Mike Leach's program enters the 2018 season mourning the death of quarterback Tyler Hilinski
Editor's note: The fourth in a series of articles previewing the Pac-12 football teams in reverse order of their predicted finish in the preseason media poll. Today, No. 9 Washington State.
Pac-12 media day is mostly a jubilant event as the assembled coaches and players look forward to the coming season with hope and optimism.
The start of fall camp will be bittersweet at Washington State, a program still mourning the death of Tyler Hilinski.
Hilinski, the team’s projected starting quarterback, committed suicide on Jan. 16. An autopsy revealed the 21-year-old suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease cause by repetitive brain trauma.
“We all have very fond memories of Tyler. We’re proud that we had the opportunity to know him,” coach Mike Leach said. “We believe, anyway, or I do, that he’d want us to move on and have productive lives and elevate what we can do.”
The Cougars went through grief counseling after Hilinski’s death. The athletic department provided a second formal mental health screening to its athletes to help identify those who might be at risk for mental health issues and has hired a full-time clinical psychologist.
“It affected me a lot. Tyler was my best friend,” safety Jalen Thompson said. “But at the same time, I had to get my players back into it, get their minds right and get going, you know. The season is almost coming up. …
“Anybody we needed to talk to, they had somebody that was there for us. Now it’s just about creating a new normal. Going out there, this is our new team now moving forward.”
Hilinski delivered a memorable performance last season, coming off the bench to throw the winning touchdown in the Cougars’ 47-44 triple-overtime win over Boise State. He was carried off the field after the game.
“We all had a deep connection with Tyler because that’s what kind of person he was,” wide receiver/punter Kyle Sweet said. “He was just an incredible guy to be around. It didn’t really hit me harder than anyone else. i think it affected us all greatly in its own way because everyone had their own relationship with Tyler. It was just a difficult thing for everybody.”
As difficult as it may be to move on, the Cougars are shifting the focus to the 2018 season. Washington State is picked to finish fifth in the North Division of the Pac-12 media poll.
Four-year starting quarterback Luke Falk passed for 3,593 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior. The Tennessee Titans rookie also broke the Pac-12 career record for total offense previously held by new teammate Marcus Mariota.
Redshirt juniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon began the competition to replace Falk and Hilinski during spring practice. East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minsheew and true freshman Cammon Cooper joined the fray over the summer.
“The challenge for us is going to be to select the right guy,” Leach said. “I think we’d probably have three or four choices, all of which would do a really good job.”
The offense loses leading rusher Jamal Morrow and standout offensive lineman Cody “The Continent” O’Connell to graduation. Wide receiver Tay Martin, who led the team with 831 yards receiving and nine touchdowns, is back, along with running back James Williams, who had 420 yards rushing and 482 yards receiving with four total touchdowns last season.
Leach, who serves as his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, has a proven track record of successfully replacing key players and continuing to rack up impressive statistics every year in the Air Raid offense.
“So run the quarterback meetings, then install the offense, then of course putting the game plan in,” Leach said of his weekly in-season duties. “That’s a long, long Sunday night, a real long Monday night. Then you go through debates. The debates honestly aren’t as much on what to run, it’s limiting what you run. Because we think all of our ideas are very clever.”
Leach lost six assistants, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, after last year’s 9-4 finish. Standout defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa also left early for the NFL.
The defensive staff, which had to replace defensive line coach Joe Salave’a in 2017 when he left for Oregon, has three new coaches — defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, safeties coach Kendrick Shaver and cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath.
“For the most part it’s pretty much the same thing. We’re still a speed D,” said Thompson, who led the team with 73 tackles and four interceptions last season. “We still run to the ball and we still try to make plays out there.”
Washington State plays two Mountain West teams (Wyoming, San Jose State) and FCS Eastern Washington before opening Pac-12 play on Sept. 21 at USC.
The Cougars have a three-game winning streak against Oregon, which visits Pullman on Oct. 20.
Hilinski’s parents will attend the home opener on Sept. 8, and the players are wearing bracelets to support the Hilinski Hope Foundation, a non-profit set up by the family with the goal of keeping his memory alive and generating the funding necessary to support programs that will help de-stigmatize mental illness.
“I see these wristbands every day, I think about him every day,” said Sweet, who was wearing a wristband at the Pac-12 media day event. “I just try to model myself and carry myself the way that he did every day. I do that by looking at these.”
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
Coach: Mike Leach, seventh year (38-38 at WSU, 122-81 overall)
Key players: LT Andre Dillard, RB James Williams, WR Tay Martin, DE Nnamdi Oguayo, LB Peyton Pelluer, S Jalen Thompson
2017 record: 9-4 overall, 6-3 conference
2018 projection: The Cougars are picked to finish fifth in the North Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll
Nonconference opponents: Wyoming, San Jose State, Eastern Washington
Plays Oregon: Oct. 20 in Pullman
Full schedule: Sept. 1 at Wyoming, Sept. 8 vs. San Jose State, Sept. 15 vs. Eastern Washington, Sept. 21 at USC, Sept. 29 vs. Utah, Oct. 6 at Oregon State, Oct. 20 vs. Oregon, Oct. 27 at Stanford, Nov. 3 vs. California, Nov. 10 at Colorado, Nov. 17 vs. Arizona, Nov. 3 vs. Washington
Tuesday’s preview: California