The core of Cougars that rose the program out of the depths of the Pac-12 and into three straight bowl games are gone. In are a host of new faces. Can they live up to those whose shoes they are filling?
The Washington State football team has a chance to do something that the program has not done in 81 years: put together four consecutive winning seasons.
For the Cougars to do that, they will need to overcome the loss of several key players who were instrumental in reviving the program, which has gone to bowl games the past three seasons after 11 straight losing years.
Here is in part who WSU has to replace: quarterback Luke Falk, the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer; a large chunk of the offensive line, including right tackle Cole Madison and All-American guard Cody O’Connell; and their three leading tacklers, including consensus All-American Hercules Mata’afa, who had 22.5 tackles for loss last season.
The Cougars also had to replace several coaches, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
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So are the Cougars rebuilding or reloading? The answer is very important, and this seems like a pivotal year for the program.
“Every year is important,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said during his team’s week of training at Lewiston, Idaho, downplaying any special significance.
The Cougars have been not getting a lot of love from the outside when it comes to preseason predictions, including being picked fifth in the Pac-12 North by the media. But neither the coach nor his players are concerned about predictions, and confidence is high.
“I think we will keep it going,” Leach said. “I know where we were picked, but they always say we are going to get our heads kicked in. And that hasn’t turned out to be correct any year. We won nine last year and we are going to try and win more than that, and I think we have a chance to.”
Said senior receiver Kyle Sweet: “I do feel that (we can be better) because we have so much depth now. We have a lot of talented guys, and we’ve been down on the (predictions) before. That’s nothing new to us and we don’t care. We are going to have a blue-collar mentality and just work hard and punch people in the mouth on Saturdays.”
Leach’s optimism is also based on the belief that this team has more depth than last year, when the Cougars began 6-0 and were ranked No. 8 in the country before finishing 9-4.
“We started to thin out after our first level last year,” Leach said. “In the middle of the season when we were beating USC and Stanford, I felt like we were playing as good of football as anyone in the country. Then, we got nicked up, which was unfortunate, because some of the guys we were putting in (look) like me. And you want to avoid putting guys like me out there. So some more depth down the stretch will definitely help us.”
That depth begins at quarterback. It was a three-way battle in camp between Gardner Minshew, a graduate transfer from East Carolina, Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon for the starting job.
“All three of those quarterbacks I think are pretty good players,” Leach said.
The receiving corps is considered the deepest unit on the team, and the offensive line is ahead of schedule, said Leach, who is both the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.
Replacing Grinch as the defensive coordinator is Tracy Claeys, who was head coach at Minnesota in 2016 and interim coach in 2015 after serving as a defensive coordinator for about 15 years at four different colleges.
“He does whatever he wants (with the defense),” Leach said of the freedom he gives Claeys. “I am not saying I can’t occasionally pick something out that might be a good idea, but you’ve got to defer to him. You put good people in place, and you’ve got to let them do their job. His body of works speaks for itself. He’s been successful everywhere at every level and knows more defense than I do. (The defense is) probably in better hands with him than they are with me.”
Leach said despite some big losses on the defensive line, there are players he expects to make quick impacts.
“We’ve seen it for a couple of years, and now is their time,” Leach said. “Some of them are better than the guys they replaced.”
Said senior defensive tackle Nick Begg, who is expected to start: “It just makes opportunities for new guys to shine. I wouldn’t have gotten my chance to start if Hercules hadn’t left.”
The linebacker situation improved greatly when Peyton Pelluer, who broke his foot last season, was granted a sixth year of eligibility. He solidifies that unit and will provide needed leadership to the entire defense.
“I am just trying to hold it down for the guys I came in with, and continue this legacy that they helped create: this winning culture that we have,” Pelluer said. “I am doing my best to lead these young guys and be a guy that they can come to with questions, whatever it may be, and help this team win and keep this thing rolling.”
The secondary is led by safety Jalen Thompson, who led WSU in tackles last year with 70 and had a team-high four interceptions. He was second-team All-Pac-12 and is on the watch list for the Bednarik Award given to the top defensive player in the country.
“We have some young DBs who are really good,” Leach said.
So if you listen to the Cougars, they sound like they’re reloading rather than rebuilding. And the critics? The Cougars are used to them.
“If we followed the expectations of the media and different people every year, we would be nothing,” Begg said. “I love it because we get doubted every year, and teams overlook us and then we go out there and punch teams in the mouth. Every year we get to prove (critics) wrong. Every single year.”