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August 15, 2013

Leach: We're a very different team



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. | Nearly two weeks into Washington State's fall camp, Mike Leach has the Cougars firing on all cylinders and while the jury is still out on how 2013 will pan out in the wins and losses column, the culture change that the staff has been pushing is steadily soaking in.

"We're still a work in progress," Leach said Wednesday in a radio interview on WJOX-94.5 in Birmingham. "We move along, everybody can work harder than they think and that's a discovery process every day."

With a new coach, a new system and essentially a new way of going about every day football things, it was expected that there would be a large turnover in terms of players departing the program - and there was.

The players that remain, however, are quickly buying in and the dividends are paying off this fall.

Led by redshirt junior quarterback Connor Halliday and redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Gunnar Eklund, it's been evident during the first two weeks of camp that it's a fun atmosphere to be in and the team is closer than they were a long year ago.

"I think it's accurate that we're a very different team and different people than we were a year ago," Leach said of the team's adjusting culture. "It's kind of just a group unit commitment and I think Elliot and Connor are a big part of that."

Halliday has been impressive this fall after toning down his 'all-or-nothing' mentality down the field that plagued him at times last season. Hoping to cut down on his interceptions and be more consistent within the offense, Halliday, along with redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, looks to be turning the corner in Leach's pass-heavy offense.

Leach has produced several record-breaking quarterbacks during his time at Texas Tech and it pondered the question whether there's a quarterback on the Washington State roster that could emulate the successes of his former standout signal callers.

"I think he does," Leach said of Halliday's potential to become his next great Air Raid quarterback. "But of course he's competing with Apodaca and both of them had good springs. I think either one of them can, but it's not like either one of them do it individually."

Alluding to the team effort and commitment as a unit, Leach said it takes full effort from the offensive line and the receiving core for them all to improve together.

Executing is something that the team struggled at mightily during their 3-9 campaign in 2012 but according to the Cougars' head coach, that's something the team has focused on this off-season.

"No matter what, football is a game of execution," Leach said. "Last year, we were better at exploding individual effort here and there than we were at executing individual plays, but we're better at executing plays now.

The increased intensity and focus of this season's fall camp -- in comparison to last year's team -- is that with added depth and the majority of the team returning, there is more competition all over the field.

At times during practice last year, one side would struggle and not be able to turn it around until the next day or practice. Leach says that is an area that has been much better this fall.

"We have had a real excited and spirited camp but like anybody we've had bad plays here and there," Leach said. "We have really good overall excitement and no side really gets the upper hand.

"Last year one side would get the upper hand and the other side would collapse and you couldn't resuscitate until the next day. It's just a more competitive environment this year."

Following Friday's scrimmage the team will shift their focus to the season opener at Auburn on August 31 in what will be Gus Malzahn's first game as head coach of the Tigers.

Leach believes that Auburn has a chance to get "pretty good, pretty quickly" with a talented stable of players but acknowledges that there are still some challenges the Tigers likely face. Overall, though, they have a good idea of what to expect come the season opener.

"He's [Malzahn] certainly got the players to do it but with that said - you mentioned the four quarterback battle - everyone is working on something and I'm sure Auburn has some challenges," Leach said. "The biggest thing is that head coaches around the country, as they've built their careers, they've developed schemes and packages and ideas that are important to them and they're not going to vary much from that."

The Cougars plan to watch film of Malzahn's two stops at Arkansas State and Auburn while to get a sense of what the Tigers will do on offense. The same goes for new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson who has made a name for himself throughout the SEC as a defensive guru.

For now, Leach remains focused on what his team can do and how much they can improve themselves before worrying about what Auburn will do. It's a continual process and one that has seen the Cougars make significant strides during the off-season as they head into 2013.

"We need to get better everywhere and I think we have," Leach said. "We desperately needed a good offseason - actually we need two of them - but we've had one."




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