Mike Leach knew he was not inheriting a championship team when he took over the floundering Washington State football program after the 2011 season, but he was shocked at the mental toll all the losing had taken on many of the players.
“We spent too much time last year being surprised when something good happened to us,” Leach said Wednesday.
The Cougars struggled through a 3-9 record last season last year, but Leach said his young team made progress physically and mentally. The coach said the process continued during winter training, and he expects to see more progress when spring practices begin this afternoon.
“We’re (still) a pretty young team,” Leach said. “We played 17 freshmen last year, and those guys are back and obviously improved.”
Much of the focus during the 15 spring practices (the NCAA limit) centers on the quarterback battle between redshirt junior Connor Halliday and redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca.
“I think it’ll be a pretty good contest,” Leach said. “It’s not like one of them has an overwhelming amount of experience.”
Halliday has shown flashes of brilliance, but he had problems with interceptions last season and eventually lost the starting job to senior Jeff Tuel. Apodaca threw for 3,849 yards, 44 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as an all-state high school quarterback his senior season in Colorado.
The Cougars list eight returning starters on both sides of the ball. Some of those players were part-time starters and/or started out of necessity more than merit.
Washington State is trying to gain size, depth and skill on both lines. Several freshmen may have an impact once they arrive in the summer or fall.
Missing from spring camp is senior running back Daniel Jenkins, who must graduate from Arizona before he’s eligible to join the Cougars.
WSU needs to shore up its running game and pass protection, since it finished last in the nation in rushing and quarterback sacks allowed last season. The blitz-happy and pass-happy Cougars were 11th in sacks on defense and ninth in passing offense.
Players say offseason conditioning has been much more challenging since Leach arrived. Leach was a guest on athletic director Bill Moos’ radio show Monday, and Moos said players “look like they’re in tremendous shape.”
“We are getting bigger and stronger,” Leach said. “I’ve been impressed with the improvements up to this point.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go. We should have a little more depth in our offensive line and at several positions we need to build their experience as fast as we can.”
The construction of WSU’s first football operations building has temporarily encroached on part of the Rogers Field practice facility, so most spring drills will take place at Martin Stadium. Spring practices are open to the public.
The Cougars have scheduled 3 p.m. practices every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday through April 23. The exception is the Crimson and Gray Game, set for 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 20, in Spokane.
The Pac-12 Networks, in a first for the league, will televise the spring games of all teams in the conference.
The Cougars drew 10,713 fans last year to Joe Albi Stadium, a record for a WSU spring game.
Explosive wide receiver Dominique Williams starred in that scrimmage. He returns along with such other talented wideouts as Gabe Marks, Brett Bartolone, Isiah Myers, Bobby Ratliff and Rickey Galvin.