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Analyzing WSU football's skill position production in 2014

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Which positions were the most deadly for opposing defenses last season, and where might we see changes in distribution going forward?

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The Crimson and Gray game this Saturday will give us our first real look at the 2015 WSU Cougars. While we're getting geeked about next fall, let's take a look back at 2014 and evaluate how the offense performed, and how it might improve next season.

Following Coach Leach's first year in Pullman, we introduced his definition of balance and applied some metrics that his former offensive coordinator (and now head coach of West Virginia) Dana Holgorsen once used to evaluate production at each skill position. Conceptually it's pretty simple; production results from analyzing three major categories: touches at each position, yards at each position, and touchdowns at each position. This way, "balance" is a measure of how productive each position on the field is rather than how they get the ball.

"There's a whole myth about balance, and it's really stupid. The notion that you hand it to one guy half the time, and then you throw it to two other guys the other half of the time ... there's nothing balanced about it."   -WSU coach Mike Leach

You can revisit the 2013 season analysis here, and I'll be including a side-by-side comparison of each season below.

Last year, the third under Leach, Wazzu seemingly invented ways to lose games in the face of some rather gaudy offensive performances. Compiling these statistics, it's fairly clear the offense was prolific enough to win six games. It improved nearly 100 yards per game from 2013, averaged 84.5 plays per game, and increased scoring to 31.8 points per game.

Here's how the positional totals for yardage and touches compare for the past three seasons. The general idea here is that outside receivers run deeper routes and have a greater opportunity for explosives than inside receivers, therefore they should require fewer touches to garner the same yardage. Coach Leach set ballpark numbers for each position his first spring -- around 1,000 yards for each receiver position (X, H, Y, Z) and 1,400 for the running back (F).

A reminder where these positions are in the standard formation: Ace.

Ace

I wouldn't expect those numbers to be gospel, they've probably gone up quite a bit as the offense has grown into one of the top passing threats in the nation, but they're the ballpark we have for right now.

2014_Production

The darker, more narrow bars indicate yardage (right axis), and the broader, lighter bars are touches (left axis). Tabled data under "Full Season Totals" below.

2014_ProductionTable

The "TECH" column is from an interview with Holgorsen; there wasn't a specific year from where those totals came from, but it's some time around 2000 - 2004.

Here's a look on how their passing numbers stacked up nationally:

2014_offense_ranks

Statistics and rankings taken from knowhuddle.com

There's a lot of good in that table, but you don't necessarily have to be skilled at reading tea leaves to see yardage didn't translate to scoring as well as you'd like. Remove defensive problems from the equation, and you're still left with a prolific offense that just didn't make the band play the fight song as much as they could/should have.

We'll go through each offensive position and try to break out what the stats can tell us heading into next year.

Running Back (F)

Touches and yardage remained steady at F compared to 2013 (important to note there was one additional game that season).  The F position averaged 22.5 touches - 14.5 rush attempts and 8 pass receptions - per game, and I wouldn't expect that to change drastically. We may see a couple additional rush attempts, but the combined total touches per game will remain around 25.

Jamal Morrow and Gerald Wicks took the lion's share of rush attempts (49 and 35 pct, respectively) and combined for almost 3.9 yards per carry. That's about a yard less than the backfield averaged in 2013.  Of the 14.5 carries per game, roughly 60 percent were on first down, 30 percent on second down and 10 percent on third down. Consistent offensive performance could see a rise in rush calls on second and third down, and being able to confidently run at a 3rd-and-4 could really benefit this offense.

F was rock solid in the pass game, reeling in 96 of 113 total attempts for an 85.9 pct catch rate and 5.7 yards per catch. The total targets and receptions are right on par, but you'd like to see them bust a few more explosives. Jamal Morrow excelled here (7.8 yards per catch), with 62 receptions and 17 of those going for 10 or more yards.

If there's one group I'm extremely bullish on next year, it's the running backs.

Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow, and Keith Harrington -- who are toying around with the idea of calling themselves "Earth, Wind, and Fire" ... which I fully endorse -- are ready to make F a real playmaking position in 2015. Wicks, who was a little banged up last season, has bulked up a very noticeable 20 pounds and seems eager to take on the "between-the-tackles" role next year. Morrow and the smaller Harrington add the shake-n-bake. If Keith Harrington isn't a household name for Coug fans after the Crimson and Gray game, he definitely will be this fall. He's an extremely dynamic ball carrier with a huge capacity to make people miss. The kid's a highlight reel waiting to happen every time he touches the ball.

Woes in the running game have been a little exaggerated, as college rushing stats don't adjust for sacks for some archaic reason, leading to abysmal-looking yards per carry numbers (1.7 ypc is the non-sack adjusted average). The running game hasn't been great, but it also hasn't been a complete tire fire either.

Except in the red zone. F accounted for just four touchdowns on the entire season -- every single one of them being 1 yard efforts by Wicks on the goal line. That's down from 13 total TDs the year before. (For context, Tech Fs typically produced 21 total TDs).

F needs to get in the end zone more. Way more.

Wazzu ranked 84th in red zone efficiency. When we examine why yardage didn't better translate to scoring, the buck stops here. This is a problem, but an easily fixed problem if the running game improves. Instead of just wanting more rush attempts, desire more efficient carries in the red zone. That'll have the greatest impact on the offense, taking it from being dangerous to downright frightening.

The potential at this position should be exciting. Wicks looks the part of an every-down back, Morrow is way above average as a receiver out of the backfield, and Harrington has a legitimate shot at torching a defense on any given play. Earth, Wind, and Fire. I'm sold on the potential.

Inside Receiver (H)

H has been a practical non-factor in most games for WSU. Rickey Galvin had quite a few bright spots last season, but overall the position has hovered around 40 yards on five touches per game, the lowest totals of any position by more than half. H is only targeted on 10 percent of pass attempts.

Galvin made the absolute most of his targets, with a catch rate of 65 pct for 11 yards per catch. Those are very respectable numbers, and he added 4 TDs while 44.7 pct of his catches went for first downs.

Of all the receiver positions, H has the most opportunity for growth. The position has been underutilized over the past few seasons, and an influx of new talent may change that. Robert Lewis shifted over to H with Calvin Green moving outside. Lewis has reached the point where it'll be hard to keep him off the field, and with River Cracraft being more or less unstoppable at Y, H could be where Lewis sees the most run. True freshman Kyle Sweet also will push at this position next fall, and it wouldn't be far fetched to pencil him into the two-deep right now. Both Lewis and Sweet are dynamic after the catch, something that could really change how productive this position is with its limited targets.

... and there's still Brett Bartolone on the roster. Injury has kept him from participating the last couple years, but there's always the chance he's (truly) happy and healthy and ready to throw his hat in the ring this fall.

X dominated targets, and for good reason, but that should spread out a lot more next year.  If H can prove to be productive, those touches should bump up to 6-8 and it could be an 80-yard-per-game position.

Inside Receiver (Y)

River Cracraft is a force. He hauled in 67 of his 96 targets -- a 69.8 pct catch rate -- for 770 yards and 8 TDs. He doubled the yardage production at Y on twice as many touches compared to 2013, maintaining an 11.5 yards per catch average.

Cracraft was relied upon to move the chains. He was targeted on third down a team-high 32 times, catching 22 of them and turning 14 of those into a first down. Only Vince Mayle converted more third downs (15), and 48 percent of his receptions went for at least 10 yards.

If there's anywhere we could ask for improvement, it's in explosives. Part of that is just the nature of his routes, but only eight of Cracraft's receptions went for more than 20 yards. Up that to 12, or around one explosive a game, and he could be in the 900 - 1000 yard range with a similar (70-ish) number of receptions. Cracraft could also see a bump in targets per game when X's share gets redistributed, but 11 touches is already pretty high.

Tyler Baker made a name for himself after Cracraft went down, immediately establishing a connection with Luke Falk in the win over Oregon State, hauling in 9 of 11 targets for 113 yards and one TD. Three of those completions went for over 20 yards. Baker's a very solid No. 2 at Y, now entering his RS-Senior year after transferring from Ole Miss ... and he has a pet wolf.

Outside Receiver (X)

Vince Mayle was a Biletnikof Award finalist because his stats were outrageous. Mayle caught 106 of his 167 targets for 1,484 yards and 9 TDs. That's a 66.7 pct catch rate for 14 yards per catch, with 53 percent of his catches going for first downs. He had 22 receptions that went for at least 20 yards.

Dom Williams was no slouch either. Williams had 638 yards and 8 TDs on 42 receptions, and led the team with 15.2 yards per catch. His 71.2 percent catch rate was second among receivers (Robert Lewis was at 75.9 percent). Williams steps into what's been The Go-To Position for WSU over the past few seasons; expect him to essentially double his receptions next year. Replacing Mayle's production will probably not be possible -- no discredit to Williams, who should be a 1,000-yard receiver -- but getting X to around 115 yards per game on around 8 or 9 touches is entirely feasible.

Only, there's some real question marks behind Williams.

JUCO transfer C.J. Dimry was recruited to play outside, and has some impressive measurables at 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, but he looks a little raw in his available highlights. He could easily be a factor, especially in the red zone; it's just a question of how quickly he assimilates into the offense.

The other back-up we'll get a look at this Spring Game is Dan "Post" Lilienthal. Lilienthal earned the nickname by 1) having a mouthful of a last name, and 2) roasting dudes on post routes. Jacob Thorpe of the Spokesman-Review had him at 6 receptions for 100 yards and 2 TDs in their first scrimmage this season, and true to his namesake, "four of those receptions, if not five or six, came on post routes". Coaches have heaped a ton of praise on Dan Post this spring, referencing the amount of effort he's put into off-season workouts and the huge potential he has. If he figures out how good he is, he could end up sliding into that 30-40 reception range behind Williams this fall.

Outside Receiver (Z)

If Mayle was a little closer to human, we might all have realized just how amazing Isiah Myers was last season. He was first or second on the team in nearly every statistical category. Myers racked up 72 receptions for 972 yards and 12 TDs, with a 70.3 pct catch rate and 12.5 yards per catch. He was also a primary red zone threat, being targeted a team high 24 times in the red zone resulting in 10 TDs.

It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Marks go Mayle-level bananas. He's that good.

Returning to the spotlight after a redshirt year -- where he dabbled at quarterback with the scout team -- is Gabe Marks. In Marks' last season (2013) he tallied 807 yards on 74 receptions. I'd expect both of those to increase dramatically. X had twice as many targets as Z last season, and they should be a lot closer to level -- if not in favor of Marks -- next year. This will be a real different look for fans, and defenses, than the X heavy offense they've relied on in the past.

Last season, Z went for 6.7 touches and 84 yards per game. With Marks and speed-demon Calvin Green at the position, they should garner significantly more attention. I'd guess the touches increase to around 10 and the yardage bumps up to around 140 per game. Z could easily be one of the most exciting positions on the field next fall. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Marks go Mayle-level bananas either. He's that good.

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Next fall will bring some big changes, most noticeably at quarterback, but also which positions generate big plays. X has been the focal point of the passing attack for all three seasons under Coach Leach, and that'll probably shift over to Z with Gabe Marks and Calvin Green next year. F will also see a lot more plays, as they've somewhat silently been the workhorses of the offense the past couple years, getting their 1400 yards and 20 touches per game. The trio next season could turn that into a 150-yard-per-game position with 25 touches.

Last year X was responsible for 17 touchdowns, Y and Z both got 12 TDs, with H and F both at 4 TDs. Four is a ridiculously low number for your running backs, and that shouldn't happen again. In addition to the upped yardage, expect F to reach the end zone around 15 times, over once per game.

Despite losing an NFL-caliber QB and world class receiver, the offense still has pieces to be as productive. If they can only find a way to turn yardage into touchdowns, they might just start cooking with gas.