WSU Cougars enter fall camp older, wiser

Practice opens Friday with 16 starters back

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photoWashington State head coach Mike Leach talks to the media during the NCAA college football Pac-12 Media Day on July 26 in Culver City, Calif.

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Those who expected miracles out of Mike Leach in his first year in Pullman were sorely disappointed, unless a nine-loss season rocked their boat.

Washington State struggled with inexperience, lack of depth and adjustments to a new offense, defense and coaching staff. Year two should go smoother, Leach said Thursday in preparation for today’s first fall practice.

“I think we’re significantly better, especially the attitude and that sort of thing,” Leach said. “Our work ethic is significantly higher.”

Most Pac-12 Conference forecasters predict the Cougars are destined for a fifth straight last-place finish and a seventh straight losing season since going 6-6 in 2006 (following two other losing seasons).

The Cougars remain young and inexperienced at most positions, though valuable experience was gained by a freshmen-laden squad last year.

The Cougars return eight starters on both sides of the ball, including part-time starting quarterback Connor Halliday and leading tackler Deone Bucannon. The team lost arguably its three most talented players to the NFL: quarterback Jeff Tuel, linebacker Travis Long and wide receiver Marquess Wilson.

The offensive line, which gave up a nation-leading 57 quarterback sacks last year, remains a major question mark. Leach said the depth, size, strength and attitude of the O-line has improved, and the coach said Halliday — a bit of a riverboat gambler when it comes to throwing the ball — has a better grasp of Leach’s pass-happy offense.

One sign of the offensive line’s projected improvement is the fact that three-year starter John Fullington is listed on the second team on the depth chart.

The Cougars are again loaded with talent and depth at wide receiver with the likes of Gabe Marks, Dominique Williams, Kristoff Williams and Rickey Galvin. New wideout Vince Mayle, all 6 feet, 3 inches and 240 pounds of him, is a heralded junior college transfer who will have just one year of eligibility unless the Cougars successfully appeal to the NCAA.

“We think we’ll get a waiver,” Leach said.

Bucannon, a hard-hitting safety, made the all-conference second team last year. His job will be made easier if a young but promising front seven improves.

Asked to list the team’s leaders, Leach mentioned Halliday, Williams, Bucannon, linebacker Darryl Monroe, defensive lineman Xavier Cooper and offensive lineman Gunnar Eklund. Leach is also high on the leadership provided by star kicker Andrew Furney.

Leach expressed confidence that leading rusher Teondray Caldwell will be cleared in connection with an alleged assault and theft last spring. The Whitman County prosecutor’s office is still investigating. No charges have been filed.

The Cougars ranked last in the nation in rushing last season, and Leach’s vaunted air attack was deflated when Wilson walked out on the team late in the season and accused the coaches of unfair treatment. He later backtracked, but the controversy added misery to a miserable season that brightened on the final day when the Cougars rallied from 18 down in the fourth quarter to beat Washington in double overtime.

Construction of WSU’s first-ever football operations building has taken up part of the Rogers Field practice facility on campus, so the first 10 days of practice will be held at Sacajawea Junior High School in nearby Lewiston, Idaho.

Temperatures are expected to be in the 90’s most days in Lewiston. Players will stay in dorms at Lewis-Clark State College.

ESPNU televises WSU’s season opener at young, rebuilding Auburn on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 4 p.m. The Cougars open Pac-12 play the following Saturday at USC, then play home games the following two weeks against projected weaklings Southern Utah and Idaho. Game times have not been set for any WSU home games.