WSU Cougars

Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars hope to regroup after rocky season

WSU coach Mike Leach says his players are “more motivated” this season.
WSU coach Mike Leach says his players are “more motivated” this season. The AP

Welcome to Pac-12 media days, where Mike Leach remains in high demand.

There are always questions for the Washington State coach. Questions about the books he’s co-authored. About the tour he took here at the Warner Bros. studios, particularly the Batman and Harry Potter portions. And, forever and always, someone will ask him to supply dating advice.

Leach answers in verbose and entertaining fashion, and these responses tend to highlight an event that could otherwise serve as a suitable replacement for Ambien.

But after a disappointing 2014 season that featured a 3-9 record and a gruesome injury to the Cougars’ record-setting quarterback, and which led to the firings of three assistant coaches and the unexpected departure of another, there are more pressing matters for the fourth-year WSU coach to discuss.

Such as: Is this season going to be any better?

There’s reason to believe that it might, though the media members here predicted a fifth-place finish for the Cougars in the Pac-12 North. But WSU does return seven starters on each side of the ball — including all five offensive linemen, perhaps the foremost reason for WSU optimism — and, except for a handful of fifth-year seniors, the roster is now composed of players who were recruited by Leach.

“We’ve got a lot more motivated group,” Leach said. “We’re on the heels of one of the best springs we’ve had. The other thing is, as you go into the weight room, it’s an event. I mean, there’s a lot of energy over there. That pretty much comes from the players just competing and their excitement.”

Redshirt sophomore Luke Falk, who made his collegiate debut last season after Connor Halliday suffered a broken leg, is expected to compete with redshirt freshman Peyton Bender for the starting quarterback position, though Falk appears to be the frontrunner.

WSU’s offense has improved at a speedier rate than its defense, which is under new management. In addition to firing special-teams coordinator Eric Russell six games into last season, Leach parted ways with defensive coordinator Mike Breske and outside linebackers coach Paul Volero at season’s end.

Alex Grinch, an up-and-coming assistant from Missouri, was hired to replace Breske, and Leach hired Roy Manning from Michigan to coach outside linebackers — “optimistic, high-energy people with a plan that they’re well on their way to specifically executing,” Leach said.

He hopes a fresh, specific approach will resonate more with players after WSU allowed nearly 6.2 yards per play last year — a number that ranked 103rd in the country.

“I thought defensively, we were tugging against ourselves,” Leach said. “I think there was too many varieties of philosophies, so we had to end that, because I don’t think we had one message to the players. I thought we steadily improved on offense and we kind of stagnated on defense. So yeah, it was tough. They’re good people and all that stuff. But part of it is, there’s a chemistry and a cohesion that’s important.”

Last season, fifth-year senior left tackle Joe Dahl said, “was disappointing, because you could see at times how talented our team was — when we were playing Oregon close, when we were playing our best. We just had so many tough games in there, and I think that we really just want to move past that and get out there and hopefully win some games this year.”