Pac-12: Washington State Cougars
First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.
And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.
Washington State: S Deone Bucannon
2012 production: Had a team high 106 tackles with three tackles for a loss, one sack and he hauled in four interceptions while also forcing a fumble.
Why Bucannon is so important: As noted in Washington State's "One Good Thing" video, the Cougars are silly with wide receivers. And since that is their primary method of offense, finding just one among a corps of many is difficult simply because of the nature of the offense Washington State likes to run.
So trying to single out the most important player from the wide receivers would be tough.
Defensively, Logan Mayes takes over the buck linebacker position for the departed Travis Long -- and the extremely high expectations that come with it. I also think defensive tackle Ioane Gauta, who has cut about 20 pounds this off season, quietly had a very good season last year. There were some improvements on defense -- especially in the way of sacks and tackles for a loss -- so either of them could certainly qualify.
But Bucannon fills this space because, like most safeties, he'll be called upon to be the leader of the defense. He was the only Washington State player (not counting special teams) to earn all-league accolades above honorable mention, landing on the second-team defense. He was Washington State's first player since 2006 to have more than 100 tackles in a season and his 106 stops were fifth in the conference.
But maybe more importantly, he's grown up. After a late hit on an Eastern Washington receiver last year, he was tagged as a dirty player. Fair or not, he told me in March he's learned from his mistakes.
It's tough because you're trying to come with the aggressiveness you need as a defensive player, but you have to be conscious that you are playing within the rules. Things are moving fast and you don't have much time to decide where to hit someone. But it's something I learned.
That's an important step because the Cougars played a lot of youngsters last year (and probably will again this year) and they'll be looking to Bucannon for guidance and how to act on and off the field. As they move into Year 2 of Mike Breske's defense, veterans take on even greater importance.
On several occasions last year, head coach Mike Leach said what the Cougars did in practice during the week needed to translate onto the field on Saturdays. Bucannon was one of those players who listened. He's a hitter -- and his play can inspire a team that is looking for a little inspiration.
What they're selling: Rich Rodriguez's offensive system worked wonders at West Virginia and introduced the nation to Denard Robinson at Michigan. In 2012, the explosive offense scored at least 34 points in 10 of the Wildcats' 13 games.
What they're missing: The Wildcats don't have the Territorial Cup, which went to Arizona State following a 41-34 victory last season. If Arizona is going to climb the Pac-12 ranks, it'll need to win at home and lock up local talent over the Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
What they're selling: There's a new attitude at Arizona State, as Todd Graham took the Sun Devils from the most penalized team in the country to one of the least penalized in just one year. Installing that discipline and accountability has been a major selling point for recruits signing up to play with Graham.
What they're missing: The Sun Devils won their final three games of the season for the first time in more than three decades, but losses to UCLA and USC leave them looking up at the Pac-12 South leaders in the battle for national prominence.
California Golden Bears
What they're selling: One of the top public universities in the world, Cal will always be able to pitch its strong academics to recruiting. The new facilities and revamped California Memorial Stadium will help accentuate the package with a pretty bow.
What they're missing: Coach Sonny Dykes has recent Pac-12 experience, but his three years at Louisiana Tech took him completely out of the minds of West region recruits. In-state recruits, essential to Cal's recruiting success, are unfamiliar with what Dykes' systems look like in game action, although the Golden Bears will have a chance to make several statements this fall.
What they're selling: The Buffaloes need playmakers at a multitude of position on both sides of the ball. Playing time and the ability to make an instant impact are certainly on the table for Colorado recruits.
What they're missing: Colorado was two points away from a winless season in 2012 and has very little on-field momentum heading into 2013. The Buffs have just four wins in two years in the Pac-12, and until that changes, it'll be difficult to win significant recruiting battles.
What they're selling: The noisy uniforms and noisier Autzen Stadium provide the flash, but there is plenty of substance in the fast-paced offense the Ducks run. It's unlikely that will slow down under new coach Mark Helfrich.
What they're missing: Mostly obviously, they're missing Chip Kelly, which has left a slight cloud over how the program might change direction or continue unaltered under the new staff. But the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions means the Ducks can't sell completely smooth sailing to recruits in this class.
Oregon State Beavers
What they're selling: The Beavers can sell credibility, not just on the field, but with the coaching staff as well. Mike Riley and his staff have proven they can win in Corvallis and year after year, the Beavers' coach comes across as incredibly genuine to recruits.
What they're missing: In state, Oregon State is the decided underdog when it comes to flash and national appeal. The Beavers aren't often referred to as a "dream school" by recruits, so there is rarely a sure-fire commitment for coaches when they go out of state.
What they're selling: Arguably no school in the country has the combination of academics and athletics of Stanford. When you're recruiting student-athletes, that's a good place to start.
What they're missing: Despite the recent success, Stanford is never going to be able to put together the game-day atmosphere of some of its Pac-12 competition, including Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.
What they're selling: Jim Mora's staff has Southern California buzzing about the new direction UCLA is headed. That's a good thing for the Bruins, who have climbed out of the shadow of USC.
What they're missing: The Bruins had a chance to completely pass USC, but dropped their final three games of the season. There is still a question about whether they've jumped the Trojans for good and until that is settled on the field this season, the Trojans will likely get the benefit of the doubt, regionally and nationally.
What they're selling: No Pac-12 program can fall back on tradition like USC. And now with the John McKay Center, old school meets new school in a much-needed facility upgrade.
What they're missing: Rumblings about Lane Kiffin's job security began after a 10-point loss to UCLA, grew louder after a loss to Notre Dame and became deafening after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Despite athletic director Pat Haden throwing his full support behind the coach, recruits and their families are having difficulty believing Kiffin and his staff are there for the long haul.
What they're selling: Offensively, there is plenty of intrigue as to how co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson direct the attack. Overall, there is still the memory of what Utah was able to accomplish as a BCS spoiler in 2008, and Kyle Whittingham hopes to spark some of that magic in the Pac-12.
What they're missing: In two years, the Utes are below .500 in the Pac-12 and missed out on a bowl game last season. At this point, it's still an uphill climb in terms of convincing recruits they can cause an upheaval in the conference standings.
What they're selling: It's tough to find a coaching staff with more energy on the field or recruiting trail, starting with head coach Steve Sarkisian and moving to every assistant coach on the staff. It's a young group that relates incredibly well to recruits.
What they're missing: The Huskies have yet to win eight games in Sarkisian's three years in Seattle, so hitting that number would be a big step toward proving there is some growing on-field momentum.
Washington State Cougars
What they're selling: Mike Leach is still one of the most interesting personalities in college football, and despite some stumbles in his first year at Washington State, recruits are still interested to see what the Cougars can do this fall in his second year.
What they're missing: The Cougars need wins and they need them now. Washington State hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and when it comes to on-field performance, it simply can't compete with a majority of Pac-12 teams.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is at receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Brett Hundley and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the offensive line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether quarterback Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the offensive line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at quarterback, and the Beavers are counting on junior college transfers to fill their two voids at defensive tackle. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast, and there are questions at quarterback and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing quarterback Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' quarterback play will be as good as it was last season, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for running back Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping receiver Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good quarterback play in 2012? What if running back Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the offensive line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There is every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012, mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: Offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
2012 conference record: 1-8 (last in North Division)
Offense: 9; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 2
QB Connor Halliday, WR Gabe Marks, S Deone Bucannon, K Andrew Furney
QB Jeff Tuel, OLB Travis Long, OT Wade Jacobson, WR Marquess Wilson
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Carl Winson (280 yards)
Passing: Jeff Tuel (2,087 yards)
Receiving: Marquess Wilson (813 yards)
Tackles: Deone Bucannon* (106)
Sacks: Travis Long (9.5)
Interceptions: Deone Bucannon* (4)
1. Better on the O-line: The Cougars surrendered 4.75 sacks per game last year, which ranked last in the nation. So the only way to go on the line is up, and that appeared to happen this spring. The biggest improvement was just bodies -- there were enough guys for two full units and plenty of competition. Veteran players with starting experience won't necessarily hold onto their jobs. And that's a good thing.
2. Breakthrough potential at receiver: Five of the top six receivers from 2012 are back. Sophomore Gabe Marks leads a young but deep crew, with 12 players listed on the depth chart, most of whom can contribute. Junior college transfer Vince Mayle arrives this summer and he'll also be in the mix. And new coach David Yost, Missouri's former offensive coordinator, adds an elite offensive mind to coaching this position.
3. Comfort with Leach: Year one with coach Mike Leach didn't go smoothly, as high hopes for immediate returns evaporated and the Cougs struggled with Leach's demanding ways. Leach was no less demanding this spring, but his players better understood what he wanted. Players showed better commitment and dedication, and Leach smiled more.
1. Is Halliday Leach's guy? While the odds still favor veteran Connor Halliday winning the starting nod at QB, Leach went out of his way to praise redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, who had a better spring game than Halliday. Leach is pushing Halliday, who still needs to improve his accuracy and decision-making.
2. Secondary concerns: The Cougars ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense in 2012. Most of the depth chart is returning, and there seemed to be improvement this spring. Still, other than Deone Bucannon at strong safety, there are unresolved competitions here.
3. Replacing Long's production: Travis Long had 9.5 sacks to lead the Cougars in 2012. No other defender had more than three sacks. The secondary will improve against the pass if the defense gets more pressure without resorting to jailhouse blitzes. Logan Mayes, likely to replace Long at "Buck" LB, is the most obvious candidate. It didn't help that the defensive line was banged up this spring.
It's not only that he played well last fall as a redshirt freshman starting at middle linebacker in the Pac-12, which is pretty rare. It's his makeup. When coach Mike Leach griped about the focus, work habits and mental toughness of his team last year, he wasn't talking about Monroe.
"Definitely an impressive guy," Leach said. "A good individual to build a defense around."
Want to know why Leach calls Monroe "impressive" and why we're pulling out the word "makeup," one of those vague, football scout-type terms, as one of his positive qualities?
AP Photo/Rob Holt"The struggle is something you've got to embrace," Darryl Monroe said. "It's what's going to make you better in the long run."
"It will be one of the games I'll remember for the rest of my life," he said. "We played that game for Travis Long. He was holding back tears because he couldn't play. We got him an Apple Cup before we were out of here. That's what it meant to me: Getting that win for Travis."
That is a good answer in so many ways. Yet perhaps there's not enough Husky hate from the Orlando, Fla., native, who admits to not knowing much about the rivalry before he arrived in Pullman?
"We bleed crimson and we don't like Washington," he said.
Other than the Apple Cup, the 2012 season was tough on the Cougars. The great hope inspired by Leach's hiring quickly spiraled into the muck of a 3-9 finish and another campaign -- no winning seasons since 2003 -- spent looking up from the bottom of the Pac-12. It became clear there would be no quick fix, and Leach repeatedly promised an escalation in the intensity of his demands.
Monroe described the offseason work as "brutal ... and it's not even over." But that's not the important part of his thinking.
"The struggle is something you've got to embrace," he said. "It's what's going to make you better in the long run."
As we said: Makeup.
Know that Monroe isn't just a smooth talker. The 6-foot-1, 215 pounder earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention, finishing second on the team with 80 tackles. His 8.5 tackles for a loss, including three sacks, ranked third on the team.
Another aspect of his makeup: He didn't bail out on the program.
Monroe picked the Cougars over Cincinnati and South Florida because of his relationship with Chris Ball, the defensive coordinator under Paul Wulff. His true freshman season ended with a torn Achilles, which was a bummer. When Wulff was fired, Monroe seriously considered leaving so he could start over somewhere else.
Pullman, after all, is a long way from home, both literally and figuratively. Orlando doesn't have too many days when the temperature is in the single digits, for one.
"It was a stressful time, period," he said. "It was pretty tough. It was a time of uncertainty for me, whether I would still be a Cougar or not."
But his parents pretty much advised him to suck it up. So he did. By midseason, he became one of the Cougars' best leaders, earning game captain honors three times, including for the Apple Cup.
He's not the conference's biggest or fastest linebacker. He makes up for that, though, with his brain.
Said Leach, "He really plays well from the neck up. He's a really smart guy."
Coaches often talk about "attention to detail," and Monroe uses that phrase three times in a 15 minute interview. When asked about what aspect of his game he's working on, he talks about reading his keys and leadership.
He sounds very "coachy." It's not difficult to imagine Leach nodding with approval after his every answer.
For Cougars fans looking for grounds for hopes, Monroe is a good place to start.
You can check out the schedule here.
And here's the slate ahead for the next two weekends.
- Utah: noon (1 p.m. MT)
- Washington State: 2 p.m. Game played in Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane, Wash.
- Washington: 4 p.m. Game played in Memorial Stadium in Seattle.
- Oregon State: 7 p.m.
We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.
And then we'll let you vote from a list of potential options.
We're going in reverse alphabetical order.
Most important game: at Washington, Nov. 29
calling the opener at BYU the most important game. Perhaps it's more accurate to call it the "most telling." What that 30-6 loss told us was new coach Mike Leach wasn't some magical wizard who could instantly transform a program. There would be no quick fix.
So why is the Apple Cup now the most important game? After all, most see last year's 3-9 finish as horrid, even with the shocking Apple Cup overtime victory, which came complete with an 18-point fourth-quarter comeback.
Three words: Realism, momentum and schadenfreude.
Obviously, neither Kevin nor I believe the Cougars are in the North Division hunt. In fact, a bowl game seems like a long shot, at least based on the schedule. You look at that slate and you can easily predict a 2-3 start. You then see games the Cougars could win and some that seem are likely defeats. Do any of those games seem appreciably meaningful? Would upsetting Oregon be so satisfying that it was worth losing to California and Utah?
Yet beating Washington conceivably would mean this: 1. A second consecutive victory in the Apple Cup; 2. Momentum for 2014; 3. A major blemish for a Huskies team that is eyeballing the top-25.
In fact, if Washington State were to beat Washington and cap a disappointing season for the Huskies, it could make coach Steve Sarkisian's standing fairly precarious. Unrest on Montlake is always good in Pullman.
Even if the Huskies still rolled on to a nice bowl game, Coug fans should simply recall how bothersome it was losing six Apple Cups in a row from 1998-2003, including the 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons, when Washington State was a top-10 team and the Huskies were mostly struggling.
And then the Cougs, after blowing the Huskies a few raspberries, could turn their attention to bigger things in 2014.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
And so we conclude the series. ... Buy or sell Washington State winning the North?
Jake Roth/US PresswireMike Leach and Washington State will try to give their fans hope for the future in 2013.
I fully own up to the fact that I bought the preseason Washington State hype last year. That coach, that quarterback, those receivers and that scheme? It seemed like the perfect match. And yes, I picked them over BYU -- my worst prediction of 2012. I figured I'd get it out of the way early. I ate my crow with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Guess what. I haven't abandoned ship yet. But I'm a little more realistic on the time table.
The schedule isn't particularly favorable for the Cougars this year. They open with two games on the road -- first against Auburn and then at USC. Auburn isn't in great shape right now -- so the Cougars could steal one. But road games at USC, at Cal, at Oregon, at Arizona and at Washington will all be difficult. Plus, they surrender one of their home games and face Stanford at CenturyLink in the Seattle Game.
Whether there are six wins on the schedule is up for debate. Whether there are 10 or more is almost certainly a no. Not with questions at quarterback and a defense that continues to be tweaked. The Cougars gave up a lot of points last season. But there was progress. They were 8th nationally in tackles for a loss (T-74th in 2011) and 11th in sacks (94th in 2011). But they were also last in the country in sacks allowed. Whoever wins the QB job better stock up on Icy Hot.
The Cougars are a few years away from making a serious push in the North -- maybe more than a few. Stanford and Oregon aren't going anywhere and Washington and Oregon State are trending up. Cal might be on the upswing, also. The fact is the North is vicious. And will continue to be vicious for years to come. For now, getting to a bowl game would be a nice step forward.
Further, I think my chief motivation for picking BYU against the Cougars was so all Kevin and my picks wouldn't all match that week.
As they have throughout this series, of which some of you have astutely pointed out weaknesses.
My belief is strong that Washington State will not win the North Division next year. There are more talented, veteran teams ahead of them, and the schedule is a further burden. Dropping Colorado from the slate means the Cougs lose the one conference game in which you could mark them as a favorite, ignoring, of course, what happened in last year's matchup.
The more legitimate question might be the Cougars' bowl hopes. I, however, wouldn't put a buy rating on that, either.
My feeling is the more sober-minded Coug fans -- sober Coug fans, Ha! -- aren't obsessing over reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2003. What they are looking for is hope. And respectability.
That means not getting whipped by at least 24 points four times. That means not losing to teams like Colorado. That means winning games the Cougars should win and stealing one or two they shouldn't. The fourth quarter needs to matter again. It shouldn't be a time for driving home.
There are ways to get to 5-7 this fall that will be quasi-satisfying. Think of Rocky's first fight with Apollo Creed.
That's the image: A bunch of nobly battered Cougs screaming "Leach ... Leeaaach!" at season's end, while the crowd applauds the effort and notes, "We've got a lot of guys coming back in 2014!"
Bobble, bobble ... and the ball falls to the dirt. Boing! To the dirt. Volleyball set! And to the dirt.
Coach Mike Leach was not happy, according to QB Connor Halliday. And Leach decided that Halliday needed to take some of the blame for the dropped passes.
Mayhem shortly ensued.
"Coach Leach was yelling at me that they were dropping balls and then the strength coach came up and said something to me," Halliday explained. "So it was boiling over and boiling over. This one kid had dropped like five balls. I kind of got in his face and he shoved me. So I took his helmet off and kind of started punching him. We had a great practice after that so it kind of did its job."
While some might flinch at talk of punches being thrown at practices, various media reports on the incident describe the donnybrook as closer to WWE than UFC.
Jesse Beals/Icon SMIMike Leach posted a disappointing 3-9 record in his first year as coach of the Cougars.
Washington State finished with 10 wins for a third consecutive season in 2003. It hasn't posted a winning campaign since. In fact, since 2008, it's averaged 2.4 wins per season.
Leach arrived as a potential savior in the winter of 2011. He buoyed the Cougs' sagging spirits. Then BYU manhandled Washington State 30-6 in the season opener, and things were pretty much miserable from then on, other than a shocking comeback overtime victory in the Apple Cup, which put a gratifying hatchet wound in Washington's season.
Further, the season was not devoid of controversy. In front of reporters, Leach more than a few times laid into his players for their effort. Star receiver Marquess Wilson quit the team, making false charges of abuse as he exited that he later recanted.
Leach wanted a level of commitment from his players that he wasn't getting. But that is the past. Will that uncomfortable transition prove to be groundwork for a positive future, or a harbinger of a more dreadful spiral? Was there method in Leach's madness?
Welcome to the spring of 2013, where Halliday throwing nubs -- or dishing out encouragement -- is replacing at least some of Leach's harangues.
Explained Halliday, "I think Coach Leach has put more trust in me. That when we're sputtering as an offense, I've taken it upon myself to bring the offense up and kind of get into the guys, depending on how the practice is going, to yell at them or say, 'Hey, let's take a deep breath and take one play at a time.' When things went wrong last year, I think coach Leach thought it was his job to get everybody going, to get the attention of people. I think hearing a different voice has really helped the offense when we are sputtering."
Halliday and Jeff Tuel had a version of Oregon State's Sean Mannion/Cody Vaz quarterback carousel last year. Halliday started five times, Tuel seven. Both had some great moments. And plenty of poor ones.
Halliday took over the starting job when Tuel got hurt, then lost it when he threw five interceptions with no touchdowns in losses to Oregon State and California. He came off the bench against UCLA on Nov. 10 and nearly led the Cougars to a shocking upset, hurling five touchdown passes. Then he completed just 13-of-33 in a blowout loss to Arizona State a week later. The job was handed back to Tuel for the Apple Cup.
It wasn't an easy situation for either guy, much less the entire offense.
"It kind of sounds silly but it's about not knowing if the guy making the decision has much confidence in you," Halliday said. "If you make one mistake, you're kind of looking over your shoulder. I think Jeff and I both played pretty well in the role of backup, going in when the other struggled."
Halliday threw 15 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions last year, but his most notable problem was accuracy. Leach wants his quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their throws. Halliday completed 52 percent.
Of course, it didn't help that his line couldn't pass protect him; giving up a worst-in-the-nation 57 sacks. Still, Halliday often held the ball too long, looking for the big play instead of the smart one.
"I'm definitely fitting into [the offense] better," Halliday said. "[Leach] charts every pass in spring and I'm right around 67-68 percent right now ... I understood the offense for the most part last year but I didn't understand where every easy throw was for every play."
Leach promised a hard offseason and he delivered. Instead of loosening up, he tightened the screws this winter. He wanted to know who really wanted to play football for the Cougs.
"It was definitely long and it was definitely a grind," Halliday said. "There were some points in time when there was some bitching and moaning, wondering if this is what they want to do. It was definitely tough. But he was just trying to install the thought process that if you want to be here, you really need to want to be here."
The Cougars have some young talent, and Halliday said the offense has been "clicking" this spring. While the Pac-12 North Division is rugged, Halliday foresees dramatic improvement in 2013.
But even more than wins, it would seem Leach's chief purpose is to break down this program in order to build it up again. He has an idea of a football culture, and he expects guys such as Halliday to work with him to impose that culture.
Said Halliday, "There isn't going to be anybody on the team who is half-in, half-out. You have to be all-in."
"Statistically, a year older if nothing else," Leach said, addressing the media in a pre-spring conference call Wednesday. "I think in spring there is always some introduction and some re-introduction but there will be less of that. We should get out of the blocks a little quicker. Also we'll have a body of work from last year to learn from, which there is a ton to learn from that. If we can tighten everything a tiny bit all the way around, then the whole production will be higher."
But most importantly, the Cougars have to start believing they can be a good football team.
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenConnor Halliday has experience on his side in the QB competition with Austin Apodaca.
Headlining the spring session will be the quarterback competition between junior Connor Halliday and redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca. Leach said he isn't going to force the issue, but he wants to see some progress at the position before they break camp.
"[Quarterback competitions] aren't as complicated as everybody makes them out to be," Leach said. "You go out there. You rep them, and the guy that plays the best, you play him more than the other guy. But I think it will be a pretty good contest.
"Starting out they'll be 50-50 [in number of reps]," Leach said. "I do want to get them a lot of reps. The more the better. One guys is a redshirt freshman and then Connor has either started or been involved in a handful of games. I do want somebody to secure and lock down the position. I am going to give them as many reps as possible. It will be 50-50 for a period -- I would anticipate half or more of spring. I do have quite a bit of reps because I don't have a third guy working in. If I have three, then it's a little more tangled. Then it's harder. I'm in pretty good shape rep-wise this year."
There isn't a third ... yet. That will be reevaluated when touted recruit Tyler Bruggman joins the team in the fall.
"We'll find out," Leach said of Bruggman's possible involvement in the competition. "Early in camp we'll check and see where everybody is at."
- Leach on speedy freshman wide receiver Robert Lewis: "He's fast. Has a real quick burst. In two steps he hits high gear and he's pretty elusive right and left. We're kind of excited to see what he can do. He played a variety of positions in high school -- everything from running back to receiver to returner to this, that and the other thing. We need to try to identify what he can do and see how close he is to being ready to play."
- On changes he'd like to see to spring rules: "More days, and I'd like to be able to scrimmage somebody. Not like a scrimmage game [setting], more like a mixed practice like they do in the NFL. For example, somebody you don't play or maybe somebody you do, you have the inside drill against them. You have one-on-one against them. You have some team period plays against them."
- On trying to speed up the tempo: "We went back and forth a little with it last year and then we got into a musical-quarterback situation. That was harder to do. It's always been part of it. We've done no-huddle for decades ... we'll no-huddle and that will be a part of things."
- On former QB Jeff Tuel making an NFL roster: "It will be interesting. The biggest thing he's battling is experience. Jeff hasn't played in a ton of games because his career has been plagued by injuries and things of that nature. He needs to make up for experience as quick as he can and some of that experience has to do with winning games. The mental and physical experience has to pick up as fast as he can. I think he's talented. I think he's a smart guy. And a lot of it is right-place-right-time."
And they leave behind shoes of various sizes that need to be filled.
Our concern with this series? The biggest shoes -- in some cases Shaq-like size 23s.
Biggest shoes: Outside linebacker Travis Long
Long was a four-year starter -- starting every game, in fact, 47 in row -- for a defense that was never even close to mediocre. Yet he was highly productive and highly respected throughout the Pac-12. The question that many Cougars fans right now have is: "Well, we stunk with him being our best player for four years ... what about next fall?" Yes, that's worrisome. Long piled up 20.5 career sacks, which ranks No. 6 on the team's all-time list. His 42 tackles for a loss is the fourth most in school history. Last fall, he led the Cougs and ranked sixth in the conference with 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. He was third on the team with 61 tackles, including 42 solo efforts. Long earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 for three seasons, and was second-team all-conference in 2011.
Stepping in: Junior Logan Mayes
Excuse me, Mr. Sour Puss, but the Cougars only posted their best win -- and best defensive performance -- of the year in the Apple Cup victory over Washington with Long on the sideline injured. The Cougars held the Huskies to just 269 yards and recorded three sacks and five quarterback hurries. So while Long was undoubtedly a great Coug, this isn't the zombie apocalypse. Further, there's an obvious replacement at the "buck" linebacker position Long played after being an end the previous three years: the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Mayes. In limited time last year, Mayes recorded 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries. He had five tackles and two QB hurries against the Huskies. Further, there's a quiet confidence in Pullman that the front seven will be far stouter in 2013 across the board -- linemen Xavier Cooper and noseguard Ioane Gauta are particularly promising, and the entire corps of linebackers is back. The Cougars probably can't entirely replace Long with a single body, but that might be a good thing. Long was a one-star constellation for four years. It might be better for Washington State simply to aspire to good team defense.