With fall camps just around the corner for each Pac-12 team, we're going to go around the conference and look at each team's most pressing issues and interesting storylines. We've already looked at Colorado and Washington, up next, Washington State:
Can Jeff Tuel effectively run Mike Leach's offense?
One person who thinks Jeff Tuel can run Mike Leach's offense effectively is Jeff Tuel. Tuel spent spring practice learning the offense and by all accounts, it went well. “It was actually surprisingly easy to get a grasp on the offense,” Tuel said at Pac-12 media day. If Tuel can emulate the success other first year quarterbacks have had in Leach's system, he'll rewrite Washington State's record book. Former Cougar quarterback Ryan Leaf holds the single-season passing record on passing yards with 3,968 yards; Leach's quarterbacks have bested that number in seven of his 10 seasons as a coach.
Will the offensive line improve?
Being a Washington State quarterback last year was a borderline occupational hazard. The offensive line surrendered 38 sacks in 2011, ranking dead last in the Pac-12 and 111th in the country (out of 120 teams). Among the injuries suffered by Cougar quarterbacks last season: Tuel broke his collarbone while Tuel's backup, Connor Halliday, suffered a lacerated kidney. However, don't expect a similar performance from the O-line this year. With three returning starters – center Matt Goetz, guard Dan Sptiz, tackle John Fullington – Tuel should see better protection. The line will also benefit from the fact that the quarterback is expected to get rid of the ball quickly in Leach's offense. This should cut down on sacks.
Who's the No. 2/3/4 wide receiver?
Mike Leach's offense calls for four wide receivers on most plays, something that could initially be a problem for a Washington State team that only returns one experienced receiver: Marquess Wilson. Wilson, who was named a CBSSports.com preseason All-American Monday, was sixth in the nation in receiving yards last year (1,388). If he wants to top that total in 2012, he'll need some younger receivers to emerge quickly, but that won't be easy. If you take Wilson out of the mix, the Cougars top four returning receivers – Bobby Ratliff, Kristoff Williams and Isiah Myers, Andrei Lintz – only combined for 51 catches and 644 yards last season. If Leach's offense is going to be successful in Pullman, the Cougars will need contributions from all of these guys.
Can Mike Leach end nine years of losing?
Leach might seem like a nice guy in public, but he's serious about discipline and changing the perception of the Washington State program, which hasn't had a winning season since 2003. He's already dismissed three returning starters from the team -- defensive tackle Anthony Laurenzi along with linebackers Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell were all let go after being arrested. There's a reason Leach has had 10 winning seasons in his 10 years as a coach: he's got an innovative offense and he's not afraid to punish anyone in the program, and that includes potential starters.
Can the defense slow down Pac-12 offenses?
Leach's offense might be able to score points, but that won't matter if the Cougars defense is surrendering more points than the offense is scoring. Washington State gave up 31.8 point per game last season, which ranked ninth in the Pac-12 and 95th in the country. New Cougar defensive coordinator Mike Breske has the defense switching to a 3-4 scheme this season, which should make matching up with the spread offenses in the Pac-12 a little easier. However, with the above-mentioned dismissals of Laurenzi, Mizell and Kaufusi, the Cougars will be thin at defensive line and inexperienced at linebacker.