PULLMAN — Washington State has made some big changes, hiring a new coach and dramatically upgrading the stadium.
The question now is if the team it puts on the field will be any different from previous versions.
Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach took over for the fired Paul Wulff and is expected to bring his high-flying offensive schemes to the Palouse. Ticket sales and interest in WSU football are way up since Leach was hired last November.
“We’ll just do the best we can and try to win one game a week,” Leach said.
Leach was 84-43 at Texas Tech and took the Red Raiders to 10 bowl games. He was fired in 2009 amid allegations he mistreated a player with a concussion.
Under Wulff, the Cougars were 9-40 the past four seasons, just 4-32 in the conference. The Cougars often got blown out at home and on the road.
Things did get slightly better last year, when WSU finished 4-8 while being competitive in more games. But it was too late for Wulff.
Leach accepted a contract worth more than $2 million a year, richest in program history, to try to return the Cougars to the prominence they enjoyed in the early 2000s, when they had three 10-win seasons in a row.
One of Leach’s first decisions will be to pick between senior Jeff Tuel and sophomore Connor Halliday for the starting quarterback job.
Two weeks into training camp, Leach had still not revealed his choice, although most observers expect Tuel to remain the starter.
“I think they both are very much ahead of schedule, and both are better than expected,” Leach said after the first scrimmage. “Both Jeff and Connor have good leadership skills, throw the ball well and are quick learners.”
The often-injured Tuel became a starter as a freshman. As a sophomore, he threw for 2,780 yards, with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. But he played in only a handful of games last season because of an injured shoulder. Halliday threw for WSU freshman records of 494 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Arizona State last year, but suffered a lacerated liver against Utah and played in only four games. Both figure to be more mobile than Marshall Lobbestael, who threw for 2,584 yards in his final season.
Whoever starts at quarterback, the top target figures to be Marquess Wilson, who caught 82 passes last year for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns. Bobby Ratliff, who caught 28 passes for 348 yards, is back. Also on hand are Bennett Bontemps, Gino Simone and a slew of younger players led by touted freshman Gabriel Marks
Running backs are not superfluous in Leach’s Air Raid offense. Last year’s leading rusher, Rickey Galvin, returns, although in fall camp he has spent time as a slot receiver. Galvin gained 602 yards and had a 5.3-yard average last year.
Also fighting for playing time will be senior Carl Winston, freshman Teondray Caldwell, sophomore Marcus Mason, redshirt junior Leon Brooks and junior college transfer Theron West. Winston carried the ball 142 times last year for 442 yards.
Much depends on an offensive line that must do a better job of protecting quarterbacks from injury.
The Cougars are thin on the defensive front seven, in part because of Leach’s tough discipline style.
Three potential starters have been kicked off the team since Leach took over.
Linebacker C.J. Mizell, perhaps the program’s best athlete, was kicked off after an alleged altercation at a fraternity party earlier this year. Linebacker Sekope Kaufusi was kicked off after he was arrested in a marijuana possession case. Defensive tackle Anthony Laurenzi was kicked off after the alleged theft of a pair of headphones.
That left the team with less experience at linebacker than expected, and a thin depth chart on the defensive line.
Opponents who come to Pullman this season will see a dramatic change in Martin Stadium, where an $80 million expansion added a three-story structure that houses luxury suites and the press box. The luxury seats are expected to pump $3 million more into what has long been a cash-strapped program.
The new addition completely changes the profile of the 35,000-seat bowl.
Designed and built in just 18 months, the privately funded addition will be ready in time for the home opener Sept. 8 against Eastern Washington, associate athletic director John Johnson said. It is funded by a combination of ticket sales, donations and television revenue.