Washington State has reasons to think of big prizes because of the return of quarterback Luke Falk, nine starters returning on defense and a running game to finally boost the Cougars' chances.
Running backs Jamal Morrow, Gerald Wicks, Keith Harrington and James Williams were the talk of Pullman, Wash., heading into fall camp. That is meaningful because Washington State's running game has been mostly anemic as part of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. The Cougars ranked No. 114 nationally in rushing yards last season -- and that was a marked improvement from Leach's first four years in Pullman.
Important to note: Although Washington State rushed for only 120 yards a game last season, Williams, Morrow and Wicks combined to average 5.8 yards per carry and were productive pass-catchers with a combined 152 receptions.
"They're all dynamic. It's fun as heck as a coach, but it's a little bit frustrating because somehow, sometime, we've got to find two. Two or three," running backs coach Jim Mastro told the Seattle Times.
The balance of big-play potential between the running backs and receivers makes Falk that much more dangerous. Falk finished his junior season with 4,468 passing yards and 38 touchdown passes. He had the second-best completion percentage (70.0) in school history.
Top receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft have exhausted their eligibility, but Leach still has a talented array of receivers, including junior Tavares Martin (sixth last year in the Pac-12 with 64 receptions, seventh with seven touchdowns and eighth in the conference with 728 receiving yards).
The pressure applied to quarterbacks by Washington State's defense fell off last season with 19 sacks after posting 31 in 2015. But experience is on the Cougars' side. Among the nine starters returning on defense are all the top linebackers and All-Pac-12 defensive end Hercules Mata'afa. The Cougars' opportunistic defense, with 23 takeaways last season, should prove to be ball-hawks once again.
Washington State's schedule starts with five consecutive home games, including conference games with Oregon State and USC. The Cougars also get Stanford at home later in the season, but play five of their last seven on the road.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER:
QB Luke Falk -- Falk is more than a system quarterback within Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. He is the unmistakable leader of the Cougars and will be the most valuable contributor toward a potential Pac-12 title if he stays healthy and plays to expectations. He is coming off a season of which he passed for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns. He had the second-best completion percentage (70.0) in school history. Instead of testing the NFL, the senior remained in Pullman, Wash., which shows his commitment to taking the program to a higher level. "Doing the same thing he has been doing, that is one of his strongest qualities," Leach said of Falk's promise in 2017.
WR Tavares Martin -- After getting fewer targets than Gabe Marks and River Cracraft -- both of whom have exhausted their eligibility -- Martin is ready to become QB Luke Falk's primary target in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. Martin's 64 receptions for 728 yards and seven touchdowns last season was a noted increase from 2015, when he had 16 catches for 124 yards and one touchdown in 2015.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH:
S Josh Talbott -- He will compete for a starting role despite being in his first season of college football. The 6-foot freshman is known for his ability to read routes. He has tremendous closing speed on receivers. He is also physical with the ability to shed blocks. Talbott, who recorded 35 tackles and two interceptions as a senior at powerhouse Long Beach Poly (Calif.) High School, chose to sign with Washington State over Arizona, Colorado, Texas A&M, UCLA, Florida, Oklahoma and Oregon.