The Cougars return a talented corps of experienced skill players, but, particularly at the receiver positions, they need the cream of the crop to rise to the top.
Coach Mike Leach always has been synonymous with his trademark Air Raid offense. WSU put up its typical gaudy numbers through the air in 2016 — 4,713 passing yards, 40 passing touchdowns — but last year, for the first time, the Air Raid also acquired a ground wing.
The 2016 season went down in the books as the year WSU found its running game, and the Cougars hope to build on that this season. With versatile backs Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams adding a true second dimension to the offense, the Cougars ran on 35.3 percent of offensive plays and compiled 1,560 rushing yards. It’s a marked improvement from the 478 rushing yards WSU managed in 2014, when Morrow and Wicks were freshmen and Connor Halliday was the starting quarterback.
So what surprises will 2017 bring for the WSU offense with all three backs returning along with star quarterback Luke Falk, and a wealth of talent at the receiver positions?
The Pac-12 Media Days are Wednesday and Thursday in Hollywood, Calif., with Morrow and senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer representing WSU on Day 2. Next week, WSU will begin fall camp in Pullman on Aug. 2. Here is a preview of the Cougars’ offense:
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Reason for optimism: Luke Falk put off the NFL to return for his senior. By all accounts, he’s one of the best returning quarterbacks nationally and after an offseason spent getting bigger, stronger and hungrier, the Cougars’ senior signal caller is poised to deliver his best year yet.
Cause for concern: Each of the past two seasons has come with hold-your-breath moments that saw Cougars fans watch in alarm as WSU’s starting quarterback was either carted off the field (Colorado, 2015) or was hit so hard or so frequently that he was slow to get up (Arizona State, 2016). Tyler Hilinski has proved a capable backup behind Falk, but Falk still gives the Cougars their best shot to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game. For that to happen, they need him to stay healthy.
Key stat: 78.0 – Falk’s 2016 adjusted completion percentage, according to Pro Football Focus. Adjusted completion percentage accounts for dropped passes, spiked balls, throwaways and passes on which the quarterback was hit as he threw. Falk’s official completion percentage in 2016 was 70.0 – second-best nationally, and a big reason behind the Cougars’ offensive success.
Wild card: Hilinski is the only backup quarterback who has seen game action. The redshirt sophomore has the tools for success, and he has done well when called into action – he went 15 of 17 for 163 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona last year. But in the event of a catastrophic injury to Falk, Hilinski would need time and seasoning to get the Cougars operating at the level they expect to this year. Tinsley and Gordon are walk-ons who got a lot of reps in spring ball, and freshman Connor Neville likely will redshirt this season. John Bledsoe, the son of legendary Cougars quarterback Drew Bledsoe, also joined the team as a freshman walk-on this year.
- Luke Falk, Sr., 6-4, 225
- Tyler Hilinski, Jr., 6-3, 217
- Trey Tinsley, RS-So., 6-3, 201
- Anthony Gordon RS-So., 6-3, 189
Reason for optimism: The terrifying trio is back. In 2016, co-starters Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams combined to eclipse the 1,000 yard rushing and 1,000-yard receiving marks for the first time in school history, and the first time in Leach’s head-coaching career. The trio has revolutionized the Cougars’ offense, and yet they know their jobs aren’t safe. Keith Harrington, who missed most of last season due to injury, is back and hoping to fight his way into the rotation. Harrington played 13 games and scored five touchdowns as a freshman in 2015. He’ll be pushing the other three backs every step of the way.
Cause for concern: Now that the secret is out and everyone knows the Cougars have a bonafide running game, will teams change the way they defend WSU this season?
Key stat: 31 – Touchdowns the Cougars’ three running backs combined to score in 2016. Best in the Pac-12.
Wild card: Running-backs coach Jim Mastro said he will play only three running backs. So the million dollar question is, “Which three?” Can Harrington squeeze his way back into the mix? How would this affect the rotation’s chemistry?
- Jamal Morrow, RS- Sr., 5-9. 200
- Gerard Wicks, RS-Sr., 6-0, 228
- James Williams, RS-So., 5-11, 192
- Keith Harrington, RS-Jr., 5-8, 194
Reason for optimism: On paper, the Cougars have an embarrassment of riches at all receiver positions. Biletnikoff Award watch list candidate Tavares Martin Jr. (728 yards, seven TD in 2016) and sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack (246 yards, one TD) are the likeliest candidates to step up for WSU as the Cougars’ next great receivers. Martin Jr., specifically, has showed marked improvement in each season with the Cougars. But he didn’t quite rise to a dominant No. 1 receiver level in 2016. This is his chance to prove himself. On the inside, senior Robert Lewis and junior Kyle Sweet are veterans who understand the offense and will be expected to perform.
Cause for concern: For the first time in Falk’s career, the Cougars will be without Gabe Marks (894 yards, 13 TD in 2016) and River Cracraft (701 yards, five TD in 2016). The final three games of last season showed just how integral inside receiver Cracraft was to WSU’s offensive success. Can this new generation of Cougars receivers prove that they’re up to the task of replacing two of the best receivers WSU has had?
Key stat: 138.9 – average receiving yards per game Marks and Cracraft combined for last season. That’s what the Cougars will have to replace.
Wild card: Junior-college transfer Easop Winston, sophomore Dezmon Patmon and prized freshman Jamire Calvin, a former four-star recruit, are others to watch. Calvin joined the team only this summer but has shown promise with his quick absorption of the playbook. Also, look out for sixth-year senior C.J. Dimry, whose 6-foot-5, 213-pound frame always makes him a tantalizing target in the end zone.
- Tavares Martin Jr., Jr., 6-1, 183
- Isaiah Johnson-Mack, So., 6-3, 218
- Dezmon Patmon, So., 6-4, 211
- C.J. Dimry, RS-Sr., 6-5, 213
- Easop Winston, Jr., 5-11, 183
- Anthony White, Fr., 6-1, 171
- Davontavean Martin, Fr., 6-4, 180
- Robert Lewis, RS-Sr., 5-9, 170
- Kyle Sweet, Jr., 6-0, 192
- Renard Bell., RS-Fr., 5-8, 155
- Jamire Calvin, Fr., 5-10, 160
- Travell Harris, Fr., 5-9, 180
Reason for optimism: When you return three of five starters, including a unanimous All-American, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Left guard Cody O’Connell, the unanimous All-American, is ready to build off his breakout junior season, and left tackle Andre Dillard developed into a formidable pass blocker in his first year as a starter. Between Dillard and senior right tackle Cole Madison, the Cougars have two of Pro Football Focus’ top three highest graded returning tackles in the country.
Cause for concern: The Cougars’ have a solid top five, but behind them the backups are long on promise and short on any actual game experience.
Key stat: 30 – sacks allowed by WSU’s offensive line. They take all sacks on Falk personally, O’Connell says, and will look to improve this year.
Wild card: Fred Mauigoa will replace Riley Sorenson at center, and veteran backup B.J. Salmonson will step into the right-guard position formerly held by Eduardo Middleton. Mauigoa, in particular is a sophomore offensive lineman who played as a freshman and is well-regarded by the coaches for his intelligence and leadership ability. He’ll just need some seasoning.
- Andre Dillard, RS-Jr., 6-5, 310
- Josh Watson, RS-Fr, 6-4, 285
- Cody O’Connell, RS-Sr., 6-8, 370
- Liam Ryan, RS-Rr., 6-5, 287
- Fred Mauigoa, So., 6-3, 305
- Noah Osur-Myers RS-So., 6-4, 307
- B.J. Salmonson, RS-Sr., 6-4, 300
- Robert Valencia, RS-Jr., 6-6, 295
- Cole Madison, RS-Sr., 6-5, 315
- Cedric Bigge-Duren, RS-So., 6-6, 321