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February 15, 2012
Cougars prepare for spring fling with Leach
We don't have a playbook, Leach told the Texas Tech sophomore quarterback in 2000.
Washington State quarterbacks may be asking the same questions and getting the same answers this spring as they prepare to install Leach's offense.
"When you first get around his offense, first, you're baffled by the simplicity of it," Kingsbury said. "The first day he lays out the base plays, you're like, 'Wow, we can do this.' "
Leach's offense may be elegant in its simplicity, but that doesn't mean Washington State will run it at an elite level in September.
As Kingsbury learned, perfecting the offense takes time. Even if quarterbacks are able to pick up the non-existent playbook with surprising ease, the other 10 players on offense have their work cut out for them.
Offensive linemen need to be ready to be more active in pass protection. Receivers need to be better conditioned.
Already at Washington State, the program is returning to tried-and-true methods from Lubbock. Receivers are improving their reflexes and hands by catching tennis balls from a machine. Running through sand pits may be next.
"If you're going to catch the ball this many times, you need to be in shape and in the proper condition to do it," Simmons added. "There's going to be a learning curve there. With any new system, you have to be ready for it."
And those are just the players on the existing roster. Recruiting also will be adjusted - the priorities now being bigger linemen and smaller receivers.
"It was a huge adjustment period for a couple of years," said Kingsbury, who is installing his own pass-oriented scheme as the first-year offensive coordinator at Texas A&M.
The transformation of pre-Leach Texas Tech to what it would become by 2008 didn't occur overnight. Texas Tech went 14-11 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12 in Leach's first two seasons in Lubbock. Not until his third year did the Red Raiders win nine total games, win a bowl game and finish with a winning record in conference play.
In some ways, however, Washington State may be more equipped to handle the transition to Leach than Texas Tech.
Before Leach took over in Lubbock, Texas Tech had only three 2,000-yard quarterbacks in its history, never mind a 3,000-yard passer. Under his predecessor, Spike Dykes, Texas Tech was like many Big 12 teams at the time, utilizing a run-oriented offense.
The Cougars have had coaches who prefer a pass-oriented approach in Dennis Erickson and Mike Price. They've had prolific quarterbacks in Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser.
Despite the on-field troubles that eventually ended Paul Wulff's tenure, the program is on more solid footing than when he was hired. In 2008, Washington State was in almost as poor shape off the field as it was on the field. Washington State faced a rash of player arrests and sanctions due to falling short of Academic Progress Report requirements.
"Washington State's not in the middle of probation like when I got to Tech," Leach said. "That's helpful. When I first got to Tech they were in the middle of academic probation so we were recruiting guys into the cloud of probation, which made it challenging."
At Washington State, Leach won't have to fight some of the other battles he did in his first years at Texas Tech, but other aspects of implementing Leach's offense will be the same as they've always been.
On his first National Signing Day with the Cougars, Leach was less concerned with finding passers and receivers than he was with finding players in the trenches.
Finding quarterbacks and receivers may be less of a challenge than finding linemen - and running backs willing to play a supporting role. Not to mention defensive players.
"I've always thought that was overrated as far as the problem [with installing the offense]," Leach said. "We have two pretty good quarterbacks on campus so we're not looking for a transfer guy."
In Pullman, the reputation for a pass-friendly offense precedes Leach far more than it did early in his tenure in Lubbock.
Leach's first star receiver at Texas Tech, Wes Welker, was a lightly recruited last-minute addition in 2000. As an offensive coordinator, Leach had already coached a national-title winning quarterback (Josh Heupel at Oklahoma) and a No. 1 overall draft pick (Tim Couch at Kentucky).
In a few years, the prolific passing numbers were enough to lure four-star receiver Michael Crabtree.
"Those guys will come naturally," said Dave Emerick, Leach's chief of staff and recruiting coordinator. "Everyone wants to play in Coach Leach's offense. It's a pretty glamorous place to be a receiver or a running back or quarterback. We'll find those guys."
Rivals100 wide receiver Gabriel Marks of Los Angeles Venice agreed. Washington State's top signee for the 2012 class name-dropped Tech receivers when he committed.
"It's very inviting because the numbers they've put up and the players (Leach) put out (at Texas Tech) is really impressive with Welker, Crabtree and a bunch of good players," Marks told Rivals.com. "It could be a really good thing to catch a lot of balls and make a lot of plays."
Still, Washington State isn't the only Pac-12 program that will have an attractive offense for recruits.
With or without NCAA sanctions, USC can pull in a top-10 signing class. Stanford flexed its muscle with a top-five class this season, anchored by the country's top offensive line. Washington may have the league's best recruiter, Tosh Lupoi.
And those are three teams running pro-style offenses. Oregon runs a no-huddle spread that has been one of the most dynamic offenses in the country under Chip Kelly. Arizona will try to replicate what Rich Rodriguez did at West Virginia. The pedestrian offense in one season at Pittsburgh was an aberration for Todd Graham, who had more success at Tulsa and Rice. Graham also brought in an ace recruiter in former LSU assistant Larry Porter.
"Everybody's looking for speed," Leach said. "You'll have several varieties of spread here. We're identified and accurately so with throwing it more than anyone else. There are run teams in the conference and do it out of the spread and some do a combination of both. We really haven't changed in over a decade and have been rewarded handsomely for not changing. More of the country and the NFL has come our way than the opposite."
With speed at a premium in the Pac-12, Washington State intends to fill that need from Southern California. The Cougars may not beat out the more established Pac-12 programs for Los Angeles metro area recruits, but they plan to be more of a factor there under Leach. For 2012, they signed eight high school prospects from the area, including Marks. That's as many as their last two classes combined and more than any Washington State class since 2008.
Washington State also expanded into the Pacific. Defensive line coach Joe Salave'a helped land two players from American Samoa and a third from Hawaii.
"We'll go head to head with those guys and we'll have to," Emerick said. "We're not going to shy away from any recruiting battles with any of our Pac-12 opponents. We're going to fight over the same players."
The key will be to find linemen. For all the fanfare Leach's offense receives, Texas Tech sent as many offensive linemen (five) to the NFL draft as it did quarterbacks and receivers during Leach's tenure. This includes four interior linemen - two guards and two centers.
Leach's offense requires big, athletic linemen to pass protect and to move around on screens and in wide splits.
Washington State boosted its numbers in this signing class with seven linemen, but they average 6-foot-3 and 293 pounds. That's a long way from the 6-foot-6, 300-pound-plus linemen who anchored Leach's best teams.
Leach's system might be attractive for quarterbacks and receivers, but other Pac-12 teams such as Oregon will be in the market for similar offensive linemen.
"We want guys who have a knowledge and a background in pass protecting," Emerick said. "But we're going to run the ball, too. We expect them to be physical and run off the line and attack people. We want to see some kind of pass protection because they're going to do it a lot. We like to have athletic offensive linemen who can get out in screens."
One of the more surprising numbers from Leach's first class was one signee from Texas (three-star linebacker Keith Ewing). Leach's staff expects to capitalize on the coach's reputation there, but that didn't occur in the 2012 class.
No matter where Washington State finds its players, the question will be how quickly they can pick up the offense. If other programs under coaches in the Leach coaching tree are any indication, it might not take as long as it did at Texas Tech.
Running a similar system to Leach, Kevin Sumlin, now at Texas A&M, led Houston to an 8-5 season in his first year there and 10-4 in his second. Former Leach assistant Dana Holgorsen helped Oklahoma State to an 11-2 season in his only season there and 10-3 in his first season as a head coach at West Virginia.
"It always comes back to players not plays," Kingsbury said. "However quickly those kids pick it up out there and what talent they have will have a major bearing on how it goes out there."