PULLMAN - There are always exceptions and surprises, Mike Leach said, but the Washington State football coach does believe that a team's performance in preseason camp provides a reasonable expectation for how it might perform during the season.
That was the case last season, when early signs of depth and inexperience eventually formed WSU's 3-9 record and last-place finish in the Pac-12 North.
"We were just so thin," Leach said, "and every team's thin a little bit, (but) we knew we had to play a lot of freshmen, a lot of guys that had never played college football before. And then offensive-line- wise, we had a couple injuries in camp that made it worse and ended up playing the season with six guys. We were undersized."
And while Leach hasn't seen this year's team practice together yet - that will happen when camp starts today at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston -- he's already certain that it will be improved from his maiden voyage in 2012.
"I think we're signif- icantly better, especially the attitude and that type of thing," Leach said. "Just our work ethic is significantly higher. Last year we had a lot of push, and then it got tough."
Still, most Pac-12 pundits -- and a lot of fans -- are in wait-and-see mode when it comes to the Cougars, who were predicted by media to finish last in the North again.
Leach, for one, feels a lot better about where the team's offensive line stands now compared to, say, nine months ago, and it's easy to see why -- the Cougars practiced the entire spring with a legitimate two-deep, a feat not accomplished at any point last season when they finished last in the nation with 57 sacks allowed.
The Cougars' precamp depth chart lists the following starters on the offensive line, from left to right: Gunnar Eklund, Joe Dahl, Elliott Bosch, Matt Goetz and Rico Forbes.
Neither Dahl or Forbes have appeared in a college game, but Bosch was a full-time starter last year while Goetz and Eklund also made several starts and saw the field plenty. And a lot can change between now and Aug. 31, when WSU travels to Auburn for its season opener.
"We're relatively young," Leach said. "We've got a lot of guys that haven't played as much as they might have, but we've got to get experience as fast as we can out on the practice field and play as fast as we can."
The Cougars are in a similar quarterback situation as they were last year, when Jeff Tuel entered camp as the presumed starter over Connor Halliday, even if Leach wasn't saying so.
This season, it's Halliday, a fourth-year junior, who most assume will start over redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, and Leach has said on several occasions that Halliday would be WSU's quarterback if a game were to be played today.
Leach said the two will be pitted head-to-head at the beginning of camp, but Halliday's experience seems to suggest an advantage.
"Halliday continued to improve his ability to utilize dimensions of the whole offense" in the spring and offseason, Leach said, adding that Halliday's aggression as a passer sometimes worked against him last season. "Now, I think he's a little better as far as reading things and utilizing the weapons around him."
Leach said his annual team meeting would be held Thursday night to establish "overall program philosophy" before the team departs this morning for Lewiston, where WSU will practice for 10 days, concluding Aug. 11.
Asked how players feel about being removed from their comfort zone, Leach replied: "Comfort zone's not exactly the priority around here. I think it's a good place and we'll get good work, but the overall reaction is most guys seem kind of excited about it."
Whether that excitement remains in 30 days may tell a lot about the season.