Analyzing the production of WSU's skill positions

William Mancebo

Welcome to CougCenter Reloaded, where we promote some of our smart articles from the recent past. Most would say the offense took strides last season. We look at the stats to see where they stepped forward...and see where they really need to step up this season.

As the Cougs gear up for their final scrimmage of the spring with Saturday's Crimson and Gray game, let's take a look back at their 2013 campaign.

We introduced coach Mike Leach's definition of "balance" last year, and used some of the metrics his former staff deemed important at Texas Tech to evaluate the offense here at Washington State. It's important to remember that Coach Leach doesn't care about the number of run plays versus pass plays called during a game, at all. You'll see below that the Coug running backs were very involved, even when a run play wasn't called.

Paraphrasing Coach: How is it "balanced" to have one running back touch the ball half the time, then have three or four receivers divide that remaining fifty percent?

Instead, he evaluates balance by looking at the distribution to his five skill positions on the field; X, H, F, Y and Z.

A brief refresher on where these positions are located:

1_ace

In a pre-2012 season interview, Coach Leach set a tentative benchmark for season totals in yardage at 1,400 for the running back "F" (includes rush and pass), and around 1,000 for each of the wide receiver positions. Outside receivers (X, Z) should have more yardage on fewer touches, because their routes tend to be a little deeper downfield; it then follows that the inside receivers (H, Y) should have a few more touches to get to the same yardage, with their routes being mostly underneath.

Here's how the 2013 positional contribution totals compare to 2012.

Editor's note: 2013 totals include one more game than 2012...and regardless of the outcome that still feels damn good to say

Production_pos_2013-2012

Above: the 2012 season is in gray tones, and the 2013 season is in crimson tones. Touches are the wider columns, and measure against the axis to the left. Yardage columns are thinner and darker, measuring against the axis to the right.

Touches and yardage incrementally improved at three spots. WSU got its skill players more touches by completing a higher percentage of passes, and the skill players did more with the football after they caught it. They also ran nearly four more plays (76.8) per game than they did in 2012. F production jumps out as a major improvement. A lot of that can be attributed to the big guys up front and the massive gains made in the running game. And then there's H, the only position on the field that didn't improve its on-field production from 2012.

How does the balance compare to positional distributions we saw from Air Raid teams at Texas Tech?

Compare_tech

If we normalize each position to the per game total for each metric, we get a ratio that tells us how much that position contributed per game. To generate the graphic above, we subtracted this WSU ratio from what each position did at Tech. We did a similar thing for last season. Bars in the positive (up) direction mean those positions contributed more to WSU's game totals than that position typically did at Texas Tech, and bars in the negative (down) direction mean the positions at Tech accumulated a greater percentage on a per game basis.

If anything, this graph should highlight how underwhelming H has been for WSU, compared to when Coach Leach was running his system at Texas Tech. The Cougs are really close on yardage distribution, and a ways off that stunning touchdown distribution which had nearly equal low-teens touchdowns at each receiver and low-twenties at F.

As in 2012, the Cougs relied on the outside receivers again in 2013. And really, how could you not with all the playmakers stacked up out there? With the boost in overall completion percentage (62.9 percent), the Cougs saw pretty massive yardage gains at some positions, and slight increases in touches per game, with only a minimal increase in total plays per game. Increasing the completion percentage is the easiest way to increase touches; trying to make up the difference by running more plays a game isn't exactly an efficient, or easily accomplished solution. The huge reduction in sacks also played a role in getting their skill players six more touches a game than they did in 2012.

Here's our tabled data for the three metrics; Touches, Yards, and Touchdowns

Touches per game
Tech WSU 2012 WSU 2013
X 8.5 9.1 10.4
H 10.6 5.3 4.5
F 21.5 17.8 21.3
Y 7.3 4.3 5.6
Z 7.6 7.6 8.5
TOTAL 55.5 44.1 50.3
Yards per game
Tech WSU 2012 WSU 2013
X 122.3 130.9 129.4
H 104.1 41.7 30.9
F 148 72.7 115.7
Y 86 53.3 65.9
Z 111 81.3 95.8
TOTAL 571.4 379.9 437.7
Total touchdowns
Tech WSU 2012 WSU 2013
X 14 12 14
H 11 4 4
F 21 7 13
Y 12 0 5
Z 10 6 10
TOTAL 68 29 46

On a yardage per game basis, the Cougs took baby steps at most receiver positions toward Tech's video game stats. F took a giant leap and H dropped a bit. Let's go through it by position.

Running back (F)

It would've been a monumental achievement if this position didn't improve on a 2012 effort that had 4 rushing touchdowns in 11 games -- only three touchdowns in the Apple Cup kept the season total from looking truly pathetic. Efficiency is the name of the game here. Wazzu backs garnered 43 more yards per game on four additional touches in 2013; Marcus Mason, Jeremiah Laufasa, Teondray Caldwell, and Theron West combined to rush for 4.9 yards per carry.

A lot of that has to do with the offensive line. The Cougs don't often (if at all) call running plays from the sideline; instead, it's on quarterback Connor Halliday. If Halliday sees a favorable front, he goes to a run-check. From there the center -- Elliot Bosch last season -- identifies the Mike (middle) linebacker and dictates how they'll handle things up front. Bosch was outstanding. If a run didn't work out, it was rarely because they blocked it incorrectly.

F also caught 92 of 118 targets, a very appropriate 78 percent completion rate, and right in the typical range for receptions at Tech (avg: 95). This is remarkable when compared to the 49 receptions and 67 percent completion rate last season.

Looking forward, there's no reason to think this position will take any steps backward. Replacing Bosch is the biggest challenge, but the backfield is full of playmakers whose talent and experience alone should improve on last season's totals. WSU just needs to keep the running game production around the five-yard-per-carry mark, and get a few more explosive touches (either run or pass) to make sure that per game yardage total is high.

F gained 1504 yards from scrimmage last season, above the 1400 yard mark Coach Leach set for his first year in 2012.

Outside receiver (X)

In 2012, X gained the most yardage on the most touches, thanks in large part to Marquess Wilson. We hypothesized replacing Wilson's production would be difficult, and the challenge would be maintaining the yardage output with the same touches per game. Receivers Vince Mayle, Dom Williams and Kristoff Williams did just that, averaging a mere one yard less, on one more touch per game than the Wilson-dominated 2012. This is still around six yards more than X would get per game at Tech.

The position is producing right around where it should, racking up 1,682 yards on the season, a team high. X also led the team in total touchdowns with 14, as both Mayle and Dom Williams had seven. There's not much to say about X receiver data, other than it's awesome and will most likely continue to be a spot for big plays next season with both Dom Williams and Mayle returning to the outside.

Oh and apparently Mayle, who went for 539 yards on 42 receptions last season "slimmed down" to 219 and has been perfecting his route running while getting faster. Dom Williams averaged 16.2 yards every time he caught the ball, leading the team. This position was dangerous, and is probably even more-so for opposing defenses next season.

Outside receiver (Z)

In 2012, Gabe Marks picked up 560 yards on 49 receptions as a freshman. In 2013, there was an uptick in both, as Marks finished with 807 yards on 74 receptions. The Z position gained an extra 14 yards on one additional touch per game than it did in 2012. Both the outside receiver positions (X, Z) sat around a 61 percent completion rate.

There's an absolute abundance of talent at wide receiver. The added per game yardage at Z is essentially one extra completion, with its 11.2 yard per catch rate. Improvement here could be found in the "explosives." Explosives are plays that go for 15 or more yards. Last season, Z hit an explosive on 21 percent of its receptions (23 total). The X position was at 25 percent (34 total). Getting Z to match X in explosives (+1 per game) would easily drive its per game yardage output up to the Tech benchmark.

Inside receiver (H)

Brett Bartolone was the primary H target in 2012, getting 59 receptions. Unfortunately, Bartolone had a bit of an injury-plagued 2013 and was only able to haul in 10 catches. This left the heavy-lifting to Rickey Galvin, who was forced to take the lion's share of snaps instead of the platoon we thought we'd see at the position. Galvin managed 39 receptions for 311 yards.

When we look at the differences between WSU's Air Raid and Tech's, production at H is glaring. The completion percentage jumped up from 59 percent in 2012 to 66 percent in 2013, but the targets decreased significantly. Whereas H was the second-most targeted position in 2012, last season it was the least with 88. Even F had more passing targets (118).

If there is a spot WSU could improve significantly, it's at H. Looking at Tech production, WSU is maybe a touch, or a single explosive short of their per game averages at every position but H. H is a full 73 yards and six touches per game off that high-water mark. That's not insignificant, especially when considering how an effective H in the underneath routes can dictate what a team is able to do defensively. The offense just can't reach its full potential until this position steps up.

Good news? Bartolone should, hopefully, be happy and healthy for 2014. His freshman year was great, all things considered, and we have every reason to be bullish toward his play next season. Add that to a returning senior in Galvin, and once again we're left thinking a rotation of the two could end up doing some real damage.

Inside Receiver (Y)

We get to end on a real positive note here. River Cracraft gave WSU the viable weapon at Y it was missing in 2012. Cracraft boosted production at that position by 13 yards a game with just one additional touch. Y was targeted 114 times in 2013 with a completion rate of 64 percent. That's fewer targets than the outside receivers, but Y bolstered an 11.74 yards per catch rate, and only X was higher (12.46), and turned 23.3 percent of its receptions into explosives. Pretty staggering when you remember inside receivers are supposed to be needing more touches to get more yards.

The real impact came in the red zone, where Y got 32 percent of its targets (34 total) which it turned into 5 touchdowns (3 by Cracraft). WSU was able to allocate about 19 percent of its red zone touches to F, Y, and Z. X got the most attention with 30 percent of touches in the red zone, H was at 13%. This is a far more balanced attack than the Cougs deployed in 2012.

As good as Cracraft was last season, he's expected to exceed that production next year...and possibly by a lot. He finished the season with 614 yards on 46 receptions (13.3 YPC). It's hard to ask for much more than a 64 percent catch rate, so you need to look at target allocation. X gets about two more touches per game than the "balanced" example we have in Tech. That's conveniently enough to make up the two-touch disparity at Y.

Cracraft accounted for 60 percent of the Y touches but 72 percent of the total yardage, if he gets an expanded role next season and can maintain that YPC rate, Y could be a major yardage contributor for the offense.

---

Washington State's Air Raid took off last season, with the end result being a trip to New Mexico and shiny bowl rings. It shouldn't be extremely surprising that as the positions got progressively closer to the output Coach Leach expects, the team found some success.

And they did that even with a severely under-producing H. Following 2012, all eyes went to the running game in the off-season and they kept on watching as the position became a real source of consistent yardage in 2013. This spring, your attention should be on H -- that's where this offense will be able to make the largest gains compared to last year, and could very well be the difference between a competitive WSU and a contender WSU next season.

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