A year ago, Mike Leach’s preseason teleconference was a salty one, marked by a sharp warning that every position was open for competition.
Thursday, the third-year football coach at Washington State seemed more upbeat, hardly hesitating when asked if he thinks this WSU team will be his best yet, even as the Cougars broke into the postseason last year.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “I think now they’ve been through two really intensive off-seasons. I think our recruiting classes have gotten better. There’s just a tighter cohesion to our team, being excited to achieve things.
“When we first got here, I always got the sense that there was too much satisfaction just being on the team, rather than achieving a great deal. Now people really push each other to achieve.”
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Leach’s team was picked fifth in the rugged Pac-12 North by media.
“I don’t worry about any of that,” he said. “That’s kind of why they have horse races. Nobody knows.”
The depth chart released by the Cougars shows five senior starters on offense, led by quarterback Connor Halliday, and three on defense. Question marks are on an offensive line with three new starters and a secondary that lost three of four regulars, including All-American Deone Bucannon.
Leach says the offensive line of 2013 was the smallest in the Pac-12. This one will be more athletic but less experienced, and will average about 305-310 pounds.
The defensive line, he says, should be deeper, allowing “eight or nine“ players to rotate after the progress of some 2013 redshirts who were “every bit as good“ as some of the players on the field late in the season.
The Cougars are stacked at receiver, but if Leach’s assessment of freshman Calvin Green is accurate, room needs to be made for one more. Green, a 5-10, 170-pound Sacramento product, was a mid-year enrollee who took part in spring drills and is listed as a No. 2 slot receiver.
“He’s extremely fast and very physical,” Leach said. “He wants every football. He’s not afraid of anything.”
The Cougars will camp from Saturday to Aug. 13 at Sacajawea Middle School in Lewiston, where they bonded last year, Leach says, aided by pairing roommates whose paths might not otherwise cross much.
“We try to mix it up,” Leach said. “We try to have offensive guys with defensive guys, big guys with little, linemen with skill players, old-young, big-little. We try to mix the backgrounds, too. No sport has the diversity that football does.”
Meanwhile, half a continent away, echoes of Leach’s past at Texas Tech resonate. A group of anonymous donors took out a full-page ad in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal urging the school to pay Leach bonus money that would have been due him at the end of 2009, but for his firing in the final hours of that calendar year. Leach’s attempts to sue were rebuffed on the principle of sovereign immunity in Texas, preventing the state from being sued unless the legislature approves.
“I haven’t been paid for 2009, the last season I worked there,” says Leach, “and there’s a lot of people that doesn’t sit very well with. If you agree to pay a guy, pay him.”