- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) - Washington State is coming off its first bowl game in a decade as the Cougars begin spring drills on Thursday.

The 15 practice dates will conclude on April 29, and the annual Crimson and Gray Game is scheduled for April 26 at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane.

Coach Mike Leach welcomes back 36 returning lettermen, including eight starters on offense and seven starters on defense, from a team that finished 6-7 last year. The Cougars lost 48-45 to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl.

“We’ve got to go to one every year,” Leach said Wednesday of bowl games.

Back for his senior season is quarterback Connor Halliday, who last year set WSU single-season records for completions (449), attempts (714), passing yards (4,597) and tied the school record with 34 touchdown passes.

“He’s got to keep developing, keep improving, developing chemistry with him and his receivers and his command of the offense,” Leach said.

Washington State also returns its top eight receivers, including All-Pac-12 honorable mention River Cracraft. Returning receivers Gabe Marks, Dom Williams and Vince Mayle each caught seven touchdown passes last season.

Also back is WSU’s leader in all-purpose yards, senior running back Marcus Mason.

Washington State returns seven starters from a defense that forced 30 turnovers last season, tied for second in the Pac-12. Top returnees include junior defensive lineman Xavier Cooper, who had five sacks, and junior linebacker Darryl Monroe, who had 94 tackles last year.

The biggest loss is All-America defensive back Deone Bucannon.

Leach said all the positions on the team are open to competition. But the biggest battles for starting jobs are likely to be at defensive back, offensive line and running back.

The Cougars remain a young team, he said.

“We had a remarkable number of players who played for us last year who have never been through a college offseason,” Leach said. “They are early in their careers and have a long ways to improve.”

Leach said he was neither for nor against college football players being allowed to form a union. A federal agency ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University football players can form the nation’s first college athletes’ union.

“But whatever happens on anything like that, within Division I it needs to be the same,” Leach said.

Leach said it suited him just fine if college players want to be treated like professional football players. He speculated that might eventually lead to a draft for college athletes.

“I, for one, am excited about having a whole nation of quality athletes to draft from,” Leach said. “I’m looking forward to that.”

But he said he wondered if members of the lacrosse or tennis teams would be regarded as professionals.

He said he also wondered if players who performed poorly could be paid less than players who performed well.

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