SPOKANE — Washington State’s $11 million investment in Mike Leach paid dividends on the field, at the turnstiles and inside Marquess Wilson’s head Saturday afternoon at Albi Stadium.
The Cougars, performing in front of most fans for the first time since Leach was hired as football coach in December, put on a dazzling performance before a school-record spring crowd of 10,713 in the Crimson and Gray Game.
The “game” was actually the final scrimmage of spring practice, but Wilson was in midseason form after being the target of a verbal jab from Leach earlier in the week.
Leach said Wilson was not working hard enough in practice. Not only did Wilson agree with the criticism, but he won new respect from his new coach by hauling in four passes for 149 yards Saturday.
“That was impressive,” Leach said.
“It was just time,” Wilson said. “I noticed that I was lacking out at practice … (the coaches) are just pushing me to be the best player I can be, and it’s helping me a lot.”
Leach, whose five-year contract makes him the highest-paid employee in WSU history, was hired by athletic director Bill Moos in part because Leach’s Texas Tech teams were every bit as exciting as they were successful.
It took only three plays for Leach to show off his daredevil play-calling. Faced with third-and-17 on the offense’s 16-yard line, Jeff Tuel uncorked a bomb down the left sideline that hit Wilson in stride for an 84-yard touchdown.
Tuel, coming off an injury-plagued 2011 season in which he saw little action, completed his first 15 passes. He finished 19 for 21 for 285 yards and two touchdowns in the five series in which the No. 1 offense squared off with the No. 1 defense.
Tuel picked apart a defense missing several key players. Leach’s pass-happy offense is renowned for its ability to spread out defenses and find receivers in space, and that happened all afternoon with Tuel in charge.
“It’s not a very complicated offense, there’s just a lot of ways to run it,” Tuel said. “Coach Leach has really done a good job with helping us quarterbacks with our progressions and reads.”
Leach said Dominique Williams also needs to work harder in practice, but the coach had no complaints about Williams’ Saturday performance. The redshirt freshman caught five passes for 121 yards and a TD.
Asked if the Cougars have made as much progress as he had hoped at this point, Leach said, “Never is, but I think we’ve steadily improved. I think we’re a little ahead of where I expected. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Despite Tuel’s sparkling performance, Leach continues to say injured Connor Halliday will be given a shot at the starting quarterback job in fall camp.
The defensive star of the sun-splashed day was backup linebacker Logan Mayes, who was credited with 4 quarterback sacks. To protect the quarterbacks, who were off limits for full contact, defenders only needed to touch the quarterbacks or be in position to hit them to earn a sack.
The Cougars hold their 15th and final spring practice Tuesday in Pullman. WSU opens the season Sept. 1 at Brigham Young.
Five key questions for the 2012 Cougars
1. Can players adapt to massive changes?
An all-new coaching staff has introduced a new offense, a new defense and a new way of doing things. Practices have been longer; critiques have been louder; and players run and run and run some more. Voluntary (wink, wink) summer workouts, as well as fall camp, will be crucial to the team’s progress.
2. Is switching to a 3-4 defense the right move?
The Cougars have lacked depth and talent on the defensive line in recent years, and the pass rush has been weak. New defensive coordinator Mike Breske has switched the base defense from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4, and Breske loves to blitz. Good athletes are available at linebacker, but experience is lacking after losing last year’s three starters.
3. Can Jeff Tuel stay healthy?
Tuel, an honorable mention pick at quarterback in the Pacific-10 Conference two years ago, barely played last season due to injuries. The senior possesses the type of arm strength, mobility and decision-making skills to thrive in Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense.
4. Can Jeff Tuel stay upright?
Pass protection has been a major problem at WSU, and the Cougars have brought in their third offensive line coach in four years. Injuries slowed the O-line’s progress this spring. Senior Wade Jacobson, who has started at tackle and guard, must prove in the fall that he has fully recovered from back surgery.
5. Can Mike Leach perform magic?
All 10 of Leach’s Texas Tech teams posted winning records and went to bowl games. The Cougars have accomplished neither of those fetes since 2003. Leach is being paid $2.25 million a year to change that situation.