This mailbag probably won’t be the most exciting thing you unwrap this week, and if it is, let’s hope the Cougars at least salvage your holiday with a win over Air Force in the Cheez-It Bowl this Friday.
In the final mailbag of WSU’s football season, the calendar year and the decade, we discuss four-year quarterback starters at WSU and if the Cougars will have another, we estimate how many yards Air Force will rush for at Chase Field in Phoenix and we talk briefly about the defensive coordinator situation in Pullman, offering a few names who might fill the void once bowl season is over.
How likely is it that we will ever see another four-year quarterback starter under coach Leach at WSU?
– Jennifer D.
I know fans have been yearning for this and, nothing against Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon, whose individual stories and record-setting seasons were nothing short of marvelous, but I wouldn’t mind covering another four-year starter either. Only once have WSU fans had a chance to watch a quarterback spend four years developing in the Air Raid – through live game reps, that is – and if Luke Falk was able to set the Pac-12 career passing record in only 43 games, it might be fascinating to see what someone would do with 50 games or more.
Given that, I’m inclined to say no. Here are my four reasons:
1. Falk is the exception and not the rule. Obviously, he doesn’t become a four-year starter at WSU if not for Connor Halliday’s gruesome injury against USC in 2014 and it seems there would have to be some extenuating circumstances for a redshirt freshman to start for Mike Leach in the Air Raid, let alone a true freshman. So, credit to Falk. Even as a redshirt freshman former walk-on, he played well beyond his years and never looked the part of a young backup who was only playing because of emergency. Leach’s playbook isn’t complicated but it obviously takes time for quarterbacks to grasp it, learn to make the right checks at the line of scrimmage and build rapport with six to eight different wide receivers who are generally used in the offense. Cammon Cooper and Gunner Cruz aren’t short on raw talent or ability, but the fact that Leach doesn’t seem remotely prepared to give either the keys to the offense right now – “I think at that position we’ve got to improve quite a lot,” he said last week – makes me think the learning curve is pretty substantial.
2. Another four-year starter under Leach means four more Leach years at WSU. That is, if Jayden de Laura comes in and wins the job this fall. If he doesn’t, Leach would need to stay at least five more years for this to happen. I’m not sure Leach is ready to leave the game just yet and this last month has reaffirmed he’s also not ready to leave the Cougars. But I’d put the odds at better than 50% that he’s either coaching elsewhere or retired by the time the 2024 football season rolls around. Leach would be 63 by then and I’ve always assumed he won’t be someone who plans to coach until his death. There are too many countries to visit, too many television documentaries to be watched and too many books to be read.
3. If a true freshman/redshirt freshman is equipped with the tools to win the job right away, what are the chances they’ll stick around long enough to spend their senior season in Pullman? Falk was a nonscholarship player with almost no exposure who didn’t start until midway through his redshirt freshman year, and he had legitimate NFL Draft stock by the end of his junior year. Some would still contest he should’ve taken his chances and left a year early. If someone with Cruz’s natural ability, or de Laura’s pedigree, wins the starting job, they’d almost surely jump onto the national radar by the midway point of their first season if not earlier. Plus, when you consider the buzz WSU’s last two starters – both seniors – received, imagine the intrigue of a freshman under Leach leading the country in passing yards.
4. And finally, the dreaded “i” word. The Cougars have been fortunate to avoid quarterback injuries these last two seasons and that’s in large part due to offensive lines that seem to get better and better every year under the tandem of Leach and Mason Miller. But you also have to wonder how feasible it is that a QB can stay healthy all four years. Halliday had a season-ending injury and Falk missed his second Apple Cup, then dealt with a nagging wrist injury for the entirety of his senior year, forcing him to sit out the Holiday Bowl. Minshew and Gordon never missed a game because of injury, or even a snap, and it’s been pivotal to WSU’s offensive success in 2018 and ’19, but after watching a variety of Pac-12 teams deal with QB injuries this season, it’s also fair to wonder how long the Cougars can keep that up.
How many yards rushing for Air Force?
– Ray L.
The Cheez-It Bowl pits the Mountain West’s top rushing offense, Air Force at 292.6 yards per game, against the Pac-12’s 11th-best rushing defense, Washington State at 170 yards per game allowed.
The Falcons have logged 50-plus rushing attempts in 10 of their 12 games this season. The Cougars haven’t seen that type of commitment to the run game since their week-two test against Northern Colorado, which came out of a blowout loss with 54 rushing attempts and 216 rushing yards.
Air Force has rushed for fewer than 200 yards on two occasions this season, but it happened against two of the country’s stronger run defenses: Wyoming, which is sixth in the country at 99.4 ypg allowed, and Navy, which is No. 16 at just 110.8 ypg allowed and obviously benefits from seeing the triple option nearly every day in practice.
The Cougars allowed six rushing yards against Stanford in one of their top defensive games this year, though the Cardinal only ran the ball 10 times. Meanwhile, Oregon turned the Oct. 26 game in Eugene into a track meet and rolled up 307 rushing yards – and on just 47 attempts for an average of 6.5 yards per attempt.
Three-hundred yards is a hefty number, but not for Air Force, which has rushing efforts of 423 yards (Colgate), 384 yards (San Jose State), 340 yards (Fresno State), 353 yards (Hawaii), 448 yards (Utah State) and 328 yards (Army).
I suspect the Cougars, too, will be part of that club by the time Friday’s game is over. My final answer? 323 yards.
Who would you say the front runners for defensive coordinator are? Jim Leavitt seemed to be mentioned a lot and there hasn’t been many other names talked about besides him.
– Caleb H.
I imagine once the season is over I’ll take a closer look at this and compile a full list of potential candidates – that is, unless Leach jumps the gun and makes his hire before we can publish. I do get the sense the Cougars will have their guy some time in January and I’m sure Leach already has a small group of names in mind – a list he most likely started forming within hours of Tracy Claeys’ announcement.
Leavitt, who I did think was a legitimate candidate for this job, is now off the table, having opted to join Willie Taggart at Florida Atlantic, which seems even riskier than joining Leach in Pullman based on Taggart’s recent stints in Eugene and Tallahassee – one of those more prosperous than the other, but neither very successful at all.
At his second media availability in Pullman since the Cheez-It Bowl pairing was announced, I asked Leach if he’d be considering in-house candidates. “Oh yeah, always,” he said. “Yeah.” The Cougars just signed an entire class of high school players, including eight defensive prospects, with the current staff and pitched the current defensive schemes in living rooms all across America. For the sake of continuity – not only for future Cougars but current ones, too – perhaps it makes sense to retain the defensive coordinator tandem of Roc Bellatoni and Darcel McBath.
I still think Leach will go outside the program for his DC, though, and it seems like the recommended path for a team that didn’t improve much – and regressed in some areas – after the early two-game stretch against UCLA and Utah.
It isn’t inconceivable that Leach would phone one of his former position coaches. Joe Salave’a and Ken Wilson were successful at Oregon this year and the Cougars have missed their recruiting chops – most notably Salavea’s ability to recruit defensive linemen from the Polynesian islands. Wilson said when he left earlier this year he wants to rise up the coaching ranks and his familiarity with the town and university where he spent six years could make Pullman a suitable place for him to take his first DC job. I’ll also throw Oklahoma’s Roy Manning in this same pot. Manning was another excellent recruiter who’d be an enticing DC prospect if for no other reason than because he might be the most energetic DC in America. But, like Wilson and Salave’a, he’d have to leave an outstanding situation for what some would consider an iffy one in Pullman.
Years back, when the Cougars were looking to replace Mike Breske, eventually hiring Grinch, my predecessor at the Spokesman floated a few names, including that of Todd Orlando. The former Texas/Houston/Utah State/FIU/UConn DC also came up as a potential candidate a few times within the last three weeks since being fired by the Longhorns and he’s familiar with WSU safeties coach Kendrick Shavers, who worked under Orlando in Logan.
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