Offseason focus – offensive line

Today’s offseason focus falls upon the unit that could ultimately determine how much of a success the offense becomes for the 2014 Houston Cougars under offensive line coach Gordy Shaw. The first year assistant was gracious enough to allow an interview with the start of fall camp quickly approaching.

Entering his 38th season as an assistant coach, Shaw will be responsible for a line that returns only two starters from last season’s unit, Bryce Redman (6’1, 285, Sr.) at center and Rowdy Harper (6’6, 295, Sr.) at one of the guard spots. Redman, who has improved his accuracy snapping the ball according to Shaw, was recently named to the Rimington Trophy watch list for the best center in the nation. The third starter, left tackle Zach Johnson (6’6, 301, Jr.) will miss a significant portion of the season as he recovers from surgery after tearing an ACL during spring ball. The combined 71 starts from the aforementioned three placed the unit 53rd nationally, according to stats accumulated by Phil Steele. Of course taking away the 11 starts made by Johnson last season they are left with only Redman’s 21 consecutive starts at center and Harper’s 16 starts at right tackle and 15 at left tackle over his first two seasons along with the 8 he started at left guard last season for a total of 60, placing them even lower at 71st (out of 128 D1 teams). Injuries led to a miss mashed unit in 2013 (with Harper starting games at left and right tackle along with left guard), resulting in allowing 29 sacks in 13 games (85th nationally). For comparison over the past few seasons, the line allowed 25 during the 2008 season and 32 in 2007 but for the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons, they allowed no more than 18 sacks, which is around the number Shaw would like for them to surrender for the 2014 season, if not fewer.

Of last year’s play of the line the veteran coach said, “They did a good job last year to win 8 games as for the most part the line was constantly changing because of injuries. It couldn’t have been easy with Rowdy constantly changing positions week in and week out, but they did good. Now I don’t make any judgments of what I saw on video from last season because I’m what, their fourth offensive line coach in the past four years? We don’t make any excuses though, and it’s like I tell them, if you want to play at the next level you get used to it. I’ve had that happen to one guy I’ve coached where he literally got traded from one team to another to another in one season,” Shaw laughs as he tells the story.

Early thoughts on the line

Shaw on his group over off-season workouts, “The group that was hit the hardest was the offensive line losing six seniors to graduation so I’m working with quite a few young men, besides Rowdy and Redman, who really haven’t played much football. We’re trying to mold them into a solid unit but it takes time. The summer has been good, no great, for some of those younger guys. We lost Zach to an injury at the end of spring ball and that’s reshuffled the deck so to speak in terms of who’s going to play where, so they’ve been working hard all summer to prove themselves.” When asked to talk about some of the contenders for the three open positions along the line, Coach Shaw responds, “Alex Cooper (6’4, 302, Jr.) has had an excellent off-season, as has Emeka Okafor (6’5, 322, Jr.) who’s done a really good job of getting his weight down. Damian Parris (6’5, 310, Jr.) is another individual who has really worked hard to get his body ready to play.” When asked about the Thomas boys, Ja’Braylin (6’5, 358, RFr.) and Josh (6’5, 335, RFr.), who are not related, Shaw said, “They’re coming along. They’re both redshirt freshmen this year and they pretty much resemble that right now. Josh is further ahead in terms of his development and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him crack the top 10.”

Over the course of the spring three student-athletes decided to transfer into the program. Travis Cross (6’4, 290, Jr.) started two games at guard last season at Oklahoma State and will be eligible immediately as he graduated in three years and is enrolling in the university’s Law Center. Ben Dew (6’3, 305, Jr.) played for Hawaii last season, starting five games at right guard, while Kyle Marrs (6’5, 321, So.) is the only one of the three who’s still having issues on whether or not he’ll be allowed to play this season, “We still don’t know anything about Kyle yet,” Shaw said, “He’s applied but his situation is different than the other two in that he’s got three years of eligibility remaining so we’ll have to wait and see. The NCAA will do their paperwork and we should know something by the end of August. We do know that we’ll have Travis and Ben eligible and they’ll both really help our situation in terms of depth and competing for starting positions. In fact they’re both already here and have done an excellent job of coming in and working hard.”

Two student-athletes who Shaw does not think will crack the top 10 are Carter Wall (6’4, 304, Jr.) and Emerald Faletuipapai (6’7, 356, Fr.). Shaw on Wall, a spring enrollee who’s still recovering from a broken foot suffered last season when he played for Navarro JC, “to be honest he’s nowhere to be found in the top 10 right now,” and on the huge Tongan, “Emerald is doing ok. He’s got to get his weight down. He’s got to get himself into a position where he can move quicker and carry his weight and that’s an issue of strength as much as it is weight loss, but he’s still just a true freshman as he didn’t come in last year. I really don’t see him being in the mix at all this year but you never know.”

Before moving on to the next question, Coach Shaw continued on the depth chart, “One guy you haven’t asked about who I’ll just throw in there who’s really impressed some people, including me, is a good player coming out of high school in Colton Freeman (6’4, 293). He’s done a very good job this summer and he can find his way into the top 10 by the time camp’s over with.” Also going back to Johnson and possibly returning from his injury to play this season, “He’s way ahead on his rehab. ‘Doc’ O’Shea (head trainer) and the people who were involved with his surgery are amazed at where he’s at right now. He’s already redshirted so it’s either use it or lose it in terms of playing this season. Plus with the way our schedule breaks down with three byes and playing all the way through December 6th, there is an opportunity there after bye 2 or bye 3 that he could come back in a limited role and then be full-go for a bowl game.”  And finally concerning the depth chart, Coach Shaw on naming a starting-5 as of now, “I could probably name three of them but wouldn’t feel comfortable after that until I see them competing in camp. Since you asked I’d say Redman at center, Harper at one guard spot and Cooper at one tackle spot. Those three have proven over and over again through their actions that they’re the three leaders on the line with how hard they’ve worked and right now I don’t see anybody knocking those three out.”  Cooper and Parris were splitting time at right tackle when Johnson went down during spring ball so it’s not unimaginable that both could be the starting tackles come August 29th versus UTSA. Parris didn’t play last season after transferring from Contra Costa Community College as he was recovering from a knee injury himself. Cross could also challenge for one of the bookend tackle spots along with battling Dew at guard to compliment Harper. As of right now the only known is Redman at center, so look for the mixing and matching to continue throughout summer practices.

Developing a physical mindset

Much has been made on our message board forum of head coach Tony Levine and offensive coordinator Travis Bush’s mindset on being more physical at the point of attack, which includes possibly running the ball more. I asked Coach Shaw how a team known for passing over the years develops this mindset, as in when it’s 3rd & 2 late in the fourth quarter with the Coogs leading and the offense needs to convert a first down in order to put the game away. Remember last season against BYU when the Coogs gained possession of the ball up 46-41 with three minutes, forty six seconds remaining? Gain a few first downs and the game is over. Instead they go three and out, punt the ball and end up giving up a game deciding TD, ultimately losing 47-46, “Any offensive linemen would probably rather run block than pass block. That’s most of their natures. They like the physical part of the game as much as anybody else. I think we have to be ready to be outstanding pass blockers and at the same time do what’s asked of us to win the game. Now you’re talking about salting away a game at the end of the fourth quarter, well yeah we’re going to do what we need to do to win the football game whether that’s running the ball all game, that’s what we’ll do. If it’s throwing then we’ll throw it but we’re there to block period, whether it’s run blocking or pass blocking. This offense over the years has been known for their throwing stats but it’s like when I was hired over at Hawaii and people were like ‘why are we hiring this guy who’s teams were in the top-5 for the past five years running the ball (at Minnesota from 2003 to 2007). We throw it under June Jones and the Run-and-shoot. Well we were able to get a back over 1,000 yards (Alex Green rushed for 1199 along with 18 TDs in 2010) and he was drafted by the Packers in the third round, won 10 games and the WAC championship (in 2010). So again I think any offensive line would rather run the ball than pass but we’re going to do what we’ve got to do to be successful.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

When asked about how the offense will be tweaked from last season, Coach Shaw smiled and said, “We’re working with Michael Bloesch, a former offensive lineman who was here in four of his five years with Art Briles and one year under Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorson. My guys (offensive linemen) are pack rats. We keep everything. Michael brought in some plays they used under Briles and a couple of them under Sumlin. A few look so similar that a few of the plays use the same numbers. So from what we’ve seen under the two previous head coaches combined with what you’re going to see this year under Coach Bush, the 2014 offense will look a little different as he has brought in some new wrinkles in the run game.”

Ties that bind

As for Coach Shaw himself, it’s quite simple why he accepted the job after moving around so often over his career (11 universities in 37 years). In the coaching profession, much like any other, it’s not necessarily just about what you know but also who you know, “It was really the coaching staff. I had known Coach Levine and Coach McClintock and worked with David Gibbs at Minnesota for four years, though we were both on the same side of the ball (Shaw was the defensive line coach while Gibbs was the defensive coordinator from 1997 through the 2000 season). Plus I had heard a lot of good things about Travis Bush and their other outstanding coaches so I said to myself, ‘yeah I’d love to work with these guys and continue to build on the winning tradition at the University of Houston.’”

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