PULLMAN – Three weeks ago, after Washington State wrapped up a Wednesday practice at Rogers Field, Cougars coach Mike Leach talked tight ends, his philosophy on them and why you’re probably more apt to see a palm tree in Pullman than you are a tight end in Leach’s vaunted Air Raid offense.
“They’re just so hard to find and adapting around that I ended up with these, you can go right down the list, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Travell Harris, Brandon Arconado, Renard Bell,” Leach said. “A guy that can move around and is quick, that you can still get the ball to, but if you have both of those things – if you have a true tight end and a guy like that – it’s almost like a fastball/changeup deal. Because one guy’s too quick to put a true linebacker (on), the other guy’s too big and strong to put a strong safety on.”
The issue with tight ends, for Leach at least, is they usually double as strong edge-rushers. Those are hard enough to locate as is, especially when you’re recruiting out of a remote Pac-12 outpost like the Palouse.
“It’s just hard to find,” Leach said. “If you go to the mall, there’s only a few defensive ends running around the place and there’s not many in the world to begin with. But if you fill up a defensive line, it’d be a lot of fun to do.”
For now, Leach will let WSU’s next opponent have all the fun.
The most common moniker for Stanford is “Nerd Nation,” but the school is also tabbed “Tight End U” because the Cardinal have been among the most prolific at the position in the country under David Shaw. Shaw has had at least one tight end selected in six of the past 10 NFL drafts and seven total during that span.
Stanford always presents a unique challenge for WSU, which hasn’t rostered a designated tight end in eight years (the length of Leach’s tenure). In practice, WSU typically has to rely on younger defensive linemen or bigger wideouts to give the Cougars an accurate mock of what they’ll see against the Cardinal.
It’s still nothing close to the real thing.
“We’ve done it both ways, (freshman linebacker) Rocky Katoanga’s going in there at tight end a little bit. We’ll put some tackles out there at tight end,” WSU interim defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni said. “They don’t run the routes quite at the speed you’ll see on game day, but it’s the best we can do. So we make the most of the situation and they give us a really good look in the run game, because they’ll come hard at you.”
Katoanga was named one of WSU’s three scout team players of the week Friday, so the Cougars might be off to a good start when it comes to preparing for Stanford’s next pro tight end, junior Colby Parkinson (36 receptions, 412 yards, one TD), and an offense that uses big personnel sets to push the pile for senior running back Cameron Scarlett (172 attempts, 763 yards, five TDs).
“It’s definitely different than what we see every day in practice and that’s the challenge,” Bellantoni said. “We don’t get to see that year-round, and you’ve got to do some of that stuff in the offseason and in fall camp to get ready for it.”
There may not be two teams with offensive and defensive schemes that vary more than Washington State and Stanford – the Cardinal are big and bullish on the D-line, while the Cougars are small and speedy – but the Pac-12 North teams are carrying similar ambitions into the final three games of the regular season.
They’ve both felt they’ve let a few opportunities go by the wayside, too.
Three of the Cougars’ five losses are by a combined 10 points. The Cardinal are six days removed from a three-point loss at Colorado that saw the Buffaloes win on a last-second, 37-yard field goal to drop Stanford to 4-5 overall and 3-4 in conference play.
The Cougars haven’t matched the Cardinal in Pac-12 wins, sitting at 1-5, but they also bring a 4-5 overall record into the game at Martin Stadium.
“Honestly, it looks familiar,” Shaw said. “Watching them is like watching us. When you see their best plays, they’re as good as anybody in America. The way they throw it around, the number of receivers they have, they could score 21 points a quarter if you let them. They just keep rolling.”
Like Stanford, though, miscues at inopportune times have buried WSU.
“Then you see some turnovers, you see some missed opportunities,” Shaw said. “Defensively, I mean it’s that same helter-skelter kind of defense they run up there. There’s a lot of movement, they can get after the quarterback, they cancel running lanes. You try to wind back and next thing you know, there’s two guys in the hole. …
“Then they’ve had a few missed tackles and they’ve given up some explosive plays. So, looking at both of these teams, our team and Washington State, their best is still really good. It’s about which team can be at their best for the longest time on Saturday and then be at their best when it counts the most in the fourth quarter.”
It could be the difference between a bowl game and no bowl game.
“This will happen one of two ways,” Leach said. “We’re either going to be preparing for a bowl or Sunday, Dec. 1, we’re going to start offseason. One of those two things are going to happen.”