LEWISTON, Idaho -- For the record, it's not the "Banana Belt" phenomenon that's luring coach Mike Leach and his Washington State football team to Lewiston for the second August in a row.
Leach isn't even sure he buys it, this notion that the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley is noticeably toastier than, for example, the Cougars' native Pullman this time of year.
But he does believe his team gained a surprising focus and cohesion by staging preseason camp in Lewiston last year, which is why the Cougars are back for more. Beginning Saturday, they will practice 12 consecutive days at Sacajawea Junior High before returning to Pullman in mid-August.Even if Leach bought into the Banana Belt notion, that wouldn't be his reason for hauling his team and its numerous attendants 35 miles south of campus for the first week-and-a-half of camp. At some point, practicing in sweltering conditions -- the forecast for Lewiston calls for triple-digit temperatures the next three days, as opposed to 95-97 in Pullman -- can become counterproductive, the coach noted.
But the general lack of cushiness to the Lewiston experience indeed enhances its appeal for Leach.
Just weeks after construction was completed on the Cougars' $62 million football operations building, they are fleeing the comforts of their new palace for the dormitory complex at Lewis-Clark State College, and will squeeze into yellow school buses for their daily trip to Sacajawea in the Lewiston Orchards.
"A little bit of old school, the yellow buses," Leach said. "Just sort of a reference to how everybody started playing and coaching football."
Distractions will be almost nil. Position meetings will be a snap. Coaches will again try to build team chemistry by assigning dorm rooms against type, pairing offense with defense, skill positions with trench roles, or seniors with freshmen.
Nine months after taking the Cougars to their first bowl appearance in a decade, Leach unequivocally calls his 2014 club the best of his three at Washington State. To prove him right, the Cougars will probably need to stay healthy at quarterback, where two backups left the program in the offseason and left walk-on Luke Falk as the No. 2 man behind senior Connor Halliday.
Initially, Falk will receive more reps than true freshman Peyton Bender, who will concentrate on learning the core concepts of Leach's Air Raid offense as the team's only scholarship QB aside from Halliday.
The depth problem at quarterback places a weighty onus on an offensive line that includes three new starters and will need to settle a duel between sophomores Sam Flor and Riley Sorenson at center. Leach said his O-line, though raw, is at once bigger and more athletic than in the past.
Far less worrisome are the receiver and tailback crews, where the top eight pass-catchers and top two rushers return from last year. The degree of wideout depth is perhaps unprecedented at Washington State, and even if the Cougs place increased emphasis on their modest running game, Halliday could break every Wazzu passing record in sight.
The primary worry on defense is the secondary, where All-American Deone Bucannon must be replaced and a battle between Tracy Clark, Charleston White and others must be decided at boundary cornerback.
"At corner we're quick and we're athletic," Leach said. "We're not high on experience."
They'll try to offset such concerns with bolstered depth on the defensive line, where Leach hopes to rotate eight or nine players after relying primarily on five last year.
The Cougars open their season at Seattle on Aug. 28 against Rutgers.
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