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With historic season in rearview mirror, Washington State aiming to find its identity in 2019

PULLMAN – When the confetti showers, fireworks, trophy photo ops and postgame interviews all came to an end the night of Dec. 28, a golf cart whisked four Washington State players away from the press conference, through the tunnels of the Alamodome in San Antonio and back to the Cougars’ locker room, where festivities continued on through the night.

That golf cart, or rather the parts of it, may be the best representation of the foundational pieces the Cougars have to replace in 2019, and the ones they bring back.

Sitting shotgun, a silver trophy resting in his lap, was quarterback Gardner Minshew, the Alamo Bowl’s Offensive MVP who capped a record year with 299 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-26 win over Iowa State that put the Cougars over the 10-win hump for the first time in program history.

Behind Minshew, three other WSU players squeezed together to fill out the back-facing bench. A couple of stalwart defenders, strong safety Jalen Thompson and middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer, are now out of the picture, which makes some fans and pundits leery about the state of the 2019 Cougars.

Who steps up? Who assumes the vital leadership roles Pelluer and Thompson carried? How do the Cougars move on?

But the fourth man on the golf cart may restore optimism among WSU fans.

Running back Max Borghi isn’t going anywhere soon. Coming off a season that saw him rack up 740 all-purpose yards and match the school record for touchdowns by a freshman (12), the Doak Walker Award watch list candidate figures to take on an expanded role in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.

Still, knowing what the Cougars having coming back – nine starters on offense, six on defense and four specialists – is not knowing what they’ll look like as a choreographed unit these next four months.

Earlier this week, eighth-year WSU head coach Leach and second-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys advocated for preseason scrimmages – or combined training camps – at the college level, in order to break up the monotony that usually starts to set in after a few weeks in August.

“They really ought to let you scrimmage someone else,” Leach said, “because that period becomes kind of long. I think four preseason games is too much, but it would be nice to have a mixed practice with somebody.”

“I wish we got preseason games, or at least one,” Claeys said. “But we don’t. You go out with live bullets right away and I am excited to see them play.”

Alas, Leach, Claeys and the rest of the coaching staff will learn a lot more about the Cougars – how they handle success, how they cope with adversity – Saturday night when WSU hosts New Mexico State in the season opener at Martin Stadium (7, Pac-12 Networks).

The Cougars are 31 1/2-point favorites against the Aggies and the betting line probably won’t drop when they host Northern Colorado of the FCS Big Sky Conference a week from now. Perhaps that’s why Leach believes he won’t have a true gauge on his team’s identity until after the first “few games.”

For now, at least, the Cougars seem to be living up to one of the coach’s main pillars: “Be the most excited to play.”

Asked to peg the team’s identity through three weeks of fall camp and a mock week, Leach gave a one-word answer, “enthusiastic,” while cautioning, “We’ve got to see how we respond to adversity.”

For the most part, the 2018 Cougars mastered all three of the proverbs near and dear to the longtime coach. “1. Be a team. 2. Be the most excited to play. 3. Be the best at doing your job.”

The Cougars usher in their third starting quarterback in three years, but Anthony Gordon, should his nerves flare up, will take solace in knowing he has Borghi as an outlet in the backfield and playmakers just about everywhere he looks.

Even with Jamire Calvin shelved for the foreseeable future, WSU returns six of the eight rotational wide receivers from last season – a group that accounted for 298 catches, 3,462 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2018. Meanwhile, senior Brandon Arconado and redshirt freshman converted outside receiver Kassidy Woods will get their first significant reps at WSU in place of Calvin at the “Y” slot position.

“We’ve got a lot of faces back and they’ve gotten in better shape, I think, over the offseason,” Leach said Thursday evening on his weekly coach’s show. “So they’re bigger and stronger than they were last season. We’ll see what they do this year. The biggest thing is, there can’t be any level of satisfaction. This is a new year, so this is all based on, what have you done recently?”

The Aggies know about WSU’s offensive weapons, but they’re equally wary about what the Cougars are capable of on defense. Claeys’ unit ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense last season and generated a league-leading 38 sacks.

“I don’t think they get enough credit for how good they are on defense,” Aggies head coach Doug Martin said. “They cause a tremendous amount of turnovers. They caused 24 fumbles last year, they recovered 11 of them. If you cause 24 fumbles, that’s an extraordinary number, and what that means is they’ve got tremendous team speed and they’re getting their hands on the ball. That is coached. … So that’s a concern.”