Pac-12: Washington State Cougars

Taking a running back or quarterback and converting him into a talented wide receiver isn't completely new for Washington State coach Mike Leach.

Take Michael Crabtree for example. He had played quarterback in high school. Or Eric Morris. He played wide receiver for Leach at Texas Tech but was also a high school quarterback. Or Edward Britton. He was another Texas Tech wide receiver, but had only played running back up until he got to the Division-I level.

So the fact that Washington State wide receiver Vince Mayle -- who has just two years under his belt at the position -- is having an incredible spring comes as no surprise to the Cougars’ coaching staff.

[+] EnlargeVince Mayle
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsVince Mayle is becoming a bigger offensive threat for Washington State.
“We knew he was an explosive, talented young man when we brought him in here,” outside wide receiver coach Dennis Simmons said. “We knew he was a kid who had a will to want to get better. I like where he is, but I’ll be the first to tell you he’s not done yet.”

Coming out of Inderkum High School in Sacramento, Calif., Mayle was a running back in a Wing-T offense. Even then, he didn’t dive much into the offense as a whole, relying on his athleticism to do the work instead of a football IQ or knowledge of the defense.

Mayle was so athletic that he spent his first season of eligibility as a basketball player at Shasta Community College in Redding, Calif. He went on to play football for Sierra College (Rocklin, Calif.), where he took his initial snaps as a receiver.

That season Mayle was named an All-American by the California Community College Association and was the All-California MVP -- after one season as a wide receiver. Mayle accounted for 16 touchdowns and 984 yards on 61 catches. Those numbers caught the eyes of a few programs including Arizona State, West Virginia and Houston.

But Mayle knew he wanted to play somewhere that would have a huge emphasis on getting receivers involved, and where better than a Mike Leach Air Raid offense? The Cougars were interested in him -- he was exactly what they wanted: a big, physical, explosive receiver. They also loved how Mayle attacked the ball in the air. Simmons said he hadn’t seen that kind of attack in the air since Crabtree at Texas Tech.

It was incredible praise for a player who had only played a handful of games at the position. But when Mayle got to Pullman he learned that he wouldn’t be able to rely as heavily on his athleticism. In the Pac-12, he found, players and teams were just as athletic, if not more. He’d need to employ other parts of his game. But those parts he had to learn.

So after a few games of rarely touching the ball, he began to take practices more seriously, studied more film and had even more conversations with the coaches and other players.

“I think we all knew that as a coach staff coming in -- it was going to take him a minute to adjust,” Simmons said. “Some of the things we have from a technical standpoint … it’s not natural at times, it’s not comfortable at times.”

He had roomed with Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday through fall camp so he thought maybe everything would click between the two sooner rather than later, but the learning curve just took a little bit longer that Mayle would’ve liked.

“He had to learn how I ran my routes and learn the speed that I ran at, things like that,” Mayle said. “It just took a little while to get our chemistry going.”

Through the first five games Mayle averaged 1.4 catches per game and 14 yards. Through the final eight games of the season those statistics jumped to 4.4 receptions and 54.9 yards per game. He finished the season tied with Gabe Marks and Dominique Williams with a team-leading seven touchdown catches.

Over the winter, Halliday threw to Mayle whenever possible. And that offseason allowed for Mayle to explode this spring.

Simmons said that Mayle is getting close to becoming Halliday’s safety blanket and that it’s evident how much time the two spent together in the offseason. Because of that time, Mayle has gone from being a later receiving option to a guy who has become one of the most consistent receivers for Halliday downfield.

“He has been very explosive this spring,” Simmons said. “He’s a guy that wants to be good. A lot of people say that but you meet very few young men who are willing to put in the work to do that. … When you’ve got a guy like that with his God-given ability, you’ve got the potential for some good things to happen.”
Happy Friday!
A week ago, the official trailer for When the Game Stands Tall, a movie inspired by Bay Area football powerhouse De La Salle High was released.

It stars Jim Caviezel as legendary coach Bob Ladouceur, who guided the Concord, Calif., school to a famed 151-game winning streak from 1992 to 2004. The movie is based on the book of the same name written by Neil Hayes, who had unrestricted access to the team in 2002 -- the senior year of future UCLA and NFL star Maurice Jones-Drew.

[+] EnlargeBob Ladouceur
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Bob Ladouceur coached De La Salle High to a 151-game winning streak from 1992 to 2004.
I grew up 20 minutes from De La Salle and have followed the program since elementary school, so it was an especially intriguing trailer for me, but the storyline should have mass appeal for Pac-12 fans, especially those at Oregon.

What jumped out quickly from the trailer was that the movie does not depict the year in which Hayes, then a Contra Costa Times sports columnist, spent with the team. Instead, it will focus heavily on the circumstances around the 2004 death of linebacker/running back Terrance Kelly, who was shot two days before he was set to leave to begin his college career -- along with De La Salle teammates Cameron Colvin, Jackie Bates and Willie Glasper -- at Oregon.

"It starts with the championship game in 2003 with T.K. and those guys as seniors," said Hayes, who served as an official consultant on the movie. "Then it goes into the offseason, [Ladouceur's] heart attack, T.K.'s death -- it was crushing for the community -- and then goes into the 2004 season."

For more worthwhile reading about Kelly's lasting impact, go here, here and here. His final game was the last of De La Salle's streak.

The Spartans opened the next season with a 39-20 loss to Washington state power Bellevue at CenturyLink Field. I was a sophomore at Washington State at the time, had read Hayes' book, and so had several of my friends. For them -- some from Hawaii, some from the Seattle area -- De La Salle was some sort of mythical creature, and at their urging we made the Pullman-to-Seattle road trip to see the game.

Nearly 300 miles to see a high school football game. As college students. That's the kind of allure De La Salle had.

Seven players currently on Pac-12 rosters attended De La Salle: Cal's Michael Barton and Austin Harper (freshman year only); Oregon State's Tyler Anderson, Terron Ward and Dylan Wynn; Stanford's Austin Hooper; and USC's Michael Hutchings. Three more will join the conference for fall camp: Sumner Houston (Oregon State), Kevin Griffin (Washington State) and Dasmond Tautalatasi (Arizona State).

As with any inspired-by-real-life movie, there are some creative liberties that don't follow reality.

For example, the movie will feature a game between De La Salle and Southern California's Long Beach Poly, the supposed No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, which actually took place in 2001. Jones-Drew, then sans the Jones, had a game people still talk about, and, of course, re-live on YouTube.

"It's done for dramatic purposes and there are some new characters ... not every character comes from De La Salles," Hayes said. "But those liberties that were taken were done so with pure motives."

The football scenes were orchestrated by stunt coordinator Allan Graf, a starter on the offensive line for the 1972 USC national championship team that finished 12-0. Graf is a fixture in the industry and has been a stunt coordinator on several other football films including Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, Gridiron Gang, The Replacements, The Waterboy, Jerry Maguire and The Program.

"This was some of his best work," said Hayes, in terms of how realistic the football scenes are.

At one point during filming, Ladouceur and longtime defensive coordinator Terry Eidson, portrayed by Michael Chiklis, traveled to Louisiana, where the movie was shot.

"You have all these movie stars there, but when those guys got there, they were the celebs," Hayes said.

Ladouceur retired following the 2012 season after 34 seasons with a career record of 399-25-3, but remains on staff as an assistant to Justin Alumbaugh, a UCLA graduate. Before deciding to remain on staff as an assistant, Ladouceur drew interest from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to serve in a consulting role.

USC coach Steve Sarkisian and LSU coach Les Miles have cameos in the movie, which includes some shots at Isidore Newman School, which produced Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.
I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads, the nickels and dimes, yours and mine. Did you cash in all your dreams?
And I said "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?" … Well, that's the one thing we've got.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
2:30
PM ET
If I owned the Twins, I wouldn't even show up here. I'd just hire a bunch of scientists to do my homework. I mean, if you're rich you don't have to be smart. That's the whole beauty of this country.

The ball is tipped and there you are. You're running for your life. You're a shooting star.
Washington State’s (very) youthful secondary is about to get a lesson in what defensive coordinator Mike Breske calls “sweat equity.” While some coaches opt to recruit a few junior college players as stop-gaps to fill holes, the Cougars’ staff believes in throwing youngsters into the fire to see who can play and who can’t.

And things are getting toasty in Pullman.

Taylor Taliulu, who started 10 games a year ago, seems to have a hold on the free safety job, but with three of the four starting spots up for grabs (both cornerback spots and strong safety), Washington State will present an intriguing defensive mix when the 2014 season rolls around. Though not senior-heavy, there is some experience in the front seven. Contrast that with a lot of inexperience in the secondary and you have a defensive coordinator who is both excited for the potential and cautious with his expectations.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Monroe
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIWith inexperience in other areas, linebacker Darryl Monroe will have be one of Washington State's defensive anchors.
“It’s going to be an interesting group,” Breske said. “They’ll grow up together and hopefully we’ll see them get better week after week.”

When scanning the side-by-side statistical comparisons from Washington State’s defense in 2013 vs. 2012, it’s clear the Cougars got better … mostly.

Aside from reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2003 -- the most obvious sign of improvement (after all, this game is about wins) -- the Cougars improved in average points allowed last year, though not by much: 32.5 points per game in 2013 to 33.7 in 2012. Not exactly a huge jump. The Cougars also had more interceptions, but fewer sacks; more first downs allowed, but significantly better third-down defense.

“I think it was a roller-coaster year for us,” Breske said. “We showed some good signs, and then again, I don’t think we played to our ability.”

Stats rarely paint a complete picture. For example, the Cougars gave up more passing and rushing yards in 2013 than they did in 2012. But when it mattered most -- inside the red zone -- Washington State’s defense buckled down and was one of the best in the Pac-12. The Cougars tied for third with Oregon in red-zone defense behind USC and Stanford. In 2012, the Cougars were last in the league.

“That’s our emphasis,” Breske said. “We win with field goals, we lose with touchdowns. We’re not wrapped up in total yards and passing and that type of deal. Tackles for a loss, sacks, takeaways, explosive plays, those are the major things. We want to get off the field, get our ‘O’ on the field and watch a little Air Raid.”

Last season the Cougars forced 30 turnovers -- the most since 2006 and second in the conference. They were still minus-5 in turnover ratio, 10th in the league, but that comes in large part to 24 interceptions from the offense. They also posted their first shutout since 2003.

While there’s a lot of inexperience in the secondary, the front seven returns a group that got quality reps in 2013. Linebackers Darryl Monroe and Cyrus Coen are back after posting 94 and 60 tackles, respectively. Xavier Cooper returns his team-high five sacks from last season and Tana Pritchard pitched in 4.5 tackles for a loss.

“It’s great experience when you compare it to what we have on the back end,” Breske said. “We’re still not where we need to be in our numbers. For whatever reason, guys leave or quit and you never really have that full complement. Twenty years ago, a guy came, he stayed and he’d contribute to whatever degree. Nowadays, my jersey isn’t getting dirty, I’m out of here.”

During the 15 spring practices, Breske said the Cougars will be putting an extra emphasis on tackling. Missed tackles, more than anything, is what led to the extra yards allowed in 2013.

“Good tackling lends itself to cutting down those stats,” he said. “We have to do a better job of the first man there making a play. When you look at the cut-ups, you can see we just need to take one more step. That’s a huge focus for us this spring and an area we really need to improve.”
Happy Friday!
I saw the sign and it opened up my mind.
On Monday, we took a look at how the Pac-12's offensive players stack up as NFL prospects in the eyes of ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Tuesday, it's the defense's turn.

Defensive line

  • DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State: No. 4 (Kiper), No. 5 (McShay)
  • DT Will Sutton, Arizona State: No. 8 (Kiper), No. 10 (McShay)

If you've been following along since the end of the season, Sutton's spot isn't all too surprising. He didn't have a good showing at the combine and has taken heat about his physical condition, dating to before last season. Even with the concerns, it's hard to imagine he won't eventually find his way in the NFL. After all, he's only the second player in conference history to be a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Washington's Steve Emtman (1990-91) was the other. That's not by accident.

Coincidentally, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, isn't ranked in the top 10 by either. See the list here. Insider

Other Pac-12 defensive linemen who figure to be in the mix in the draft are Cassius Marsh (UCLA), Taylor Hart (Oregon), Deandre Coleman (Cal), George Uko (USC), Tenny Palepoi (Utah), Morgan Breslin (USC), Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Josh Mauro (Stanford).

Linebacker

  • [+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFormer UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr could be the first Pac-12 player to be drafted this year.
    OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA: No. 2 (both)
  • OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford: No. 6 (Kiper), No. 9 (McShay)
  • ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford: No. 3 (both)
  • ILB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: No. 8 (Kiper)

Barr is widely considered the Pac-12's best hope at landing in the first 10 picks, but if McShay was drafting, that wouldn't be the case. On drafting Barr, McShay wrote:
[Barr] of UCLA is a speed-rusher who stalls out when attempting to convert speed to power, and there is too much finesse to his game for me to pay a top-15 price for him. He looks like he's on skates when he attempts to set the edge.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the same player Stanford coach David Shaw compared to Jevon Kearse. Shaw called Barr called the best (defensive) player the conference has had in the "last few years."

Murphy is in a similar boat to Sutton in that his college production isn't necessarily being viewed as a lock to translate to the NFL. He still figures to be a good fit for a 3-4 team and should be expected to contribute right away.

Outside of the four listed, it wasn't a very deep year for linebackers in the conference. Utah's Trevor Reilly, who can play both OLB and DE, Arizona State OLB Carl Bradford and USC's Devon Kennard headline the rest of the NFL hopefuls.

Defensive back

McGill should send a thank you card in Pete Carroll's direction. It's largely because of Seattle's use of big-bodied corners en route to a Super Bowl victory that the league appears to be trending in that direction. At 6-foot-4, McGill's size -- in addition to his solid showing at the combine -- is a rare asset among the group of corners.

Bucannon looks like he'll be the first defensive back off the board, but will he be a first-round pick? That's unlikely, but it would be a surprise if he lasts into the third round.

Another storyline to watch is where the three defensive backs who left early -- safety Ed Reynolds (Stanford), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) and cornerback Kameron Jackson (Cal) -- wind up.

See the lists for linebackers and defensive backs here.Insider
That was a crazy game of poker.
As Washington State kicks off spring ball Thursday, head coach Mike Leach isn’t focusing on one particular theme or message. In his mind, the message should be universal: get better every day, regardless of the calendar. And if he has to remind his guys of that, then, well, they aren’t his guys.

“We don’t have a lot of guys looking for ways to get out of work,” Leach said. “They are all collectively working pretty hard. Those looking for the easy way are quickly getting outnumbered.”

As Leach enters his third spring as the Cougars’ head coach, the team has taken on more of a “his guys” personality. Gone are the days of whiny receivers and bellyaching over workouts. He believes everyone on his roster is committed to his way of thinking … at least, he hopes so.

And his guys know that heading into spring, nothing is certain.

“Everything is a competition,” Leach said. “People have the opportunity to beat one another out and you earn your job every day. The reps will be split up. The guys who are ahead or performing better will get more reps to try and further develop their skills. How you perform will impact the number of reps you get. But that won’t declare anything necessarily. Once you get to camp you have to do it all over again.”

[+] EnlargeMike Leach
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonMike Leach is stressing competition this spring.
That shines an extremely bright spotlight on a few position groups: the secondary, the offensive line and possibly running back. The Cougars have to replace All-American safety Deone Bucannon and both corners, Damante Horton and Nolan Washington. Several spots on the line are up for grabs -- returning starters included. And even the running back position, where Marcus Mason returns as the team’s leading rusher, isn’t a sure bet. Leach praised the potential of Theron West and Jamal Morrow.

“That whole position is chopping at his heels,” Leach said. “Mason was a steady guy last year. He did some good things. At the end of last year, the hottest running back we had was West. A lot of that took place in the bowl workouts and he had a pretty good game in the bowl game. Then Morrow has looked pretty good. He redshirted and did a lot of good things there. It will be a very competitive position.”

The spring depth chart -- the very definition of a living document -- lists a lot of youth in the secondary, including redshirt freshman Charleston White and sophomore Daquawn Brown as the corners and sophomore Isaac Dotson and junior Taylor Taliulu as the safeties.

“There are plenty of jobs open there,” Leach said. “The corner positions are open. The safety positions are open. It will be interesting to see. It’s a bunch of people who haven’t played a lot so they’ll be fighting it out to see who gets more playing time.”

Notes

  • Leach said he believes backup quarterbacks Tyler Bruggman and Luke Falk will get enough work to put some pressure on incumbent starter Connor Halliday: “I think Bruggman and Falk are both capable of pushing him. Both have a really good skill sets. Connor has the advantage in experience. We’re going to have the opportunity to rep a lot of them. We’ll run two pass skills throughout spring and rotate guys around. They’ll all have a lot of reps.”
  • The depth in the secondary might be complicated by the recent legal trouble of Brown. While he’s still officially listed on the depth chart, Leach said they are taking a wait-and-see approach with him: “We’re going to have to wait and see how everything unfolds. Right now what’s come out has been greatly embellished so we’ll have to see how all of that comes out.”
  • Leach was asked his thoughts on the news Wednesday that Northwestern football players qualify as employees and could unionize: “If these guys are professionals and they want everything to be like it is in the NFL, that means that shortly we’re going to be having a draft and I for one would be pretty excited about having a whole nation full of quality athletes to draft from. So I’m looking forward to that … That means if somebody doesn’t perform well, you pay them less. If somebody performs real well, you pay them more. Although obviously every team should have the same salary cap. In addition to that, you have the opportunity to draft anybody you want. And maybe I’m wrong, but it follows if we’re going to professionalize this kind of stuff. It follows that you handle it like professionals do.”

Pac-12's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
2:30
PM ET
Whether it's rock and roll or old soul, it don't matter.
The last we saw of Washington State, it was going rear-end-over-tea-kettle against Colorado State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Despite owning a 15-point lead with just over nine minutes left against a middling Mountain West team, the Cougars were, well, we're not going to type that hated term rivals use to tweak those in crimson and gray.

But it rhymes with "flooging zit."

The result was a stunning 48-45 loss that was difficult to even describe. Washington State had wrapped a bow around its first bowl game since 2003 and handed it to the grateful Rams. The Cougs had blown their chance for their first winning record in a decade.

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesConnor Halliday has good reason to believe the 2014 season could be a special one at Washington State.
The collapse was so epic and strange that it seemed perfectly reasonable to a reporter that he began an interview with Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday on Tuesday with, "New Mexico Bowl… what the hell?" And Halliday didn't miss a beat.

"I don't know," Halliday said. "I've tried to explain it to many people. I don't know how you go about it. You can point the finger in many different places. You can say you can't fumble the ball two times in a matter of 45 seconds. You also can say you shouldn't give up [25] points in a half of football. You can say we should have thrown more instead of being conservative. You can say different things, but in the end you've just got to find a way to close out the game."

True. But the result itself wasn't what pained Halliday the most. The worst part was sending out guys he'd labored beside for four years, through some pretty darn tough times, with frowns on their faces.

"Probably the hardest thing for me was that was my graduating class that was leaving," he said. "I redshirted, but I came in with all those guys. It was tough to see Deone [Bucannon] go out like that. It was tough to see Damante [Horton] go out like that. It was tough to see Elliott Bosch, our center, go out like that. It was a crappy way to send out our seniors."

Yet while there are myriad ways to parse out the misery of that defeat, the reality is it was only one game in a season that hinted at a program climbing out of the muck. In the second season under coach Mike Leach, Washington State had again become competitive. It had become bowl-eligible by winning two out of its final three games in the rugged Pac-12. Bracketing off the bowl disaster, the 2013 season ultimately suggested an upward trend in Pullman, Wash.

While some fans might still be mourning the ending of 2013, Halliday and his teammates have moved on as they eyeball the beginning of spring practices Thursday. If the bowl loss has any lingering effect, it's a reminder of what the program is trying to leave behind.

"I think we were ready to get back to work [after the bowl game]," Halliday said. "I think we are really hungry. Part of the deal that Leach has instilled in us is there is no real option, no real choice. It's just like ingrained in your mind that you get back to work. We're going to get this ship back on the right path."

Halliday's junior season was notable for more than a few passing numbers. He ranked fifth in the nation with 353.6 yards passing per game. His 34.5 completions per game ranked second in the nation. His 34 TD passes were second-most in the Pac-12.

On the downside were 22 interceptions, six more than any other Pac-12 quarterback.

Of course, Halliday didn't have much support from one of the nation's worst running games. His receivers were mostly young and therefore, at times, out of position. And he was often under duress because his line was middling and opposing defenses were pinning their ears back in full-time pass-rushing mode.

It's probably encouraging to Cougars fans, however, that Halliday doesn't play along with the option of sharing blame for the interceptions.

[+] EnlargeGabe Marks
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsGabe Marks caught a team-leading 74 passes for the Cougars last season.
"The bottom line is I play a position where the fault is on me," he said. "It doesn't matter if the receiver ran the wrong route or protection broke down. No matter what happens, it's my job to take care of the football."

The offseason message for Halliday as he heads into his senior season is pretty straightforward: Make better decisions, protect the football, and this team will take another step forward.

Said Halliday, "If we eliminate the mistakes here and there, we can really do something special."

Don't quickly discount that as typical spring optimism. While there are some holes on defense and the offensive line, Washington State welcomes back its top-10 pass catchers from last season. And we're not just talking about warm bodies. The Cougars have size, speed, experience and depth at the position that rivals any team in the Pac-12 or, really, the nation.

"Go down the list. Everybody can make a play," Halliday said."It's a great time to play quarterback here."

There's so much depth at receiver, you have to wonder if Leach might move at least one guy over to defense to bolster his young and questionable secondary.

For Halliday, however the depth chart pencils out, he expects the program to make a mark in the highly competitive Pac-12 North Division. And, yes, that means going nose-to-nose with the top programs, such as Stanford and Oregon.

"Our biggest thing is to worry about ourselves, what we can control," he said. "But we are really not that far away."

SPONSORED HEADLINES