- Associated Press - Friday, August 7, 2015

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Washington State goes into preseason practice looking for a new leader of coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense.

The record-setting Connor Halliday is gone after throwing for 32 touchdowns and a nation-leading 430 yards a game last season, meaning Leach is left to decide between sophomore Luke Falk and redshirt freshman Peyton Bender for the starter’s job.

Falk started three games after Halliday broke his leg late in the season against Southern California and figures to be the front-runner.

“We’ll tee it up and let them both compete for it,” Leach said. “Biggest thing is (Falk) has a lot of composure and stability and the ability to go out there suddenly and play like he belonged there.”

Falk threw for 1,859 yards and 13 touchdowns in six games in relief of Halliday, who was invited to NFL camps this summer but decided to retire from football.

“My biggest hope is that he doesn’t regret it,” Leach said. “He certainly had the ability to play.”

For the third consecutive season, the Cougars will open training camp Saturday in Lewiston, Idaho, 30 miles south of campus.

“It’s a good opportunity to be together as a team and get our work done,” Leach said. “We avoid distractions, make everything about football.”

The Cougars will hold nine practices at a middle school in Lewiston before moving back to Pullman, Washington. They open Sept. 5 at home against Portland State.

WSU hopes to rebound from a 3-9 season. The Cougars’ two Pac-12 wins came on the road against Utah and Oregon State, and they were tied with College Football Playoff runner-up Oregon late in the fourth quarter in Pullman before losing 38-31.

Still, it was a disappointing campaign because the year before they won six games and played in a bowl.

The Cougars will return 13 starters, a bounty for a team that has had to play young lineups the last three years.

“The good news is we’ve got a lot of people back,” Leach said. “Some of them were pressed into service before it was probably ideal, but they’re what we had.”

No returning starter has a job locked up, though, he said.

The Cougars return all five starters on the offensive line - “offensively, your most important position,” Leach said - but backups still have a chance to break in.

“There will be some changes,” Leach said. “We’ve got freshmen in here who could beat somebody out.”

The Cougars also need to replace record-setting receiver Vince Mayle, who caught 106 passes for 1,483 yards last season. Gabe Marks may be the best candidate to match that production.

Gerald Wicks, who ran for 234 of WSU’s 478 rushing yards for the season, returns.

Leach said he expects the ground game to develop behind the experience offensive line.

“We’re excited about the future of it,” Leach said.

The defense brings back six starters, and the secondary figures to be much improved from last year. Charleston White, who led the Pac-12 in pass breakups per game last season, is back.

The Cougars gave up an average of 38.6 points per game last year, and as a result Leach brought in a new defensive coordinator in Alex Grinch.

“I think he’s got a very clear message,” Leach said. “Everybody knows their role. … In the past we were more scattered than ideal. There was too much blending of philosophies.”

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