An Early Look at the New Offense

With the 2014 college football season more than four months from kicking off, this off-season is a particularly important one under first year offensive coordinator Travis Bush (serving on a full time basis just two seasons removed from performing the job as the interim OC during the 2012 season after Mike Nesbitt stepped down after the first game of the season).

Coach Bush was gracious enough to allow Coogfans to interview him as he was driving around town recruiting in Houston Monday afternoon.

I wouldn't classify us as the Air Raid anymore

…were Coach Bush's words when asked to classify the Cougars offense going forward, "We're just not in that mentality. Overall we're going to take what the defense gives us. We're not just going to be a pass first team that throws the ball every play. We don't care if we run it every play. We just want to get first downs which lead to touchdowns." The quarterbacks coach then kind of changed it up when he also added "we don't care if we throw it every play either." His point being the 2014 offense will be "multiple" with several different personnel groupings and tempos his offense will play at this season.

When asked about tempo and whether or not his offense will remain in the no-huddle the Coogs have been known for over the past few seasons, Bush states "we'll have the ability to change the tempo as well. We do want to play fast and dictate tempo but we also want to be able to slow things down as well. Our overall goal is to be able to choose and dictate the tempo."

That last phrase is key in my opinion, as in being able to finish off teams in the fourth quarter with game ending drives, with the biggest example occurring during the BYU game which ended up as the first loss of the season (after five straight wins to open the 2013 campaign). The Coogs had the ball at their own 10-yard line with 3 minutes, 26 seconds between a victory or a defeat (as they were leading 46-41 at the time). One rush up the middle for no gain, an incompletion and ill-fated attempted pass by a true freshman QB later, the Cougars  of BYU had the ball at the Coogs 48-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. They would go on to score a TD, winning the game 47-46. Coach Bush touched upon being able to ‘run the ball downhill' whether it's a third and short situation or inside the red-zone. A lot of this will occur with UH QBs taking snaps from under center instead of out of the shot gun, as has been the status quo over the past few seasons. When asked about this philosophical change Bush states, "it's been a part of the offenses I've been around before I got here (at Texas State from 2004 through 09 and as OC at UTSA in 2010 and 11) and there's a need for it in today's game. It's just something we need to do. There will be times we need to come downhill and run the ball for a first down and we need to have the ability to do that, so we installed it this spring and the guys have picked it up well. It's something we haven't done in a few years but it'll be important to the flow of the offense this year."

The offense averaged 33.2 points per game last season (37th nationally) with 280.5 passing yards (26th) and 139 yards rushing (93rd) for 419.5 total yards off offense (56th).Those numbers, however, nosedived in their five losses when they averaged only 22.8 points per game but only 17 per game not including the aforementioned BYU game in which they scored 46. In their late season losses to nationally ranked UCF (19-14), Louisville (20-13) and Cincinnati (24-17) the running game averaged an anemic 81 yards per game on the ground, which in turn placed way too much pressure on true freshman QB John O'Korn throughout the season. Basically when the Coogs needed to run the ball they simply couldn't. The two main backs to once again lead the way will be Kenneth Farrow (5-foot-11 inches, 216 pounds, Jr.) and Ryan Jackson (5'10, 183, Jr.) but the surprise of spring ball among the RBs was Tyler McCloskey (6'2, 232, So.) who along with Luke Stice (6'0, 226, Jr.) are listed as full backs on the roster. McCloskey ran with power between the tackles especially in short yardage situations. In the three spring scrimmages he carried the ball 23 times for a total of 129 yards as both Jackson and Farrow rarely touched the ball due to minor injuries along with the fact that both are veterans and the offensive staff knows what they can do with the ball. Jackson was the more elusive edge rusher last season to the more between the tackles Farrow and led the team with 661 yards for 50.8 yards per game, compared to Farrow's 514 yards on fewer carries and two fewer games. Both scored 6 TDs on the ground. Behind them will be bowling ball like Justin Hicks (5'6, 191, Jr.), redshirt freshman Javin Webb (5'8, 172) and walk-on Randall Hollimon (6'0, 212, Sr.). The only true freshman at RB to join the team come summer will be Kaliq Kokuma (6'0, 185) out of League City's Clear Creek high school. Expect to also see more two-back sets as Bush said, "we'll be more multiple with what we run as we'll use either a fullback or tight end which hasn't been done here in the past. While we'll have the ability to do that just how much depends on how we feel we can adjust to the defense on a week to week basis."

Helping the running game will be scheme changes up front along the offensive line along with multiple pre-snap shifts and motions which aim to confuse opposing defenses by causing mass confusion in regards to how a defender reads what the offense is trying to do. Or in layman's terms, the multiple movements up front causes a linebacker or safety for example, to misread his key causing him to come off the line a step slow or sometimes not even able to locate the ball until it's too late. These pre snap shifts and motions were not seen during the open portions of spring ball but rest assured, they will be prevalent during the season depending on the game plan each week, according to Bush. As for the scheme changes up front, the OC mentioned the offensive line being able to play both man and zone blocking schemes also depending on that week's opponent. Bush talked about new offensive line coach Gordy Shaw, "Coach Shaw is a great coach with a lot of knowledge and our guys picked up his coaching well over the spring. Overall the line did well considering we've implemented a lot of different schemes up front." Of interest to me in Shaw's 30 plus years of coaching are seven seasons he spent at Minnesota where Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney each rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2003 and 2004, which marked the first time in NCAA history that feat was accomplished.

Even though no depth chart has been established along the line, one thing they have is depth. The returning leading starters will be Rowdy Harper (6'6, 295, Sr.) and Bryce Redman (6'1, 285, Sr.). Harper has played almost every position along the line over his career as he has 16 starts at right tackle to 15 games at left tackle, but this past season started 8 games at left guard as he seemed to lose a little lateral quickness in blocking the edges with an early season knee injury he never appeared to recover from. Though Redman has started the past 21 games at center he must improve his "get off" of the ball in the run game and in snapping the ball to his QB as inaccurate snaps lead to the all-important timing being thrown off in the passing game. From there, who knows where who will start? Zach Johnson (6'6, 301, Jr.) started 11 games last season at right tackle and was playing first string left tackle in the spring before an ACL injury took him out indefinitely. Coach Bush would not comment on injuries. Harper could be moved back to LT since he does have starting experience there. Others in the mix at both tackle spots include; Alex Cooper (6'4, 302, Jr.), or Damien Parris (6'5, 310, Jr.). Both Cooper and Parris were splitting time at right tackle at the time of Johnson's injury. Cooper backed up both tackle spots last season after playing an H-back roll two seasons ago. Parris didn't play last season after transferring from Contra Costa Community College last season as he was recovering from a knee injury himself. Veteran Emeka Okafor (6'5, 322, Jr.) leads the way at left guard after competing for a starting spot inside the past few seasons. Two redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on are behemoths Ja'Braylin and Josh Thomas (no relation) as the former tips the scales at 358 pounds with the latter at a ‘brisk' 335. Two newcomers also looking to make an impact are Emerald Faletuipapai (6'7, 356, Fr.) and JC transfer Carter Wall (6'4, 304), who's played every position on the line at Navarro JC this past season, including backup center. He did not participate in team drills over the spring as he's recovering from a broken foot but he's also another candidate to be moved to either tackle position. One thing is for certain, it's no surprise the offense struggled during the spring with a new O-line coach and so much mixing and matching going on up front, which is sure to continue into Fall practice.

A QB is only as good as his offensive line, and with as little protection as O'Korn (6'4, 205, So.) received last season it's a wonder he had as successful a season as he did last year when he completed nearly 60-percent of his passes (58.1 percent to be exact) as he connected on 259 of his 446 attempts for 3,117 yards with 28 TDs passing to only 10 interceptions. Stats however can be misleading as he struggled in the team's five losses completing barely 50-percent of his passes for only 228 yards per game along with throwing 7 of his 10 interceptions. Of course this was to be expected by most as not only was he a true freshman last season but he only took over as the starter early on in the team's second game at Temple after having split snaps with starter David Piland, who had to retire from the game due to concussion issues. With a full spring under his belt and leading the way this summer as the true number one, look for massive improvement from the Fort Lauderdale Saint Thomas Aquinas product as Bush mentions, "John's very talented but still very young and has a lot to learn. He showed a lot last year but he's still so raw but he's getting better every day. He's still making mistakes because that's just part of growing and playing his position but you can see him start to realize what he's doing; making those progressions and correct throws on his own. He's got so much potential but we're still at the stage where he's learning. He's not there yet but is definitely taking strides every day and we're all really pleased with his progress over the spring and he'll continue to grow over the summer."

Probably the most surprising player of the spring was Hunter McCoy (6'3, 215), a JC transfer out of Trinity Valley Community College who ended spring ball as the backup QB over Billy Cosh (6'1, 202), himself is a JC transfer (Butler CC) who sat out the 2013 season after recovering from knee surgery in December of 2012. Even though Cosh had better stats during spring ball, completing 15 of his 24 passes for 152 yards with 2 TDs to 2 interceptions to McCoy's 6 of 15 showing for 31 yards over the course of three controlled scrimmages, stats mean almost nothing as starting lineups are not set so all QBs played with mixed and matched lineups throughout spring ball. McCoy may literally have a leg up on the competition with his running ability, as much like O'Korn, he can pull the ball down and use his legs to gain a first down, in comparison to the strictly pocket passing Cosh. Bringing up the rear in the QB competition is true freshman Bear Fenimore (6'2, 222), who enrolled for the spring semester. The Austin Westwood product not only looks the part of future starting QB but has the name for it as well as he was named after famed Alabama head coach ‘Bear' Bryant. Bush on the QB competition heading into the summer, "McCoy ended the spring as the most productive of the backups over Cosh while Fenimore is still catching up just when it comes to the speed of the game and the flow of the offense. We're really pleases with Hunter but that evaluation will continue on through fall camp right up until the first game of the season."

As far as who will be catching the ball from O'Korn, a slew of receivers return including slot starters; Deontay Greenberry (6'3, 198, Jr.) and Daniel Spencer (5'11, 195, Sr.). After being maybe the most heralded five star blue chip athlete ever to sign a letter of intent at UH, Greenberry hasn't disappointed in his two seasons along Cullen Boulevard amassing over 1200 yards last season, on 82 receptions to go along with 11 TDs after catching 47 balls in his true freshman season of 2012 for 569 yards with 3 TDs. As spectacular as Greenberry has been, Spencer has been just as solid as he's increased his receptions total each season, first catching 12 balls during his true freshman season of 2011; 41 (for 579 yards) in 2012, while increasing those numbers to 52 receptions for 768 yards last season with 6 TDs. Bush when asked about the player who's surprised him the most over the course of spring ball, "Our most underrated player to me is our stand out guy in Daniel Spencer. He's such a diverse talent as far as receiving and running and he's a guy we can do a lot of things with. He had a great spring and he probably doesn't get enough credit but we've got a solid group up front with Demarcus Ayers (5'10, 173, So.) and Greg Ward Jr. (5'10, 175, So.) on the outside along with Spencer and Greenberry inside. We feel very comfortable with those guys in the lineup." Ayers was one of the nation's leaders in kickoff returns last season averaging more than 27 yards per return and is a true homerun threat on the deep ball as he caught a 30-yard TD on a post route for his only score at Rutgers as he received more and more playing time as the season progressed. Ward caught 10 balls over the final 4 games of the season for 95 yards and will return punts this season, showing what the coaches think of his versatility as Bush mentions, "Greg's just a natural athlete, especially out at wide receiver but we can always do things with him at QB if we need to. He knows our system and can definitely be used in an emergency situation but right now he's a receiver and he's having fun out there." Two other receivers that may shine in 2013 are Markeith Ambles (6'2, 215, Sr.) and Shane Ros (5'10, 200, Sr.). Ambles is also a former five star recruit who originally signed to play for Southern Cal before grade issues forced him to transfer to Western Arizona CC for the 2012 season. Clearinghouse issues forced him behind the 8-ball early last season as he couldn't practice with the team until the season began, robbing the McDonough Georgia standout of much needed repetition with his QBs and fellow receivers. As the season progressed he continued to show flashes of his five-star talent culminating in an awesome bowl game against Vanderbilt in which he amassed 105 yards on only 6 receptions, taking one 58 yards to the house after snagging a ball at its highest point over a Commodore cornerback before outrunning him to the endzone. Ambles averaged 14.8 yards per reception on 17 catches in 10 games. What Ambles possesses in pure athletic ability Ros has in route running as he's fully recouped from a torn ACL during fall practice in 2012. Two other receivers to keep an eye on will be John Leday (6'0, 185, RFr.) and Wayne Beadle (5'11, 178, Sr.). Speedster Donald Gage (5'11, 175, RFr.) would probably have forced his way into the lineup somehow if not for an ACL injury he suffered during spring ball. And as always, an entire gaggle of true freshmen will litter the roster come June to increase the competition as maybe the deepest position on the roster.

Many times last season it appeared as if the receivers and O'Korn weren't on the same page as far as timing on certain routes, causing incompletions which forced the offense into second and then third and long down and distances, which basically crippled the offense during their five losses. Bush is confident with continued repetition and 7-on-7 work come summer the problems will be corrected, "All our routes are based on coverage and the progressions will tell the QB where to go with the ball. Some routes will change or adjust based on coverage and a lot of that depends on what we see from opposing defenses."

In all, based off the interview with Bush I look for a more conservative offense under the Levine regime. I'll ask the head coach when I interview him later during the off-season if my assumption is correct. I base this not only on Coach Bush's comments on wanting to be more of a power running team when need be, but also on the fact that with the new conference affiliation in the American Athletic Conference, the offense will see bigger more physical defenses on an every game basis. Gone are the days of Conference USA games and winning games 49-45 by passing every down against smaller less physical defenses. Also, with a much improved defense capable of holding opponents in the low to mid 20s (hopefully), the offense may be in many a position of having to finish off a game with a game ending drive much like the previously mentioned BYU game last season. Continue to login to throughout the off-season as we'll have interviews with defensive coordinator David Gibbs, special teams coordinator Jamie Christian and head coach Tony Levine over the next few months, leading up to what should be a spectacular 2014 season.

Cougar Digest Top Stories