LEWISTON – Aesthetically speaking, the setting was all that separated the first practice of Washington State's 2014 football season from all those that preceded it under coach Mike Leach, and all that will follow. The Cougars returned to the two natural-grass fields of Lewiston's Sacajawea Middle School to run nearly all the same drills in the same manner that they ran last spring, that they will run throughout the upcoming season and will run to prepare for a bowl game, should they return to the postseason as well.
But hidden in the calculated monotony of practice was a drastic change in the Cougars since they first ventured away from campus for camp last season. In Leach's third year as WSU football coach the players have experienced success, and have experienced his practice system long enough to run it almost sans coaching, executing, in Leach's words, "at a faster rate because there's not as much teaching involved."
In other words, the repetitive nature of how the Cougars prepare speaks to the fact that the team's best players have adopted his system as their own.
The players who didn't mesh with the expectations of the coaching staff are long gone, and the Air Raid identity has had plenty of time to take root.
Quarterback Connor Halliday looked sharp in his passing drills, as did presumptive backup Luke Falk. The receiving corps is experienced and the defensive linemen have been doing this for awhile now.
"This year I think is going to be that step where we all put it together," defensive tackle Xavier Cooper said. "Because we've got the experience this year, everybody's bought in, nobody's on the outskirts and everybody's together so this year I think is the year we prosper."
There are still plenty of unknowns heading into camp. The Cougars don't know yet whether or not Texas A&M transfer Sebastian LaRue will be available, and highly-touted receiving recruit Barry Ware was a no-show on Saturday.
These next few weeks will determine whether newcomers like Marcellus Pippins and Patrick Porter can help immediately at cornerback and the sooner the coaches can settle on a starting center, the better for Halliday.
The coaches have repeatedly praised the incoming recruiting class and players like 250-pound linebacker Chandler Leniu and 254-pound Buck defensive end Kingston Fernandez certainly look the part. So camp will be about determining whether they can play as well as they weigh.
Leach says that camp sets a theme for the rest of the season. Last year the Cougars showed they were ready to compete in the Pac-12 Conference, winning six games and playing in the program's first bowl game since 2003.
Linebacker Darryl Monroe may have already provided this year's theme after Saturday's practice when he said, "Last year was just a taste."
These Cougars are optimistic. Cooper and wide receiver Vince Mayle both expressed the idea that Halliday was as good as any quarterback in the country. The players would not speculate on their record, sticking to the company motto that daily improvement and the next game are the only things on their mind.
Monroe acknowledged that "Right now the sky isn't even the limit. We're trying to go past that, go to outer space. Blow the whole doors off this thing," before qualifying, "but right now we just have to take it one day at a time."
That optimism is also evidenced in the feelings of disrespect the players feel when the expectations other people have of the Cougars are not as high as those the Cougars have of themselves.
Those expectations say that seeing WSU in bowl games should be just as routine as a Mike Leach practice.
"I'm a very competitive guy and I feel like we're overlooked," Cooper said. "People still don't respect us and I think that's why we come out here and work so hard."