Fall Camp Questions Offense 2015

With training camp for the 2015 Houston Cougars underway, Coogfans.com asks and answers five key questions heading into Tom Herman’s first season at the helm as head coach;

The success of Herman’s offense will largely depend on the play of the QB. While this is a common sense statement, Herman used three QB’s last season en route to leading Ohio State to the 2014 national championship. This season Herman has three QB’s to choose from to lead the offense. Under normal circumstances a head coach would want his starters established midway into Fall camp, allowing the first team offense and defense to get a majority of the reps during the final the two weeks of camp leading into the first game of the season (which is September 5th against Tennessee Tech at TDECU Stadium). With that, let’s take a look at each of the starting candidates;

Greg Ward (5-foot-11, 178 pounds, Junior); After beginning last season as a wide receiver, Ward started the final 8 games after a floundering offensive start by the offense, sparking the team to a 6-2 record, and is the perfect dual threat QB for Herman’s read option system. The John Tyler product needs to learn to go through his progressions in the pocket as his first instinct is to pull the ball down after just going through his first read many times. Ward completed 68-percent of his passes last season (164-for-241) for 1,795 yards (for an average of 224.4 yards per game) while tossing for 12 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions with 4 of those coming in a loss versus Tulane. The fleet-of-foot athlete also averaged 5.1 yards per carry (516 yards on 101 carries), adding 5 scores on the ground. More important than stats, Ward adds a competitive spirit that both Herman and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite have lauded during the off-season and definitely has his teammates in his corner. Another major factor favoring Ward’s odds of being named starter is that he completed his first spring as the lead signal caller after splitting time at receiver last season while being the backup QB for his true freshman campaign during the 2013 season.

Adam Schultz (6’2, 210, Senior); What Ward lacks in size and strength, Schultz possesses along with experience of leading a P5 program. Schultz transferred to UH this spring after playing at Utah for the previous four seasons including starting their final 3 games of the 2013 season, throwing for 347 yards in a loss at Washington State and 233 yards in a win versus Colorado. After completing 75-of-154 passes (with 6 TDs) during that 2013 season, Schultz only played in one game last season, completing two passes for 31 total yards. Though he only rushed for only 78 yards on 25 carries (with one score) during that 2013 season, those stats do not account for the number of sacks, along with the fact that the Utes were playing from behind most of the time during those final 3 starts. While he won’t run away from defenders, Schultz has deceptive speed and can run 10 yards for a first down on a 3rd and long. He also, much like Ward, possesses the arm strength to go deep which will be a staple in Herman’s offense.

Kyle Postma (6’2, 195, So.); In 2014 Postma earned Second Team All-Southwest Junior College Football Conference honors at QB as he completed 220-of-327 passes for 3,328 yards and passed for 38 TDs to only 9 interceptions in leading Trinity Valley Community College to an undefeated season at 12-0 . The former UH walk-on (2013) also averaged more than 6 yards per carry (385 yards on 62 carries), adding 5 scores on the ground. Bear Fennimore (6’1, 222, RFr.) ran a distant third with another Trinity Valley transfer, Hunter McCoy (6’3, 215, Jr.) rounding out the QB competition during the spring, though it’s difficult to put much stock in what they did with as much mixing and matching going on between the various offensive units as the offensive staff was just trying to get a read on what each player could do, typical of a first year coaching staff.

Quick read: Along with read option principles and a power ground attack based from various spread formations with the use of a tight end, Herman’s offense will get the ball out of the QB’s hands quickly to receivers in space. During spring ball, Applewhite commented on his version as to what the Coogs offensive style will look like, “we’ll be a shotgun, no huddle, up-tempo offense that puts an emphasis on running the ball non-traditionally whether we’re running wideouts, quarterbacks or tailbacks while creating ‘explosives’ through play-action.”

Though I think Ward will end up the starter, as Herman and Applewhite won’t be able to pass up the potential of Ward’s pure athleticism, they’ll also be looking at how smart he is with the ball. Ward often ran into sacks last season, 23 total, while Postma was sacked exactly zero times on 327 drop-backs in 10 games. The key for Ward is learning how to become an actual QB. Will he be able to go through his progressions in the pocket before pulling the ball down and dashing out of the pocket? Will he learn to manipulate safeties with his eyes? Will he learn the proper footwork within the pocket? Will he be able to anticipate certain routes and “throw his receivers open?” With Applewhite and Herman’s coaching, I say yes. The head coach himself on what will determine who his starting QB will be (at Thursday’s Media Day), “There’s no magic metric. We’re going to keep track of everything but I don’t know that tells the whole story in terms of completion percentage, interceptions, touchdowns. That will all go into out thought process as to who the starter will be but at the end of the day the quarterback has just two jobs; one of them is to protect the football at all cost and the other one is to score touchdowns and however that happens, it’s always good. I’ve never seen a bad touchdown scored, on offense. If he’s protecting the football and moving the offense more effectively than the other guy then he’ll probably be the guy who starts.”

2.) Who will start along the offensive line?

The play of the QB is only as good as his offensive line allows, and the Coogs O-line must replace 3 starters who accounted for 98 career starts total. The line took a blow when Travis Cross decided not to return for his senior season due to concussions, after starting the final 12 games last season at left tackle. The leading candidate to replace the Oklahoma State transfer is probably Zach Johnson (6’6, 295, Sr.), who didn’t suit up last season after tearing an ACL during spring ball. Johnson, who started 11 games during the 2013 season though all at right tackle, has stated he’s one hundred percent recovered from his knee injury and is ready to roll.  Bookending Johnson at that right tackle spot will be Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Sr.), who returns after starting all 13 games at the position last season. Cooper is athletic enough but needs to improve on his footwork and strength in order to master offensive line coach Derek Warehime’s complex zone and man combo blocking schemes. The other returning starter is Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Sr.), who started all 13 games at left guard after transferring from Hawaii. The physical New Zealander loves to run block and should mesh well in an offense that Applewhite describes as “wanting to be physical in the run game.” The former University of Texas QB echoed Herman’s theme on toughness this spring, “It’s a fight. It’s a four quarter fight. 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 on offense and seldom do they get above 7-5 or 8-4 and complete for championships and that’s what we’re here for.” The other guard spot is wide open between Josh Thomas (6’6, 315, RSo.), Baylor transfer Zorrell Ezell (6’2, 280, Jr.), and 2014 transfer Carter Wall (6’4, 295, Sr.) who didn’t see much playing time last season as he recovered from foot injuries. The Navarro transfer looks like the type of lineman new strength & conditioning coach Yancy McKnight wants, lean and mean, as he doesn’t look like your typical linemen with a huge gut hanging over his belt. Ezell is moving from defensive tackle where he played for the Bears and at Humble high school, while Thomas is said to have a world of potential as long as he can keep the weight off, as he weighed in at over 350 pounds as a true freshman in 2013.

 One wildcard along the line, and particularly at that vacant right guard spot could be Kyle Marrs (6’6, 325, Jr.), who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma. As a Sooner, Marrs saw action in 10 games in 2013 after redshirting the 2012 season. In high school he was listed as a four-star recruit by ESPN coming out of Brandeis High School and was the No. 38 offensive tackle nationally by Scout and No. 51 player in the state of Texas' 2012 class by ESPN. He did not give up a sack as a senior while recording 53 knockdown blocks and grading out at 91 percent throughout the year as he was named a 2011 first team all-district honoree and a member of the San Antonio Express News' All-Area first team. If you’re not into recruiting rankings, know that he originally signed with Oklahoma over Houston, Michigan, Notre Dame, Missouri, Stanford and UCLA. The competition for center will probably come down to three student-athletes; Wall, Mac Long (6’4, 285, Jr.) and Colton Freeman (6’4, 286, RFr.). Wall spent some time under center at Navarro while Long backed up starter Bryce Redman last season (who started the past 36 games over the past 3 seasons). Freeman was on pace to win the backup job last season before succumbing to injuries during spring ball. Damien Parris (6’6, 290, Sr.) and Marcus Oliver (6’3, 270, So.) both saw plenty of action last season and will provide depth at both tackle spots, along with recent signee James Works (6’5, 295) out of Iowa Western Junior College. Like Marrs, Works could be another wild card as this is his final season of eligibility which could motivate him to thrust himself into the conversation for a starters spot. The Cougars football program is to a point where most freshman redshirt, especially at offensive line, but if you’re looking at one incoming player to establish himself for playing time, look no further than Josh Jones (6’6, 280). The Richmond Bush product was ranked the 11th best tackle in the state of Texas and 66th nationally by Scout.

3.) Can Farrow repeat last season?

In a word, yes. Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Sr.) is exactly the type of bruising between the tackles back that Applewhite spoke about earlier in being a hard-nosed physical offense that will look to set up constant 3rd & short’s by pounding the rock on early downs, “What Kenneth gives as a big back is the ability to move piles and that’s one thing you always look for as a coach in the run game. You want those guys who can turn a 2 yard gain into 4 yard gains and a 4 yard gain into 6 because of their power or elusiveness.” Farrow came into his own over the latter part of the season just as Ward started establishing himself, which was no coincidence as opposing defenses having to account for the QB run game allowed lanes to open in which Farrow took advantage of. The burly back rushed for 721 of his 1,037 total yards over the final 8 game stretch in which Ward started, also accounting for all 12 of his TDs. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and finished the season with 4 straight 100-yard games. If Farrow rushes for over 1,000 yards during his senior season he’ll join the top-5 Cougar rushers of all time, with over 3,000 yards. Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Sr.) took a backseat to Farrow over those final 8 games, rushing for 371 yards while rushing for 239 in the previous 5 games. His 610 yard total fell 51 yards short of his previous year, though he did average an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. The ever elusive Jackson is also dangerous in the passing game coming out of the backfield on simple swing passes or various screens. Applewhite on both Farrow and Jackson, “A lot of experience both of those guys have carrying the ball and protecting it on 3rd down. A lot of college football experience already. Both of those guys will be tremendous assets to us in the run game. That’s ultimately what you want to do as an offense; stay ahead of the chains. Those guys are pretty smart in terms of being north-and-south runners and not giving us a lot of negative yardage plays.”

If Applewhite is looking to get a third back touches, Justin Hicks (5’6, 195, Sr.), Javin Webb (5’8, 175, So.) bring limited experience with Kaliq Kokuma (6’0, 190, RFr.) adding an impressive spring coming off of a redshirt year, though he’ll be sidelined to start Fall camp per Herman. Incoming freshmen Tyreik Gray (5’11, 185) and Kevrin Justice (5’11, 190) would normally be redshirted amidst all the talent at the position, but Gray is a special talent who may force his way onto the field in some capacity, whether it be toting the rock or on special teams in the return game. “The Freak” was Herman’s first major recruiting win as the four star signee was tabbed the 13th best RB in the state of Texas, per Scout. The Houston Lamar product has the type of breakaway speed that can’t be taught and would be hard to stop coming off of one of Herman’s jet sweeps.

4.) Who Steps Up at Receiver?

This position was probably hit harder than any other with the loss of Deontay Greenberry, Daniel Spencer, Markeith Ambles and Wayne Beadle as just two receivers return who actually caught passes last season. Who will make up for the 155 receptions, 1858 yards and 12 TDs in losses by the four aforementioned receivers? Let’s start with Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, Jr.), as he’s the leading receiver returning, catching 33 passes last season for 335 yards with 2 scores. Hopefully an entire off-season working with Ward improves their chemistry as deep posts from the two outside spots are common in Herman led offenses over the years. Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, So.) gives Ward a physical presence from the slot, has sturdy hands, can run clean routes and gains yards after contact as his 14.3 yards per reception (286 yards on 20 receptions) was second only to Ambles 16.8. YAC yardage will be key in Herman’s offense with various bubble, jailbreak, slow or slip screens with an inexperienced crew of receivers ready to show off their speed, especially Oregon transfer Chance Allen (6’2, 200, Jr.), who’s eligible to play this season. The former Ft. Bend Elkins product caught 5 passes for 98 yards with a TD over 14 games covering the 2013 and 14 seasons before deciding to return home. He’s an unproven talent but any athlete who signs to play with Oregon has to be worth giving a shot to. Isaiah Johnson (6’3, 190, RFr.) is another high school track standout who’s been mentioned as a sleeper among the wideout core. Devin Smith (6’3, 180), is a true freshman whom participated in spring ball and ran a leg of the 4-x-400 meter relay, propelling John Curtis High (out of River Ridge, Louisiana) to first place in the state meet during the 2014 season. Donald Gage (5’11, 181, RSo.) and John Leday (6’0, 190, RSo.) were impressive during last spring and fall camps respectively before succumbing to injuries and will look to turn their fortunes around this season. Walk-on Linell Bonner (6’0, 200, So.) actually led the receivers with 12 receptions over the 3 spring practice scrimmages and is said to have turned heads with his quick burst off the line and blocking abilities, which will be key in the new offensive scheme. Applewhite on the wide open competition at the position, “Guys like Demarcus Ayers and Steven Dunbar, who saw some time last year, obviously are little bit ahead of the curve from the standpoint of the shine is off. They’ve been out there, and been called upon, and had to make plays with the first team. They were a little more comfortable in their skin in the spring. What you were seeing by the end of the spring is guys like Isaiah Johnson and Chance Allen and others start to come along, and then spring ball ended, and you wondered what would happen. If we had three or four more days would that guy have come on? Then you get to June and July, and you visit with these guys, and you’re given a certain amount of time a week by the NCAA, but what they relate to you, the information on the plays, the details of the plays, you can tell that they’re progressing. Then, obviously I talk to the quarterbacks and they tell me ‘Hey this guy is having a great summer coach.’ So the competition level was extremely high. We’ve got to find six or seven guys at wide receiver. We feel good about a certain number of those, but we have to have six or seven guys that we can put on that plane and feel really good about the wide receiver corp. Coach Drew Mehringer has got a great competition going on in that room right now.”

5.) What role will tight end play in this offense?

That won’t be known until the season begins but the tight end has been a huge factor on each of Herman’s stops, including Rice (anyone ever heard of James Casey?) and Ohio State as Jeff Heuerman was drafted in the third round of the past NFL Draft. Along with adding an extra man on the line giving the defense an extra gap to worry about blocking, the tight ends in Herman’s offenses have played an integral role, as both Casey and Heuerman threatened the seams vertically down the field, opening up one-on-one opportunities for outside receivers on deep posts. The key question will be who will occupy this spot as the Coogs haven’t had a good tight end since Mark Hafner laced up his cleats 7 seasons ago. Romello Brooker (6’5, 235, RFr.) is too small to be used as an effective inline blocker, unless he’s used as a crack-back blocker coming off of motion. Ryan Deshotel (6’4, 241) and Kobe Idumwonyi (6’2, 225) are true freshmen who have both athleticism to thrive in the middle of opposing zone defenses. Deshotel played for Pearland while Idumwonyi played a huge part in Cedar Hill’s back-to-back 6A state championships. Both could even be used on the field at the same time with Idumwonyi using his size to cause mismatches against smaller defensive backs while Deshotel is used as more of a blocker. Hayden Daniels (6’4, 215, Sr.) rounds out the roster at tight end and at least brings name value to the position as the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens, and former Houston Texans, Owen Daniels. Unfortunately the last name is the only thing they share when playing the position of tight end as Hayden has exactly zero receptions in two seasons in which he’s actually seen the field at Illinois and Houston.

Both Herman and Applewhite preached competition across the board at all positions at Media Day as you could tell Herman is a true Urban Myers clone as the team mantra has to preached by everybody associated with the program. There can be no mixed signals amongst the coaching staff. Herman on the depth chart, “I don’t believe in cementing positions on the depth chart. Everybody is going to get a chance to win a job that is what this is all about. Could you image waking up every day and coming and doing what these kids have to do knowing that you are not going to get a chance to play on Saturday if you do all these things and do them well and do them better than the guy that is slated ahead of you? There is hope for everybody. I can tell you now that nobody’s job is secure. It will be more and more apparent as we get closer to the first game because you certainly have to define who you have to lean on and who is going to be playing the most. We preach constant competition at every position.”

Coach Applewhite again echoing his head coach’s edict on competition, “It’s going to be great competition across the board. After having played that spot and coached that spot (QB), a lot is talked about with that position, but we’re going to have great competition at right guard, and at wide receiver in the slot. We’re going to have great competition on the defensive side as well. The quarterback position gets a lot of attention, but we’re going to have great competition at all spots in the fall. Both those guys have had a tremendous summer in the weight room, and studying, and have done a great job of learning the new offense.”

Stay logged into Coogfans.com throughout the month for Training Camp updates and as we look at new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense in our next article.

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