Cougars seek to improve on best season in decade

Washington State coach Mike Leach has opened his fifth session of spring practice in Pullman with the goal of building on the program's best season in more than a decade.

The Cougars finished 9-4 last year and beat Miami in the Sun Bowl.

Leach said a lot of the improvement was the result of spring practice, which the Cougars began last week.

''We have a huge emphasis on spring,'' Leach said. ''It lays the foundation for the team to be as good as it can possibly be.''

Spring practice will include 15 dates that conclude April 26. The annual Crimson and Gray Game will be held April 23 at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane.

Offensively, the Cougars return eight starters from 2015, including All-Pac-12 performers Luke Falk at quarterback and Gabe Marks at receiver.

For the second straight season, the Cougars led the nation in passing offense at 389.5 yards per game.

Marks led the Pac-12 with 1,192 receiving yards, and there was talk he might forsake his senior season for the NFL.

''Gabe is a really committed guy,'' Leach said. ''He is excited to be part of this team.''

Falk, meanwhile, is being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

''He is ridiculously highly motivated,'' Leach said. ''We've got to keep an eye on him to make sure he is not overdoing something.''

Defensively, Washington State looks for continued improvement under second-year coordinator Alex Grinch.

The Cougars defense forced 24 turnovers and allowed 27.7 points per game last season, improving on the 38.6-point average from the season before.

Because this is a veteran team, the Cougars expect relatively few position battles.

A big job will be replacing star offensive lineman Joe Dahl. Leach is eyeing Andre Dillard at Dahl's left tackle spot.

The running back position also poses questions, mostly because there are four candidates for the starting job.

The Cougars rotated three running backs last year in Keith Harrington, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks. While the three were effective, collectively averaging 6.1 yards per carry, no one stood out.

''If you were to ask me among those three, who's the best of those three, I would say at what?''' Leach said. ''If one of them can separate themselves over the others, he's going to get more reps.''

James Williams, who redshirted last season, is also in the running back mix.

On defense, the Cougars have openings at safety and linebacker. The team lost a pair of all-conference defensive ends in Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao, but returnee Hercules Mata'afa stood out at the end of last season.

`'He needs to stay focused and keep working hard,'' Leach said of Mata'afa. ''He can elevate his play.''

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