Washington State looks for greater offensive balance under center

Washington State ran 1,011 plays last season, yet their quarterback took a snap from under center just once -- or 0.099 percent of the time.

Despite that staggering ratio, the age of shotgun exclusivity has come to an end on the Palouse. Coach Mike Leach's offense has the necessary personnel to occasionally line up under center, just like it did during his previous coaching stop at Texas Tech. Some reports have indicated that it may happen up to 25 percent of the time in 2015.

"With our offensive line, our quarterback, and the running backs we have, it's a perfect time to get under center," running backs coach Jim Mastro says. "We can establish a traditional run game now and give defenses something else to look at."

The Cougars ran only 24 percent of the time in 2014, by far the lowest rate in the Pac-12. All of those runs except for one Luke Falk quarterback sneak (a touchdown on, coincidentally, the team's only under-center snap of the season) came from the shotgun formation.

But all five starting offensive linemen are returning in front of a troika of backs that has some bruising potential -- Gerard Wicks has bulked up to 220 pounds -- so Washington State sees major opportunity in a diversified ground attack.

"We want more of a downhill running game," Mastro says. "We want to be getting vertical in a hurry."

Falk will determine the Cougars' final formation on each play, and he's much more comfortable under center than the graduated Connor Halliday, his record-breaking predecessor who orchestrated the Air Raid exclusively from the shotgun.

"Our quarterback has to like lining up under center, and Luke likes it," Mastro says. "He understands it, and he has the option of putting us under center any time he wants."

Falk will analyze and juggle several factors as he makes his formation decision before every snap. An emphasis on the trademarked Leach Air Raid will remain even when the offense isn't in the shotgun, so the added alignment possibilities simply assign greater responsibility to Washington State's running backs, since they'll be expected to maintain their heavy presence in the passing game even as the Cougars devise new ways to hand the ball off. Last season, Jamal Morrow caught 61 passes, a record for a Washington State running back.

"Our running backs are essentially hybrid receivers," Mastro says. "But they have to have a running back's DNA, too. They have to be able to block a 280-pound blitzer, run between the tackles, and also run a wheel route downfield."

Mastro is confident that Wicks, Morrow, and receiver convert Keith Harrington are all capable of showcasing the necessary versatility to open new realms of possibility for Washington State's offense. Though he coached several effective running back duos during an 11-year stint at Nevada that saw some prolific ground production in Chris Ault's pistol offense, Mastro asserts the 2015 Cougar crop is the best backfield trio he's worked with in 27 years of coaching.

He expects that talent to mesh well with a veteran offensive line that'll finally see more frequent road-grading opportunities.

"That offensive line is the key, and we should be able to do a little more this year because of their veteran leadership," Mastro says. "Nothing goes if those guys don't go. You can have Barry Sanders back there, but if they don't go, then you have problems."

And while no one expects Washington State to feature Hall of Fame talent in its backfield this season, there's ample evidence to believe this team will not finish dead last nationally again in rushing yardage. Greater offensive balance is the Cougars' ultimate goal, and that target -- thanks to personnel development and shifts that'll allow Washington State to line up under center far more frequently -- looks like a realistic one.