WSU has had some epic special teams failures in this puzzling season that already has four losses in six games, and on Monday, the special teams coach paid the price as Mike Leach has fired Eric Russell.
The move was announced by Leach at his weekly news conference.
"We made a change at special teams and well I think a great deal of coach Russell but we wanted to split the special teams up among the assistants and the way he's most effective is with him running the whole thing," Leach said, as reported by Jacob Thorpe at the Spokesman-Review. "He's a great coach. Yeah, I decided to make a change at special teams."
While the midseason timing of the move might be a surprise, the results plainly warrant a change. A pair of placekickers are 6-of-11 combined, including the 19-yard miss by Quentin Breshears in the final minute of Saturday's 60-59 loss. The Cougars have given up three kick return touchdowns in the last two weeks, including two to the Golden Bears. Punt returners have muffed a pair of kicks, the first of which likely cost WSU a win over Rutgers.
It's not too much of a stretch to say special teams miscues are directly responsible for two of WSU's four losses -- Rutgers and Cal. (You could probably make a lesser case for Oregon.) And for that, a change had to be made.
Leach places a high emphasis on special teams, as evidenced by the number of starters who play on those units, so the performance has to be especially disappointing considering Russell was highly thought of as a special teams coach when he was hired away from Tennessee.
While fans are sometimes happy to have a sacrificial lamb for their frustrations, losing an assistant does have an impact on recruiting. According to Britton Ransford of WazzuWatch.com, Russell had been involved in the recruitment of four-star cornerback Austin Joyner, although defensive coordinator Mike Breske has more or less taken that over.
Offensive quality control assistant Eric Mele has been promoted to one of the team's nine countable assistants.
"Really a lot of the same administrative stuff he was doing before and he'll head up the special teams but deal it out among the assistants and just kind of keep it organized," Leach said.