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Mike Leach has high hopes for Washington State in 2019: ‘We could be better … without question.’

LOS ANGELES – With his hair fixed into a bleached mop of a mullet, 300-pound offensive lineman Liam Ryan strode to his podium in the back right corner of the room.

On the opposite side, linebacker Jahad Woods, wearing his traditional cornrows, a full chinstrap of black stubble and two diamond earrings, settled into his own chair.

Right down in front, Mike Leach took position before being walled in by a swarm of cameras and microphones.

“All right, uh,” the Washington State coach started before pausing to take a quick gander at his Pac-12 Media Day audience – a decent-sized group of reporters that giggled when Leach elected to pass on delivering the same opening statement all 11 of his coaching peers gave before their podium sessions at the Hollywood & Highland Entertainment Center.

In ever-Leach fashion, he began on his own accord: “Any questions?” the coach belted.

The Cougars may not be the same castoffs they were when Leach first attended this event eight years ago, but they’re still playing the part well, seated alongside neighboring Pac-12 programs with richer history, deeper pockets and more robust recruiting classes.

In the win column, though? Recently, WSU has been right there with every other team in the league – at least close to it – something Leach made sure to drive home in his approximately 25-minute group interview Wednesday morning.

“You can check it, but I think we’ve won more games than anybody the last three years,” the coach estimated.

The Cougars have won 28 games during that span – just as many as Stanford, but four fewer than Washington – and they’ve earned four consecutive bowl bids, which signifies a program record. In 2018, they notched 11 wins – more than anybody in the Pac-12 – and produced the Pac-12 Coach of the Year (Leach) and Offensive Player of the Year (Gardner Minshew).

That still hasn’t translated to recognition from the large majority of Pac-12 media members, who voted the Cougars fourth in the North in Wednesday’s preseason poll. That’s three spots below division favorite Oregon, which the Cougars have defeated in four straight meetings, and one spot below Stanford, which has lost three straight games against WSU.

“I think we’re always going to be underdogs for however long it takes for people to start recognizing we’ve got a good program going under Leach, or whoever comes in next,” said Ryan, an outspoken redshirt junior who’s expected to replace Andre Dillard at left tackle this season.

“I mean, I realize everybody thinks we’re going to get our head kicked in as usual,” Leach said. “I don’t expect that to be the case any more than it was last year at this time when speculation was similar. Yeah, that’s the great thing about us, is every season everybody thinks we’re going to get our head kicked in, then we don’t. So everybody gets to be stunned and surprised, so it’s fun for everybody.”

The Cougars again expect to be competitive in the beefed-up Pac-12 North, returning nine starters on offense and more than half of their starters on defense.

Leach and Ryan spoke extensively about the culture the program has established – and more significantly, maintained – to cultivate year-after-year success, both pointing to player accountability as a primary factor.

“It’s just about our players buying in and what we do as captains to police our players,” Ryan said. “If we’re letting them off the hook off little dumb things, then obviously that’s when you create teams who aren’t bonded really well and won’t win games. I think you have to be really well bonded and really tight knit in policing people. Because I could say something to Andre Dillard and he’ll be fine with me saying it, because he knows what’s right, even though that dude’s All-American and all that stuff.”

Leach believes another key has been building on “little increments of success.” The Cougars’ win total each of the last three years – eight in 2016, nine in 2017 and 11 in 2018 – is a prime example of what that looks like on paper.

“After a year or two, then you get guys that have heard the message, done it, believe in it for a period of time,” Leach said. “Some of your efforts are duplicated because the older guys tell the young guys.”

WSU needs to work out some kinks and replace key players at a handful of positions – chiefly, the quarterback spot vacated by Minshew – but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think the 2019 Cougars could churn out more wins than a team that made school history with 11 last season.

“If everybody’s committed to improving, to being a better team, and we do improve from last year,” Leach said, “we have enough guys back, we could be better than last year without question.”