2012 Houston Cougars Season Preview – Offense

When Tony Levine was named head coach on the 21st of December (just eleven days after being named interim head coach after Kevin Sumlin departed to take the same role with Texas A&M) last year, he used the term ‘If it aint broke, don't fix it' in describing how he envisioned how the Cougars offense would operate, "We've recruited successfully to this offense," Levine said.

"We've got the players in place for this offense. To go out and to hire somebody to come in here and replace the best offense in the history of college football with a new scheme and a new system didn't make sense to me." So the basic premise of this offense will remain the same, to wear down the opponent’s defense both physically and mentally by using a fast tempo, multiple formations, and pre-snap shifts and motions. The objection: to take advantage of the Cougars speed while also confusing opposing defenses. A confused football player performs with doubt in his mind instead of the inner confidence needed to excel.

Enter Mike Nesbitt

The ‘Air Raid’ disciple cut his teeth in the offense by learning the ‘ins and outs’ firsthand from a few of the masters in former Texas Tech head Coach Mike Leach and former Cougar offensive coordinators’ Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury when he would make visits on campus over the off-season over a number of years. He led Stephen F. Austin’s offense to top 15 rankings in 2011 (in FBS play) in total offense (439 yards per game), passing (318) and scoring (35.7). In 2010, as the offensive coordinator, he led the West Texas A&M Buffs offense to rankings of second nationally in total offense (529) and third in scoring (42 points per game) in NCAA division II play. Nesbitt on the key to keep the offense humming at its record pace of the past few seasons, “The most important thing is to keep the tempo of play the same and just the understanding that their will be some new guys doing the heavy lifting now. We’ll have four brand new receivers out there now, a new quarterback and a new offensive lineman. That’s going to be the deal is that those guys are going to learn that it’s their turn to do the work,” said the Cougars new offensive coordinator. Speaking of the ‘new’ guys, let’s take a look at each position.


David Piland takes over for departed Cougars legend, Case Keenum. For his career Keenum set FBS records for passing yards (19,217), total yards (20,114), passing TDs (155), TDs responsible for (176), 300 yard passing games (39), and he finished his career 37-14 as a starter over his six years on Cullen Boulevard. Saying that’s a tough act to follow would be a major understatement, but left tackle Jacolby Ashworth probably said it best when asked about Piland (during media day), “When Kevin Kolb went to the NFL people, people asked who would be the next Kolb when Case was a freshman? Then Case took over and now people are asking the same question. It's time for David (Piland) to begin his era and be himself." Nesbitt echoes those sentiments, “He can’t do it the way Case did. He’s got to find his own niche on how to surround his teammates and that’s going to be an ongoing process for him over the rest of his career. I do know this; from day one he’s carried himself like he wanted to be the starter.” Even the Cougars legend himself has stated that Piland is so far ahead of where he (Keenum) was entering his third year with the program, and that he’s ready to produce. Nesbitt on Piland’s progress over the off-season and two weeks into summer camp, “He’s having a really good camp and I think he’s growing everyday.”

Unfortunately (in the beginning at least), Piland’s play will be compared to Keenum’s just as his was compared to the four year starter he replaced in 2007 in Kevin Kolb.  As I watched Keenum’s last game in a Cougars uniform in last season’s ‘Ticket City Bowl’ in Dallas, I marveled at Keenum’s ‘pocket presence,’ or the way he was able to detect and avoid an oncoming pass rush so subtlety whether it was by stepping up into the pocket or side-stepping a defensive end in order to give his receivers just an extra second to get open. I asked Coach Nesbitt whether or not that can be taught or if it’s just part of that “it” factor that the great QB’s have, “No doubt it’s part of the ‘it’ factor. It’s just something that those guys, over time, get better at and improve. That’s the key – just constant passing and working at it and David’s done a really good job at it.”

Piland does have some experience, as he started the final eight games of the 2010 season after both Keenum and his backup (Cotton Turner) were injured and lost for the season during the team’s third game at UCLA. He lost five of the eight games (including the final four), but averaged nearly 330 yards per game while throwing for 24 TDs while leading the team to average nearly 35 points per game during his starts. He’ll definitely have to improve on his 14 interceptions, however. This is the problem when you have a confident QB who can make all of the throws needed to be successful; sometimes he thinks he can squeeze the ball into tight coverage when he shouldn’t. He also needs to work on his accuracy. A huge part of the ‘Air Raid’ offense is what the receivers do with ‘YAC’ yards, or ‘yards after the catch.’ Many times over the past few seasons, Keenum would not only place a ball where only his receivers could catch it, but put it in a spot where they could gain major ‘YAC’ yardage. It’s sometimes called ‘throwing a receiver open’ where a ball leads the receiver so he doesn’t have to stop or reach behind in order to catch the ball. Piland completed 58 percent of his 345 attempts in 2010, but many of them were thrown where once the receiver caught the ball, he was tackled immediately. That’s the difference in an eight yard completion or a 25 yard completion. Piland will have the offenses full arsenal at his disposal, per Levine and Nesbitt; unlike the 2010 season when as a true freshman the offense had to be simplified for him. This season all of the shifts and motions, designed to confuse defenses, should be present in the offense just as last season.

I asked Piland about his personal goals earlier this summer, “I would love to break the completion percentage record for a single season. That would be great, and the lowest interceptions record as well. Yards are great but they don’t necessarily win games.” My favorite Piland quote was when he told me “you should want to win at whatever it is that you do.”

As far as his backup is concerned, according to Nesbitt, the job still hasn’t been settled between redshirt freshman Bram Kohlhausen and redshirt senior Crawford Jones. Kohlhausen sat out last season but according to everyone who’s seen him, really has an arm. Jones has completed one pass for 18 yards in his four seasons on campus while serving as the holder for field goals and PAT’s for the past three seasons. Nesbitt describes the two as, “one guy has the arm (Kohlhausen) while the other the age and really knows the offense (Jones).”

Wide Receiver

 As with the aforementioned QB position, the WR positions also have huge holes to fill as last seasons starters have all graduated. Outside receiver Patrick Edwards had 1,752 yards on 89 catches and 20 TDs last season. For his career the former walk-on accumulated 4,507career yards (a Conference USA record) on 291 receptions and 43 receiving TDs. Edwards is now catching passes for the Detroit Lions. Slot receiver (and current Montreal Alouettes) Tyron Carrier had 3,493 career receiving yards on 320 catches (another CUSA record) with 22 TDs receiving. Fellow slot Justin Johnson had 1,229 receiving yards and 12 TD receptions last season and might have been the teams most clutch receiver. The trio accounted for 272 receptions, 37 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards last season alone. Replacing the production of these three (along with the fourth starter, E.J. Smith), will be up to the group of the following: Mark Roberts and Chance Blackmon are, according to Nesbitt, the leading contenders to be starting at the two outside receiver spots (X and Z) with Ronnie Williams and Daniel Spencer starting at the two slot positions (H and Y). Fighting for playing time on the outside include Isaiah Sweeney (who should be back from a foot injury by game one according to Nesbitt) and Xavier Maxwell with Kenneth Bibbins Jr. and Aaron Johnson competing for spots in the rotation at the slot positions.

Coach Nesbitt on the receiver who has impressed him the most thus far, “Ronnie Williams has had a really good camp. He’s really improved over the time from spring ball to summer camp. Spencer has the looks to have the ability to be a big time workhorse for us.” Roberts combines great athleticism and has a great burst on top of a nice 6-foot-3 inch frame. The sophomore had six receptions last season along with a nice 22.7 yard average per catch.

The biggest surprise might be how much Blackmon has climbed up the depth chart after not contributing much during the first few seasons of his Cougars career. The former transfer from Colorado has only one catch (for 27 yards) in his three seasons, but according to Nesbitt he’s “just playing steady. In the spring I think he was still a little behind in the offense in what to do. Now he’s been picking up speed and getting reps.” While Blackmon might be the biggest surprise, the biggest disappointment could be Dewayne Peace, who had a very nice spring by many accounts. The junior made the most of his time as a reserve last season in catching 13 passes for 105 yards in 11 games. Nesbitt mentioned that he’s “doing ok, but kinda slipped a bit coming in to camp. It’s been a nice competition. Other guys have stepped up and made plays.  It is what it is. He’s played well but not over-the-top or anything right now.” In reading between the lines I took that Nesbitt just wants receivers who are consistent in catching the ball. Dropped passes seemed to be a problem during the beginning of spring ball but that problem has not been as prevalent over the summer.

Nesbitt on the two who might show the most potential (as far as pure athleticism is involved) of all of the receivers in Kenneth Bibbins Jr and Aaron Johnson, “He’s (Bibbins) been solid and will probably find a role for us somewhere in this offense as time moves on. Johnson’s also doing good although he’s a little banged up.” Maxwell caught only 24 receptions last season for Blinn Community College, but averaged a whopping 26.4 yards per catch. I can see many-a long ball being thrown his way this season.

Deontay Greenberry and Larry McDuffy lead a talented crew of true freshman receivers also competing for playing time in camp. Nesbitt on the prized recruit (Greenbury), “He’s been solid. He’s still learning the offense but he’s making plays all over the field.” The five-star rated freshman from Fresno, California is a solid 195 pounds while his 6-foot-3 inch frame gives him the height to catch jump balls off fade routes. Nesbitt on whether or not this talented class of freshmen receivers could see playing time this season, “You never know. Those guys are all still new and learning what to do and are still learning the speed of the game. Basically they’re still trying to find their way through some of this stuff. They’re all working hard and doing well but time will tell on those guys.” Those guys being Greenberry and McDuffy along with Andrew Rodriquez and Devin Parks. I wouldn’t read much into the depth chart recently released by the athletics department as Nesbitt mentioned, “The depth chart is always fluid. Guys are always moving up and down. That’s what competition is all about.”

New inside receivers coach Jamie Christian on how this crop of receiver’s matches up athletically with Pac-12 schools he’s seen as a former coach at Arizona State, “That athleticism is very similar. I don’t see too much of a difference. They’re definitely guys here that could have played at ASU without a doubt.” As outside receivers Coach (and former Cougar great) Brandon Middleton said recently about this new group of receivers via the Houston Chronicle, "We might have dropped off on experience, but one thing we didn't lose is speed. There is a lot of speed out there, and speed makes up for a lot."

Running back

While the team was so talented at this position last season that three backs shared the load, this season the success of the offense might lay at the feet of the talented Charles Sims. Nesbit has stated that 2011 First Team All-Conference USA running back has earned the right to be the feature back. The redshirt junior burst onto the scene in 2009 earning the CUSA freshman of the year award after leading the team with 698 rushing yards that almost matched his 759 receiving yards out of the backfield. After sitting out the 2010 season due to NCAA Clearinghouse issues, Sims picked up where he left off with 821 yards rushing and 575 yards receiving. For his two year playing career, he has averaged nearly 7.9 yards each time he’s touched the ball, collecting 18 TDs on the ground and five through the air. Sims has also added power to his rushing game as he showed up to camp a svelte 212 pounds (as compared to 176 pounds for the 2009 season). This added muscle will allow him to run between the tackles in the Cougars one-cut inside zone rushing game to add to his already lethal explosive bursts in their outside zone rushing attack.

Backing up Sims will be Kenneth Farrow, who is switching positions as he played safety last season. The change of position wasn’t unexpected as he was recruited to play RB out of L.D. Bell High (Hurst, Texas) by Colorado as he rushed for nearly 3,000 yards during his high school career. The redshirt freshman has a physical mentality although he’s only nearly 200 pounds. Nesbitt on Farrow’s progress, “He’s got a better awareness of what’s going on so he has a good chance of playing if he keeps improving.” Randall Hollimon and Braxton Welford are a couple of former walk-ons who have looked solid over the spring and last year as well in limited duty. One to lookout for is Ryan Jackson, a true freshman out of Angleton, He has shown tremendous burst and explosiveness,” Levine said via the Houston Chronicle after last week’s scrimmage. “He will be in the mix.” Nesbitt has said the freshmen backs have all done a good job in camp thus far.

Those other two backs that Sims shared playing time with last season? Bryce “Brick” Beall finished his career third all time in rushing in Cougar history with his 3,098 yards, while Michael Hayes has a good shot at making the roster of the San Diego Chargers.

Offensive Line

This is the position in which is the most responsible for the success of any offense and the Cougars are in great shape at offensive line with four of five starters returning. These returning starters account for 71 starts, which is good for 39nth in the nation (and third in CUSA behind only UCF’s 89 and Southern Miss’s 80). Accounting for 29 of those starts is left tackle Jacolby Ashworth. Although Ashworth played some guard during spring ball, this was mainly for ‘cross-training’ purposes according to Nesbitt and in case of injury. Left guard will be manned by redshirt junior Ty Cloud. The 6-foot-4 inch, 335 pound road grader started all 14 games last season. The only new starter along the line won’t really be new, just playing a new position as Kevin Forsch moves from right guard to center (replacing all-conference center Chris Thompson). The redshirt junior started 14 games last season at right guard but as he says, “I’ve been back and forth between guard and center the past few years during practice so I’ll be ready.” At the vacant right guard spot will be the only new starter in Ralph Oragwu, who at 6’3 318 pounds also has quick feet. Oragwu beat out the talented but young Emeka Okafor during spring ball, according to new line coach Lee Hays. At right tackle might be the most talented in Rowdy Harper. Rowdy, which is his real name by the way and not just a nickname might have the most NFL potential and is the heir apparent to replace Ashworth at left tackle next season. The redshirt started all 14 games last season and earned All-Conference USA Freshman and Freshman All America honors last season. At 6’6 and 299 pounds, Harper is considered the ‘runt’ of the offensive line litter as the line averages about 6’5 312 pounds per man across the line, which is part of the Cougars recruiting strategy, according to Hays, “We try and recruit tackles and if they cant play tackle then we move them inside. We like to have size for our zone running schemes that we use and for pass protections.” Hays rejoins the staff after leaving to become the offensive coordinator for Tarleton State for the 2011 season. The ‘Texans’ were 15nth nationally in division II play averaging 290 yards per game.  During the 2010 season he was an assistant line coach for the Cougars so most of the linemen are still familiar with him, as Thompson stated,Coach Hays really taught us a lot last year and is a great resource for everyone on the team. He is a man of great integrity and he has a strong relationship with our returning guys already, so this will be a smooth transition." Nesbitt also commented on the weight gain by the O-line (which at an average of 312 pounds per man is nearly 25 pounds heavier than when Kevin Sumlin first took over the program in 2008), “That’s all due to coach Odom (Strength and conditioning coach) working them out and keeping them in shape. They’re still able to run and do what we need them to.” In the zone blocking schemes it’s paramount that the line is still mobile enough to get out and block on the second (linebackers) and third levels (secondary), especially with the amount of various screens executed in this offense. One example of this was last season versus UCLA when the team ran an inside screen to Carrier from the Bruins 15 yard line. Although he fumbled the ball at the one yard line, Thompson was able to recover it in the end-zone for the touchdown after running almost 20 yards down the field.

Others to see action on the line this season include the aforementioned Okafor inside along with Josh McNeil. Also inside, and at center Austin Lunsford and Bryce Redman are battling to back up Forsch at center. At tackle DeAnthony Sims will see some playing time. All have played some last season and on special teams as well.

All in all, Nesbitt has been impressed with the team during fall camp and is raring to go as he’s really looking forward to watching the team play. He said the offense should look basically the same and the pass/run ration shouldn’t change. Over the past four seasons the offense has averaged nearly 80 plays per game, with 50 of those being via the air. What excites Nesbitt the most about this offense is “The players in that they’ve done a great job over the off-season and summer. Just being around the kids and teaching them and watching them get better everyday.”

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