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Analyzing WSU's skill player production in 2015

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How did the distribution of touches change this past season? Where were Luke Falk's favorite places to go with the ball? That and more in this deep dive into numbers, graphs and strategy.

Luke Falk drops it in a bucket for Gabe Marks against Oregon. Six.
Luke Falk drops it in a bucket for Gabe Marks against Oregon. Six.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Washington State stumbled out the gate in 2015, then went on to finish the season with more wins than any Coug team in more than a decade. It was a roller coaster of a football season -- to put it gently -- with more highs than lows, multiple unbelievable finishes, and some of the best football we've seen on the Palouse in a long time.

There are three phases to the game -- offense, defense, and special teams -- all of which contribute to a team's success. In this post, we'll take a look at the offense in 2015: First, by evaluating production from the various position groups on the field, and then, by examining some of the characteristics of the offense as a whole.

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.

Prior Season Analysis: 2012 2013 2014

While the 2014 season remains the high-water mark in terms of gaudy offensive statistics, last season wasn't too shabby either. Three positions on the field generated more than 100 yards of offense per game, and all four receiver positions tallied over 10 yards per catch for the first time under Mike Leach.

Here's a quick reminder where each position is in Wazzu's standard "Ace" formation. In very general terms, the outside receivers should have more yardage on fewer touches than the inside receivers and the running back, simply due to the nature of the routes they run. Outside receivers will typically stretch the field vertically more frequently than inside receivers.

formation_Ace_new

The following graphs will attempt to show that disribution among the positions in the offense. First is "touches", literally the number of times that position touched the ball; both completed passes and rush attempts. The second shows the per game yardage gained by each position; both completed passes and rush attempts. Graphical data is presented in a table between the two figures.

Positions are the categories in the figure below -- ordered left to right as they are on the field -- with the seasons ordered chronologically in columns (left axis). Last season (2015) are the crimson columns. The black line represents the average completion percentage from last season for each position on the field (right axis).

2015_touches2

Per Game Averages

2015_production_pergame

Graph for yardage below is organized identical to the one for touches. Columns indicating yardage per game for each position over the past four seasons are measured on the left axis. The line represents the average yardage per catch (YPC) for each position last season, and corresponds with the right axis.

2015_yardage2

We'll go through each position in depth a little further down, but the big picture is that WSU redistributed X touches from 2014 -- which were obscene due to a combination of Vince Mayle and Dom Williams on the same side of the field and Gabe Marks off it on the other side -- fairly evenly, and F was more involved.

Receiver positions H, Y, and Z all had catch rates above 67 pct. Only X was significantly lower, which is to be expected from a deep-threat position. Running back routes are generally within five yards of the line of scrimmage, lending them the highest completion percentage at close to 80 percent.

Last season, WSU averaged about five fewer plays and eight fewer pass attempts per game than it did in 2014, but upped its rush attempts (running back "F" only) by about one per game and its completion percentage across the board by a couple points. This results in about 54 touches by the Cougar skill players per game, down by just three from 2014.

Full Season Totals (2013 and 2015 had 13 games)

2015_fullseasontotals2

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Here's a look at how the WSU passing offense stacked up nationally over the past two seasons.

2015_knowhuddle_table2

The conversion percentage can change pretty drastically by only a few plays. WSU attempted roughly the same amount of 4th downs last year as they did in 2014 (39 and 40, respectively), but converted eight more times (26 total) than they did that previous year.

For the other categories, in terms of national rank, everything is fairly similar except for one massive improvement in 2015: red zone offense. This statistic reports the percentage of drives that end in points out of the total number of times the offense reached the red zone (inside the opponent's 20 yard line). It doesn't differentiate between touchdowns and field goals.

When we were trying to understand how that phenomenal yardage in 2014 didn't translate to scoring -- and therefore wins, presumably -- a terrible red zone efficiency was a decent culprit and by extension, the kicking game. The Cougs attempted nine more field goals in 2015, making 20-of-26 overall and 16-of-18 attempts in the red zone.

Wazzu only tripped inside the opponent's 20 yard line and didn't come up with points three times all season (55 total attempts). That happened 12 times in 2014. Responsibility falls partly on more successful kicking attempts and less failed 4th down conversions, and partly on an extremely successful passing game that notched a touchdown or first down on over half of all completions inside the opponent's 30 yard line.

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Outside Receiver (X)

Last Name

First Name

Class

Position

Targets

Completions

Yards

YPC

Catch Rate

TDs

Explosives

Williams

Dom

SR

X

130

75

1040

13.9

57.7%

11

15

Priester

Kyrin

SO

X

43

33

241

7.3

76.7%

1

3

Lilienthal

Daniel

SR

X

6

4

32

8.0

66.7%

0

0

We knew replicating Vince Mayle's 176 targets and 1484 yards from 2014 would be a tall order, and projected X would be an eight or nine touch per game position that went for 115 yards in 2015, with Dom Williams cracking 1000 yards on the season. After three seasons of an offense that was real X-heavy, things finally balanced out between the outside receiver positions.

X was right on track with it's 8.7 touches per game, but dropped yardage production (101.4 ypg) a little below what we expected. Williams' yards per catch decreased by a little over a yard from last year, down to 13.9, and his catch rate fell from 71 pct in 2014 to below 58 pct for last season.

Kyrin Priester got the most game reps at number two on the depth chart, adding a dynamic run threat on fly sweeps and screens to the outside. While he did break a few last season, with most of Priester's touches being short yardage play designs, the overall per reception yardage at the position decreased.

Williams was the second-most explosive receiver on the team behind Gabe Marks, with 15 receptions going for more than 20 yards as he ran a fade route about as well as anyone in college. Going forward, X should continue to post around 15 yards per catch with around 9 touches per game, and is the most open receiver position for younger players trying to get on the field -- especially for someone that can prove to be a downfield threat.

To that end, incoming freshman Isaiah Johnson (who is already on campus) is probably the favorite to compete with Priester for time at X (story and highlights here). Johnson carries the prototypical outside receiver frame at 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds and was highly touted out of high school; he verbally committed to Miami, Louisville, and Florida before finally deciding on Washington State.

He's not alone in this recruiting class though. Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 202) is another big receiver that could compete right away (story and highlights here). Patmon was used primarily as a vertical guy in high school and shows a great ability to win the body position fight for a 50/50 ball.

Grant Porter (6-2, 184) is the other receiver coming in (story and highlights here). He's a little smaller than the other guys, but an exceptional route-runner. We think Porter is probably headed for a red shirt season so he can be in the mix at Z when Marks leaves, but he has enough talent to factor in at X if the staff wants him on the field.

CJ Dimry (6-5, 200) was extremely raw when he joined Wazzu out of Saddleback College last season and didn't crack the two-deep; he was rumored to be fighting injuries. But he could easily be a major contributor next year if his technique caught up to his measureables.

Outside Receiver (Z)

Last Name

First Name

Class

Position

Targets

Completions

Yards

YPC

Catch Rate

TDs

Explosives

Marks

Gabe

JR

Z

149

104

1192

11.5

69.8%

15

18

Martin Jr.

Tavares

FR

Z

23

16

124

7.8

69.6%

1

2

Watching Gabe Marks do his thing every Saturday was something really special. Marks really stepped up as the clutch guy on third down, pulling in twice as many third down receptions (30) than any other receiver and converting 21 first downs. He absolutely owned the red zone (inside opponent's 30 yard line, for us), where he was targeted on a team high 24.9 percent of pass attempts and scored 14 touchdowns. Mayle led the 2014 team in red zone targets with 38; Gabe Marks had 47 last season ... with twice as many receptions and eight more touchdowns.

Marks returns next season to some realistic Biletnikoff Award expectations. He was in the top 5 nationally for receptions and touchdowns and top 20 for yardage. What probably held him back a little was yards per catch, where he didn't crack the top 100. Marks was a huge target for wide receiver screens all season, but especially early on before the offense really opened up. WSU probably ran those a few more times than they'd ideally want to in the first three games.

The upside of wide receiver screens (here's our playbook entry on them) is that they're usually pretty safe chunk yardage and occasionally bust for massive gains with a missed tackle or great blocking. The downside is they can totally jack a receiver's cumulative stats. If the award committee weighs yards per catch highly, Marks will need to offset screens with a few more explosives -- he had roughly 10 fewer receptions that went for more than 30 yards than other top receivers.

Z is probably the most set wide receiver position for 2016, and looks a lot like X did with Vince Mayle and Dom Williams in 2014. Returning behind Gabe Marks will be Tavares Martin Jr., who was primarily used on screens (like Priester at X) and threatened to break more than a couple. Marks should command the lion's share of attention at Z, but there's enough room for 30-40 receptions behind him, putting the position around 11 or 12 touches per game (taking a couple from X).

Depending on how things shake out at X, really any of the previously mentioned receivers (aside from Dimry) could slide over and compete for the second spot at Z. I'd suspect whoever fills in would post a little higher yards per catch than Martin Jr.'s last year (even if he wins the spot again) and expect the targets to about double, leading the position to produce around 130 yards per game.

Inside Receiver (H)

Last Name

First Name

Class

Position

Targets

Completions

Yards

YPC

Catch Rate

TDs

Explosives

Lewis

Robert

SO

H

56

43

490

11.4

76.8%

1

7

Baker

Tyler

SR

H

17

13

114

8.8

76.5%

0

1

H has always gotten the short end of the distribution stick here at WSU, but Lewis really made the most of his touches last season, maintaining the yards per catch level Ricky Galvin established in 2014. Lewis added a few more explosives (7 total) while posting the highest catch rate among receivers.

H doesn't get many downfield targets -- outside of four verts, a corner route is about all the position gets more than 10 yards downfield -- but with Lewis posting a double digit yards per catch average, you can guess the yards after catch has consistently improved. This will continue to be a position where a playmaker needs to make plays for his yardage, and WSU has a quality established guy in Lewis with an open spot behind him for a slew of young players.

Renard Bell (5-10, 165) signed in this year's recruiting class (story and highlights). Bell has uncanny top-end speed -- it's probably a toss-up between him and Skyler Thomas for the fastest recruit this cycle -- and was devastating as a ball carrier in his high school's screen game. He fits what the offense looks for at the position to a T.

Also on the roster are Kainoa Wilson (5-11, 160) and Kaleb Fossum (5-11, 187) both of whom had shining moments in Thursday Night Football and roles on special teams. Neither were particularly heavily recruited out of high school, but they have worked their way up through the scout team and should be names to look out for this spring.

Keith Harrington moved to F last season after originally committing as an inside receiver. He spent his redshirt year wreaking all sorts of havoc as a scout team running back, leading to the move into the backfield. With touted running back James Williams (more on him below) coming off a redshirt year, F is a really crowded position; it would hardly be surprising if Harrington slid back out to H. He proved last year that his talent is hard to keep off the field.

Kyle Sweet filled in at Y for most of last season, but Leach has moved a few of the inside receivers around and it's possible he switches over to H too. At this point it's a numbers game, and the staff will find a way to put the players on the field they think will best contribute.

After three seasons, H has consistently been a 40-to-50 yard position that gets a handful of touches per game, and we shouldn't expect that to change much next year. With the bevy of running backs, we might even see H touches drop to around three or four per game. H is typically substituted out in WSU's 20 personnel (two running back) sets and would stand to lose a few touches to F the more WSU features that personnel group.

Inside Receiver (Y)

Last Name

First Name

Class

Position

Targets

Completions

Yards

YPC

Catch Rate

TDs

Explosives

Cracraft

River

JR

Y

78

53

609

11.5

67.9%

4

9

Thompson

John

JR

Y

37

24

255

10.6

64.9%

1

3

Sweet

Kyle

FR

Y

31

21

222

10.6

67.7%

0

2

After skyrocketing in 2014, production at Y fell off by about 40 yards and four touches per game. Before getting sidelined against ASU, River Cracraft held a pace that would've kept Y around 100 yards per game. When healthy, Cracraft continues to be Mr. Reliable, posting a catch rate of over 67 percent and averaging 11.5 yards per catch for consecutive seasons.

Kyle Sweet had a really nice freshman season, filling in for Cracraft at the end of the year and seeing spot work at both inside receiver positions earlier in the year. And John Thompson solidified himself as a quality backup. Depending on how things shake out at H, Fossum and/or Wilson could be pushing Thompson and Sweet for the number two spot at Y.

Another contender for spot reps could be Nick Begg (6-5, 237), who is the only tight end listed on the roster. Back in Leach's first year at WSU he entertained the idea of a receiving tight end at Y, if only for a few months. Andrei Lintz was a regular in the pass game during the spring, but never found much attention that following fall. Begg is now a redshirt sophomore and the coaching staff could start to do some interesting things with personnel packages if he's ready to see the field. (Tight ends typically replace the Y receiver, but you could sub him in for H too).

Running Back (F)

Last Name

First Name

Class

Position

Rush ATT

Rush Yds

YPA

Rush TDs

Rush Expl.

Targets

Completions

Pass Yards

YPC

Catch Rate

Pass TDs

Pass Expl

Wicks

Gerard

SO

F

107

610

5.7

3

4

53

38

134

3.5

71.7%

0

0

Morrow

Jamal

SO

F

53

347

6.5

0

3

40

33

294

8.9

82.5%

4

4

Harrington

Keith

FR

F

37

238

6.4

2

2

51

43

312

7.3

84.3%

3

6

Last Name

First Name

TOTAL.touch

Touch/Game

TOTAL.Yards

YPT

TOTAL.TD

TOTAL.Expl

Wicks

Gerard

145

11.2

744

5.1

3

4

Morrow

Jamal

86

6.6

641

7.5

4

7

Harrington

Keith

80

6.2

550

6.9

5

8

Efficiency took a huge jump forward at the running back position. Wicks and Morrow combined to average just 3.9 yards per carry in 2014, but that increased to 6.2 yards between the two of them and Harrington last season. Wicks was the primary ball carrier, getting around 54 percent of rush attempts, with Morrow and Harrington being a little more successful in the passing game.

WSU averaged 15.5 rush attempts per game -- only one more per game than in 2014 -- and nearly nine receptions. Morrow was great receiving out of the backfield, averaging 8.9 yards per catch and scoring four touchdowns. Harrington was the playmaker we thought he'd be, racking up 312 yards through the air, three touchdowns, and adding six explosive pass plays.

Of Washington State's designed rush attempts, 60 percent were on first down, 27 percent on second down, and 9 percent on third down. Compared that to the 2014 split: 55%, 31%, 10%. It's pretty close, which is somewhat counter to a common notion that WSU called more second-and-short and third-and-short rush attempts in 2015. They more or less stayed true to form and, if anything, took more first down rush attempts than they have in the past.

They were just demonstrably better at running the ball whenever they decided to do it.

Going forward, F could be even more involved in the offense than it was last season. Touches per game will probably increase to around 25, with a couple extra rush attempts and a similar eight or nine receptions. The position produced 12 touchdowns, second-most in any season at WSU under Leach, and had three goal line touchdowns poached by Luke Falk on quarterback sneaks. They should see the endzone a few more times next year, simply due to a more effective ground game in the red zone.

James Williams (watch these scout team highlights) joins a backfield loaded with talent. Running back coach Jim Mastro has said rotating four isn't ideal, and would prefer to work with three guys. This could end up sliding either Jamal Morrow or Keith Harrington out to one of the inside receiver positions (likely H) to make room for the immensely promising Williams, who will be a household name for Coug fans after the Spring Game.

Harrington added the smoke screen to the Wazzu offense last year after the Cougs hadn't been able to execute it very effectively in prior seasons. Put bluntly, the running back screen game for WSU was filthy as Harrington absolutely decimated teams with it. The prospect of him finding open field and getting busy at H is pretty exciting.

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This next graphic is laid out like a football field, imagining the WSU offense moving from left to right to score. Statistics are totaled for three categorical field positions; from the WSU Goaline to the WSU 30 ("WSU Territory"), between the WSU 30 and the Opponent 30 ("Midfield"), and from the Opponent 30 to the Opponent Goaline ("RedZone"). A traditional red zone has been defined as the 20 yard line and in, but with how aggressive Mike Leach is, expanding that by 10 yards more closely approximates the raised expectation of scoring. All rush attempts and pass attempts have removed sacks, QB scrambles, and designed QB rush attempts.

2015_OffensiveCharacterization3

PCT StDown: Percentage of total plays that were standard downs; 1st-and-10 or fewer, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd-and-4 or fewer, 4th-and-4 or fewer.
Rush ATT: Number of plays that were designed runs for the "F" position
YPA: Average yardage gained per rush attempt by "F"
YPC: Average yardage gained per catch
3rd Conv: Reports for plays on 3rd down -- converted/attempted (percentage)
PCT Explosive: Percentage of rush attempts or pass completions that resulted in a gain of at least 20 yards

The higher percentage of plays are in standard downs, the better the offense is at "staying on pace" to move the chains. Getting in passing downs (forget for a second that nearly 80 pct of downs are pass plays for WSU) decreases the probability of converting a first down or touchdown. Of Wazzu's 49 offensive touchdowns last season, 41 came from drives that required converting a third down with 21 of them in the red zone.

WSU ranked near the median in third down conversion rate at 41.5 percent, with the top teams converting nearly 52 percent of attempts. With the low(ish) conversion rate on pass attempts, and propensity to be in standard downs in midfield, WSU probably should attempt rushing on third down more than the 12 percent of the time they did last season. Rush conversions were around 50 percent, so increasing attempts at midfield from around one a game to two or three could boost conversion to around 48 percent, which would lead to a net-net of an additional drive or two per game that doesn't stall outside the opponent's 30 yard line. (And we already saw how successful WSU was at scoring when the Cougs crossed that threshold.)

Success Rate measures the ability of the offense to achieve the necessary yardage to remain in standard downs, reporting an efficiency -- or the percentage of plays that went for enough yardage to remain ahead of standard down scenarios -- which requires half of the distance on first down, 70 pct of second down yardage, and 100 pct of yardage on third or fourth down.

WSU ranked 15th nationally in this measure, with 47.9 pct of their plays being "successful." This alone doesn't automatically make a team "dink and dunk"; the successful plays could all be long scrimmage plays (like North Carolina for example). The Tar Heels rank 101st in plays per game (66.9), yet 18th in Success Rate primarily because 10.2 pct of their offensive plays went for at least 20 yards.

Pairing Washington State's explosiveness -- 7.66 percent of plays went at least 20 yards, 47th nationally -- with the high success rate can tell you what your eyeballs probably already did on Saturdays: The Coug offense was exceptional at marching down the field, but didn't blow the lid off like it did in 2014. Last season actually had a higher percentage of explosive plays (7.1 percent for 2014), but the 2014 season had 11 more plays that went for over 40 yards.

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Last season, the Cougs featured a Biletnikoff-caliber receiver and still managed to distribute touches and produce at every position on the field fairly evenly -- a remarkable feat of balance. The offense transitioned from an X-dominated passing attack, to one that threatened outside on both sides of the field. That'll probably change up a little next season, with Gabe Marks returning at Z and commanding the most attention and the uncertainty at who'll step up at X.

Add in a healthy River Cracraft and the right side of the field could cause some real problems for opposing defenses.

The evolution of the WSU ground game should continue next season with a group of talented returning backs and introduction of James Williams to the masses. After staring at the glass ceiling for a few years, Wazzu running backs cracked 100 yards on the ground in five games last season and averaged nearly 150 total yards per game. Expect more of the same with this group next season, which could very well contribute 170 yards per game.

Midnight Maneuvers are now in the rear view and Spring Football will be here before you know it.