PULLMAN — It probably can’t be said that Mike Leach won the hearts of every Washington State football player at his introductory meeting, but he definitely endeared himself to about a dozen.
“We wouldn’t have a football team if it weren’t for those five guys in front,” Leach said. “That’s where it all starts.”
The WSU offensive linemen, the definition of anonymous, couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
“We’re all sitting around saying, ‘Finally, I’ve never heard a coach say that before,’” says guard Wade Jacobson.
For all the reams of copy written about Leach’s personal idiosyncrasies, his offense, his quarterbacks and receivers, it’s clear that the first-year WSU coach connects with the guys up front.
It was his first position as an assistant coach. And a check of NFL rosters at the time of his hire by the Cougars revealed that offensive linemen led all other positions among former Texas Tech players in the NFL.
For that reason, and the fact WSU never really got it right up front in recent years, the offensive line will be a point of intrigue, starting Thursday night at Brigham Young.
“He makes it known around this program that these guys are the top dogs,” says WSU’s 30-year-old offensive line coach, Clay McGuire. “The most important spots on the field are the offensive and defensive lines.”
In the past four seasons, the Cougars surrendered a ghoulish 186 sacks — 118 more than they achieved.
“It’s definitely something we remember,” says center Elliott Bosch, “and use as motivation.”
What might the 10 Leach years at Texas Tech tell us about what to expect from his latest team? The Red Raiders averaged 27 sacks allowed, and given that WSU averaged 46 from 2008 through 2011, the Cougars would take that in a heartbeat. McGuire was a freshman at Tech the year Leach arrived, and he sees a major difference in the dimensions of linemen at WSU.
“Our deal is to get really tall, long, athletic-type kids that can cover a lot of space,” says McGuire. “Fortunately, coming in (here), we had a lot of kids like that.
“At Texas Tech, when coach Leach got there, they really had to do a different style of recruiting. It had been foot-to-foot, three-point stance, smash-mouth football forever. They started recruiting 6-7, 250-pound tight ends, and three years down the road, you’ve got 300-pound tackles.”
Former WSU coach Paul Wulff took pride in finding bigger frames up front, and today, McGuire is working with starters — John Fullington, Jacobson, Bosch, Jake Rodgers and Dan Spitz — from 6 feet 4 to 6-7.
That’s important, because the Leach scheme puts a premium on being able to block in space, reflected in ultrawide splits.
“You’ve got a (defender) who runs 4.5 off the edge, and it’s going to take that half-step or split-second longer to get to the quarterback,” McGuire explains. “It opens up passing lanes and kind of helps the quarterback see things clearer.”
But doesn’t the added room leave linemen more vulnerable to being beaten one-on-one?
“Coach Leach is a master at mixing in quick-game runs and screens to protect the O-line so they’re not constantly five-step dropping,” says McGuire. “We run a lot of plays and by the end, our conditioning sets in. Defenses get worn down after 80 or 90 plays or so.”
Says Jacobson, “We talk with the D-linemen all the time, and they hate it. It’s hard for them. It’s a whole new world.”
This season is a bit of a leap, too, for McGuire, his first full-time job coaching an offensive line. But he was an H-back at Tech for Leach, has coached offensive positions related to the line, and Leach thought his work as a special-teams coordinator in 2007 was telling.
“He had the ability to choreograph moving parts,” Leach said. “I always thought he was more naturally suited to the offensive line for the ability to keep track of a lot of things at once.”
Today, Leach calls the WSU line the area that’s improved the most, while conceding it had the furthest to come.
“We’ve got a lot of young, unsung guys that I didn’t know we’d be talking about as being in the mix,” Leach says.
After BYU, they’d prefer not only to be unsung, but unsacked.