Behind the Scenes of Cougar Football:

It's a Saturday night around 10:30 as the Houston Cougars have just defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 45-20, to which head Coach Tony Levine quickly replied, "Twenty?

How did they score twenty against us?” There is little time for humor however as the clock starts immediately ticking as the staff starts preparing for their next opponent (the following Saturday). Over the course of the next month, ‘Coogfans’ will take a ‘behind the scenes’ look at Cougar football. Today’s story will be on the role the assistant coaches take in game planning for each opponent. Next week’s will be on ‘Cougar Video’ (headed by Grantscott Green), followed by the strength and conditioning program’s role (led by Brian Odom) and their relationship with the training staff (Mike O’Shea) and the team nutritionist (Tara Boening).  Towards the end of the month we will take a look at equipment operations (Jay Takach), the academics staff (Maria Peden) and finally Chris Pezman as head of Football Operations and his role in helping the team win each Saturday.</P>

The average every day fan doesn’t understand how critical each of these departments are in the success of the team as Coach Levine explains, “They are extremely critical in terms of success. Everyone has their specific role and they have the freedom and our confidence to perform their specific responsibility at not only a high level, but a championship level. Everyone in the program knows what they have to accomplish every day and every week to be successful. Everyone thinks we just show up on Saturday and they don’t realize what it takes in preparing behind the scenes in everything from equipment to video to strength and conditioning along with academics in order to be successful on a Saturday afternoon.”

As far as game planning goes, the process for the assistant coaches begin early Sunday morning, “After the game is over Saturday night nothing is done football wise. We go home, go to sleep and get back early Sunday morning to begin preparing for our upcoming opponent.” quips Coach Levine.


As soon as the staff arrives at the Athletic/Alumni Center early in the morning, the first thing the staff will do is to grade video of the game individually by position. Or in other words, Lee Hays will watch and grade his offensive line in his office by himself, as will each position coach. They will then watch the same video together (offensive and defensive staffs separately) while discussing what they see. Along with inside receivers, newly hired special teams coordinator Jamie Bryant will watch all of the special teams plays separately, and then watch with the other coaches associated with the different special teams units.

Coach Levine also watches the video on his own, “I will watch all three phases by myself and then we will have a staff meeting around 5pm. We’ll talk about how we played on both sides of the ball as a unit and how players played individually. Then we’ll all get on the same page moving forward on our next opponent in terms of what the game plan needs to be, what the mind set needs to be and what our theme and emphasis will be that week in practice - basically what it takes to win that week. We’ll then break out of that meeting and stay at the office that night as late as it takes to start game planning on that weeks opponent. The players are off on Sunday. They just come in, in the afternoon for treatments with the training staff.” After breaking down the daily schedules and how practice is set up, I’ll take a closer look at what the coaches look for when putting together a game plan each week.


First thing in the morning the staff will have an extensive academics meeting with the academic advisors, led by Maria Peden. During this meeting, they will discuss how the student athletes are doing grade wise and what they need to do in order to improve. The coaches will continue to game plan each phase of the game individually and will meet for a special teams meeting at 3 p.m. with the entire team. The players start filtering into the Athletics/Alumni Center after their morning classes and lunch to get treatments with the trainers. During the special teams meeting, the team will watch all of the special teams plays from the game on Saturday.

They will then have a brief team meeting in which Coach Levine will recap the game and will talk about what went well, what didn’t and what needs to be improved. Levine will then let the team know what the points of emphasis are for practice that week. The team will break into offensive and defensive team meetings to watch the game, and the staff will briefly introduce the game plan for the upcoming opponent. The team hits the practice field shortly thereafter for a 45-60 minute practice in helmets only (non contact). Twenty of those minutes will emphasize special teams play with the emphasis on kickoff and punt coverage along with field goal blocking. The next 30 to 45 minutes focus’s on offense, defense and correcting their mistakes from the previous game while briefly introducing the next opponent.


This will be a heavier day for the players regarding practice (later in this article Levine will discuss how practice is broken down). It will be “our longest and most intense practice of the week. We’ll come in as a staff and continue game planning that morning. We’ll have a special teams meeting at 2:45 where we’ll go over punt and kick off return and at 3 the team will go to position meetings for a while before getting out on the field around 4:30 for a 4:45 practice for two hours, in full pads. After practice the kids are done but we’ll stay here as a full staff and watch that practice on video and continue game planning as well – adding a few new plays and taking out some that we didn’t like,” according to Coach Levine.


The staff will continue tweaking the game plan more specifically. They’ll focus on what is referred to as “special situations” such as goal line, red zone and short yardage (both on offense and defense). The 2:45 p.m. special teams meeting is now focused on punt and kickoff coverage and kick blocks – as opposed to Tuesday’s punt and kickoff return. Practice is cut back from two hours to one hour and forty five minutes and is in shoulder pads and helmets only. After practice, as with Tuesday, the staff will watch that days practice video and continue tweaking the game plan.


The coaches will finalize the game plan in all three phases of the game during the morning staff meeting. The 2:45 special teams meeting alternates back to the return games again and the team meets at 3 p.m. where the offense and defense meet separately until practice begins. After stretching, they’ll practice for an hour in helmets only. Twenty of those minutes will be on special teams where they’ll cover every phase and situation that might occur during a game, such as onsides kicks (recovery and ‘hands’ team), kicking off and receiving a kickoff after a safety. They’ll even practice taking a safety after a kickoff. Coach Levine was emphatic in repeating, “We’ll go over every possible situation in the kicking game.” Thursday’s practices will conclude with what Levine labeled as the “Cougar Bowl,” where the younger guys (true and redshirt freshmen) will scrimmage for around twenty minutes.


The morning begins with an extensive recruiting meeting. Levine mentions, “We’re also recruiting every day of the week, whether that’s writing letters, faxing, emailing, sending a post on Facebook or calling a high school coach. We’ll call a high school senior once time a week (per NCAA guidelines).” Special teams will meet again at 3 p.m. with offense and defense splitting up at 3:30. The team participates in a brief ‘walk through’ at 4:30, in which the team literally walks through various plays. Different units will also practice running on and off the field in game-like situations, such as the nickel team hurrying onto the field before a third and long as an opposing offense moves the ball downfield during a two-minute drill. Dinner will be at 5:30 (for a home game) after which they will get on the bus to view a movie (66 travel for road games). They’ll check in at the team hotel later in the evening and participate in more meetings before bed check. Times obviously vary depending on whether it’s a home or road game, and actual game time.

Game Day

Early in the morning after breakfast the special teams will meet to go over field goals and field goal block for five minutes before the entire special teams meets for twenty. The team then breaks up into offense and defensive meetings for thirty minutes to go over the game plan again before a walk through for thirty more minutes. The team will then have a brief clap session, get on the bus, and go to the game. There might be some down time in the afternoon (where the athletes go to their rooms to relax) if the game is played at night.

Practice setup

Coach Levine realizes a good thing when he see’s it, so practices will run extremely similar to how the staff ran them under the Cougars previous head coach, Kevin Sumlin. After a brief stretching period, the team breaks into an “Individual” period where each position will work with its position coach for thirty minutes (twenty in November). During this session each position works mainly on fundamentals. Next will be a “Group Install” period (for fifteen minutes) where the offense works with the offense on one field and the defense will be on the second practice field. Each day there will be a certain emphasis, for example – Tuesday’s on the offensive field, the offense might work on screens (wide receiver and running back). The next day they might emphasize inside and outside zone running plays.

The next drills are “1 on 1” and “Inside Run” which take place for fifteen minutes. On the offensive field, the quarterbacks throw to the wide receivers whom are running routes versus the defensive backs. ‘1 on 1’ usually will begin in the open field (around the 50) for the first five minutes. The next five minutes will be on the goal line and the last five will include three receiver sets where various screens will be practiced. The ‘Air Raid’ offense places a huge emphasis on screens, not only the routes that are run but also the blocking. While throwing screens, as much emphasis will be given to the receivers who are blocking down field as to the receiver actually catching the pass. Defensively the DB’s will practice shedding these blocks. This drill obviously helps the receivers refine their route running techniques, and it helps the defensive backs in defending, or shedding, them. While ‘1 on 1’ is happening, ‘Inside Run’ drills are practiced simultaneously on the defensive field. This drill pits the quarterbacks, running backs and offensive linemen versus the defensive line and linebackers as they practice both running (and defending the run) between the tackles.

Special teams will then practice for 20 minutes (15 if field goals are not being kicked). On Thursdays, special teams will be held at the end of practice, as opposed to Monday through Wednesday when they are run during the middle of practice. On Mondays, the special teamers practice coverage and blocking. Tuesdays are for punt and kickoff returns and Wednesdays return to coverage. On Thursdays, the team will practice every conceivable situation that might occur in a game.

After a five minute water break, the teams will then convene onto their respective offensive and defensive practice fields for “7 on 7” and “O-line/D-line” drills, for twenty minutes. In ‘7 on 7’ (or what some refer to as pass skel, as in skeleton), it’s the QB’s, RB’s and WR’s versus the LBers and secondary. This drill allows the offense to work on timing and reading the defense without having to deal with a pass rush. While these drills are being practiced, both lines are on the other field, practicing their rushing (and protection) techniques against each another. This drill is can also be referred to as ‘1 on 1’ as each defensive lineman will take a turn rushing versus an offensive lineman. Defensive ends and tackles will also practice stunts versus two or three offensive linemen combinations. These drills help refine technique such as footwork and hand placement as wasted movement can quickly lead to the break down of a specific play (on either offense or defense).

Practice concludes with a “team period” when it’s all eleven on offense versus all eleven on defense. This portion begins with what Coach Levine refers to as “good on good” or the first string offense versus the first string defense for the first four plays. The next four plays will be the second string offense versus the second string defense before the final twenty minutes will be the first stringers versus the scout teams practicing on both fields. Coach Levine preaches this philosophy of practicing “good on good” in certain drills (such as o-line/d-line, pass skel and team) because he doesn’t want his team to “get a false sense of security. We want to get a good look in practice to simulate the speed and physicality of our opponent as best we can. For example, “the coach reiterates, “we don’t want our first team left tackle to get lulled into a false sense of security during a game because he’s dominated our much younger scout team (defensive) ends during the week in practice.”

Game planning

Now that we’ve gone over the coaches daily schedules and how practice is set up, we’ll take a look at what the assistant coaches look for when they are scouting their opponents on video throughout the course of the week, or how they ‘game plan.’ I asked Coach Levine if his staff game plans (offensively speaking) to attack his opponents weaknesses, or do they try to implement their will no matter what an opposing defense tries to throw at them. “Both,” says the coach, “we’re going to play to (and identify) our (and our opponents) strengths. What I look for when scouting our opponent is personnel first, in all three phases. We get the jersey numbers of everyone their (our opponent) playing with to identify their best players and players we may be able to exploit or who we can attack. We need to identify (on our offense) who we want to get the balls into the hands of, and come up with two or three different running plays. Defensively for us we want to identify our best blitzers and who (on their offense) we can attack in coverage. So first we look at personnel, and then we look at scheme.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt adds, (when asked what he looks for when trying to dissect an opponent’s defense), “The thing I look for is the tempo of their play – how fast are they playing? What’s their energy level? How hard are they playing? What’s their personality? Who are they? It’s not just what they’re going to do but more of a deal of what are they about?” Coach Levine mentioned that his philosophy of being a head coach is more of the CEO model that he learned under Tommy Tuberville (when they were at Auburn), “I believe in certain things offensively, defensively and in the kicking game and my coordinators will share the same philosophy.” When asked if they will be allowed to call their own plays, Levine says “they’ll be given the freedom to do what they do.” Along those lines, Nesbitt says his first series (or fifteen plays) will be scripted and then “we’ll go with the normal game plan after that.” When asked about the ‘art of calling a game’ he says, “You’re playing the odds based on what you see during the week (both in practice and in video scouting) and some of it changes as you get the feel of the game based on what’s going on. Basically you have to be able to adapt from your scripted game plan if that’s what the game dictates. Injuries can play a part in it (game calling), but it’s also based on what’s happening at the moment too.”

Defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant added, “We look at top personnel groupings and we’ll look at their top runs and passes. We call a game based off of what we’ve seen over the course of the week and based on what we see during the game.” In next week’s ‘Behind the Scenes’ look into Cougar football, we’ll take a look at ‘Cougar Video’ and their role in scouting and game planning.


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