LOS ANGELES – The event many use to denote the official start of the Pac-12 football season takes place Wednesday when the conference’s media day begins at the Hollywood & Highland Entertainment Center.
For Mike Leach and Washington State, this offseason hasn’t been quite as busy as those in the past, but the eighth-year Cougars coach and his two player representatives – junior offensive lineman Liam Ryan and junior linebacker Jahad Woods – will have plenty to cover when they make their podium appearance between 10:20 and 10:45 a.m.
Media Day, which begins at 8 a.m. with an address from Commissioner Larry Scott, can be streamed on the Pac-12 Networks or online at pac-12.com/live.
Until then, we examine five questions Leach, Ryan and Woods could hear early and often at Wednesday’s media gathering.
1. “Who’s your starting quarterback?”
Of course, Leach won’t tip his hand on this one, which may lead to the follow-up, “When do you hope to name your starting quarterback?” Which will elicit about the same response from the WSU coach.
In order to maintain a competitive culture and avoid distraction, Leach has always refrained from naming his starting QB before the first game of the season. It’s also a question he hasn’t had to confront much during his time at the WSU helm. Jeff Tuel, Connor Halliday and Luke Falk were all heavily projected to start for the Cougars during their respective careers, and there wasn’t much uncertainty at the position until last year, when Gardner Minshew transferred in to compete with Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley. (On an unrelated note, it’s too bad Minshew didn’t have another year of eligibility, if only so the wildly interesting and entertaining QB could’ve made a Media Day cameo.)
Leach will gladly address questions about each of the three players competing for the job this fall, and he’ll presumably take more than a few specifically about Gage Gubrud, who joins a growing list of quarterbacks trying to make the Big Sky-to-Pac-12 transition work. It was a major success for one of those (Vernon Adams) and not so much for the other (Dakota Prukop).
Reporters may also ask if Leach will be open to taking more transfer quarterbacks in the future. Those who cover the team on a regular basis understand the efforts to get Minshew and Gubrud on campus were contingency plans for a program that had an open scholarship at QB after the death of Tyler Hilinski, who would’ve been entering his second year as WSU’s starter this fall. But from the outside, some may view consecutive transfers as a disconcerting trend for a program that’s not developing quarterbacks as well as it used to.
2. “Do you have a chip on your shoulder after being picked (fourth/third) in your conference division?”
Preseason Pac-12 media polls will be released Wednesday morning before players and coaches take the stage and the Cougars, again, will probably fall somewhere between the middle and lower half of the North Division. Oregon and Washington, probably in that order, will occupy the top two spots in the preseason poll. While a few media members might slip WSU past Stanford, I’d expect the vast majority to take the Cardinal at No. 3 and the Cougars at No. 4, solely based on the fact that David Shaw’s program returns a household name at the QB position and Leach’s doesn’t.
Even though the Cougars have made three straight bowl appearances, produced last season’s Offensive Player of the Year, own healthy winning streaks over Oregon and Stanford, and continue to make steady strides on the defensive side of the ball, they typically don’t fare well in these realms. The #CVE (Cougs vs. Everyone) slogan the program has used as a motivational tool – and now more frequently as a branding tool – was born from these types of preseason polls and projections. WSU players will feel slighted when they see Wednesday’s poll, so expect Ryan and Woods to speak about that when they arrive at the podium.
3. “How will the defense recover from losing Jalen Thompson?”
News that all-conference safety Thompson wouldn’t be returning for his senior season is still fresh – at least relative to the slow summer college football news cycle – and Leach has only spoken on the topic once since it was learned Thompson lost his final year of eligibility for purchasing banned over-the-counter supplements. More than a month ago, Thompson was supposed to be the backbone of WSU’s defensive secondary and one of the top safety prospects in the Pac-12, if not the nation. Now he’s an Arizona Cardinal, taken by the AFC West club in the fifth round of the supplemental draft.
Many of the conference’s media members acquainted themselves with Thompson at Media Day last season, and the safety’s bizarre exit after three standout seasons at WSU should be a top Cougar storyline Wednesday. Details of Thompson’s departure may come up, but the more pressing topic is how the Cougars will replace the most decorated player on their roster and unquestioned defensive leader.
4. “What will it take for the Pac-12 to catch up to its Power Five peers?”
Another dim season for the Pac-12 was marked by the conference missing out on a College Football Playoff berth for the second consecutive year. One year after the Pac-12 came out of bowl season with a horrendous 1-9 mark, the conference sent just one team to a New Year’s Six game and watched Ohio State beat Washington 28-23 on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl. The relative incompetence of the Pac-12 on the gridiron will again be an overarching theme of Media Day. Between questions about the conference’s long-disputed TV network deal and officiating miscues, commissioner Scott will have to answer for why the Pac-12 isn’t producing national contenders at the same rate it used to.
Expect all 12 coaches, and perhaps a few of the higher-profile athletes, to offer some insight as well.
5. “Insert bizarre Leach question here.”
Leach may not have the personality or patience for one of the two major college football jobs in Southern California, but he doesn’t mind holding court in front of a few dozen national and L.A.-based reporters one day every year. Next to representatives from the L.A. schools, the zany and peculiar WSU coach typically draws the largest Media Day scrum of any Pac-12 coach, and consistently delivers his usual soliloquy of wacky, humorous responses.
In past years, Leach has offered his opinions on Los Angeles traffic, the debate surrounding whether a hot dog is or isn’t a sandwich, millennials and any number of NCAA rule changes that may have materialized during the offseason. We’d dive into all the random questions WSU’s ever-quirky coach could get Wednesday morning, but it’s anyone’s guess in which direction Leach’s podium session will go.
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