2014 Spring Football Primer

While college football has become a 24/7 sport, coaches usually won't see tangible results until they get their players on the actual practice field. The coaching staff of the 2014 Houston Cougars (under third year head coach Tony Levine) will get to see some of these results beginning later today, Monday March the 3rd, as ‘Spring ball'

as ‘Spring ball' begins on the Cougars practice fields behind the Athletics Alumni Center and run through Friday April the 11th, culminating with the annual spring game at the Carl Lewis Field which runs next to the practice fields. Fans will be permitted to attend six practices. See uhcougars.com for the full schedules and details on which practices are open to the public.

Position battles

According to uhcougars.com, 94 percent of the teams 1,807 rushing yards from 2013 returns, along with 94 percent of its 3,647 passing yards and 80.6 percent of its 3,647 receiving yards as well. Defensively, 86.5 percent of its 1,048 tackles (including 98.7 percent of its 78 tackles for loss and all 31 sacks) all return from the 2013 season. With this, it's safe to assume that most of the starting positions for the 2014 squad will remain unchanged despite the normal ‘coach speak' one normally hears concerning positions remaining ‘open,' as competition helps each player improve on a daily basis. While previewing each position we'll take a look at the few truly open position battles as spring ball commences:

Quarterback

With John O'Korn (6-feet-4 inches, 210 pounds) returning for his sophomore season, while looking to improve upon his 3,117 passing yards with 28 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions while completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, the starting QB spot appears to be pretty much occupado for the next few seasons along Cullen Boulevard. With his brashness at taking off with the ball while trying to make something happen with his feet, the Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas product is only one hit away from being replaced however, so the backup QB spot takes on an added importance. Backing up O'Korn last season was John Tyler High product Greg Ward Jr. (5'10, 175). Just like O'Korn, Ward was thrown in as a true freshman last season and completed 19 of his 29 passes for 310 yards with 1 TD, while rushing for 176 yards (including 50 for loss on numerous sacks) on 45 carries with 2 scores as a fleet footed change-up to the more pocket passing oriented O'Korn. Later in the season Ward was used as a slot receiver catching 10 passes for 95 yards with a score. He was also used as a punt returner but only returned 2 for 7 yards total. As an ‘all-around athlete' look for Ward to be used more as a "slash" type (you younger kids google Kordell Stewart) as offensive coordinator Travis Bush looks to use his speed in favorable one-on-one matchups against slower linebackers or safeties throughout the course of the season. If Ward is indeed used more on offense for his versatility, look for senior Billy Cosh (6'1, 202) and even true freshman Bear Fenimore (6'2, 222), who's an early enrollee, to compete for snaps behind O'Korn. Cosh transferred from Butler Community College, where he lead them to the National Jr. College National Championship game throwing for 2,856 yards with 25 TDs to only 9 picks, but did not take a snap last season as he never fully recovered from knee surgery in December of 2012. While he may have more experience on Fenimore (out of Austin's Westwood High), both are strong armed pocket passers who pride themselves on both accuracy and decision making under center.

Wide Receiver

When discussing the strength of the receiver position, the two inside receiver spots stand out as junior Deontay Greenberry (6'3, 198) and senior Daniel Spencer (5'11, 195) return with their 1,202 and 768 yards respectively on 82 and 52 receptions along with 11 and 6 TDs. Both are exceptional route runners and have top end speed to create YAC (yards after the catch) yardage that's so important in the Coogs ‘Air Raid' spread scheme. While the two outside spots are technically open, the frontrunners, both of whom finished the season starting outside, are Markeith Ambles (6'2, 215, Sr.) and Demarcus Ayers (5'10, 173, So.). While Ambles struggled for most of the season while not joining the team until early in the season due to NCAA clearinghouse issues, he really showed a glimpse of his natural athletic ability in the Bowl game with 6 receptions for 105 yards and 2 scores. While his physicality helps as far as wrestling balls away from defenders his athleticism allows him to snare the ball out of the air at its highest point and his speed helps in breaking away from defenders after receptions running intermediate routes. Ayers on the other, hand excels on kickoff returns (12th nationally averaging almost 28 yards per return) but needs to refine his route running. Other than deep "go routes" the ball wasn't thrown his way too often last season. Supplementing them will be seniors Shane Ros (5'10, 200), who sat out the 2013 season after tearing an ACL during spring ball last season and Wayne Beadle (5'11, 178). Besides the aforementioned six the only other receiver who's caught a pass is Ward. Rounding out the position will be redshirt freshmen John Leday (6'0, 185) and Donald Gage (5'11, 175) along with walk-on and West Virginia transfer Jeremy Johnson (6'0, 192). And of course the incoming crop of true freshmen will get their shot to impress come summer practices.

Coaching note: One key in how the receivers improve as a core will be new outside receivers coach Tony Jeffery, who replaces the departed Brandon Middleton. Jeffery was a receiver for the University of Texas and coached as a grad student there for four seasons before coaching the past three at UTSA. The receivers dropped way too many catchable passes last season, putting the offense in undesirable down and distance situations far too often so hopefully Jeffery brings something to the table as far as coaching up his receivers.

Running Backs

After the returning starter from the 2012 season, Charles Sims, decided to transfer to West Virginia late in the spring last season, the running game was left in the hands of sophomores Kenneth Farrow (5'11, 216) and Ryan Jackson (5'10, 183). Though both had a few highlights during the 2012 season to give a glimpse of their potential, the rushing game was a huge unknown entering the 2013 season. The same can't be said about the 2014 season after the shifty Jackson rushed for 616 yards in 13 games while the more physical between-the-tackles Farrow rushed for 514 in 11 games with both rushing for 6 scores on the ground. Jackson averaged 4.8 yards per carry while averaging 50.8 yards per game with Farrow an even 5 per attempt and 46.7 on the ground per game. Both also excelled in catching balls out of the backfield on various dump off and screen passes as Jackson averaged 11 yards per reception on his 27 catches (good for fourth on the team) while Farrow looked for contact in order to punish defenders on his screen attempts. Behind them is the bowling ball like Justin Hicks (5'6, 191, Jr.) and walk-on Randall Hollimon (6'0, 212) with redshirt freshman Javin Webb (5'8, 172) providing more depth.

Coaching note: With Bush returning as OC and Dan Hammerschmidt, most recently of the Houston Texans, as the new RB coach, it'll be interesting to see how, if at all, the running game changes from a scheme and game calling standpoint.

Offensive Line

This will be the key position for the offense as there were far too many instances last season where O'Korn was placed in a bad spot due to busted blocking on a called first down run, leading to second and then third and long situations. These "third and forevers" allowed opposing defenses to ‘pin their ears back' along the edges in coming after Cougar QBs. Considering those QBs were true freshmen, the results were inevitable (especially against the better defensive teams faced at end the season), as they only rushed for an average of 97 yards per game in four of their final five games of the season against top 25 ranked defenses (UCF, Louisville, Cincinnati and Vanderbilt). All four resulted in close yet predictable losses. With the graduation of DeAnthony Sims, the all-important left tackle spot is wide open, but not without experience. Rowdy Harper (6'6, 295) returns for his senior season after splitting time between left guard and both tackle spots last year. Over his three seasons he's started 16 games at right tackle, 15 games at left tackle and 8 at left guard. A knee injury early in the season seemed to limit his quickness in blocking ends off the edge along with getting out to the second level to block linebackers or safeties on screen passes, not to mention his lack of quickness on interior pulls. With multiple year starters Ty Cloud and Kevin Forsch also graduated, Harper could be more valuable inside than out, even though he has more experience at both tackle spots. While Bryce Redman (6'1, 285) returns at center after starting the past 21 games over the past two seasons, the senior must cut down on his holding penalties while improving snapping the ball. There were too many times to count last season when the ball was snapped inaccurately, throwing the entire timing off on a particular play, which is key in this offense. Zach Johnson (6'6, 301) started most games at right tackle last season and showed inconsistency one would expect of a first year starter. The junior must hold his blocks longer and get out quicker to the second level. Other key experienced reserves include junior Emeka Okafor (6'5, 322) at guard, sophomore (6'3, 291) Mac Long at center and junior Alex Cooper (6'4, 285) at tackle. Linemen who did not play last season due to injury or redshirt who could make a huge contribution this season include Damien Parris (6'5, 310, Jr), who didn't play after recovering from knee surgery in junior college, and the Thomas boys (no relation): redshirt freshmen Ja'Braylin Thomas (6'5, 358) and Josh Thomas (6'5, 335). Emerald Faletuipapai (6'7, 356) is a freshman who was originally a 2013 commit. Carter Wall (6'4, 304) is a mid-year JC transfer with a nasty streak who played across the line at Navarro JC the past few seasons and will definitely be looking to make an impact over the next month IF he plays as he's still recovering from off-season foot surgery from a broken right foot last October.

Coaching note: Something to look for will be how new O-line coach Gordy Shaw mixes and matches line combinations, especially early on, in order to get the best possible combination on the field. The 35 plus year coaching veteran tutored some tough lines at Minnesota that dominated the Big10, producing NFL running backs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III in the mid-2000s.

Defensive

With second season defensive coordinator David Gibbs able to teach more scheme versus just evaluating players like he did last spring, look for his base 4-3 to throw more complicated blitzes at opponents this season. Gibbs might even show more ‘man-free' looks with bigger athletes in the secondary, particularly at cornerback, thus allowing his two ball hawking safeties more freedom in forcing turnovers as the Coogs led all of college ball last season with a plus 1.92 turnover margin (forcing 43 total turnovers while losing only 18). As with any great defense, it all starts up front:

Defensive Line

The Coogs D-line is stacked, with all nine players from the ‘two-deep' last season returning, led by rush (or stand up) ends Trevor Harris (6'5, 233, Sr.), Eric Eiland (6'2, 236, Jr.) and Tyus Bowser (6'3, 226, So.). Both Harris and Bowser tied with 5 QB sacks with Bowser also adding 11 ‘hurries' to lead the down linemen. Harris also led the linemen with 49 tackles. Strong end Eric Braswell (6'5, 268, Sr.) had a strong 2013 as a hard hitting run stopping end with Cameron Malveaux (6'6, 252, So.) seeing the first action of his career backing him up. Inside at one tackle spot is the line's leader, senior Joey Mbu (6'3, 312), with quietly unassuming but just as effective Tomme Mark (6'3, 288, Jr.) at the other starting spot. Tackles usually won't show up on the stats sheet but the Coogs much improved defense was due to better play in the middle, led by the duo of Mbu and Mark. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the defense, in my eyes, was reserve tackle Jeremiah Farley (6'0, 283, Sr.). While at first glance it might not appear that Farley is big enough to play tackle, the former end uses his explosiveness and leverage to often burst through the line as he led the linemen with 9 tackles-for-loss. B.J. Singleton (6'5, 285, So.) was another youngster who made a huge impact in reserve, especially on special teams as he led the team with 3 blocked kicks. Two other linemen to keep an eye on include sophomore Chauntez Jackson (6'4, 254) who showed enough freakish athleticism and potential along the edge to see action early in the season after switching from tight end, thus burning a potential redshirt. Inside big Nick Thurman (6'3, 285) did redshirt and could see a lot of action this spring to show the coaches what he's got.

Linebacker

While the line may be the deepest position on the defense, the linebacking core is definitely the heart and soul, led by Derrick Mathews (6'0, 214, Sr.) in the middle at the Mike spot. The 3-year starter is a heat seeking missile whom has sideline-to-sideline speed and the instincts to track down any play. He's amassed 348 total tackles (including 39 for loss) over those three seasons. Flanking Mathews is probably the most improved player in weak side (or Will) linebacker Efrem Oliphant (6'1, 230, Sr.), who led the defense in total tackles and tackles-for-loss with 134 and 13 respectively. What makes those numbers surprising is the fact that Oliphant was running third string coming out of spring ball 2013. The strong side (or Sam) linebacker is Steven Taylor (6'0, 211, So.). The true freshman made a true impact last season particularly covering backs out of the backfield or slot receivers as he led all linebackers with 6 passes defended. Backing them up will be junior Elandon Roberts (6'1, 223) and redshirt freshman Caleb Tucker (6'2, 223). One backer to keep an eye on is LSU transfer Trevon Randle (6'2, 218, Jr.), whose off-the-charts athletic ability led to a four-star rating coming out of League Cities Clear Springs High in 2011.

Secondary

As stated earlier, the key to the Coogs ball hawking turnover forcing D are safeties Trevon Stewart (5'9, 192, Jr.) and Adrian McDonald (5'10, 191, Jr.), whom had 17 combined last season as Stewart had 6 recovered fumbles with 4 interceptions to McDonald's 6 picks and 1 fumble recovery. Stewart entered college with a true "swag" that few true freshmen ever show as he led all freshmen with 126 tackles in 2012 as he possesses a high football IQ along with an instinct that always seems to have him around the ball. Earl Foster (6'1, 192, Jr.) contributed as a reserve safety and on special teams as did Steven Aikens (6'2, 200, So.). Kent London (6'2, 215, Sr.) has the size one looks for in a true hard hitting strong safety over the middle but the JC transfer didn't impress enough to see the field last season. With the graduation of starters Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates, both cornerback spots are up for grabs with fierce competition expected. Two corners who saw plenty of playing time last season are JC transfers William Jackson (6'1, 175, Jr.) and Turon Walker (5'11, 190, Sr.). Jackson showed off his acceleration with a 96 yard pick-six at UTSA early in the season and Walker contributed 2 interceptions on the season as well. Others vying to impress Gibbs and fellow defensive backs coach Zac Spavital include; Brandon Wilson (5'11, 195, So.) and Marcus Dillard (5'10, 174, Jr.) along with the wildcard Lee Hightower (6'2, 192, Jr.), whom transferred from Boise State last season after starting games at both strong safety and corner over his first two seasons. The corner position could also be impacted by the true freshmen whom seem to be getting bigger and bigger at the spot as two of them are at listed at 6'0.

Special teams

The loss of Richie Leone at punter will be huge as he's started all four of his seasons at punter and handled a lot of place kicking duties as well, including field goals. The ability to pin an opponent inside their own 20, and sometimes even 10, yard lines can't be overlooked, and special teams coordinator Jamie Christian will definitely have his work cut out for him this spring as the only punters listed on the roster are last seasons backup and holder, Dylan Siebert (6'3, 220, Jr.), Sam Martin (6'1, 185, Jr.), who backed up Leone in 2012, and Logan Piper (6'1, 200, Jr.). As far as field goals are concerned, Kyle Bullard (5'11, 170, Jr.) has a leg up (no pun intended) on sophomore Ty Cummings (5'10, 164, So.) as he took over the placekicking duties late in the season, connecting on all six field goal attempts including his first; a 46-yarder at Louisville. While the kick return job remains in the reliable hands of the aforementioned Ayers, the punt return spot doesn't look quite as promising. Receiver Damian Payne (6'0, 210, Sr.) often ‘danced' (moving left or right) too much once he caught punts last season instead of trying to head straight up the field as he averaged a meager 4.3 yards per return on 15 total returns. Throw out one 31 yarder against Rice and that average dips to an unacceptable 2.3 yards per return. Ward will probably be given the opportunity to win the spot hands down unless he's needed at the backup QB spot.

In all, with so much production returning on both offense and defense, this spring can be used to refine both schemes, unlike last season when two new coordinators were hired basically turning spring ball into a 15 practice evaluation period. The key position battles to keep an eye on include backup QB, O-line, cornerback, punter and punt returner along with seeing how O'Korn has improved over the off-season thus far.


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