Oct 31, 2013; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars coach Mike Leach arrives before the game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
You’re never going to gain a complete picture of just how good a team is going to be if the only measurement is an intra-squad spring scrimmage. That said, Washington State’s annual Crimson and Gray scrimmage played in Spokane last Saturday revealed both potential and advances.
In Part One of my series on evaluating Cougar football coming out of spring practice (though there is one last practice this week), the focus was on offense. Rather than switch to the other side of the ball, let’s continue a look at Coach Mike Leach’s CougAir offense.
- RECEIVING CORPS
It would be pretty easy to make a case for the deepest position on the WSU roster to be that of wide receiver. Case in point, there were 15 different Cougs who hauled in at least one catch last Saturday.
You might be surprised to hear that true freshman Calvin Green led the way with 8 receptions for 101-yards. Coming off that performance, it’s hard to imagine Green using his redshirt year this coming fall. No question he could use the time to add size to his 5’10” 171-pound body. But he isn’t likely to enhance the blazing speed he brings to the gridiron. In terms of learning the offense, a year of seasoning would be helpful, but this young man looks Pac-12 ready now. And to think, if Green would have done things in a normal progression, the young man would be securing a date for the high school senior prom right about now rather than a place on Coach Leach’s depth chart at WSU.
Oct 12, 2013; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars wide receiver River Cracraft (84) makes a catch against the Oregon State Beavers during the second half at Martin Stadium. The Beavers beat the Cougars 52-24. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
River Cracraft looked to have bulked up over the winter while retaining the ability to run precision routes to perfection. In limited time on the field, he collected 6 catches for 86-yards that looked seemingly effortless.
Cougar fans should expect big things from fifth-year senior Vince Mayle, who has trimmed down his physique and increased quickness through a rigorous training program this past winter. While Mayle didn’t catch everything thrown his direction, the guy was able to get open time and time again finishing the scrimmage with 6 catches for 92-yards and an explosive touchdown.
Because of injuries to key players, Drew Loftus earned significant playing time and made the most of it. Loftus not only ran crisp routes, he used his body to perfection to deter any and all defensive backs from making a play on footballs coming his way. Should he continue on his current pace of improvement, expect to see No. 32 earning consequential playing time this fall. Loftus accounted for 2 of the 4 touchdown tosses by Cougar quarterbacks.
Here’s why Cougar fans should be pumped up about what to expect from Connor Halliday and the Cougar offense this fall. As good as the receiving corps looked in the Crimson and Gray scrimmage, the ranks were short three of the most talented performers on the roster. The trio of Gabe Marks, Dom Williams and Brett Bartolone weren’t able to play due to undisclosed injuries (WSU doesn’t specify player injury as a matter of team policy). Try to imagine what this team will be like with those guys suited up and not smile at the same time.
- RUNNING BACKS
Conventional wisdom provides fodder to criticize the running game stats for Washington State last season. Typically that view extrapolates into suggesting Cougar football cannot succeed in 2014 without the ability to rush just like every other top ranked football program.
Sorry, this writer doesn’t buy into that take on things. Saving a rant for another time and place, let me just bring up a fact to those who follow the Cougs. Mike Leach isn’t your conventional football coach. Never has been. Never will be. His CougAir offense certainly can be compared to conventional offensive football but should not be slighted or condemned for being different from the rest.
Many of those watching the scrimmage last Saturday may have held hope that Halliday would turn and hand the ball off to a running back about every other play. Those expectations were sorely disappointed.
But in terms of talent lining up at the running back position, WSU has potential to do some damage to opposing defenses with the likes of redshirt senior Theron West, redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow, junior Teondray Caldwell and redshirt freshman Gerard Wicks. Heck, we didn’t even get to see senior Marcus Mason who was sidelined. And Mason was the top runner last season averaging nearly 5-yards a carry.
Dec 21, 2013; Albuquerque, NM, USA; Washington State Cougars running back Theron West (24) runs the ball in the second half against the Colorado State Rams during the Gildan New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium. The Rams defeated the Cougars 48-45. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
West burst onto the scene during workouts prior to the Cougs’ bowl game last December. He seemed to have flipped a switch to elevate his play to a Pac-12 level. Based on his play last Saturday, West still has that switch turned to the “ON” position. His deceptive speed, elusive moves and gritty play may well earn him featured play this fall.
We know what Caldwell can do. With maturity and experience accumulated, this young man will definitely be even more successful in 2014 if he stays the course. He contributed over 57-yards of total offense last year and is poised to make a bigger impact coming out of fall camp.
Having heard a lot of good things about Morrow and Wicks during their redshirt year a season ago, there was anxious anticipation to see what these two guys might be capable of. In the case of Morrow, he tallied 44-yards carrying the rock just 5 times. Impressive? He looked as good as those numbers. And Wicks definitely has the skill set needed to be a running back in the Pac-12. While he didn’t fill up the stat sheet, there were flashes of potential from this young man.
For more on Cougar running backs, check out Joshua Davis’ story here
The offensive style of Washington State will not be confused with any conventional teams comprising the SEC or Big Ten conferences when play begins at the end of August. Don’t expect the Cougs to run the ball on first and second down, then dink and dunk on third. That isn’t going to happen with Mike Leach leading this team.
If you are one of those focused on the performance of running backs, here’s what you should expect once Pac-12 play has concluded next November. If he stays healthy, Theron West will lead the conference in all-purpose yardage. Should West fall to injury, any of the aforementioned student-athletes will sit atop that conference list so long as they get significant playing time in at least 9-games.
Next up, will take a look at the other side of the ball for Washington State.