LEWISTON, Idaho — Coach Mike Leach’s celebrated Air Raid offense is rolling in high gear.
Washington State’s deep corps of wide receivers has been making spectacular catches at the Cougars’ preseason camp, which was moved to a middle school field in nearby Lewiston, Idaho, because of construction at the Pullman campus.
“Our receiver corps is playing unbelievable right now,” said junior quarterback Connor Halliday, who faces a challenge from redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca but is likely to open the season under center.
“Everybody knows what we’ve got to do to compete,” said receiver Gabe Marks, who caught 49 balls last season. “Our offense is 75 percent passing.”
Leach developed a national reputation with his pass-first offense at Texas Tech. But WSU struggled to implement his complicated Air Raid schemes last season, his first in Pullman.
To be sure, the Cougars gained 3,965 yards through the air last year. But they managed to score just 20 points per game in stumbling to a 3-9 record, 1-8 in the Pac-12.
This year, a slew of veteran receivers, combined with an improved offensive line and more poise from Halliday, should pay more dividends.
“Our offense is all based on us,” said Brett Bartolone, who led the team with 53 receptions last season. “The receivers have got to make plays.”
Washington State returns six of seven receivers who caught at least 22 passes last season. The only one missing is Marquess Wilson, the leading receiver in program history. Wilson, who would have been a senior this year, quit the team late last season and accused the coaching staff of physical and mental abuse. He later recanted the allegations, and he has since been drafted by the Chicago Bears.
Even without Wilson, the Cougars have big play receivers returning in Dominique Williams, Bobby Ratliff and Isiah Myers. Newcomer Vince Mayle, a 240-pound junior college transfer, has also been impressive in camp, making an 80-yard touchdown catch this week.
“Vince is making an impact,” Bartolone said.
Leach said the team needs eight good receivers to compete.
“If a guy is a great player, you still have to rest him so he can be at full speed in the fourth quarter,” Leach said.
From the looks of things, there will be plenty of battles for playing time this season.
As players become more familiar with Leach’s schemes, they are facing fewer punishment drills in camp.
“We’re not doing as many up-downs as last year,” said receiver Kristoff Williams. “We stopped practice a couple times a day last year to do up-downs. That’s a big indicator.”
A year in the system also has receivers finding more daylight after the catch, Marks said.
“We’ve got a lot more open space after we catch the ball nowadays,” Marks said. “There’s a lot more room to run because we’ve got the spacing right.”
One thing that could really boost the receivers is an improved rushing attack, something that has been rare at Washington State in recent seasons. Last year, the Cougars gained just 349 yards rushing, an average of just 29 yards per game, last in the nation.
But running backs like Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason are having a good camp.
“The biggest deal for us is we are able to run the ball,” Halliday said. “That opens up everything for me and the receivers.”