’s what Washington State coaches and players might tell you if they were asked to detail the differences between last year’s Cougar team – one that performed at a high level and had nine wins to show for it – and this year’s squad, which is ranked No. 8 in the country after 11 weeks and will have an opportunity to become the sixth team in program history to win at least 10 games in a single season when it hosts Arizona at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN).
The surface-level differences between the 2018 Cougs and the 2017 Cougs are easy to detect.
WSU is getting more production out of the quarterback position than it did last year. The offensive line is allowing fewer than one sack a game. The wide receivers are a year older and better. The defensive numbers haven’t dipped, either, and many of them have done the opposite.
But the most important part of the formula – cliché or not – could be team chemistry.
WSU players expounded on that topic Tuesday evening after wrapping up practice at Rogers Field in Pullman.
“I think we have less selfish people,” senior nose tackle Taylor Comfort said. “More people that just want to give it out for their brothers and I just think in years past we might have had people that, it made it harder to be close when you’re a little more selfish.”
Earlier this season, Leach alluded to to his current team being more “coachable” than some of the ones in the past. The head coach and his assistants are spending less time drilling home teaching lessons that aren’t picked up the first time, allowing them to introduce more material at a quicker rate.
Players aren’t freelancing on the field as much, either, Leach claims.
“There’s more of a sense of urgency with this group to play together and do what they’re asked to do,” the coach said. “Just less guys doing it their way. Less streetball. We haven’t had a lot of streetball this year, where guys are just trying to make judgments on plays and rather than do their job, go somewhere they think the ball’s going to be or think, ‘I’ll go here and try to out-guess the play.’ ”
Leach and the WSU players that were made available after practice didn’t explicitly say who the outliers were from last year’s team. But they indicated a few of their teammates refused to buy in to the team’s message, which caused occasional friction in the locker room.
Leading wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. was suspended for WSU’s game against Colorado in 2017 because of a locker room dust-up the previous week against Cal. The player’s father told The Seattle Times that Martin Jr. lost his temper at teammates after a 37-3 loss to the Golden Bears.
Martin Jr. wasn’t singled out by his former teammates Tuesday, but Leach dismissed the junior receiver after the 2017 Apple Cup, citing a violation of team rules.
“We just had a couple guys that weren’t buying in, I would say, all the way,” safety Jalen Thompson said. “So I feel like this year everyone’s buying into the process and just making it easier for everyone on the team and the coaches.”
The camaraderie is apparent to anyone who’s watched the Cougars play this season.
“We love each other, man,” wide receiver Easop Winston Jr. said. “Whether it’s the scout team or whether you’re a starter, everybody’s buying in every practice and it’s just wonderful to see.”