The Washington State Cougars still have a ways to go before competing for a Pac-12 championship but obvious gains have been made since Mike Leach took over the program two years ago.
On their way to qualifying for their first bowl game since 2003, the Cougars lost a hard-fought 31-24 opener to eventual SEC champ Auburn and notched four wins in Pac-12 play (USC, California, Arizona and Utah), matching their conference victories over the past three years combined.
It is helpful to turn back to 2003 from an NFL draft perspective, as well. That was the last time the Cougars had a player drafted in the first round (Marcus Trufant) prior to free safety Deone Bucannon turning an All-American campaign into the No. 27 overall pick of May's draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
This year the buzz will no doubt focus on Leach, returning starting quarterback Connor Halliday and Cougars' high-octane passing attack. Like a season ago, however, Washington State's top NFL prospect again plays on the defensive side of the ball.
Washington State's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
1. DT Xavier Cooper, RS Junior (6-4 | 303 | 5.05 | #96)
Cooper could have Cougars fans turning the clock back to 2003 one more time as it was 11 years ago that the Tennessee Titans made Rien Long the last Washington State defensive lineman drafted into the NFL.
Cooper hasn't yet enjoyed the success that earned Long the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman 11 years ago but he's proven himself a standout in his first two seasons on the field in the Pac-12. After sitting out his first season to get his academics in order, Cooper burst onto the Pac-12 scene, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2012 with 34 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and three sacks. He was not recognized by the conference a season ago despite improving in every category (50-13.5-5).
Speaking to Cooper's intriguing upside is the fact that some of his best games have come in big games, including his debut as a starter against Colorado (seven tackles, three tackles for a loss, one sack) and last season against Oregon (eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, forced and recovered fumble returned for score), Oregon State (four tackles, two TFL) and Arizona State (seven tackles, two TFL, one sack).
Cooper is a naturally large man with broad shoulders and thick limbs. He shows good initial quickness off the snap and surprising acceleration and balance for a man of his size. Cooper is a passionate player who frequently pursues laterally and downfield - attributes which will intrigue teams looking for five-tech defensive ends (a role Cooper often played a year ago) or as a penetrating defensive tackle. He is strong enough to hold up at the point of attack but could improve his play by gaining more explosiveness, which will help him discard blockers more efficiently.
2. ILB Darryl Monroe, RS Junior (6-1 | 235 | 4.76 | #13)
Leach deserves a great deal of credit for Washington State's improvement but former head coach Paul Wulff and his staff did the cross-country recruiting of Monroe, who starred as a prep in Orlando, Fla.
Monroe redshirted in 2011 due to a torn Achilles suffered in the season-opener against Idaho State. He returned with a vengeance a year later, starting all 12 games and posting 80 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 accolades. He recorded another 94-8-2 last season, including a career-high 13 tackles in the New Mexico Bowl loss to Colorado State.
Monroe sports a chiseled frame and the strength gained from time in the weight room is obvious on the field, where he shows impressive power to disengage and as a hitter. He's highly aggressive and doesn't possess great balance, which results in some big collisions when he guesses right and some cut-back opportunities when he overruns the play. Monroe is at his best in the box due to average straight-line speed, though he is alert in coverage.
3. WR Vince Mayle, RS Senior (6-2 | 219 | 4.52 | #1)
While defenders Cooper and Monroe may be the Cougars' best prospects, the most intriguing talent in the Palouse may be Mayle.
After spending his first year out of high school playing basketball at Shasta Community College, Mayle (pronounced May-lee) switched to football in 2012 and starred for Sierra College, leading all California Community College receivers with 16 touchdown receptions. Listed at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, he was recruited by the likes of Arizona State, Kentucky, Nevada and West Virginia before signing at WSU. Mayle was (and looked like) a work-in-progress in 2013 but emerged as one of the Cougars' primary pass-catchers with 42 grabsfor 539 yards and tying for the team-lead with seven touchdowns.
Reports indicate that Mayle has dropped 20 pounds since then and is showing improved quickness and route-running. Frankly, given his size, I was impressed with Mayle's quickness a year ago. While he does not possess ideal burst off the line of scrimmage, he has lateral quickness to slip the jam and to elude defenders. Mayle possesses deceptive build-up speed and can track the ball over his shoulder as well as turn back to use his height and leaping ability to win 50-50 balls.
If Mayle is indeed more polished in 2014, Leach's aggressive passing attack could help him catapult up draft boards with a big senior season.
Other Washington State prospects worth watching:
QB Connor Halliday, RS Senior (6-4 | 190 | 4.87 | #12)
Halliday is another prospect who could rise up charts with a big senior campaign. On paper, it would appear that he's already accomplished this as last season Halliday set the school record with 4,597 passing yards and tied Ryan Leaf's single-season mark with 34 touchdown passes thrown.
Halliday has plenty of arm strength and is willing (too willing, in fact) to take chances, which resulted in 22 interceptions a year ago -- his first season as the Cougars' full-time starter. He typically throws in-breaking routes like slants and posts well, showing zip and good placement but can get scatter-shot, especially when he doesn't set his feet. Halliday will occasionally drop it in the bucket on touch throws but too often throws long. He possesses a spindly frame and isn't particularly elusive though he has decent speed for the position.
WR Gabe Marks, Junior (6-0 | 176 | 4.62 | #9)
Marks is a slick (but slim) slot receiver who possesses enough agility and acceleration to catch scouts' attention but whose stock may be limited due to questionable top-end speed. In 2013 Marks caught 74 passes (second most in school history) for 807 yards and tied Mayle for the team lead with seven touchdown receptions.