Like many, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon fell prey to the belief that by simply setting foot on campus, new head coach Mike Leach was going to instantly make the Cougars better. After all, Leach's hiring was deemed by many as the most significant in college football last season. Though, that was before the Cougars went 3-9.
It still might be. But Bucannon and his teammates realize it's less to do with Leach and more to do with themselves.
"I think we were blinded by how much success he's had in the past and we just assumed we would automatically win games because it's Coach Leach and he has a great system," Bucannon said. "But it's up to us to work that system. Football isn't about systems. It's about players and how much effort they put into it. The system complements the players. We can't put the system first. We thought it would be magic and we'd win games. But we have to put in the work."
With the Cougars opening spring ball Thursday, Bucannon is now looked to as the unquestioned leader of the defense, taking the crown from the departed Travis Long. The second-team all-conference safety, who was fourth in the league in total tackles last year (106) and tied for fifth in the league in interceptions, is ready to put the defense on his shoulders entering Year 2 of Mike Breske's 3-4 scheme.
“Really looking forward to seeing Deone [pronounced DAY-own] this spring," Breske said. "He will have 15 practices to compete and get better each time out. This spring will be an opportunity for him to develop and showcase his leadership, both vocally and by example.
"Deone is one of our best competitors, he loves to compete and wants to win every play. Every day, he will be out there to get better.”
Bucannon is a hitter. And hitters hit. But as the rules of college football continue to shift more toward player safety, hitters have to constantly tiptoe the line between being aggressive and being tagged as dirty players. Unfortunately for Bucannon, he picked up the dirty tag last season when he planted a late hit on an Eastern Washington receiver. He owned up to the mistake and served a half-game suspension. But the label stuck with him all last year -- and he's hoping to strip it to regain his reputation in 2013.
"If you knew me or talked to me, I'm not what a lot of people said I was," Bucannon said. "I love this game and I would never disrespect the game or another person. I enjoy going 100 percent on the field. It's tough adapting to the new rules right off the bat. I need to control when to hit the player because that's part of the game. Ask any safety that's played college football and they'll say the same thing. It's tough because you're trying to come with the aggressiveness you need as a defensive player, but you have to be conscious that you are playing within the rules. Things are moving fast and you don't have much time to decide where to hit someone. But it's something I learned."
Those are the kind of acts of leadership he'll need to display as WSU moves to Year 2 under Leach & Co. As the only non-specialist on the Cougars to earn all-conference honors (Andrew Furney was second-team kicker), Bucannon has the staff looking for him to do things the right way on and off the field.
The senior has appeared in every game since his freshman season and has ridden the highs and (mostly) lows of the program. But he continues to believe that the Cougars are on the verge of breaking through. He points to last year's come-from-behind win in the Apple Cup as proof of what this team is capable of.
"I remember not one person on the sideline thought we were going to lose that game even when we were trailing in the fourth quarter," he said. "If we can go into every game with that kind of confidence, we can compete with anybody. When we play together and aren't worried about the other team's jerseys, we can beat any team in the country.
"But it was also just one win and we can't live in the past. It was a nice way to end the season, but we need to learn from it and move on and try to win more games next year."