Key returning starters: QB Luke Falk, RB Gerard Wicks, WR Gabe Marks, WR River Cracraft, C Riley Sorenson
All-league quarterback Luke Falk has plenty of weapons surrounding him but is depending on a pair of new starters to protect his blindside, likely sophomore Andre Dillard at left tackle and Cody O’Connell at left guard. The Cougars offensive line gave up among the most sacks in the FBS last season (3.15 per game), including one that forced Falk to miss the blowout regular-season finale loss at rival Washington due to a concussion.
Key returning starters: DE Hercules Mata’afa, LB Peyton Pelluer, S Shalom Luani
The defensive line will have to find new penetration with the losses of Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao, who combined for 11 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss last season. The group’s depth will also be tested by its eight-man rotation as the Cougars need to improve at third-down conversion defense after being one of the nation’s worst last season (44.5% allowed conversion rate).
Leader in rushing: Gerard Wicks. A big, bruising running back who’s versatile, he averaged 5.7 yards on just 107 carries last season and continues to improve each year.
Leader in receiving: Marks. He led the Pac-12 in receptions last season, and Leach raves about his work ethic, calling him a Marvin Harrison-type.
Leader in sacks: Mata’afa. The defensive end is undersized (6’ 2”, 225 pounds) and hardly a weight-room warrior. But he has a tremendous understanding of leverage, exceptional field strength and a relentless motor, which explains why double-teams can’t consistently stop him.
Leader in interceptions: Luani. He’s got a knack for making big plays, even in the other football, ranking among his native American Samoa’s all-time leading goal scorers in FIFA competitions.
Opposing coach's take
“It’s the same pass-happy, Air Raid offense that coach Mike Leach has always run. He’s all about leverage of the defenders. He’s going to run his spacing routes and then his crossing routes. He puts a lot in the receivers’ hands—they have to read the leverage of the guys covering them. They do a damn good job and the quarterback knows exactly where to throw it.
[Junior] Luke Falk is probably more talented than some of Leach’s past signal-callers, but it’s hard to know because he doesn’t read anything, he just runs through progressions. Falk took way too many hits last year, and I’m sure he will again this season, but protection has always been a huge issue for Leach’s quarterbacks.
Falk and his receivers are so quick throwing the ball that it talks you out of blitzing them a lot. The teams that hit Falk the most last season did it using three-man rushes and dropping eight in coverage, which made him hold the ball longer. [Senior wide receiver] Gabe Marks is dangerous outside, and their inside possession receivers do exactly what’s expected: catch the ball, get whacked and carry on.
Defensively, their strength has always been their big linemen, and they’ve got another budding star in [sophomore] end Hercules Mata’afa. Senior safety Shalom Luani isn’t great in coverage, so you want to attack him, but he’s a sure-tackling, heavy hitter. If you can run and make them pack the box, I’d take matchups all day against their corners in man coverage, which they don’t play much.
They went 9–4 last season but I thought the whole Pac-12 was down, so I’m not sure they were much better than when they went 3–9 in 2014. This year they might be an even better team, but they might not have as good a record.”
There’s plenty of buzz about tailback James Williams, who sat out last season to recover from a knee injury he suffered as a senior at Burbank (Calif.) High. The 5' 11", 195-pound freshman moves well laterally, can break tackles and has reliable hands. He’s the sort of dual-threat back that has prospered under coach Mike Leach.
11: Tackles for loss in 2015 by MLB Peyton Pelluer, now a junior and the only returnee in double digits.
5.7: Yards per carry for now junior RB Gerard Wicks, who’ll be pushed for playing time by 5' 10", 195-pound freshman James Williams.
74: Passing attempts by Luke Falk in a 45–38 double-OT win over Oregon, his highest total last season. As a junior he had four of the five games with the most attempts in the FBS.
4.9: Yards per carry allowed by the Cougars last year, seventh in the Pac-12. Two of four starting D-linemen are back.
94.5%: Red zone scoring percentage, which was second nationally.
at Boise State
at Arizona State
at Oregon State