NCF Nation: Mike Breske

Pac-12 assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
We’re four weeks into the season and the Pac-12 has (mostly) made short work of its nonconference foes. Now the fun starts. League play kicks off conference-wide this week. But before we look forward, the ESPN blogosphere is looking back at some of the best and worst through the first four weeks of each conference.

Best game: In terms of excitement, it’s tough to beat an overtime shootout. And that’s what happened when Oregon State traveled to Utah in Week 3. After building a 27-10 lead early in the third quarter, it looked like the Beavers would cruise. But Travis Wilson would lead the Utes back and they’d eventually grab a 38-37 lead. The teams swapped touchdowns in the closing three minutes to force overtime, where the Sean Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks connection gave the Beavers a 51-48 victory.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBrandin Cooks leads the nation in catches, receiving touchdowns and first-down receptions. Yeah, that's good enough to get our best player vote.
Best player: For as shaky as Oregon State’s defense has been, its offense has been sensational. So we’re going to give the nod to Cooks, who has 10 more receptions than anyone else in FBS football. Through four games he leads the nation in catches (43), receiving touchdowns (7) and first-down receptions (23). Mannion gets honorable mention, since someone has to throw the ball. But Cooks is head-and-shoulders above the rest of nation’s receivers right now. Another honorable mention to Washington’s Bishop Sankey, who has emerged over the last nine or so games as one of the country’s elite running backs.

Best performance: How about the Washington State defense -- that’s right, defense -- for its performance in the 10-7 win at USC. Damante Horton nabs a pair of interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six. Daquawn Brown makes his first career start and has a team-high 11 tackles and two pass breakups. Toni Pole blocks a kick, the front seven gets 7.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. You can say USC’s offensive inefficiency played a role. And you’d be right. But give credit where it’s due. Mike Breske had the boys ready to go and the Cougs came to town and pushed their way to a win.

Best surprise: Though his team has played in only two games so far this season, it’s hard not to feel good about the comeback of Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson -- and really the rebirth of the Buffs under Mike MacIntyre. Richardson has 417 yards in just two games, which puts him eighth in the country. Had Colorado played its game against Fresno State (which was postponed due to flooding), it’s likely we’d see Richardson toward the top with Cooks. As for the Buffs in general, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. They still have a long way to go. But you can definitely see an air of confidence about this team that’s been lacking the last couple of seasons.

Biggest disappointment: Head’s: Oregon State's defense. Tails: USC's offense. Go ahead and flip. Either way, you're right. Both have been disappointing. Anytime a BCS conference team loses to an FCS team, it’s disappointing. Anytime one of the country’s proudest football institutions is averaging 22 points per game through four games, it’s disappointing. Anytime a team -- once ranked in the top 25 (I guess that actually applies to both schools) -- is allowing an average of more than 35 points per game, it’s disappointing. Both teams are 3-1. And probably counting their blessings that (1) USC's defense has been that good and (2) Oregon State's offense has been that good.
Taking only a cursory glance at Washington State's 2013 defense, you might only see the loss of four-year sacks leader Travis Long and the 33.7 points per game the Cougars surrendered last year, and therefore your most generous reaction probably would be, "Neh."

But, moving beyond a superficial impression, a closer look yields plenty of "Hmm." And perhaps some, "Maybe."

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsSafety Deone Bucannon will lead a more experienced Cougars defense against Pac-12 teams in 2013.
Sure, Long is gone and he'll be hard to replace, but eight players are back from a better-than-you-think 2012 unit and there's a lot more depth -- and competition -- heading into fall camp than a year ago.

This unit will be experienced and physically capable. There's veteran star power with safety Deone Bucannon, and there's up-and-coming talent in middle linebacker Darryl Monroe and tackle Xavier Cooper. There's size and speed on all three levels.

Instead of being tricky and taking chances out of outmanned necessity, the Cougs' defense in 2013 has the potential to just line up and play. That should help stem the tide of explosion plays it yielded last fall.

In fact, the primary goal during spring practices was to keep the scheme basic so guys could play fast and build confidence. Last year, there was a getting-to-know-you feel with new coach Mike Leach and new defensive coordinator Mike Breske.

"This spring, we just hit it running," Breske said. "We had a tremendous spring."

The truth -- and it feels weird asserting it -- is that the Cougs' defense looked worse than it was last year because Leach's offense was so underwhelming. Washington State averaged 20.4 points per game, which ranked 11th in the conference, and it was 10th in time of possession.

It's one thing to rank low in time of possession when you're Oregon or Arizona, averaging 49.5 and 38.2 points per game, as those two did. It's another thing when your lack of possession time is due to not making first downs and touchdowns.

The first question in 2013 is replacing Long. That's not going to happen with one guy. While Logan Mayes is the frontrunner to take over at "buck" linebacker, there's a reason he was one of five guys listed there on the post spring depth chart. Breske said Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan had "great springs," adding, "There's going to be a lot of competition there."

There's also plenty of competition at linebacker. While Monroe, the unit's chief vocal leader, is set in the middle, Cyrus Coen and Eric Oertel are battling on the strong side and Justin Sagote and Tana Pritchard are doing the same on the weakside.

That's good news. It means Breske has four guys he thinks can play.

"We've got a solid two-deep at 'backer," he said. "I wish it was three-deep."

But Breske is most happy with his defensive line, where Cooper, NT Ioane Gauta and end Matthew Bock front a solid two-deep.

"Our D-line was most impressive coming out of spring ball and will be going into fall camp in terms of changing their bodies, their explosiveness," he said. "We've got much better depth in the D-line than we did a year ago."

As for the secondary, Bucannon leads a veteran unit: All four starters figure to be seniors, though Casey Locker is battling sophomore Taylor Taliulu at strong safety. Cornerbacks Damante Horton, Anthony Carpenter and Nolan Washington are all experienced, though redshirt freshman Rahmel Dockery could get into the mix.

Turning up the pressure remains Breske's chief goal -- the Cougars grabbed 15 interceptions and recorded 92 tackles for a loss in 2012 -- but without the offsetting explosion plays.

When asked if he saw the potential for dramatic improvement, Breske said, "You hit it right on the head."

So perhaps the Cougs' defense merits more than a preseason, "Neh."
Like many, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon fell prey to the belief that by simply setting foot on campus, new head coach Mike Leach was going to instantly make the Cougars better. After all, Leach's hiring was deemed by many as the most significant in college football last season. Though, that was before the Cougars went 3-9.

It still might be. But Bucannon and his teammates realize it's less to do with Leach and more to do with themselves.

"I think we were blinded by how much success he's had in the past and we just assumed we would automatically win games because it's Coach Leach and he has a great system," Bucannon said. "But it's up to us to work that system. Football isn't about systems. It's about players and how much effort they put into it. The system complements the players. We can't put the system first. We thought it would be magic and we'd win games. But we have to put in the work."

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesWashington State is expecting big things this season from safety Deone Bucannon.
With the Cougars opening spring ball Thursday, Bucannon is now looked to as the unquestioned leader of the defense, taking the crown from the departed Travis Long. The second-team all-conference safety, who was fourth in the league in total tackles last year (106) and tied for fifth in the league in interceptions, is ready to put the defense on his shoulders entering Year 2 of Mike Breske's 3-4 scheme.

“Really looking forward to seeing Deone [pronounced DAY-own] this spring," Breske said. "He will have 15 practices to compete and get better each time out. This spring will be an opportunity for him to develop and showcase his leadership, both vocally and by example.

"Deone is one of our best competitors, he loves to compete and wants to win every play. Every day, he will be out there to get better.”

Bucannon is a hitter. And hitters hit. But as the rules of college football continue to shift more toward player safety, hitters have to constantly tiptoe the line between being aggressive and being tagged as dirty players. Unfortunately for Bucannon, he picked up the dirty tag last season when he planted a late hit on an Eastern Washington receiver. He owned up to the mistake and served a half-game suspension. But the label stuck with him all last year -- and he's hoping to strip it to regain his reputation in 2013.

"If you knew me or talked to me, I'm not what a lot of people said I was," Bucannon said. "I love this game and I would never disrespect the game or another person. I enjoy going 100 percent on the field. It's tough adapting to the new rules right off the bat. I need to control when to hit the player because that's part of the game. Ask any safety that's played college football and they'll say the same thing. It's tough because you're trying to come with the aggressiveness you need as a defensive player, but you have to be conscious that you are playing within the rules. Things are moving fast and you don't have much time to decide where to hit someone. But it's something I learned."

Those are the kind of acts of leadership he'll need to display as WSU moves to Year 2 under Leach & Co. As the only non-specialist on the Cougars to earn all-conference honors (Andrew Furney was second-team kicker), Bucannon has the staff looking for him to do things the right way on and off the field.

The senior has appeared in every game since his freshman season and has ridden the highs and (mostly) lows of the program. But he continues to believe that the Cougars are on the verge of breaking through. He points to last year's come-from-behind win in the Apple Cup as proof of what this team is capable of.

"I remember not one person on the sideline thought we were going to lose that game even when we were trailing in the fourth quarter," he said. "If we can go into every game with that kind of confidence, we can compete with anybody. When we play together and aren't worried about the other team's jerseys, we can beat any team in the country.

"But it was also just one win and we can't live in the past. It was a nice way to end the season, but we need to learn from it and move on and try to win more games next year."
Sure, Mike Leach would love to cruise around the old stomping grounds when he brings his Washington State Cougars to Provo, Utah to kickoff the 2012 season versus BYU. It might be nice to swing by the old King Henry Apartments where he met his wife when he was a student in the early 80s.

But Leach is going home for business, not pleasure.

"I have great memories there," Leach said. "I met my wife there. It's a great spot. But once the game starts your attention is kind of confined to the field and your sideline ... once it comes to the coaching part, you are occupied with your players and the opponent."

There's been a lot of attention on Leach this offseason. He takes over a program that has won just seven games over the last three seasons (four of them last year) and hasn't been to a bowl game since 2003. By bringing in Leach, Washington State sent out a warning shot to the rest of the conference that it was committed to football and serious about being a major player in the Pac-12.

That starts Thursday, when Washington State opens on ESPN at 7:15 p.m. PT as a nearly two-touchdown underdog.

Naturally, this game presents some mildly amusing confusion when you match the Cougars versus the Cougars. But the similarities between the teams go further than just the mascot.

"I think the argument can certainly be made that offensively -- we may look more BYU than BYU does if you reflect on the LaVell Edwards days," Leach said. " There are plays out there we're running that we got -- and maybe we don't run it exactly -- that we got from the Golden Age back then at BYU when LaVell Edwards was there and we run it just like they did back then except maybe we've adjusted this route or that route."

Leach frequently talks about his time as a student at BYU and how what the Cougars were doing offensively influenced much of what he does now with this high-powered Air Raid offense. He recalls early in his coaching career hanging out at BYU spring practices with Roger French and Norm Chow and watching the way BYU would spread the ball around on offense.

"Football-wise, it's very hard to imagine what football would be like without LaVell Edwards," Leach said. "And then also football in America, what it would be like without LaVell Edwards. I'm not the only person LaVell Edwards influenced on throwing the football ... It influenced me directly and specifically and it's the core of a lot of things we do offensively."

And offensively, Washington State should be just fine. The Cougars boast NFL talent at quarterback (Jeff Tuel) and wide receiver (Marquess Wilson) and Tuel has a bevy of options behind Wilson. Leach inherited a team that was geared toward a spread passing attack already, so transitioning to his style went smoothly in the spring and fall.

"I thought it went efficiently, I expected it to," Leach said. "Some of our guys have emerged and stepped up in a quicker fashion than I expected. It did install quickly and things went pretty well for us."

At question is whether WSU's shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under Mike Breske can get up to speed quick enough and keep opponents off the scoreboard. Plus, Leach expects to play more freshmen than he'd prefer. How many?

"Quite a few," he said. "I think by some accounts an alarming number."

We'll know a lot more about the new-look Washington State team following Thursday night's game. And as for BYU's current coach, Bronco Mendenhall? Leach said they are casual acquaintances.

"He's a really good surfer," Leach said. "... I've seen all his football stuff. We've watched 13 games worth to the point where we're really not interested in seeing blue Cougars. We're only interested in seeing red Cougars. Bronco is an interesting guy and he does a lot of interesting things. But I'd be more interested about talking to him about surfing than football at this point."
Just once in his college football career, Travis Long wants the opportunity to play a college football game after November. The kind that usually comes with a trip to some sunny location. The kind that rewards the players for their efforts. He's played one football game in December, but it was the regular season finale in 2010 where his Washington State team fell to rival Washington 35-28. But conference games in December don't count.

[+] EnlargeTravis Long
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaThis year will be Senior Travis Long's last chance to make the postseason.
Recently in Pullman, the changing of the calendar from November to December has signified the end of another frustrating season. That's not how Long, a senior and three-year player, wants to go out.

"I just want to make it to a bowl game," Long said. "That's one of my main goals as a senior. I want to make that trip finally. I haven't looked at the schedule too much. Right now our focus is on the summer program and BYU in the first game. But I don't see any reason why this team shouldn't go to a bowl game."

Are there six wins out there? Probably. Maybe even seven or eight. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, Long has seen this program slug through 1-11, 2-10 and 4-8 seasons during his tenure.

But like every other Washington State player, he can't help but gush about the renewed excitement brought on by new head coach Mike Leach. And with a new staff comes a new approach to the game. Long's well-documented move from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker/DE hybrid is going well. An outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme in high school, he's re-learning the intricacies of covering the hook-to-curl zone and who to pick up in the flat.

But he also gets to do what he does best -- bring pressure. Long was one of the best defensive ends in the Pac-12 last season, though because the Cougars struggled, many outside of Pullman don't know much about him. But opposing coaches do, which is why they rewarded his 42-tackle season (12 for a loss, four sacks) by naming him to the second-team all-conference squad.

Now as a "buck" linebacker, he'll bounce around on both sides of the line, play with his hand up or down, drop into coverage or simply be a run-stopper. This is new defensive coordinator Mike Breske squeezing every drop of talent out of Long and his defense.

"Right when they came in, about a week or two after, they told me they wanted me to make the move and I was totally fine with it," Long said. "I'd done some of that stuff in the past so I didn't think it would be too hard of a transition.

"I like playing with my hand up. You don't have to run yourself into the O-line the whole time. I played linebacker in high school so I had some experience with my hand off the ground. It was a 4-3, but a lot of the same ideas."

Anytime you play for a Leach-coached team, the offense is going to get the attention. And why not? With quarterback Jeff Tuel and wide receiver Marquess Wilson predicted to be one of the top connections in the conference this year, it makes sense. Long said he's not worried if the defense doesn't get as much publicity.

"Our job is to play fast and without hesitation," he said. "When we made mistakes last year, it was because we hesitated and that's why we weren't playing fast. Take that out of the equation and we can make some big plays.

"His offense is so prolific. But defense wins games."
Mike Leach is not afraid of the weather in Pullman, Wash., which could be a bit nippy -- and perhaps snowy -- for the first day of Washington State's spring practices on Thursday.

Heck, it's not like his first spring practice leading the Cougars could be more inclement than his first leading Texas Tech in 2000.

Cold? Snow? Not as bad as hail.

"It's flying off their helmets like popcorn," Leach said recalling his first practice in Lubbock.

[+] EnlargeWashington State's Mike Leach
AP Photo/Dean HareTight ends typically don't excel in Washington State coach Mike Leach's system. That could change in 2012.
Or do you know what happens when a hard rain meets a dust storm?

"A couple of times a year there, it rains mud," he said.

Leach the raconteur took control of his chat with reporters Wednesday afternoon and was, as usual, highly entertaining. But getting specifics from him about what he sees with his personnel wasn't part of the plan, and it led to briefer answers. Of course, that makes sense because Leach isn't sure what he's got as he installs his "Air Raid" offense and a 3-4 defense.

Evaluation is obviously a top priority, but Leach used the terms "precise" and "efficient" repeatedly.

Or, as he said, "Getting as good as we possibly can at practicing."

The first order of business is finding a quarterback. Leach said reps will be split 50-50, at least during the early-going, between Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday. When asked if Halliday, who suffered a lacerated liver against Utah on Nov. 19, was ready to practice full-go, Leach said, "I assume."

Leach said the top two priorities for his QBs will be decision-making and accuracy. "Those two you really can't compromise on," he said. Quick feet also help, particularly for a team that has some questions on the offensive line.

Leach pointed out that he didn't pursue a JC QB because he's pretty satisfied with what he's seen on tape of Tuel and Halliday. "It's not like you're starting from zero," he said.

He seemed intrigued by his talent at receiver, noting that the crew was taller than what he typically had at Texas Tech. And, yes, he's been impressed by Marquess Wilson.

"What I like about him is he always wants the ball," he said.

On the other side of the ball, it will be interesting to see how things develop, particularly if the Cougars want to make new coordinator's Mike Breske’s 3-4 alignment their base scheme. After dismissing both C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi from the team -- both returning starters -- there's a decided lack of depth at linebacker. Count on there being some position shuffling, both from the backhalf and the line. Leach, in particular, seemed intrigued with Travis Long, who has started the previous three years at end. The 6-foot-4, 256-pound senior might be athletic enough to play an outside linebacker spot.

"He can do a lot of things," Leach said. "Moving him around as a player is pretty tempting."

It's obvious there will be a lot going on this spring in Pullman, so the often-challenging weather is not a chief concern. Getting guys into the right spot is.

Said Leach, "There isn't anybody who's not being evaluated."