This is the latest in our series of stories previewing the 2017 Washington State Cougars football season. For previous installments, click here.
The Washington State offense underwent a not-so-subtle change right before our eyes last season. It wasn’t a tiger changing its stripes, rather a testament to how versatile an Air Raid offense can be. Playmakers get touches.
The first few seasons, WSU fed one single receiver position: X. The outside receiver on the left of the formation — first Marquess Wilson, then Vince Mayle — all commanded the lion’s share of targets. That shifted to the opposite side of the field with Gabe Marks at Z after Mayle left for the NFL.
Then, it changed again. Last year, the Wazzu backfield racked up 414 touches and 2,694 yards in their 13 games. F was the dominant position on the field for the first time in Mike Leach’s five years in Pullman.
The X-axis on this graph is offensive position, with touches per game on the left axis and the line corresponding to completion percentage for the position on the right axis:
The trend you’ll notice is how after Connor Halliday and Vince Mayle left, the X-heavy offense was redistributed to Z and F. Last year, F ballooned to a massive 31 touches per game and X dropped all the way to a mere six.
If you were just looking at numbers in a spreadsheet, you’d be hard-pressed to claim last year was even the same offense that was ran in seasons prior. A full 55 percent of the offense went through the F position, after hovering around 40 percent for the four seasons before it.
The Cougs upped rush attempts from around 15 per game to 22. Thirty-eight percent of their rush attempts went at least five yards, and they averaged 5.8 yards per carry with a Success Rate of 48.8 percent — 16th nationally. They were 4th nationally in Power Success Rate — 81.6 percent — measuring how often they pick up short-yardage first downs.
That level of production adds strain on opposing defensive coordinators — because stopping Wazzu’s backfield isn’t just about stopping the run.
The Coug running backs lead all skill positions with an 84 percent completion rate — as you would expect from mostly underneath routes — and receptions, with 128 in 13 games. Only the Gabe Marks-led Z position garnered more pass targets with nearly 14 per game.
The next closest backfield in the PAC-12 to the Cougs’ season reception number was Colorado with 70, nearly half as many. Wazzu backs out-gained the second-closest Buffs by an additional 380 yards — or 29.2 yards per game — in the air alone.
These weren’t dink-and-dunk, pad-the-stats receptions either. Seventy-five percent of Wazzu RB receptions went for a first down, and they averaged 8.1 yards per catch — up from 6.5 yards per catch just a year before.
"Well that’s because they throw the ball to them on third down, in passing situations where the coverage dropped and picking up a first down was easy," you might say. Nope: 52 percent of their targets were on first down and every other position on the field had more third down targets than Wazzu running backs.
They are not an afterthought, a safety valve, a thing that has to be used just to keep a defense honest. The Coug backfield was the legitimate biggest threat on one of the top-ranked passing offenses in the nation. Check out the yardage:
Now, let’s do a little projecting.
X - left of the formation
X enjoyed the fruits of Air Raid attention for a few seasons but dipped to a low in targets and receptions per game with 9.1 and 6.0 respectively, and a paltry 68 yards per game. This ... likely won’t be the case in 2017.
I’d expect X to jump a handful of touches per game, to around 9 or 10, and yardage to increase from 11.4 yards per touch in 2015 to near 12.5 yards (historical average), making X around a 115-yard position per game.
Tavares Martin Jr. returns as the receiver most likely to become The Guy for WSU. There should be a general focus back to the left side of formation with Gabe Marks leaving Z on the right and a couple exciting play-makers at H, inside X.
Martin Jr. finished up his sophomore season with 64 receptions and 728 yards, commanding the second-most attention behind Marks with 14.8% of all passing targets. Martin Jr. wasn’t targeted as often as he got behind the defense, which can and should change this season. Most corners in this conference can’t match him stride for stride outside.
While other receivers in this offense have size and a ‘move the chains’ skillset, Martin Jr. is the adrenaline shot deep threat that needs to be maximized for this offense to turn from "dangerous" and "successful" to "explosive" and downright "lethal".
Playing alongside Martin Jr. will be 6-foot-5, 211-pound beast C.J. Dimry and stud freshman Tay Martin (6-3/182). Dimry is an absolute mismatch for anyone in the conference in the redzone. Endzone fades aren’t popular with everyone; however, prepare for a lot of them that work to go to Dimry.
Martin is a somewhat unknown commodity at this point, with little more than words of a good fall camp to go on. Freshman receivers don’t crack the depth chart on this roster now without being something special.
Z - right of the formation
Last year, Wazzu Threw It Up To No. 9. The Z position led receivers with 124 targets on the season and 9.5 touches for 87.7 yards per game. Marks took on the majority of those, hauling in 89 receptions for 894 yards.
As we saw with X after Mayle left, it’d be a safe assumption that excessive Z touches would get redistributed without Marks suited up. Z will probably drop a few touches per game, functioning more as a possession and chunk yardage position, picking up somewhere around its standard 11 yards per catch.
Now, that could entirely flip with X on a by-game basis depending on whether sophomore Dezmon Patmon (6-4/212) decides to be a stud. Patmon is listed behind highly-touted sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-3/216), who backed up Marks last season, racking up 35 receptions for 246 yards.
You can see the Cougs have some real size outside at Z, with two relatively unproven guys that both have the potential to turn into all-conference types by the end of their time at WSU. Either guy could step up to take on the most reps at Z, with one sitting around 60 receptions and the other around 30 on the season, or it could be split around mid-40s for both.
Either way, WSU hasn’t ever been in the position of having a toss-up as to which side of the ball would go off during a game. For a while it was X, then it was Z, now it could legitimately be either. Big games would have this position around a dozen touches and 150 yards, the more likely average is around seven or eight touches and close to 100 yards.
Right now there’s little to go on, and all we have is potential — but that potential is real, real good.
H - left of the formation
If any position in the WSU Air Raid could be said to be the "forgotten position", it’s H. H was the only position to gain less than 800 yards on the season in 2016 and averages less than five touches per game.
People familiar with Tech’s offense would find that a little strange — Wes Welker and Danny Amendola both had huge production at H for the Red Raiders, which typically saw around 10 touches per game. It just hasn’t ever worked out at WSU that way. Now, maybe that’s because linebackers, nickels, and defenses in general have evolved and maybe that’s because the offense itself has de-emphasized the position due to who’s on the roster.
That could change in the very near future.
Robert Lewis is reportedly injured — "reportedly" because WSU doesn’t disclose injury information. While that’s terrible for one of the mainstays at receiver, who was as sure-handed and consistent as you could ask for, it does open the door for some really explosive youngsters.
Redshirt Freshman Renard Bell (5-8/162) is listed behind Lewis on the depth chart, and will probably see the most action while Lewis is sidelined ... for however long that might be. Bell is a dynamic athlete who could also factor into the Cougs’ return game. WSU hasn’t had that type of receiver at H and adding it to the mix could exploit some mis-matched linebackers and nickelbacks not prepared or equipped to run with him.
Behind Bell is presumed to be freshman Travell Harris (5-9/177). Harris had a promising fall camp, often mentioned alongside some of the top-performing receivers.
H is a typical 60-reception position on the season, and you should expect them to be around five receptions and 50 yards per game until the youngsters prove invaluable play-makers and siphon some receptions away from the potent WSU backfield.
This’ll be a wait-and-see spot with untested youth out there running routes. If teams adjust nickels to key the running backs, look out for H to step up.
Y - right of the formation
Y was second only to Z in 3rd down targets, and that was probably only because River Cracraft got injured and missed the tail-end of the season. Everyone knew what play was coming on 3rd down; you, me, all the fans, all the opposing defensive coordinators. Even if you didn’t know the play is called 95 — Y-Cross — you knew it was ‘That One Play To River In The Middle Of The Field’. That play alone moved the chains on 14-of-18 3rd down pass attempts. River was practically unstoppable.
Kyle Sweet (6-0, 193 lbs) steps into the role he filled as interim after Cracraft went down last season. Sweet was extremely productive with the touches he did get, gaining a team-high 13.2 (tied with Cracraft) yards per reception on 27 receptions.
Behind him is the marquee receiver from WSU’s last signing class, 4-star freshman Jamire Calvin (5-10, 152 lbs). Calvin is an automatic homerun threat. He’s electric enough to turn a 5-yard option route into a 50-yard house call, adding an after-the-catch dynamism that WSU hasn’t really featured on offense at the receiver position.
Cracraft was so remarkably consistent at the position the last few years, Y became the warm blanket Falk could find when situations got a little rough. That dynamic should still be there with Sweet, and Calvin adds a dash of explosiveness opposing defenses will neglect at their own peril.
Expect the six touches per game to remain around the same, but the yardage to increase from 68 yards per game to somewhere in the 80s with both Sweet and Calvin doing more with yards after the catch.
Put it all together, and it looks like this:
Washington State had an otherworldly producing backfield in 2016 that returned everyone, and even gained a Keith Harrington. The position dominated per game touches, with 31 per game last season, taking the ball out of the hands of the receivers more than we’d seen in previous years.
Those touches should dip a little bit, rush attempts should stay in the low 20s per game. The offensive line and backfield is too good not to take advantage of good run-box opportunities. However, some of the touches they get in the pass game should probably find their way into the hands of receivers just a tad more than they did last year.
If there was any criticism of the offense, which ranked 18th in scoring (38.2 PPG) and 24th in S&P+, it would be that they weren’t very explosive (89th in IsoPPP+). They didn’t push the ball downfield very much, in part because the RBs were highly productive underneath. Taking around 8 of their pass targets per game and sending them to receivers should increase offensive explosiveness and per game yardage from every position.
The Cougs will be extremely difficult to key for opposing defenses, posing threats at every single position. The pass-catching ability of the running backs, and what should be an increased dynamic at inside receiver, will prevent most everyone from having more than two linebackers on the field for any given down.
Wazzu enters 2017 with an offense that has exciting potential at every receiver position. Now it’s up to them to execute.