Pac-12: Destiny Vaeao

What we learned about Washington State in the spring as it prepares for the third season under Mike Leach.

Three things we learned in the spring:

1. Offensive line will have some beef. When Leach arrived, the offensive line simply didn't match up physically against teams in the Pac-12. The Cougars will replace three starters on the line, but for the first time in Leach's tenure, the unit will average more than 300 pounds across the board.

2. Falk, Bruggman competition will be good. There was a general sense that QB Tyler Bruggman was the heir apparent to Connor Halliday, but that perception isn't the same after a strong spring from Luke Falk, who was nowhere near the caliber of recruit. The two splits the reps with the second unit throughout the spring.

3. Depth on the DL. Ioanee Gauta is gone, but the Cougars return Toni Pole, Xavier Cooper and Destiny Vaeao, which presents the obvious strength of the defense. With Darryl Paulo, Robert Barber, Daniel Ekuale and Emmitt Su'a-Kalio the team should have improved depth up front.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Who will be the top two running backs? Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, the team's top two backs from a season ago, are back, but that guarantees nothing. On Thursday, Leach told reporters Theron West and Jamal Morrow would be the primary backs.

2. How will young group of defensive backs develop? Only time will tell, but if the Cougars expect to take another step forward, it'll hinge on the ability of this group to develop quickly. Deone Bucannon is among five players gone from last season, and only safety Taylor Taliulu and cornerback Daquawn Brown saw extensive playing time last season.

3. Can Darryl Monroe be an all-conference caliber player? The unquestioned leader of the defense, Monroe was a steady force for the Cougars as a sophomore and has a chance to make a name for himself this season. With Cyrus Coen also back, the linebacker play should be improved.

One way-too-early prediction:

WSU will start 3-0. It begins with: Rutgers in Seattle; at Nevada; Portland State at home. It's an opening slate the Cougars will expect to navigate through without a loss before Oregon travels to Pullman in Week 4. A 3-6 Pac-12 record would be disappointing for the team and fanbase, but in this scenario it would still qualify the program for a second straight bowl.

Washington State spring wrap

May, 14, 2012
2011 overall record: 4-8
2011 conference record: 2-7 (6th in North)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Jeff Tuel, WR Marquess Wilson, OL John Fullington, S Deone Bucannon, LB Travis Long, WR Andrei Lintz.

Key losses
LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, LT David Gonzales, OL B.J. Guerra, WR Jared Karstetter.

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Rickey Galvin* (602 yards)
Passing: Marshall Lobbestael (2,584 yards)
Receiving: Marquess Wilson* (1,388 yards)
Tackles: Alex Hoffman-Ellis (88)
Sacks: Travis Long* (4)
Interceptions: Damante Horton* (4)

Spring answers
1. Tuel steps up: Remember that whole quarterback-competition thing? While Mike Leach hasn't officially named Jeff Tuel his starter, given the quickness with which he picked up the offense and the numbers he put up during the spring, it's likely that a proclamation that Tuel is the guy will come early in the fall. He's looked very good to date.

2. Plenty of weapons: Lots of them. Marquess Wilson returns as one of the top wide receivers in the conference -- and he showed in the spring game what he's capable of. Converted tight end Andrei Lintz had an outstanding spring at wide receiver and showed real chemistry with Tuel throughout the 15 practices. Gino Simone, Dominique Williams and Blair Bomber add depth to a very deep group.

3. New role for running backs: Can you catch? That's what Leach is looking for out of his guys. With the ball in the air 70 to 75 percent of the time, guys like Marcus Mason and Rickey Galvin will need to shift their focus from downhill to soft hands. There will be chances to run the football, but most of those will be after the catch.

Fall questions
1. Lineup: What's the offensive line going to look like? With players like Wade Jacobson (missed the final eight games last year with a back injury) and Matt Goetz (started nine games at center last season) missing time this spring, the starting five is likely to change. Which five and at what positions remains a question.

2. New-look D: With the Cougars switching to a 3-4 front, there is more focus on the linebacking corps. Travis Long should flourish in this system (12 tackles for a loss last season), but there are depth and position questions. Eric Oertel was a pleasant surprise this spring, as were Chester Su'a and Darryl Monroe -- though both saw their springs end early with injuries. Expect some growing pains as the group comes together in the odd front.

3. D-line depth: Xavier Cooper had a very good spring, but outside of him, Lenard Williams and Anthony Laurenzi (6.5 tackles for a loss last year), there are a lot of untested players. Matthew Bock saw some reps during the spring, but defensive coordinator Mike Breske will have to develop some more guys for the unit to be sound. A pair of Samoans in the recruiting class -- Robert Barber and Destiny Vaeao -- could be forced into action early.



Friday, 10/24
Saturday, 10/25