Mike Leach doesn’t sugarcoat anything when asked about his football team.
Just ask star wide receiver Marquess Wilson.
Since spring camp, Leach has publicly labeled the second-team all-Pac-12 selection soft, inconsistent and unfocused. Leach finally slammed his team’s leading receiver on the bench in Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Stanford after Wilson sleepwalked through practices during the bye week.
The decision to sit WSU’s all-time leading yards-getter was the right one.Wilson’s Michael Crabtree-caliber talent is no secret to Pac-12 defenses. He finished 2011 with 1,388 yards on 82 receptions, 12 of which went for touchdowns. Most assumed his transition to the Air Raid Offense would go smoothly.
Turns out most were wrong.
Never was the tumultuous relationship between Leach and the junior more evident than during another lackadaisical practice last week. Wilson dropped multiple passes during red zone drills, then showed little effort during the team’s “skelly” session. The performance snapped Leach into a hard-ass mode that, after the 2012 season, he might as well try to patent.
The former Texas Tech coach followed a verbal thrashing by demanding roughly 20 “up-downs” from the playmaker.
Wilson dogged the exercise.
Five days later, Leach handed the starting spot Wilson held for the past three years to upstart freshman Dominique Williams. The decision made Leach look the part of a motivational guru, as Wilson hauled in nine catches while racking up 100 yards in limited action against the Cardinal. Williams, meanwhile, looked every part Wilson’s successor, posting a career-high six grabs, 79 yards and a touchdown.
Both will see snaps when the Cougars travel to Salt Lake City to play an eminently beatable Utah team Saturday. If quarterback Jeff Tuel’s comments during Monday’s press conference are any clue, that’s undoubtedly the smart move.
“I don’t think I’m in the position to say who should start and who should not,” he said. “I think everyone in this organization knows how good Marquess is and what he can be. And (Williams) did a lot of good things as well. So we got two guys who can play that position and that’s where I’m going to leave it.”
Perhaps burned out from unending questions about the quarterback controversy with Connor Halliday, Tuel’s decision to not blast his most talented wide receiver is unsurprising. Wilson’s position coach, outside receivers guru Dennis Simmons, struck a similar note Wednesday.
“Quite well actually,” Simmons said when asked about Wilson’s response to Leach’s controversial decision. “He’s played well. He understands why. He knows what he has to do if he wants to earn it back.”
So what must Wilson improve to regain his starting role?
“It’s the same stuff since day one,” Simmons continued. “Finishing out (his) routes, squeezing routes and attacking the ball in the air and being physical with hands off the line on release.”
Add to the list: Maturation.
It’s no secret that Wilson was as close as any player to former wide receivers coach Mike Levenseller. Leach’s habit of running his receivers 2,500 yards every practice — 1,000 more than an average NFL session — and the public criticism he directed at his upperclassmen likely hit WSU’s best player the hardest, mentally and physically. Wilson’s quasi-rebellious behavior in 2012 makes sense.
It’s now time for him to grow up.
His ability in recent games to avoid drops appears a step in the right direction. Against Stanford, he hauled in a spectacular, leaping 42-yard reception to put the Cougars inside the red zone on the game’s final drive. Outside of USC’s Marqise Lee, there isn’t a better receiver in the conference.
Don’t be shocked if Wilson proves it Saturday.