Spring Primer

The official start of the Tom Herman era quickly approaches as your Houston Cougars take the field for their first of 15 spring practices this Monday (March the 9th) around 4:30pm local time at the football practice fields behind the Athletic/Alumni facility.

Coach Herman inherits plenty of talent from the previous staff led by Tony Levine as the Cougars went 22-17 under the man Herman was hired to replace. Herman’s job is to get the program to the next level as Levine’s teams were winless in five games versus Top-25 ranked teams (at the time the game was being played) and only won half of his games (six of twelve) versus teams with records .500 or better. The Cougars were also 7-11 in games decided by 10 points or less and we won’t even mention losses to programs UH should NEVER lose too such as Texas State (30-13 to usher in the Levine era to begin the 2012 season) and the non-competitive 27-7 loss versus UTSA in the team’s first game at TDECU Stadium to start last season (though I guess we just did).

Herman’s credentials

The team’s production offensively over the past three seasons had a lot to do with the former staff’s outing and the new staff’s hiring as Herman himself was the 2014 Frank Broyles Award winner as the top assistant in the nation under Urban Myer at Ohio State. With Herman as offensive coordinator, the Buckeyes won the national championship with THREE quarterbacks starting throughout the season, including third-string quarterback Cardale Jones under center for their final three games of the season. Herman's quarterbacks in 2014 ranked second nationally with a team passing efficiency rating of 172.36 with an Ohio State record 34 passing touchdowns while also adding 11 touchdowns on the ground for a Big Ten record of 45 touchdowns responsible for. The Buckeyes' offense also ranked fifth nationally with an average of 7.04 yards per play and fourth nationally with 39 plays of 30 yards or longer and 14 plays of 50 yards or longer. After leading the Big Ten in scoring in 2012 at 37.2 points per game and ranking 10th nationally in rushing at nearly 250 yards per game, Ohio State's offense under Herman upped their game in 2013 by ranking 3rd nationally in scoring with 45.5 points per game and 5th in rushing with 308.6 yards per game. The fact that Herman would even be considered for the OSU OC job after three mediocre seasons as play caller at Iowa State (stats wise) says all I need to know about the man as a head coach as distinguished as Myer would still hire him. Of Herman’s ten seasons as an offensive coordinator, his two year tenure (08 and 09) at Rice probably impresses me the most as the same type of student-athlete (star rankings wise) will probably suit up for the Cougars, early on anyway as it will take some time to establish the winning culture that attracts the true four and five star type athlete. During those two seasons on Main Street, Herman’s offenses broke over 40 school records and in his second season the Owls won 10 games and went to a bowl for the first time since 1954. The Owls also ranked in the Top 10 nationally in 2008 in passing offense (5th; 327.8), scoring offense (8th; 41.6) and total offense (10th; 472.3). While at Iowa State, Herman’s teams ran the ball more than they passed as they averaged between 140 and 180 yards per game per season, while conversely at Rice, Herman’s spread attack took to the air more frequently, completing nearly two-thirds (65.6%) of its passes as their TD-to-interception ratio of 48-to-7 was an NCAA FBS best. The quick-strike Owls had 30 scoring drives of five plays or less in 2008 and 31 scoring marches of less than two minutes. Many of these stats and figures were accumulated from the uhcougars.com website.

Herman, along with offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, while letting talent dictate the run pass ratio each season have a simple philosophy that Applewhite touched upon at Houston’s         National Signing Day event (Wednesday February the 4th), also via the uhcougars.com website, “We’re going to be physical. It’s a fight. It’s a 4 quarter fight. We’re going to be physical in the run game and we’re going to be physical in the pass game. We’re going to run the football. That’s something that’s stood the test of time. We’ve seen many teams throw it all the time and very seldom do they get above 7-5, 8-4 and complete for championships and that’s why we’re here. Of course we also want to have balance in what we do and we define balance as being able to win the game both ways. What is our style going to look like? Shot gun, up-tempo that puts an emphasis on running the ball non-traditionally, whether we’re running with wideouts, quarterbacks or tailbacks and creating ‘explosives’ through play-action.”

Quarterback battle

Make no bones about it, offensively is where Herman and Applewhite have the most improving to do as the Coogs haven’t averaged more than 34 points per game over the past three seasons ranking them no higher than 37th nationally, while conversely remaining in the top-10 scoring wise the previous four seasons under Sumlin’s staff. The offense also dipped in total offense from nearly 480 yards in 2012 (and from over 500+ in the four previous seasons), to 419 during the 2013 season to just over 414 last season (184 rushing and only 230 passing). Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, Jr.) completed 68-percent of his 241 total passes in his 8 starts last season for a 224.4 yard average while tossing 12 touchdowns to 7 interceptions after taking over for John O’Korn during the team’s fifth game versus UCF. Ward completed 19-of-29 passes for 310 yards with a scoring strike during his 2013 freshman season in limited snaps.

 In Herman’s spread scheme Ward will no doubt have to gain some muscle as he’ll absorb many hits when keeping the ball on read-option type plays, but the main question remains how much elusiveness will the junior lose if he gains say another 20 pounds in pure muscle as he also ran the rock 101 times for 516 yards (a 5.1 yards per carry average) and 5 scores last season. One major plus is that Ward will be participating in his first spring as a QB in this his third season, though he received few snaps at QB throughout his first two seasons he played mainly at wide receiver until the aforementioned UCF game. That, along with coaching from noted offensive gurus such as Herman and Applewhite will hopefully take Ward to that next level he needs to get to in order to lead this team offensively. It will be interesting to see how the staff develops Ward’s arm as far as velocity as he’s had trouble making the hash to sideline type quick outs needed to sustain the 10 to 12 play drives designed to wear out opposing defenses in Herman’s no huddle up-tempo attack. While the John Tyler Lions product does have the arm for the deep posts also employed in Herman’s scheme, he sometimes places too much air under the ball giving opposing defensive backs the necessary time to recover from getting beat in order to make a play on the ball. If Ward is not deemed the man to lead the offense, Herman has a few other options he can look towards including Utah transfer Adam Schulz (6’2, 210, Sr.), Bear Fenimore (6’1, 222, RFr.), Hunter McCoy (6’3, 215, Jr.) and Mason McClendon (5’10, 170, RFr.) with Trinity Valley Community College transfer Kyle Postma (6’2, 180, Jr.) arriving this summer. Of the lot, only Schulz has thrown a pass at the FBS level as he three games (winning one) for the Utes to close out the 2013 season, including throwing for 347 yards in a loss at Washington State. The former walk-on completed 75-of-154 passes for 1,008 yards and 6 TDs but only threw two passes last season, completing both of them for 31 yards. He also ran 25 times for 78 yards during that 2013 season as what he lacks in Ward’s elusiveness and explosiveness he more than makes up for in toughness between the tackles. Though Herman would not comment on a pecking order it would appear as if Fennimore would be running third-string at least entering spring ball as the redshirt sophomore has yet to make his official Cougar debut, though he’s shown glimpses in practice of having a rocket for an arm (having thrown for 3,014 yards ranking him 7th best in all of 5A two seasons ago for Austin’s Westlake High), along with the size to absorb hits as well as the willingness to take such hits.

Whomever wins the QB battle will have a workhorse to rely on at running back in Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Sr.) as he more than came into his own last season as he rushed for 1,037 yards on 186 carries while crossing the goal line 14 times as he became the 24th player in UH history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season while also becoming only the 14th to surpass 2,000 yards in a career as he has 2,017 on 375 total career carries. While averaging nearly 80 yards per game on the season, the gritty hard-nosed Farrow really took his game to a new level when Ward was named the starter, averaging 90 yards per game over the final 8 games of the season as the team won 6 of them. His career 5.4 yards per carry average is perfect for Herman and Applewhite’s philosophy of establishing physical superiority along the line of scrimmage. While Farrow will receive a majority of the carries between the tackles, look for the staff to use Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Sr.) more creatively, such as putting him in motion out of the backfield only to come back across to run the ball on end-arounds or fly sweeps in order to get him out on the edge to take advantage of his quickness. The scat back has rushed for 661 and 610 yards the past 2 seasons (of his 1,523 total career yards) respectively but his yards receiving dropped by almost 100 this past season compared to 2012 (199 to 296). With a running threat such as Ward (if he’s the starter) and Farrow look for Jackson to catch more swing routes out of the backfield. The other two backs on the spring roster include the bowling ball like Justin Hicks (5’6, 195, Sr.) and redshirt freshman Kaliq Kokuma (6’0, 190), who’s raring to show his combination of speed and acceleration after sitting out last year mainly due to a knee injury suffered at League City’s Clear Creek High a few seasons ago. Hicks is also looking to impress the new staff coming off an injury that sidelined him most of last season after looking good during the 2013 season in limited playing time (rushing for 95 yards on 21 carries with 2 scores). Four star recruit Tyreik Gray (5’11, 185) is the stud signee of the 2015 class and will add to the competition come summer.

The running game will also improve due to this new tough physical mindset of the new staff that was also mentioned by new receivers coach Drew Mehringer at the NSD event, “The first thing we’re going to have to be is unselfish as a unit and block for the inside run game. That opens up the pass game and that’s how we’re going to play.” With four of the six leading receivers gone from last season’s team the wide receiver position will have much competition as Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, Jr.) and Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, So.) are the only two receivers on the spring roster with actual game experience. While Ayers (335 yards on 33 receptions with 2 scores) may not have the size the staff likes in order to hold blocks downfield, Dunbar (286 yards on 20 receptions) along with redshirt freshman Romello Brooker (6’4, 210), Latrell Martin (6’1, 200), Elton Dyer (6’2, 185) and Isaiah Johnson (6’3, 190) all do. John Leday (6’0, 190, So.) and Donald Gage (5’11, 180, So.) are also two intriguing young athletes that were impressing over spring and summer practices last season before succumbing to injuries. True freshman Devin Smith (6’3, 180) has an advantage as a mid-year enrollee to make an impression and is exactly the type of competitor the new staff is looking for as he was part of three straight national championship game participants in River Ridge Louisiana’s John Curtis team that won the 2012 championship. Chance Allen (6’2, 200, Jr.) is a transfer from Oregon and is still waiting to hear from the NCAA if he has to sit out under transfer rules or not. The former Missouri City Ft. Bend Elkins product caught 5 passes for 98 yards in a talented Ducks receiver core and averaged over 15 yards per reception as he possesses the top end speed Herman likes his receivers to possess in order to burn opposing secondaries deep via play-action.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for ‘Coogfans’ will be seeing the use of a tight end on the field as opposed to the four receiver sets over the past six seasons ever since the departure of ace tight end Mark Hafner. Tight ends coach Corby Meekins on his unit, “We’re looking for guys that are versatile; that are long; that can put their hand on the ground (to block) but also be able to move and split out and stretch the field vertically.” Though signing three tight ends in a limited time as the staff was hired late in the recruiting process, only two are listed on the spring roster in JC transfer Rusty Clark (6’7, 250, Pearl River CC out of Mississippi) and Byron Simpson (6’4, 240, RSo.). Simpson was the backup long snapper and hasn’t seen a snap in game action while Clark will probably be more of an in-line blocker than pass receptor. Fullbacks Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 232, Jr.) and Luke Stice (6’0, 235, Sr.) will be in the same meeting room as the tight ends and play basically an H-back type role where they’ll play either at tight end up fullback as blockers while also having the versatility to catch passes out of the backfield on bootlegs off of play action (catching 3 passes for 20 yards combined over the past 2 seasons). Ryan Deshotel (6’4, 240) and Kobe Idumwonyi (6’2, 225) are two more non-traditional TE types who are more adapt as pass receivers who step foot on campus this summer.

Along the offensive line four starters return for a total of 38 starts, including Zach Johnson (6’6, 295, Sr.) who started 11 games at right tackle during the 2013 season before suffering an ACL tear sidelining him last season. Damien Parris (6’6, 290, Sr.) also started the season opener last year at left tackle before being replaced by Oklahoma State transfer Travis Cross. With Cross retiring to concentrate on his law career, Johnson could end up getting the first shot at the all-important QB’s blind side spot. Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Sr.) improved as the season progressed at right tackle after converting from defensive end two seasons ago and possesses the athletic ability to get up-field but needs ‘quicker feet’ in order not to get beat off the ball as he did many times last season destroying the integrity of the blocking scheme. Ben Dew (6’4, 315) started all 13 games at left guard last season and returns for his senior year after transferring from Hawaii last summer. With Rowdy Harper and Bryce Redman graduating along with their 86 consecutive starts, both the right guard and center spots are up for grabs for new offensive line coach Derek Warehime. Kyle Marrs (6’6, 325, Jr.) sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma and was a 4-star rated tackle in high school (San Antonio Brandeis) who has the size to perhaps move inside to fill that vacant right guard spot. Emeka Okafor (6’5, 320, Sr.) has been in contention at both guard spots the past 2 seasons, before barely losing out to both Dew and Kevin Forsch during the 2013 season, with this is his last season if he wants to make his mark on the team. Both Mac Long (6’4, 285, Jr.) and Colton Freeman (6’4, 285, RFr.) could battle it out for the starting center spot as Long has seen snaps as a reserve and Freeman was mentioned by then offensive line coach Gordy Shaw last summer as making quite the nice impression before an injury sidelined him for the season. Marcus Oliver (6’3, 270, So.) was the only true freshman to see playing time in all 13 games, mainly in reserve at tackle so his experience should help him in battling for either tackle spot while Carter Wall (6’4, 295, Sr.), Josh Thomas (6’6, 315, So.), Emerald Faletuipapai (6’7, 356, RFr.) and Darius Joyner (6’4, 285, RSo.) provide competition for both guard spots as with their size they provide the physicality that Herman and staff are looking for.

Defensively, Todd Orlando takes over as defensive coordinator after David Gibbs left for the same position with Texas Tech. Orlando has some huge shoes to fill as Gibbs “3rd Ward defense” over the past 2 seasons allowed only 20.6 and 21.8 points per game which ranked 15th and 20th nationally respectively while forcing 73 turnovers which led the nation. If any coach is prepared to succeed such gaudy stats it’s Orlando, who’s Utah State defenses allowed only 19.7 (12th) and 17.1 (7th) points per game, also over the past two seasons. Orlando’s unit is also adept at forcing turnovers as only seven teams forced more than the 59 turnovers the Aggies defense forced over the same 2 year period. They also sacked opposing QBs 49 times last season, ranking the Aggies 4th nationally. These stats are all the more impressive in a pass happy offensive league such as the Mountain West Conference. Pressure is something the Coogs defense definitely needs as they only sacked opposing QBs 58 times over the past 2 seasons. While Orlando has said his scheme will be a 3-4, most defenses today are “multiple” in that they’ll fit the personnel as they adapt the system to the athletes with Orlando saying as much during the NSD event, “We’re going to be multiple. We’re going to attack offenses. We’ve watched a lot of tape; all of last year and 2 years ago to see what they can do and who they are and we’ll see how they work into the system.”

The glaring weakness of the defense, just from glaring at the roster, looks to be the lack of a true massive nose guard who can command a double team which every 3-4 front needs in order to be effective. Joey Mbu was the closest true run stopper but with ‘Big Joey’ off to greener pastures of the NFL draft, along with fellow starters Trevor Harris, Gavin Stansbury and key reserves Jeremiah Farley and Eric Eiland also moving on, left behind are “smaller” defensive tackles such as B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, Jr.), Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Sr.), Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) at defensive end. As the only inside guys with any significant playing time from last season, Singleton had 22 tackles in 11 starts, including 3 for loss and a sack. He also batted down 3 passes and had 3 QB hurries while Malveaux had 15 tackles in 13 games as a reserve. Mark only had 7 tackles in 12 games in reserve after starting most of the 2013 season, with Thurman adding 7 tackles in 5 games last year in reserve as well. I think moving Emerald Faletuipapai to the nose would be a perfect fit as he’s massive enough (350 plus) to command that double team that gives the linebackers room to roam but he’s not necessarily athletic enough to play along the offensive line. Zorrell Ezell (6’2, 280, Jr.) sat out last season after transferring from Baylor and could add to the competition at the end spot which is the same as a tackle in a ‘43’ front, along with redshirt freshman Mason Denley (6’4, 270), Michael Mona (6’2, 274), Zach Vaughn (6’4, 245) and Jerald Carter (6’2, 265). While Denley, Mona and Carter have the frames to add weight to play end Vaughn could be moved to an outside linebacker spot as he has the athleticism to drop back in various zone drops while also being able to effectively rush the QB. Chauntez Jackson (6’4, 265, Jr.) could be a wild card along the line with the previous staff burning his first two seasons trying to find his perfect position as he split time on special teams, defensive end and tight end during his freshman season.

At linebacker the defense loses a combined 188 tackles including 12.5 for-loss and 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, forced fumbles and a recovered fumble, not to mention a ton of team leadership in middle and weakside linebackers Derrick Mathews and Efrem Oliphant. Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, Jr.) returns and will start for his third straight season having made 19 starts already. After finishing 5th on the team in tackles with 89 and leading with 5 pass break-ups, the speedy end-to-end athlete improved to second in total stops this past season with 76, including 9 for-loss and 4 sacks, 3 forced and a recovered fumble. With his sideline-to-sideline type speed and knack for always being where the football is, look for Taylor to move to one of the inside linebacker spots. Having the ‘heads up’ on joining him will be Mathew Adams (6’0, 208, So.), having been one of only four true freshman to play in all 13 games last season. While making only 3 starts Adams totaled 40 tackles, including 4.5 for-loss, 2 sacks and forced fumbles. Generating the type of pressure Orlando’s defenses are known for will probably come from Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, Jr.) as the freak athlete has ‘pass rush specialist’ just waiting to emerge in his third season after having a combined 7.5 sacks over his first two seasons as a reserve. Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Sr.) also has an opportunity to start at one of the inside backer spots as he filled in nicely inside once Mathews went down with 3.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack last season. D’Juan Hines (6’2, 208, RSo.), Davonte Thomas (6’1, 215, RJr.), Nomluis Fruge (6’0, 202. RSo), and redshirt freshman Ja’Von Shelley (6’1, 210) round out a raw but potentially deep unit that will be aided by 6 true freshmen this summer.

The continuing shaping of the defensive secondary from smaller to bigger athlete continues as new safeties coach Craig Naivar discussed, “We like young men with size and strength, with the ability to make plays, run around in space and are physical and smart. We want young men who can make checks and decisions on the football field.” All of the above, minus the size part, describe safeties Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’9, 190, Sr.) to a tee. Both will be starting their fourth and final seasons and are both ball hawks as ‘WorldWide’ (Stewart) has a combined 291 total tackles and 14 combined turnovers (8 interceptions and 6 fumble recoveries) who’s not afraid to mix it up along the line of scrimmage, with McDonald adding 209 total tackles and a combined 18 turnovers (13 interceptions and 5 fumble recoveries) from his position where he was the single high safety in many of Gibbs man schemes. Returning from injury at one cornerback spot will be Lee Hightower (6’2, 195, Sr.), though it’s unsure whether or not he’ll return for spring ball. The Boise State transfer did not disappoint in his 6 games with 4 passes defended and an interception as he was starting to come into his own before succumbing to a knee injury. The other corner spot is locked down by William Jackson (6’1, 185, Sr.) after brief talk of entering the NFL draft early after a superb 2014 season with 12 passed defended and 2 interceptions as a first time starter. After Hightower went down Howard Wilson (6’1, 176, So.) more than held his own as teams started throwing more his way as a true freshman, tying Stewart for second with 3 interceptions and third with 6 passes defended and will likely play the ‘nickel’ spot this season. Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, Jr.), no relation to Howard, also contributed in 8 starts at corner with 33 total tackles, a pass defended and a forced fumble. Steven Aikens (6’0, 198, Jr.) started twice as a hybrid linebacker/safety after Mathews was lost for the season and had 2 passes defended and 18 tackles in 13 games. Corner Tyler White (5’10, 185, Sr.) and safety Earl Foster (6’0, 192, Sr.) contributed mainly on special teams with 12 and 6 tackles respectively but the latter did have an interception and forced fumble and has a reputation as a hard hitter over the middle. Marcus Dillard (5’9, 182, Sr.) has seen very limited action as a corner also contributing mainly on special teams and probably doesn’t have the size the new staff is looking for after transferring from Butler Community College 2 seasons ago. Khalil Williams (6’0, 195, So.) had his redshirt burned half way through the season and chipped in with 9 tackles in 7 games. Jeremy Winchester (6’0, 185), Joeal Williams (5’10, 180) and Garrett Davis (6’1, 189) are three redshirt freshmen looking to add even more depth to an already loaded defensive backfield this spring.

Luckily new special teams coordinator Jason Washington has plenty of time to coach up a unit that was far from special last season, especially in terms of both return units. The kickoff return unit averaged only 16.55 yards per return, finishing better than only Old Dominion nationally. After a sensation true freshman season in which he averaged nearly 28 yards per return, Demarcus Ayers dropped nearly 10 yards from his average, averaging only 17.4 yards per return. Punt returns didn’t fare much better, averaging an anemic 5.67 yards ranking them 101st nationally with Ayers averaging only 4.4 per on 5 returns. The problem wasn’t on Ayers alone as the blocking scheme, or lack thereof, seemed to break down upon kickoff or punt as whoever was returning barely had enough time to make that first opposing player miss before the second and third wave of defenders were there for the gang tackle. The coverage units were much more fierce allowing only 21.48 yards per return on kickoffs and 4.5 on punt returns ranking them 76th and 22nd nationally. Helping the coverage teams were solid jobs by punter Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Sr.), who took over for Dylan Siebert early in the season, placing 13 of his 43 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line while adding 6 of 50 yards or more, averaging 39.3 yards per punt overall. Ty Cummings (5’10, 180, Jr.) averaged a tad over 61 yards per kickoff ranking him 55th nationally on his 75 total kickoffs. With place-kicker Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Sr.) struggling down the stretch, connecting on only 4 of his final 10 field goals, maybe Cummings (who was ranked as the best placekicker out of high school 2 seasons ago by Scout) gets his shot at replacing the senior, who’s converted 22 of his 28 attempts over the past 2 seasons. Regardless, a heavy emphasis will be placed on special teams this season as Herman has seen what the rarely mentioned “third unit” can do for a team, coming from Ohio State where special teams was Urban Meyer’s ‘baby.’

In all, competition will be the theme of spring ball as the new staff begins to lay the groundwork of Herman’s vision of what the program can be via a recent radio interview, “We’re going to be physically and mentally tough and win games in the fourth quarter. We should be and can be a top 20 program consistently. Right now should be about competing every year to play in a New Year's Six bowl game."


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