'2 yards used to be a big carry' — How Washington State rebuilt its O-line

Posted by: Chris Vannini on Thursday October 20, 2016


“Mike Leach” and “running the ball” are two pieces you rarely think about together, but it’s become a factor in 2016, and it took five years to reach it.

Two weeks ago, Washington State’s offensive line beat Stanford in the trenches, outrushing the Cardinal on the ground in WSU’s 42-16 win. It was a statement on how far things have come.

The Cougars led the nation with more than 50 passes per game in Leach’s first four years, but in 2016, they’ve taken a huge jump in every rushing statistic, and the offensive line is one of the most improved units in the country.

It wasn’t that Leach didn’t want to run the ball. His best teams at Texas Tech could run. It’s just that, for years at Wazzu, they couldn’t.

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A quote from Leach in spring 2015 still sticks out.

When I first got here, we had six O-linemen on scholarship, which is a disturbingly low number, and then the other number more disturbing to that is we only averaged 265 pounds. Of those six guys on scholarship, only three of them belonged.”

Offensive line coach Clay McGuire remembers how bad it was. Three walk-ons — Gunnar Eklund, Joe Dahl and Elliott Bosch — carried the line those first few years, and McGuire said things would have been even worse without them.

When we first got here, if we got a 2-yard carry, that was a big carry for us. That was almost like an explosive play,” McGuire told CoachingSearch. “We were bad all the way around. We couldn’t run the football, and teams knew we weren’t going to try.”

In Leach's first year, the Cougars were dead last nationally in rushing attempts, rushing yards, yards per rush and sacks allowed, giving up a half-sack more per game than any other team.

“There’s no point to running the ball if you can’t get any yards,” Leach told CoachingSearch. “There was a time where three Stanford guys could whip five Washington State guys and the running back.”

It couldn’t be a quick fix. The new operations building that opened in 2014 was a big boost with its weight room, but it would take years to build the position up with players.

Leach’s 2012 recruiting class included 6 offensive linemen, followed by 7 in 2013, 3 in 2014 and 4 in 2015. Now, Leach says the linemen average 310 pounds.

“It has to be built incrementally with four or five a year,” Leach said. “I do think it’s the hardest position to build, and it’s the most difficult position to play as a true freshman, because you have to be big and strong. You can’t hide a weak offensive lineman.”

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It was also an adjustment for McGuire, who had little offensive line experience before joining Leach's staff in Pullman.

McGuire played H-back for Leach at Texas Tech from 2000-04. He then served as a video intern in 2006 and offensive line GA in 2007, before moving up to running backs coach and special teams coordinator. He spent 2010-11 at East Carolina coaching running backs and special teams.

But while the résumé doesn’t list much OL experience, it was the kind of experience Leach wanted. Leach himself is a former OL coach and wants things done a specific way in his offense.

“He played for me and played tight end, where most of what he did was blocking and synchronize with the offensive line,” Leach said. “The other thing is he coached running backs for me, which meant run game and pass protection, which is directly related to the offensive line. The other thing that was impressive, at one time as a young age, he was our special teams coordinator, which has a lot of moving parts and moves different directions and did an impressive job. To me, he was a pretty obvious choice.”

Said McGuire: “I’d been all over the offense and seen how every position was coached except for the offensive line. My first job as a GA, I worked for Bill Bedenbaugh as an offensive line GA. That’s where I got my basis, that season with him.”

Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

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Leach likes to say his offense is balanced, even when it’s passing the ball 50 times a game. His explanation: 50/50 run-pass isn’t balance if you have inside receivers rarely touching the ball. Leach’s balance is equally sharing the ball between the skill players you have on the field.

This year, that finally includes running backs. Now, this isn’t a run-heavy team that can dominate you on the ground. But it’s finally a weapon to keep defenses honest, and that changes everything else.

“We (used to get) some really exotic fronts from defenses. When you don’t have to be gap-responsible, you can draw some stuff up in how you want to attack the passer. We’d gotten some crazy stuff I’d never seen before,” McGuire said. “As we’ve gotten better, it’s one of those things where we see better looks. … They’re not six yards outside the tackle with their ears pinned back trying to just sack the quarterback. They’d better play some run gaps or we’re going to run it for 200 yards.”

It’s a point of pride for the players, too, when you actually get to hit the defense.

“I like it more just because I can go out and hit them, instead of pass-blocking where you have to take it for a second,” offensive lineman Cody O’Connell said. “It’s not as much catching as much as I can go out and hit them.”

After an 0-2 start to this season, Leach said his team’s toughness level was pathetic. Since then, players and coaches have all answered the bell, beating Oregon, Stanford and UCLA in the past three weeks.

Leach’s best teams at Texas Tech could run the ball when they wanted to — the Red Raiders were 50-15 when running for at least 90 yards. Five years into his Washington State tenure, they’re starting to see the same idea.

“Every offensive line coach, you want to run the football,” McGuire said. “It’s been key to our success. We’re just better everywhere around the board. We’re better at running back, better at receiver, better at quarterback, better at O-line. We’ve finally got it how we want to do things.”

Chris Vannini is in his fifth year with CoachingSearch.com and serves as its managing editor. He has previously written for the Detroit Free Press, The Oakland Press, The State News, MLive.com, 247Sports and SB Nation.  A graduate of Michigan State University, Chris now lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Be sure to follow @coachingsearch and send emails to chris@coachingsearch.com.