- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's reloading time around the Pac-12. For some programs, the offseason challenge is more daunting than it is for others. Still, even Utah -- perhaps the league's most experienced team -- will be depending on multiple players to fill voids in 2015. So here's our team-by-team look at talent that will be called on to deliver key replacement production around the conference.
Our last look is at Washington State, a team that hopes 2014's 3-9 record was just a hiccup in a larger positive building process under Mike Leach.
New quarterback, new style
In 1,011 total snaps last season, Cougars quarterbacks took a snap from under center once (a Luke Falk sneak -- touchdown). With the Connor Halliday era over, there are indications that a Mike Leach offense may increase the frequency of lining up under center from last year's 0.099 percent rate to -- gasp -- 25 percent of the time.
Halliday left Pullman as the most statistically prolific passer in Washington State history, but the Cougars are confident that Falk -- who started the final three games of 2014 -- has the skill set to lead them in this transitionary era. With all five starting offensive linemen returning along with some potential explosiveness in the backfield (Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks, and receiver convert Keith Harrington), Washington State believes it can successfully run the football more often. This past spring, they experimented with the diverse running angles that the under-center approach can supply.
Amid all this talk of fewer shotgun snaps and more handoffs, perhaps it's a good time to offer some reassurance: Don't worry, the Air Raid isn't going anywhere. Though Washington State is looking to add a little more balance to its offensive repertoire, the pass-heavy nature of Leach's attack is here to stay. And to maintain effectiveness in that regard, the Cougars must replace their top two 2014 receiving targets Vince Mayle (106 catches, 1483 yards, 9 TD) and Isiah Myers (78 catches, 972 yards, 12 TD).
An awesome eight-catch, 164-yard spring game performance indicated that Dom Williams may become the next featured man. River Cracraft (66 catches, 771 yards) will remain a go-to option, while Tyler Baker, Robert Lewis, and Gabe Marks are all capable targets in a passing attack that'll likely again churn out dizzying numbers.
Replacing a bad defense
Things went poorly on this side of the ball in 2014 -- especially in the secondary. So Leach made a swift replacement early in the offseason: He fired defensive coordinator Mike Breske and replaced him with Alex Grinch, a former Missouri assistant who has extensive experience coaching defensive backs.
To begin, Grinch has established a nickel-heavy defense to counter the Pac-12's aggressive spread attacks. During spring, Darius Lemora stood out in this nickelback role, which demands versatility for both pass coverage and run support.
But replacing a solid defensive base is just as important as any changes that the Cougars make on the back end. Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole, the team's two best linemen from a year ago, are both gone. Destiny Vaeao emerged as the front's new stalwart during the spring, while Darryl Paulo and junior college transfer Jeremiah Mitchell will both be counted on for the front to maintain effectiveness.
Washington State's run defense wasn't bad in 2014. It was the team's pass defense that struggled, and poor technique on that end -- Cougar defensive backs intercepted only one pass last season -- must be replaced more hastily than any individual player. Grinch is working hard in that regard, and this fall will be the first assessment of his labor.