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Cougars remain work in progress

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Cougars remain work in progress

PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) At the midpoint of Washington State's first season under coach Mike Leach, the Cougars remain a work in progress.

Washington State (2-4, 0-3 Pac-12) has problems all around, and so far has mostly failed to produce in the Air Raid offense that Leach made famous at Texas Tech.

The Cougars have twice been held without touchdowns, barely escaped FCS opponent Eastern Washington, and lost to Pac-12 doormat Colorado.

Talk of qualifying for a bowl game, prevalent after Leach was hired, is now muted.

``We've improved as a team, but we've had a lot of missed opportunities,'' Leach said. ``If we were a more mature, mentally tougher team, we could have capitalized on them.''

``Right now we are a team that if we face any adversity, we get discouraged,'' Leach said.

As a result, many veteran players have been dropped from the starting lineup in favor of younger players, he said.

Leach has described some of the team's seniors as having an ``empty corpse'' quality when it comes to leadership.

The season got off to an inauspicious start with a 30-6 loss at BYU. The Cougars posted narrow wins over Eastern Washington and UNLV, then suffered a fourth quarter collapse that allowed Colorado to overcome a nearly three touchdown deficit and win 35-34.

They lost to No. 2 Oregon 51-26, and put in a sterling defensive effort in a 19-6 loss at No. 10 Oregon State.

Linebacker Darryl Monroe said the team is hungry for its first Pac-12 win.

``Any win is what we need,'' he said. ``It's what any team needs.''

To get there, the Cougars need to play a complete game, with offense, defense and special teams all performing well, he said.

``We've just got to keep grinding throughout the season,'' Monroe said. ``No game is a gimme.''

The Cougars have six games left, starting this Saturday when they host California (2-4, 1-2).

Can they win four of those six to reach their first bowl game since 2003?

``I think it's very realistic,'' said quarterback Connor Halliday.

Halliday's optimism aside, the better question might be whether the Cougars can achieve a record as good as the 4-8 that got former coach Paul Wulff fired after last season.

Problems include inconsistent play at quarterback and receiver, a non-existent running game and a defense that is surrendering 30 points and 455 yards per game.

Senior quarterback Jeff Tuel began the season as the starter, but has been displaced by sophomore Halliday. Neither has been able to consistently move an offense averaging just 21 points per game.

Both quarterbacks saw playing time against Oregon State, and Leach has said Halliday will start against Cal.

``He's been playing the best,'' Leach said.

Halliday has thrown for 1,284 yards and nine touchdowns, but has also been intercepted nine times.

More troubling is the lack of a running game. The Cougars average just 41 yards rushing per game behind a committee that includes Teondray Caldwell, Carl Winston and Leon Brooks.

``It means we are not able to move their front around,'' Leach said of the lack of a running game. ``We have got to get better up front.''

Star receiver Marquess Wilson has 34 catches for 553 yards and five touchdowns, which are good numbers. But Leach has been on him to do more, and is more likely to praise the efforts of Isiah Myers (29 catches, 272 yards) and Gabe Marks (24 catches, 379 yards).

Senior receiver Gino Simone, who has earned more playing time recently with strong play, said he is optimistic about the second half of the season.

One major step would be to qualify for a bowl game, he said.

``That's huge,'' he said. ``We want to get the program back to where it is in bowl games every year.''

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Wizards GM reset: Blazers' Neil Olshey, Warriors exec potential targets?

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Wizards GM reset: Blazers' Neil Olshey, Warriors exec potential targets?

The Washington Wizards remain without a President of Basketball Operations since firing Ernie Grunfeld April 2. While several candidates met with owner Ted Leonsis, including Denver’s Tim Connelly, the pursuit continues though largely in silence.

The vibe coming out of the organization is that of patience even with the fan base growing restless as the June 20 NBA Draft looms and prospect workouts starting a week or so out.

There have been no reports of candidate interviews since Washington met over the weekend with Connelly. Speculation and logic have the Wizards considering candidates beyond the previously reported group already brought in for interviews.

We can connect some dots and land on one executive whose team is still in the playoffs: Golden State assistant general manager Larry Harris.

As for the rumor mill, one name stands out: Neil Olshey.

Numerous sources told NBC Sports Washington of the Wizards’ interest in Blazers President of Basketball Operations, the architect behind the Portland squad that reached the 2019 Western Conference Finals.

Before we explain both scenarios, one more thought on Connelly specifically the pursuit and big swing.

While Connelly wasn’t the first candidate meeting, it’s clear the Wizards waited for him. The 54-win Nuggets were eliminated from the second round of the playoffs May 12. Connelly flew to Washington for a meeting with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis five days later.

The Baltimore native sincerely weighed a contract offer from the Wizards before choosing to remain in Denver, sources told NBC Sports Washington.

The Wizards previously interviewed former Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver and Wizards interim front office leader Tommy Sheppard.

While all three are considered credible candidates, none is an active GM or team president. None represents a big swing, the kind Leonsis hinted he would pursue in his first comments after dismissing Grunfeld.

“One thing I will say: I think this is the best job in sports,” Leonsis said. “I don’t think we’re going to have any issues in attracting really, really great people.”

Olshey, 54, began running Portland’s front office in June of 2012. Over the next 12 months, he drafted guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and hired head coach Terry Stotts. The quartet created the culture that fueled the current streak of six consecutive playoff appearances.

The 53-win Blazers advanced to the franchise’s first WCF appearance since 2000 before losing the series to Golden State 4-0.

It's uncertain the level of pursuit for Olshey from Washington, but the Wizards could face another uphill climb trying to lure the proven executive considering the similar contractual and team success to Connelly's situation. 

The general interest in Olshey began several weeks back, but the Wizards had yet to ask the Blazers for permission to interview Olshey as of Wednesday according to a source. Portland's season ended Monday with the Game 4 loss to Golden State. 

Olshey agreed to an extension in 2017 that carries his contract through the 2020-21 season. Sources believe he is open to considering other options including Washington after seven years with the Blazers.

Reporting from Portland has the franchise likely to be sold following the 2018 passing of team owner Paul Allen. 

Lillard received All-NBA honors Thursday and with it a supermax extension for four-years, $191 million dollars. If offered and signed, the contract would put constraints on Portland's salary cap structure.

As for Harris, the former Bucks GM joined the Warriors in 2008 as an assistant coach before eventually moving into the front office. He was named assistant GM in 2016.

ESPN reported Harris interviewed for the Pelicans opening in April before the NBA Playoffs began.

Note the familiar names. Gersson Rosas, who subsequently became the Timberwolves President, also interviewed with the Wizards.

The connection with the Wizards and Pelicans is Mike Forde, an outside consultant who helped both teams during their respective searches.

It’s no leap imagining Forde pushing the Wizards to meet with an executive who just spent the past five years in the NBA Finals (The Bucks never finished above .500 in five seasons with Harris, however). Waiting could mean until after Game 4 of the NBA Finals (June 7). Going the full seven games means June 16.

Another front office headliner still in the postseason is Toronto’s Masai Ujiri. NBC Sports Washington previously reported Ujiri showed interest in Washington. Expectations of high salary demands and compensation from the Raptors for their President of Basketball Operations stunted any serious movement, according to a source.

For now, Sheppard runs the show. He led the Wizards’ contingent at last week’s NBA Combine in Chicago. As for Ferry or Weaver, as of Wednesday it was considered unlikely either heard from Washington since the organization ramped up the pursuit of Connelly or learned of the Denver executive's decision, according to sources familiar with the situation.

 For now, all anyone on the outside can do is wait patiently just like the organization and see which name bubbles up next.

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'I started to realize that I’m not broken': Steve Smith opens up about mental health and depression

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'I started to realize that I’m not broken': Steve Smith opens up about mental health and depression

Former Carolina Panthers' star receiver Steve Smith spoke in front of a crowd of over 400 people at the fifth annual Wake up for Wellness breakfast that was sponsored by Mental Health America of Central Carolinas.

The 16-year veteran and current NFL Network analyst touched on the importance of seeking help for bouts with depression and spoke of battles that he has faced with the disease.

“On the outside you’ll see a tough exterior. But on the inside, I’m just broken or I believe even more broken than the average man. ... Because when the stadium goes dark and the cheers stop, you’re still looking for that pat on the back,” Smith said. “Throughout my whole career, I struggled with that.”

Smith discussed that in the beginning, he was so concerned about the stigma regarding mental health, that he opted for the professional to meet him for housecalls, and as time passed he realized the importance of speaking up.

“I started to realize that I’m not broken,” he said. “I’m not being sent back to the manufacturer ... I get up every morning and figure it out.”

Smith's comments on the issue came to light just a day after the NFL and NFLPA announced new legislation that focuses on mental well being.

The newly formed Comprehensive Mental Health and Wellness Committee will develop programs for members of the NFL in addition to collaborating with local and national mental health and suicide prevention organizations. Each team will be mandated to retain a Behavioral Health Team Clinician for assistance that will be required to be available to players at the individual team facilities for at least 8-12 hours per week and must conduct mandatory mental health education sessions for players and coaching staff.

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