BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Before traveling across the country to cover this weekend’s game, Christian Caple (@christiancaple), the Washington State beat writer for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., took time to answer some questions about the Cougars.
Ryan Black: People assume that Connor Halliday will be the starting quarterback when Washington State’s offense takes the field Saturday. But head coach Mike Leach showed last year he isn’t afraid to play musical chairs at the position. With that in mind, how short is Halliday’s leash with Austin Apodaca waiting in the wings?
Christian Caple: I don’t know that the leash will be all that short in the opener. I don’t think Leach was ever too quick to yank either Halliday or Jeff Tuel last season. The fact is, neither was consistently productive enough to lock down the job, but both showed enough potential that they each deserved to play. I think things would have to go pretty bad pretty fast for Halliday to be shown the bench. One of the things Leach really likes about his progression as a player is his leadership. He’s really taken control of the offense this year. So I think he’s maybe earned the right to try to work through his struggles, if he has any.
Black: We all know how abysmal the Cougars’ ground game was last season, ranking last in the nation at an almost-hard-to-believe 29.1 yards per game. Is there any reason to believe that will improve this fall?
Caple: They sure think so. There have been more than a few comments this camp about how much better they’ve gotten, partially because coaches simplified the running game as much as possible in the offseason. It seems to be paying off. You see a lot more open running space during live-action team periods than there was last season, and the running backs do seem quite a bit more decisive and all that. Not sure how often they’re going to run the ball, but I think it’s probably safe to assume it will be more than last season, when they had fewer rushing attempts than anyone in the country.
Black: There has been a lot of talk — none of it good — about Washington State’s offensive line, from the 57 sacks it allowed last year to former starter Jake Rodgers’ decision to transfer during the offseason. Is the line a big concern to those within the program? Or is this a case of outsiders blowing things out of proportion?
Caple: It was certainly a big concern after last season ended. But the confidence level is growing there. For one, they’re a heck of a lot deeper than they were last year. I think they finished the season with six healthy linemen who weren’t redshirting. This year, they can go a legitimate 10-deep if they have to, and the performance of the starters has been a little more consistent than it ever was in 2012. Of course, it’s always hard to say with any certainty that they’re going to take a huge step forward until you see them play against another team. But for now I think it’s probably a good bet that they won’t allow 57 sacks this season.
Black: Given all the focus placed on the Cougars’ offense thanks to Leach’s well-known background, what should people expect on defense? How significant is it that the unit brings back eight starters?
Caple: Yeah, there definitely won’t be a whole lot of new faces in that group. I think a reasonable argument can be made that WSU’s defensive line could end up being the strength of the defense, if not the team’s biggest strength, too. They’re big — I think when I added it up the other day, the three down linemen plus the hybrid “buck” linebacker average something like 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds — and all of those guys saw the field quite a bit last season (Ioane Gauta, the starting nose tackle, started every game). Behind them you also have a pretty experienced group of linebackers. The defensive coaches all love Darryl Monroe, the starting mike linebacker. He’s the physical kind of player (defensive coordinator) Mike Breske wants setting the tone for that group. The back end is probably the biggest question-mark. It’s the most experienced group on the team — they’ll likely start three seniors and a sophomore in the secondary — but it’s not a unit that’s had a ton of success during their careers. Beyond senior safety Deone Bucannon, there’s not a lot of reliability there. But if the secondary builds off a pretty strong spring and preseason camp, WSU’s defense could really be pretty stout, I think.
Black: What is it like covering Leach on a daily basis? It’s one thing to read about his mercurial nature and myriad interests — such as his affinity for pirates and the book he’s co-authoring on Geronimo — but it must be a different beast interacting with him multiple times every week.
Caple: That’s a question that has a pretty nuanced answer. Mike Leach is a really interesting guy, obviously, and that makes him pretty easy to talk to. I think that might surprise some people who only see the SportsCenter highlights of him saying wacky stuff during press conferences or whatever. But there’s more to him than that. And I think he has more respect for the journalism profession than most would assume. We’ve always operated on a pretty solid level of mutual respect, I think. Do I find some of his media access policies frustrating? Of course. It would be nice to talk to players during the week, for example. But he has his reasons, and I’m sure he hasn’t liked every single thing I’ve written, either. I’ve definitely never had a problem with him where I thought, “Man, I really can’t stand this guy.” It also helps that our personalities are probably more alike than they are different.
Black: BONUS QUESTION: As a graduate of the University of Washington, how often do readers bring up your college ties when they don’t like what you write? Or has it never been an issue? I can say that by and large, I received a positive reaction from Auburn supporters when I joined the beat in July, though there were a few questioning why “they brought in some Georgia grad” to cover the team.
Caple: I think people pretty much realize I’m here to do my job, and that nothing as trivial as which university I attended is going to compromise my work ethic or my integrity as a reporter. But it was certainly an issue with the vocal, irrational minority back when I was hired. Some folks cared a heck of a lot more about the whole rivalry thing than I did. I got a kick out of that. Like, what did they expect? That I was going to write about the Huskies every day or something? How would I even do that if I wanted to? Anyway, some of the emails/tweets I got were pretty entertaining. It kind of became a running joke among friends. I’d written a tongue-in-cheek rivalry column back in 2006 for the UW paper that a lot of people dug up and kind of lost their minds over, and one kid sent me a fairly reasonable tweet kind of saying, “Hey man, what gives? Do you really hate Pullman?” We had a nice back and forth, and now he’s one of my best friends. I think that about sums it up.