Game 1 Preview: Tennessee Tech

After more than eight months of off-season conditioning, spring ball and fall camp, the much anticipated Tom Herman era gets underway this Saturday night (September the 5th) as your Houston Cougars host the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles at TDECU Stadium. Game time is set for 7pm (CST) and will be broadcast on ESPN3.com.

Herman on his excitement leading into his first game as a head coach, “I am excited to finally have game week here.” Herman said at his first weekly media press conference via uhcougars.com, “It feels like we have been hitting each other for the last nine months, which is about accurate. We have been if you include spring practice and training camp. It has been a long time since we have gone against somebody in an opposite colored jersey. I know our kids are excited to do that. They have worked extremely hard through training camp and early on, from the time that we got here, they have put in the blood, sweat, tears, and the mental and emotional exhaustion that we put them through and they have certainly come through it.”

Being a 35 point favorite against a subpar FCS program would normally cause concern for a fan base that’s witnessed two of the team’s more uglier losses in program history to open recent seasons; 30-13 and 27-7 losses to Texas State and UTSA to open the 2012 and 2014 seasons respectively (the latter being the inaugural game at TDECU). With the new staff’s mantra on toughness however, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem under the leadership of Herman.

Being such a heavy favorite, Herman on if he and his staff plan on holding anything back play call wise versus Tennessee Tech, “No. Every year that comes up. If it’s 45-7 in the third quarter and we haven’t called something it might be best used if we shelved it for a week. But I don’t think you ever go in saying we’re going to do this, this and this and see if we can win the game that way. You say ‘we’re going to win this game by doing everything that’s necessary.’ If something has been left off the film that you feel is better to keep off the film it’s an in game decision, but going on to the field it’s all hands on deck. The playbook is open, wide open as they say.”

Speaking of the Golden Eagles, located in Cookeville, Tennessee and coached by Watson Brown (47-45 in eight seasons at Tennessee Tech; 132-203-1 overall). The members of the FCS’s Ohio Valley Conference were 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the OVC, good for 5th place. They have 16 starters returning, 8 on offense and 8 on defense, led by A-Back Ladarius Vanlier (5-8, 175). The senior had 89 carries for 494 yards with 5 TDs while catching 21 passes for 130 yards while also averaging 14.4-yards per punt return. The preseason All-American is one of the most versatile players in the OVC as last season he was one of just four players in the FCS with both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown and one of just five players nationally with multiple punt return touchdowns (2). Their quarterback is Jared Davis (6’4, 220), who is a returning starter, though he was replaced after three games last season. The junior has played in 19 games in his first two years, passing for 1,705 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a redshirt freshman, Davis passed for 935 yards and nine touchdowns with five interceptions. Last season, he threw for 770 yards with four TDs and seven interceptions. He has also rushed for eight career touchdowns. Their offensive scheme, under fourth year coordinator Steven Brown, is a bit tricky, including its unique “QW” position, which utilizes a second quarterback during plays, often split wide of the center exchange. The run heavy scheme employs triple option principals at times with two A-Backs lined up behind the tackles and a B-Back behind the center which is used as an old school fullback. They will also go “3-wide” and employ a tight end on passing downs.

The Golden Eagles ranked second-to-last in the OVC in scoring offense (19.8 points per game) and total offense (277.1 yards per game; 135 rushing and 142 passing) last season. Other players to look for offensively include receiver Brock McCoin (6’0, 185, Sr.) who caught 43 passes for 517 yards with 2 TDs, along with fellow receivers Krys Cates and Steve Wilson, both whom have nice size at 6’3, 215 and 6’3, 205 respectively. Their H-back, or tight end, will be Dametris Watson (6’3, 252, R-So.) and B-Back will be split between Radier Annoor (5’11, 200, Sr.) and Willie Davis (5’10, 210, Sr.). Annoor is the offenses second leading returning rusher with 220 yards.

Defensively, the Coogs recently released depth chart reveals no major surprises under first year coordinator Todd Orlando, except for maybe Lee Hightower (6’2, 195, Sr.) sitting behind Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Sr.) at strong safety. Hightower seemed to be hitting his stride by midseason last year after a slow start adjusting to cornerback before being lost for the year after injuring a knee during the Memphis game. Look for Hightower to receive plenty of snaps at “nickel” back due to the Golden Eagles being placed in passing downs due to the Coogs front seven shutting down the run game. Outside rush backer Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, Jr.) will be licking his chops to show off his athleticism against Tennessee Tech’s true freshman starting left tackle (Chandler  Nelson; 6’5, 290), after a disappointing sophomore year in which he registered only 3.5 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks. The defensive line of Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Sr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) at the two end spots, along with B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, Jr.) at the nose must play strong at the point of attack against a Golden Eagles offensive line that averages only 294 pounds across the board and is introducing three new starters (including their entire left side). Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.) and Zack Vaughn (6’4, 245, R-Fr.) are listed as the backups with Melvin Holland (6’1, 295, Sr.) backing up Singleton at tackle. Usually in a 3-4 scheme your inside guys are hovering around the 300 pound mark as your ends will usually line up over the opposing offensive guards. The fact that the Coogs front 3 averages only 279 pounds leads me to believe that Orlando will be dialing up many blitzes from many different angles with the first year coordinator saying as much on more than one occasion over the course of the off-season.

Where those blitzes will come from will probably be from the linebacking core, led by strongside outside linebacker Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, Jr.). With Derrick Mathews and Efrem Oliphant graduating, Taylor now takes over as leader of the group. Thrown into the mix as a true freshman, Taylor has accumulated 165 tackles (77 solo), including 19.5 for loss and 7 sacks over his first two seasons. Bowser, as previously mentioned, will hopefully total double figure sacks in Orlando’s aggressive scheme as the primary blitzer from among the two outside linebacker positions. Lining up at the two inside linebacker spots will be Mathew Adams (6’0, 208, So.) and Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Sr.). Adams had an impressive true freshman season last year, totaling 40 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in only 3 starts. Roberts started adapting better last season after receiving more playing time once Mathews went down as the JC transfer tallied 26 tackles, 17 solo, with 3.5 for loss. Two reserves at linebacker to keep an eye on are Ralph Harvey Jr. (6’4, 225, Jr.) backing up Bowser outside, and true freshman Emeke Egbule (6’3, 215). Harvey Jr. is another JC transfer, where he led Los Angeles’s El Camino College with 71 tackles in only 9 games last season while also showing off his athleticism, intercepting two passes. And of course all ‘Coogfans’ have heard about the exploits of Egbule, who hit a teammate so hard during a recent practice that he bent his facemask.

When the Golden Eagles do decide to pass, they’ll be taking their chances against a feisty Cougars secondary that returns 97 career starts with every starter from 2014 returning. Leading the way at safety are the aforementioned McDonald at strong and Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Sr.) at free safety. McDonald has totaled 209 tackles (114 solo) over his first three seasons along Cullen Boulevard, with Stewart eclipsing him with 291 (153 solo). McDonald has also forced and recovered 5 fumbles while adding 13 interceptions (for 265 return yards or over 20 yards per interception) over the course of his career, while Stewart has added 6 fumble recoveries and 8 interceptions as more of an “in the box” safety while McDonald has been more the “free roamer” in former coordinator David Gibbs ‘single high safety’ schemes. At corner, William Jackson (6’1, 185, Sr.) retuned after a stellar 2014 season in which he defended 10 passes and added 2 interceptions while making the American Athletic Conference’s Second team. Some are projecting Jackson as a possible first round pick in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft. The other corner spot will be manned by both Brandon (6’0, 198, Jr.) and Howard Wilson (6’1, 176, So.); no relation, making the move for Hightower back to his more natural safety spot easier for Orlando. Brandon had 33 tackles last season but has had an impressive camp and is the physical type of corner who can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage as the corners in Orlando’s blitz heavy schemes will see plenty of man coverage on the back end. Howard, as a true freshman, registered 48 tackles while playing in all 13 games last season.

Offensively for the Coogs, it’s all about the quarterback, and despite no official announcement, everyone is expecting Herman and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to trot out Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, Jr.) behind center Saturday night with Utah transfer Adam Schultz (6’2, 210, Sr.) also seeing game action. Herman on the progress of his QBs over training camp, “Both were guys that improved on their weaknesses. We knew Greg could run around, we knew he had a quick easy release, but what he needed to be was a little bit more decisive in his reads and he has done that. I don’t know if you are going to get faster, but Adam certainly had some runs in training camp that probably turned a few heads because of the time he’s put in in the offseason to developing his quickness and acceleration. He’s no stiff, but he is not a statue back there. He is never going to be Greg Ward, in terms of his athleticism, but what he needs to do and what he has done for the most part is manage the game with his brain a little bit.”

Ward led the team to wins in six of their final eight games last season while completing 68-percent of his passes (164-for-241) for 1,795 yards (224.4 yards per game) while tossing for 12 TDs to 7 interceptions (with 4 of those coming in a 31-24 homecoming loss to Tulane that probably sealed head coach Tony Levine’s fate late last season). Ward also adds the run game element so prevalent in Herman-led offenses as he rushed for 516 yards on 101 carries (5.1 yards per carry) with 5 scores on the ground over those final 8 games.

Any QB is only as good as his offensive line will take him and the projected line-up of Marcus Oliver (6’3, 270, So.), Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Sr.), Colton Freeman (6’4, 286, R-Fr.), Carter Wall (6’4, 295, Sr.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Sr.); from left to right tackle, will get the first-go-of it Saturday night to help Ward become more of the pocket passer that both Herman and Applewhite want from this offense. The five average only 292 pounds across the board as the line needs to be more flexible and athletic in offensive line coach Derek Warehime’s outside zone run schemes. Once Josh Thomas (6’6, 315, So.) gets back from a knee injury the line could be reshuffled as Thomas was projected by many as the starter at right guard. Coach Herman on the progress of his line over the course of the off-season, “We have five offensive linemen that I feel good about, not great, but where we came from in the first practice of the spring until now is absolute light years ahead of where we were. We turned a very below average offensive line into one that is performing at an average to above average level right now and if we can sustain that, if we can continue to get better as the season progresses, we will have the opportunity to win some games. I like the way they look. I like the way they’re moving around; they’re a much more physical outfit than they were a couple of months ago.”

Besides Ward, Applewhite’s offense will be based on the run game and the Coogs have plenty of running backs that will see the field this season, led by Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Sr.). Voted as a captain by his teammates, Farrow rushed for over 1000 yards last season (1,037), including 721 yards over those final 8 games that Ward started. As the inside bruising runner, Farrow allowed Ward to rush outside on zone read option keepers as he rushed for 100 yards in 5 of his final 6 games. Farrow averaged 5.6 yards per carry and crossed the goal line 14 times last season. When Farrow needs a breather, the backup will be either Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Sr.) or Javin Webb (5’8, 175, So.), who’s really impressed the staff over training camp, “Obviously we’re going to play Kenneth until he gets to the point of diminishing returns.” Herman said. “You have to manage those guys reps. You want them to be as fresh as they can be in the fourth quarter, and you don’t want to wear them out in the first and second quarter, so I would imagine the first guy to go in would be Ryan. So does that make him the backup? I don’t know, but the next time Farrow needs a break it’ll probably be Javin going in. That’s why we listed him on there, because we’ll rotate those two guys around when Kenneth needs a blow, and there’s a few certain things that aren’t as suited to Kenneth’s running style that we might substitute him in specifically to do, but we’re going to play Kenneth Farrow quite a bit.”

As to who Ward will throw the ball to, Herman is happy with his starting receivers but after them he didn’t sound too pleased at Monday’s weekly media presser, “We’ve got four guys right now that I would feel good about them playing over ten snaps per game. If any of those guys are out there for an extended amount during a game, I am not going to lose my breath on the sidelines. Beyond that Linell Bonner (6’0, 200, So.) and Tyreik Gray (5’11, 185, Fr.) need to pick it up a little bit. For them to play an extended amount of time they need to show some improvement this week. They have it in them. The scary part is behind those two guys, I don’t see anybody coming out. By the end of this week we’ll have four practices. If they haven’t shown it through the first 38 of them I’m not sure when we would get it out of them. That’s okay; we’ll live. We’ll go through the season with six, and we’ll find a way to make it work. But Linell and Tyreik have to be those legitimate fifth and sixth guys so nobody holds their breath if they go in for an extended period of time.”

The three starters at receiver, according to the depth chart, are Chance Allen (6’2, 200, Jr.), Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, Jr.) and Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, So.). Isaiah Johnson (6’3, 190, R-Fr.) is also listed backing up Allen at the “Z” outside spot. Among the four, only Ayers and Dunbar have caught passes for the Coogs, 33 for the former and 20 for the latter for 335 and 286 yards respectively. Allen is a transfer from Oregon who’s caught 5 passes for 98 yards in his 2 seasons as a Duck. Look for the tight end spot to see plenty of snaps this season for two reasons; 1.) It gives the offense a more physical mindset and gives opposing defensive lines one more gap they have to account for in the run game, and 2.) It takes a receiver off the field. What better way to mask an area of weakness than by eliminating it? Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 232, Jr.) and Romello Brooker (6’4, 210, R-Fr.) are listed on the 2-deep at the tight end position. McCloskey is an athlete who’s played linebacker and fullback over his first two seasons, and even played QB at Houston’s Memorial High. Brooker was a stand out during spring and fall practices catching everything thrown his way. Others who will see time at tight end include true freshman Kobe Idumwonyi (6’2, 225) and Ryan Deshotel (6’4, 241), with Idumwonyi being more of a receiving threat down the seam as his playing days at famed Cedar Hill would attest, while Deshotel fitting the bill in the more traditional blocking aspects of the tight end spot from his days playing at Pearland. Hayden Daniels (6’4, 215, Sr.) will see playing time later in the year after he recovers from a bruised knee.

Defensively, the Golden Eagles are multiple but line up out of a base 4-2-5 alignment under third year coordinator Donn Landholm, and are led by linebacker Tra’Darius Goff (5-11, 240), who returns after an sitting out due to injury last season. The redshirt senior had 101 tackles (8.5 for loss) along with 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 2 recovered fumbles during the 2013 season after registering more than 100 tackles during the 2012 seasons. Joining Goff at Mike linebacker will be Jake Rudwall (6’2, 230, Sr.), who also had over 100 tackles last season. Jordan Patrick (6’5, 230, Jr.) will be in his third season at the “Jack” spot which is a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position. He’ll rush the passer with his hand on the ground one play, while dropping back in zone coverage the next. He’ll attempt to use his quickness to get around Oliver at left tackle while his defensive line mates, Kevin Robinson-White (6’2, 300, Jr.), Terrell Rollins (5’11, 280, Jr.) and Brady Bose (6’4, 285, Fr.), use their brawn in order to shut down the Coogs inside running game.  Patrick has also blocked 3 kicks over his career.

In the secondary for the Golden Eagles, free safety Jimmy Laughlin (6’3, 220, Sr.) moves from their “rover” spot but still will be expected to be all over the field and is the second leading returning tackler as he accumulated 45 tackles, including 4 for loss and 2.5 sacks last season. At strong safety, Stephen Bush (5’10, 200, R-Sr.) has made the move across the line of scrimmage after playing his first three-plus years as a running back. Bill Dillard (6’0, 200, R-Jr.) moved into Laughlin’s rover position from cornerback. The move isn’t too foreign for Dillard, who played that spot as a freshman before two seasons at cornerback. Two veterans will line up in the cornerback spots for the Golden Eagles. Demario Donnell (5’9, 180, Sr.) will start on the boundary corner, while Maleek Hall (5’10, 190, Jr.) will start at the field corner. The pair has a combined 54 games played between them according to Tennessee Tech’s game notes.

Saying that special teams were a mixed bag for the Coogs last season would definitely be an understatement. Coverage wise, the kickoff and punt coverage units shouldn’t miss a beat as they only allowed 4.5 yards per punt return and 21.5 per kickoff return, especially with Herman playing many of his starters on the units as he’s talked about how he’s going to do numerous times over the course of the off-season and training camp. The two return units, however, need a massive influx of new blood as neither unit produced much on the field last year, often giving the offense horrible starting field position. Ayers averaged only 17.4 yards on kickoff returns last season, one year after averaging more than 27 yards per return while being named the American’s Special Teams player of the year. With the team struggling offensively, maybe Ayers felt the need to make a play as he attempted to return too many ill-advised kickoffs last season, usually with holes closing up around the 15-yard line. Hopefully with the influx in talent (front line players) being added to the units, Ayers can at least get the ball to the 20-yard line, if he returns kickoffs at all.

Punt returns were even worse as the unit, between Ayers and Ward, averaged only 5.7 yards on 15 total attempts. Hopefully special teams coach Jason Washington teaches whoever returns punts that a fair catch necessarily isn’t a bad thing. Place kicker Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Sr.) is on the preseason Lou Groza Award Watch List for the best kicker in the nation as he’s connected on 22-of-28 field goals over the past 2 seasons. Punter Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Sr.) dropped 13 of his 43 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and boomed 6 punts more than 50 yards, giving his coverage units time to motor down the field in order to make a quick tackle.

Final Prediction: The Tom Herman era is ushered in with an easy victory against an outmanned FCS opponent in an easy 45-13 Coogs victory.


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