PROVO — First-year Washington State coach Mike Leach is colorful and entertaining, and the same can be said of his "Air Raid" offense.
Leach, a BYU alum, has a proven track record when it comes to offensive fireworks, most notably at Texas Tech, where Leach's teams were known for passing the ball 60-plus times per game, and scoring points in bushels.
Last November, Leach took over a Washington State program that has been struggling for years. Fans in Pullman are hoping his free-spirit persona and his pass-happy brand of offense can make the football program relevant again on a national scale.
So far, it's working.
Washington State will appear on ESPN, or any ESPN network, for the first time since 2006 when they visit BYU Thursday (8:15 p.m., MT, ESPN) in the season-opener and Leach's WSU debut.
How quickly will his players be able to execute the "Air Raid" offense? How good can his team be this season? Leach is unsure.
"The whole 'Where are we at?' I don't know. I wish I could tell you," Leach said. "We've had good practices. There's only one practice that I can think of that I'm really ticked off about … I feel good about our progress, but we haven't played a game. The evaluation you get, especially from the first three games, is really critical as far as shaping the team and where you go from there. I'm kind of curious myself."
Based on personnel, Washington State is well-equipped to pass the ball. The Cougars were No. 9 nationally last season in passing, averaging 322 yards per game, and they scored nearly 30 points per game.
WSU boasts senior quarterback Jeff Tuel, who was injured for much of last season. He completed 19-of-21 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Then there's sophomore Connor Halliday, who saw action a year ago.
But when asked if Tuel will start against BYU, Leach replied, "He's gotten most of the reps. If we were to play today, he would. He's had a good camp. I expect him to have a good week. He's played well. Of course, Connor does some good things, too."
Leach said he likes Tuel's ability to direct the offense and lead the team. "He's a really good leader. He does a really good job … I think the team responds to him because they know how dedicated Jeff is and how hard he's worked. He provides a lot of direction."
Tuel and Halliday have one of the best wide receivers in the Pac-12 to throw to in 6-foot-4 junior Marquess Wilson, who has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has a number of concerns when it comes to defending the "Air Raid."
"The number of times the ball goes in the air, the number of snaps that you have to defend, sometimes the tempo in which you're defending it, and how the field is spread with really good athletes, and a really experienced and successful coach in moving the football," the coach said. "We think they'll be good even though this is the first game."
Senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree understands that WSU has the ability to score points.
"It's a huge challenge for us," Ogletree said. "We're ready to have an occasion to rise to. I think we'll do well. It's as good a test as we could possibly see in the country. Coach Leach will always have a great offense. For us to go against their offense is a huge test."
BYU's defense is expected to play a lot of nickel package, featuring five defensive backs, to defend the "Air Raid" attack.
When Mendenhall was the defensive coordinator at New Mexico, he faced Leach's Texas Tech teams a few times.
"There's so many plays. One time at New Mexico, I think we played 113 plays against them," Mendenhall said. "There's going to be a lot of snaps. When you put that amount of volume with balls in the air against the secondary, that's a lot."
Meanwhile, Washington State is also installing a new system on the other side of the ball — a 3-4 defense. The new defensive coordinator is Mike Breske, whom BYU faced when he held that position at Wyoming a few years ago.
"At least there's film and some history," Mendenhall said. "How much has changed based on the personnel they have, we won't know until we play. But at least there's some point of reference."
Although BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman is preparing to face WSU's defense, he knows all about Leach and his reputation.
"Anytime you play against Mike Leach's football team, wherever he's at, I think that's a nerve-wracking event," he said. "We've got to be ready to play well."
Washington State at BYU
Thursday, 8:15 p.m. MT
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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