Washington State will put a bow on the 2015 season the day after Christmas in El Paso, but the grind never stops at the top-level of college football. While their non-football playing university compatriots get to view this week as the end of an academic semester and look forward to a month long reprieve after their last final, the Wazzu football team is just getting started on an effort to not only close out one of the best seasons in recent history, but build for an even greater run in 2016.
The Sun Bowl match-up with Miami offers more than just another opportunity to win a game; the extra practice time is about equal to what the NCAA allows in the spring. For the players, that means a greater emphasis on fundamentals and a higher degree of scrutiny on the underclassmen. For the coaches, it means juggling a practice schedule and game prep with an already loaded December recruiting slate.
A normal practice schedule resumed on Tuesday this week and will run right up until the bowl game on December 26. Typically, the Cougs will be on the field Tuesday - Wednesday - Thursday - Saturday of each week, with Thursdays hosting the underclassman "Thursday Night Football" scrimmage. Those scrimmage sessions were the main opportunity during the season that the younger guys on the roster had to display their skills in front of the eyes of the coaching staff.
The underclassmen get a little more attention in the WSU post-season.
"We focus on the younger players for the first few practices, getting them as many reps as possible," Dave Emerick, WSU Football Chief of Staff, said via email interview. "The veteran players will also take part in those early practices to keep their skills sharp, but the majority of the emphasis will be on developing our underclassmen."
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch went a little further after practice one day this week, detailing that younger players get the "play-in and play-out coaching points" on WSU's offensive and defensive techniques that they aren't really privy to during the season. Thursday Night Football continues through December, too, giving those guys precious extra reps in what most closely simulates a game-like atmosphere.
Other underclassmen you'll get to know in the future have been hard at work in relative anonymity all year. Guys like Kainoa Wilson (WR), Kaleb Fossum (WR), and Tyler Hilinski (QB) are starting to really shine and should take advantage of their extra spotlight in December practices.
After the bowl game, the players will have two weeks off until off-season conditioning resumes with the start of spring semester on January 11. They'll work out four times a week. Midnight Maneuvers, a Mike Leach invention, occupy the first two weeks of February. The intense circuit-training conditioning program starts around 10 PM and -- like just about everything in Coach Leach's practices -- is highly competitive. Pink shirts are awarded to players whose effort-level wasn't deemed to be sufficient enough.
The Coaching Staff
December is a crucial month for recruiting at WSU. Coach Leach changed strategy this season, opting to not host official visits (where the recruit's travel expenses are paid for by WSU) until after the season. That doesn't mean Pullman didn't receive any recruits during the season; special teams coach Eric Mele has mentioned that WSU has maxed out its allotment of unofficial visits (where the recruits front the bill for the trip) for just about every home game.
The Cougs had a big official visit weekend on December 4 (picking up a pair of commitments) and will host another group this weekend. Assistant coaches are all out on the road, getting last minute face time until the recruiting dead period -- where coaches aren't allowed to contact recruits -- goes into effect on December 14. That lasts until January 14.
"Mid-year guys and junior college prospects sign on December 16, so the coaching staff will be in junior college/early enrollee living rooms leading up to official visits this weekend," says our Britton Ransford. Coach Leach spent last week visiting with all the possible mid-year guys.
With this big recruiting push, only a few coaches are actually around to run practice with Coach Leach. That operation is mostly delegated to graduate assistants and experienced players.
The dead period ends on a Wednesday, and it's expected a few assistants will be back on the road as early as Thursday before hosting another official visit weekend on January 15th. The rest of the month is like that for Leach and the coaching staff, on the road Sunday through Thursday and hosting visitors in Pullman on the weekends.
National Signing Day is Wednesday, February 3, in the middle of a dead period that runs from February 1-4. A quiet period follows until the end of the recruiting cycle on April 15, when the evaluation period opens until March 16 and the whole things kicks off again.
The holiday season might be a time relaxing with friends and family for undergrads and Coug fans but for the players and coaching staff, the grind never ends.