2013 Houston Cougars Season Preview

Coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, Houston Cougars head coach Tony Levine isn't one to stroll down memory lane in talking about the 2012 season, "I don't remember much from last year" Levine says as he laughs while talking to reporters after a recent practice.

Levine continues about the teams' motivation last season, "Internally I think we had something to prove, externally – maybe not. This year I think there's a different dynamic externally surrounding our program and I think within our program. I once heard a college coach talk about an angry football team. I really don't want to say we're angry, but extremely motivated. Our kids can't wait for the games to get here. That's a feeling I felt among our players and coaches since the end of last season and ‘something to prove' is a little bit of our motto that we can hang our hats on, so to speak. It helps us stay focused week-by-week, day-by-day and practice-by-practice to where I don't want to say it's our rallying cry but our young men are extremely motivated and extremely driven and feel like they need to go earn some respect back starting next Friday (August the 30th at 7:30pm versus the Southern Jaguars at Reliant Stadium)."

With that the next three articles on Coogfans will take a look at each unit starting first on the offense. Few teams in the nation can average nearly 500 yards per game (479.2 to be exact, good for 15th nationally) while also averaging 32.4 points per game (38th) yet be disappointed -  the Cougars are one of those teams. That's what happens when you follow record breaking offenses (top five nationally in total offense in four of the previous five seasons and top ten in scoring average in three of the previous four seasons as well) which were led by head coaches Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin along with offensive coordinators Dana Holgorson and Kliff Kingsbury – all of whom are currently head coaches for BCS conference schools.

Enter Doug Meacham

With such "disappointing" results, Levine hired Doug Meacham on January the 14th as the team's offensive coordinator, replacing Travis Bush (whom returned to the running backs coaching position he was originally hired for before unexpectantly being promoted after last season's game one debacle versus Texas State that got then offensive coordinator, Mike Nesbit, fired). Meacham had worked for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State for the previous eight seasons (and alongside the aforementioned Holgorson and Larry Fedora who is currently the head coach at North Carolina) as an inside receivers/tight ends coach so he knows offense and the ‘Air Raid' scheme in particular. The play-calling should revert back to what Coogfans are used to seeing over the past few seasons as far as use of formations (more ‘diamond formations' in the running game) and player motion in confusing opposing defenses. Also expect to see more use of the ‘Pistol' formation to take advantage of speedier QBs (which we'll focus more on later). Meacham on how the offense has looked in pre-season practice up to this point, "We're practicing pretty well in the base packages and moving along pretty fast. We've had a few young guys step up and we're feeling pretty good about where we're at. Obviously we need to keep at it but I think we've gotten better over the course of camp."

The most "camp chatter" has been over who the starting quarterback will be between incumbent David Piland and incoming freshmen Greg Ward (Tyler John Tyler) and John O'Korn (St. Thomas Aquinas out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida). Piland (6-foot-3, 196 pounds) is a redshirt junior who's started two of the past three seasons. Unfortunately those seasons (2010 and 12) have been the only two losing seasons over the past eight and has a career 6-12 record as a starter. As much blame lays on his teammates and whether it's right or wrong, a QB is ultimately judged on his record as a starter. It doesn't help succeeding QBs such as Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum, whom are probably the two best UH QBs all-time and are both currently in the NFL. Regardless, Meacham has liked what he's seen of Piland during practice, "David knows the system in and out and he's mentally twitchy. He gets us in and out of the right calls and does a great job of running our offense and he's a good leader as well." Meacham on the other two quarterbacks competing for the starting spot, "Greg Ward is a really electric type of player that has some moxie to him. He can move around and create plays with his legs and keeps the ball in play. Now John O'Korn is probably more of your prototypical pocket passer who reads defenses well. He's really smart and puts the ball in the right spots and he's only going to get better. We've got three guys right there that are in the mix and all of them bring a little something different to the table but they can all function."

Meacham on what he's looking for in determining who the starting QB is, "What we're looking for is somebody who can manage the game, communicate with his teammates and who has that mental twitch. Someone who can see the backend rotations and get us in and out of plays. Basically just be a quarterback."

Over the course of his two seasons as the starter, Piland has completed nearly 58 percent of his passes while averaging 293 yards per game for a QB efficiency rating of 126.7. He's passed for 40 career touchdowns while tossing 26 interceptions. Ward, out of Tyler John Tyler, led Texas' Class 4A with 4,202 passing yards and 39 touchdowns against five interceptions (for an amazing nearly 8:1 TD-Int ratio). He also added another 861 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 170 carries and has had that "it" factor in practice leading many to believe he may be the second string QB with a series of pistol/QB keeper-option type of packages as a change-up to the pocket passing Piland (if Piland is indeed named the starter). Not to be outdone, O'Korn simply led his team to the Florida Class 7A state championship by passing for 2,552 yards with 22 TDs to just 4 interceptions. He also has the mobility for bootlegs in play-action out of the pistol formation. Bringing up the rear of the QB battle is JC transfer Billy Cosh and redshirt sophomore Bram Kohlhausen. Cosh was brought in out of Butler Community College to compete for the starting job but knee surgery performed in mid-December (after tearing an ACL during his team's JC national championship game) has kept him from doing so. That's too bad as well as the 6-foot-2 220 pounder is the type of pocket QB who strives in the ‘Air Raid' – he has a strong arm, is a good decision maker and is accurate. Just me speculating, but I think Piland is named starter with Ward backing him up as O'Korn's upside is too special to burn a possible redshirt as many think an offense is much better with a fifth year senior over a true freshman starter.

Wide Receiver

Whoever the starting QB is, he'll have plenty of targets to throw to this season, led by sophomore Deontay Greenberry. Arguably the most heralded recruit to ever sign with UH (the first Scout.com "five-star" player to select the University of Houston in school history), his true freshman season of 569 yards on 47 receptions to go along with 3 TDs didn't meet his expectations as he told Coogfans during Media Day earlier this month, "No sir I didn't meet my personal expectations as I wanted to get 1,000 yards last year, but that's ok. Playing inside receiver will be easier for me I think this year as I'll get the ball a lot more." The Fresno, California native will be moving inside to the ‘Y' position in order to take advantage of his physical 6-foot-3 inch, 198 pound frame which is fine by him, "It also gives me more responsibility as far as blocking for our running backs."  His goals for this season, "We just want to win the conference." Joining Greenberry inside is possession receiver Daniel Spencer (‘H'). The 5'11 195 pound junior is the returning leading receiver in yards (579 on 41 catches with 3 TDs). Along the outside spots (‘X' and ‘Z') are Larry McDuffey and Xavier Maxwell respectively. McDuffey may be the most explosive receiving threat for the Cougars (as the true freshman led the receivers with 4 TDs in only 9 games) with Maxwell arguably the fastest (averaged 17.9 yards per reception on 10 catches in only 8 games). Backing them up is probably the biggest wildcard at the receiver position in Aaron Johnson. The 6'0, 208 pound junior has constantly made great grabs during practice, but has been inconsistent in game action over the years. Reserves inside include redshirt freshmen Andrew Rodriquez and D'Juan Hines. A-Rod started what could have been a promising season as he had 82 yards on 5 receptions during the first two games of the season before taking a medical redshirt and looks to be the perfect ‘Wes Welker' like (as he's ‘only' 5'10, 175) inside ‘possession' receiver with Hines the more physical (6'2, 205) target. Meacham on some of the younger receivers who could see action, "Leday (John Leday) would be one. He just plays big. He's got a really good body and ball skills (6'0 185 out of Port Arthur Memorial)." Both Meacham and Levine have also mentioned true freshmen Donald Gage (5'10, 165) and Demarcus Ayers (5'9, 160) as possibly contributing on special teams as well as well as veteran Damian Payne (6'0, 210). While 11 receivers may seem like a lot, especially in this up-tempo style, that rotation really isn't too large (though I'm sure it will get pared down some as the season progresses). Meacham on the WR rotation, "your stars are going to get 75 to 80% of your snaps with the other guys getting 20 to 25 so if you're a backup in this system you're going to play. Plus a three (third teamer) is just an ankle sprain away from being in the equation. One player isn't capable of playing the entire game because of the speed and amount of reps they take during a game. We basically have a lot of guys in the equation which is a good thing because in practice they pay attention." Former four star prospect and USC Trojan Markeith Ambles has yet to show up to camp due to one lingering class at Western Arizona Community College. Once (if) he arrives the depth will be even greater. Overall, the talent is oozing out of this position, but it will be up to inside receivers coach Jamie Christian and outside receivers coach (and former Coog great) Brandon Middleton to gain the consistency that was lacking from last season's crew.

Running Back

With Charles Sims leaving in June for West Virginia, most of the carries will be split between redshirt sophomore Kenneth Farrow and true sophomore Ryan Jackson as Meacham describes both their games, "Jackson's an open space make you miss type of guy (5'10, 185) and he's also a guy we can split out and use in the passing game. Farrow's more of a between the tackles pound you guy (5'11, 216). He also has a little make you miss twitch to him who's a really good pass protector and he's also a tough guy, so you have a nice little one-two punch there with the open field make you miss guy and the pounder. They're a nice combo to have an complement one another extremely well." Two true freshmen who have also been garnering a lot of attention are Javin Webb (Evangel Christian Academy out of Shreveport, La.) and Joseph Glenn (Giddings). They seem to be the future "one-two punch combo" as Webb might be the fastest player on the team (at 5'8, 170) with Glenn the pounder (5'9, 220). Kent Brooks has also been seen being used in some goal-line packages as the former safety is a stout 5'11, 205. Not to be dismissed, sophomore Justin Hicks (5'6, 191) had been turning heads early in camp and could possibly work his way into the rotation.

Offensive Line

Last but certainly not least we come to the ‘big uglies' along the offensive line, as the game always starts up front on both sides of the line. What had been a strength coming into camp (five returning starters for a combined 95 career starts) could possibly become a weakness due to injury, mainly that of starting left guard Ty Cloud. The redshirt senior had started the past two seasons (26 games) at the spot but has missed most of camp with head and knee injuries. Coach Levine on the O-line in general this past Tuesday, "we entered camp with two storylines along the line; one was the emergence of Zach Johnson at right tackle and the other was Ty Cloud being banged up early and often in camp. Ty really hasn't done much in camp so far and because of that Zach has taken over the starting spot at right tackle. Because of that now it becomes ‘let's try to solidify our starting five, which we have.' Ralph (Oragwu who started 10 games last season) was our right tackle, he now bumps to left tackle and we've bumped Rowdy Harper (26 starts at both tackle spots) from left tackle over to left guard. Bryce Redman (8 returning starts) remains our starting center with Kevin Forsch (25 starts with 20 at guard over the past two seasons) at right guard. The third part is we're trying to find our sixth o-lineman. Who's the swing tackle? Who's our seventh lineman? Who's our swing guard or our interior guy if something happens to a guy inside? Is it an Emeka Okafor (6'5, 322)? If something happens at center, is it on Austin Lunsford working it or Forsch whose started for us in the past there? That's where we're at now as opposed to the first two weeks where it was let's bump some guys around since Ty's been injured." At this point Levine isn't sure if Cloud will start, but he'll probably see the field next Friday against Southern as he's already been back at practice. De'Anthony Sims (6'3, 320), who's a senior with starting experience, is also practicing some inside with Harper moving back to his left tackle spot, so nothing is set in stone at this point – though there is plenty of depth along the line.

Coach Meacham on the line in general, "They're solid. They're all work-horse type guys who bring their lunch pails to work every day and don't complain. They're big guys who are really smart and play hard. We're really pleased with them and quite honestly – with what we do offensively and the reps they've had in the past in a similar type system they're doing pretty well." If Cloud starts, the starting five of Harper (295), Cloud (315), Redman (285), Forsch (310) and Oragwu (325) average out to about 305 pounds per man, with Redman being the runt of the crew. The aforementioned Johnson tips the scales at just over 300 pounds as he played in reserve last season. These days are much different than six seasons ago when the average for the O-line was less than 290 pounds. The future should only get brighter (or heavier) along the line with the likes of true freshmen Ja'Braylin Thomas (6'5, 380), Josh Thomas (6'5, 335) plus JC transfer Damien Parris (6'5, 310), whom some had said could compete for playing time this season but has been slowed by not being able to fully compete due to off-season knee surgery. The mixing and matching along the line also has a lot to do with new O-line coach Glen Elarbee wanting to see as many combinations as possible before settling on one combination.

As mentioned earlier, look for Coach Meacham to use different formations for a schematical advantage as the team's added the tight end and full back positions to the roster. Reserve linemen Alex Cooper has been used as a tight end out of the ‘diamond formation' even catching a touchdown to cap off a redzone possession. The 6'4, 285 pounder played basketball at Bellaire's Second Baptist and his athleticism is said to be off the wall, making him a perfect fit in this style of offense. Xavier Brown (5'11, 215), Luke Stice (6'0, 218) and true freshman Tyler McCloskey (6'1, 208) are all at FB and will probably be used in short yardage situations, especially against the more physical American Athletic Conference defense's they'll be facing throughout the year. One player that could surprise is Chauntez Jackson at TE (who's also being looked at defensive rush end). The 6'4, 254 pound true freshman out of Inglewood California has the same type of athleticism as Cooper and could be a lethal receiver with work. Meacham has also stated that he likes adding a TE attached to the line in order to create an extra gap in the run game, in which the defense has to account for.

In all, the talent is definitely not lacking on offense, but the consistency is (or hopefully was), particularly concerning turnovers. The offense was a whopping 122nd in the nation (out of 124 teams) in surrendering 35 total turnovers (20 interceptions, 15 fumbles lost) last season, which is unacceptable. With better coaching and execution by the players, the offense can hopefully reach the heights seen over the past few seasons. Keep logging into Coogfans over the next few days as we take a look at the defense and special teams, along with a preview article of the Southern game by mid next week as we prepare for a fun and exciting 2013 season as members of the new American Athletic Conference.

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