Not even the fifth-ranked team in the country can induce Mike Leach to conform with the coaching tradition of flattering one’s next opponent.
In his weekly news conference Monday, the Washington State football coach lauded USC quarterback Sam Darnold’s throwing release and maturity, but rejected the notion that he’s ready for the National Football League.
He then took the opportunity to lambaste those who believe players should be allowed to advance directly from high school to the NFL.
In other words, it was business as usual for the No. 16 Cougars as they prepared for one of their most richly anticipated games in years. Wazzu and USC both take 4-0 records into an ESPN-televised game at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Martin Stadium. The Trojans (4-0, 2-0) are favored by 31/2 points.
Asked about Darnold, Leach said the celebrated 20-year-old sophomore is “a good player – I think he’s mature, just kind of mentally together for a guy his age. He’s big and the ball comes off his hand good.”
“When you watch him,” a reporter asked, “do you feel like this is an NFL-caliber type quarterback?”
“Well, I think he could be,” the coach said. “I don’t think he is today.”
The subject hasn’t come up frequently in Leach’s news conferences, but he apparently has strong feelings about the idea of allowing players to skip college and sign with pro teams, as sometimes happens in other sports.
And as he always does prior to much-hyped games, Leach tamped down the flames and insisted that effort levels by players and coaches shouldn’t vary depending on the significance of the matchup.
“It’s not like … I’ve got these reserve charges of effort and focus that I haven’t bothered to mess with because these other games somehow weren’t as important,” he said. “I mean, if you’re ever going to improve, you’d better be on full steam all the time.”
As for the Friday time slot this week – the Cougars’ first since the Apple Cup last November – Leach said, “We’re excited to play anytime we play. I think Fridays are for the high school game, and I think we should do everything we can to respect that.”
Because they have less preparation time than usual, the Cougars staged a full-throttle practice Monday, which is usually a rest day for players. It was slated for an unusual time, 7:30 p.m., which will be kickoff time Friday.
“To be really effective, you have to have everything in (early in the week),” Leach said of Friday games. “So you install it the first two days – getting through all the film and making the choices on plays you’re going to run and things like that.”
Highly critical of his offensive line after a win over Boise State three games ago, Leach said he’s seen improvement since then.
“I think we started really good last week,” he said of a 45-7 win over Nevada. “I think we’re a little inconsistent.”
He was obviously displeased with the Cougars’ failure to convert on fourth-and-2 from the Cougar 42-yard line with less than six minutes left. Leach responded by directing offensive linemen to do up-downs on the sideline.