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Player speeches after Utah loss could reflect new wave of leadership for Washington State

Washington State cornerbacks Marcus Strong (4) and Patrick Nunn  react after stopping the Utah Utes during the second half on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Utah won the game 38-13. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Whether Washington State got the most out of the bye week won’t be determined until Saturday, sometime after 12:30 p.m., when the Cougars line up against No. 18 Arizona State.

They’ll either demonstrate the progress they’ve made since a 25-point drubbing in Salt Lake City, or the more perilous outcome – that they’ve fallen back into the same habits that led them to consecutive losses to start a Pac-12 season for the first time in seven years.

If the Cougars used the last nine days to their advantage, it’ll surely reflect on the scoreboard and in the postgame stats.

But they’re sure the bye week produced at least a few positive moments.

Before head coach Mike Leach and his assistant coaches showed up to an all-team meeting following the Utah loss, a few players used the down time to address their larger group of peers – an audience that included every offensive player, defensive player and specialist. The messages themselves were impactful, but maybe not as much as the mouths they came from.

“In our meeting after the loss, some guys that don’t normally get up spoke what they felt to the team and I thought there was some pretty powerful speeches,” offensive lineman Josh Watson said after Tuesday’s practice in Pullman. “And overall, I feel like there’s a lot of leaders showing up. A lot of new leaders and faces we haven’t really seen.”

When he was asked to name the players who piped up, Watson singled out Pat Nunn, a normally reserved redshirt freshman defensive back who was recently appointed to the starting nickel position, in conjunction with Skyler Thomas’ move to strong safety.

“I felt like Pat Nunn had a pretty good message,” Watson said. “He’s one of the younger guys around here, but I felt like he had a pretty good message in his speech.”

WSU still needs plenty of things to go its way outside of the meeting room if it hopes to turn the season around.

But the Cougars have been a team noticeably lacking in bold leadership since a handful of respected voices walked out the door after last season – quarterback Gardner Minshew, linebacker Peyton Pelluer and safety Jalen Thompson among them. Leach said in the midst of UCLA’s 32-point comeback on Sept. 21, the home sideline was frantic and frazzled, instead of structured and steady.

That some of the team’s less-heralded players felt comfortable voicing their opinion in an auditorium-style room with more than 100 teammates in attendance suggests the Cougars may be one step closer to identifying leadership on both sides of the ball.

“It goes a long way, and part of our standard is holding each other accountable and making sure we’re all on the same page,” quarterback Anthony Gordon said.

After the Utah game, Leach said he and his assistants had struggled to get through to players. While coaches are responsible for identifying mistakes and correcting them, Watson believes players should keep each other accountable, too. Hearing something from a teammate can be more effective than getting the same message from a coach.

“(Coaches) are there to coach you up, they’re there for you as a mentor and everything,” Watson said. “But as players, once a player checks another player and keeps them accountable, it’s kind of like a little more powerful. It’s powerful when a coach does it, but you think about it more when it comes from your peers. A coach could say something to me and I’m not fixing it. Then someone else comes up and checks me and I’m like, ‘Oh my teammates are starting to notice, I’m starting to let them down.’ ”

Leach is glad to see certain players beginning to assert themselves, and their voices, in the meeting room. That’s productive, as long as the same players follow their words with actions on the practice field and during games.

“I think it’s really important and it’s got to be actions, too,” Leach said. “If it’s just a bunch of hollow words, then you’ve just got a bunch of phony guys up there running their mouth. So there’s got to be something behind it and we’ll see how it goes.”