BRADEN JOHNSON | Evergreen columnist
WSU plays a winless team that is coming off a loss to an Football Championship Subdivision school Saturday, and the game is sandwiched between its Pac-12 opener and a Friday night showdown with No. 5 USC next week.
In that sense, I understand why media and fan attention is drifting away from the doldrums of a football game, and instead shifting focus toward off-the-field topics related to the team.
However, that does not absolve reporters and media outlets from badgering Head Coach Mike Leach with repeated questions about redshirt senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer’s reported broken foot when the WSU football program’s policy is not to discuss or disclose injuries.
On the contrary, I also do not think there is any harm in Leach affirming a truth everyone in and around Pullman has acknowledged. Pelluer was riding around campus this week in a knee scooter, unable to bear much weight on his left foot.
If you’re wondering where this observation came from, I have class with Pelluer on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“I’ll boot every one of you out of here if you keep talking about injuries,” Leach told the seven of us in attendance at his weekly news conference on Monday. “You know, I think I’ve been very patient today; I gave you about five questions, I didn’t kick any of you out. Now, you ask me another one, I’ll kick you all out.”
In full disclosure, I am partially at fault here, as I asked Leach about how fellow redshirt senior inside linebackers Nate DeRider and redshirt freshman Jahad Woods have fared in practice to date.
“I’d say Jahad, especially as a freshman, is definitely ahead of schedule,” he said.
My question came on the heels of four in a row related to Pelluer and team morale. It came as no surprise that the coach was curt with his response.
The short answer on this double-faced issue is to grit your teeth, respect the team’s policy and try not to rile Leach during his only scheduled news conference for the week. Don’t ask about injuries if you already know it won’t elicit a response, or a 100-percent honest one at that.
Maybe write about how Nevada, under first-year Head Coach Jay Norvell, is implementing certain air-raid principles and saw a number of former assistant coaches bolt for WSU following former Head Coach Chris Ault’s retirement.
Norvell turned to true freshman quarterback Kaymen Cureton over junior quarterback Ty Gangi last week. Despite the Wolf Pack’s 30-28 loss to Idaho State, Cureton will make his second career start Saturday.
I asked Leach if he has ever started a true freshman at the position in his coaching career and if he sees any advantages in pulling the trigger this early in the season.
“I don’t think a true freshman [has done this],” Leach said. “We’ve had some redshirt freshmen get some reps for sure, but I don’t think a true freshman.”
Leach added, in the context of Norvell going with Cureton, that you start the best player at each position regardless of his year in school.
What I’m saying is, Pelluer’s injury, while unquestionably a hit to both the defense’s playmaking ability and leadership, does not need to clutter a week’s worth of game coverage. But I also wanted to see Leach at least say something about a player who has been with him since his second year at the helm.
Pelluer played in 34 consecutive games and garnered Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors following his 14-tackle performance in the Cougars’ comeback win over Boise State.
Leach confirmed former quarterback Connor Halliday suffered a broken tibia and fibula in a loss to USC on Nov. 1, 2014, in a postgame news conference, largely because of the influence Halliday had on the program and fans.
I put Pelluer, a third-generation Cougar football player and three-year starter on defense, in that category.
“I love all our [linebackers],” senior defensive back Robert Taylor said. “They fly to the ball, they’re all experienced, Jahad [Woods] is going to come in and do a great job.”
It is too bad that both players and the media seemed to be handcuffed on speaking about Pelluer’s season-ending injury.
I respect Leach and his policy on not discussing injuries, when its obvious intent is to protect the privacy of student-athletes and avoid giving the opposition any leads on who’s going to suit up Saturday.
That said, it was comical to see Pelluer’s name among the defensive starters on this week’s depth chart. No coaching staff that has done its prep work and watched film is naive enough to believe that.
Neither the press nor Leach are at fault here. Rather, both sides have acted well within their rights.
The media has a clear-cut obligation to inform the public and hold newsmakers — Leach, in this case — accountable. Leach has the right not to discuss certain matters and to comment on them as he sees fit.
It’s unfortunate that this gut-punch of an injury and the critical discussion it has received are clouding the Cougars’ bid to start 4-0 for the first time in 16 years, as well as a homecoming game of sorts for former WSU walk-on wide receiver Kaleb Fossum.
There are matters just as relevant on the table, here. But who knows? Leach said his team is 100 percent healthy when pressed, so we might just see Pelluer hop off his knee scooter, suit up into full pads and anchor the WSU front seven on defense.