With seven starters returning from last season, four must be replaced including both tackle spots along the offensive line. A new running back will also be taking handoffs along with a new slot receiver. Under second year head coach Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, the offense improved dramatically over the previous season in points (29.8 to 40.4), rushing offense (183.9 to 235.8), passing offense (230.2 to 248.4) and total offense (414.1 to 484.1). Now let’s take a look at what each position returns and questions each position has.
Luckily for Herman and his offensive staff, this is one position in which they will not have to worry about heading into spring practices as Greg Ward Jr. (5-foot-11 inches, 185 pounds, Sr.) returns with an 18-2 record over the past two seasons (6-2 in 2014 and 12-0 last year as he missed the teams’ only loss at UConn). The three-time American Athletic Conference player of the week passed for 2,828 yards last season with 17 TDs to only 6 picks. The 2015 Earl Campbell Award Winner and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Offensive MVP also rushed for 1,108 yards with 21 TDs (fifth nationally), with many coming via my favorite play; the QB sweep in the red zone.
Ward, who will be on numerous 2016 Heisman Trophy contender watch lists according to many early season media publications, returns completing over 67-percent of his 428 career passes with 30 touchdown passes to only 13 interceptions. While averaging only 139 yards passing-per-game over his three seasons, those yards jump to 231 in games in which he starts an entire game. While those may be pedestrian numbers passing wise in this day and age of prolific pass first offenses, Ward is a true duel threat as he averages 5.1 yards-per-carry each time he touches the rock rushing the ball.
The main objective of Applewhite’s power-spread offense is to move the chains with short quick passes while adding in various types of power runs which leads to deep shots via the play-action passing game. Herman has stated numerous times over the past year that he wants Ward to become a more cerebral pocket passing QB while running less to save wear-and-tear from the physical poundings he takes on his slight-of-frame body. The spring will be used to fine tune the offense along with giving plenty of reps to the backups including Kyle Postma (6’3, 205, Jr.), Bear Fenimore (6’1, 215, RSo.), Bowman Sells (6’2, 202, Fr.) and Kyle Allen (6’3, 210, Jr.) who are all on scholarship.
Allen transferred this year from Texas A&M so he’s not eligible to play until next year per NCAA rules, though I’m sure he’s going to get plenty of reps as he and Postma battle for next year’s starting spot. Allen was 9-5 in two seasons as a starter for the Aggies. The former number one ranked QB for the 2014 recruiting class passed for over 3,500 yards and 33 TDs to 14 interceptions, completing over 58-percent of his passes.
That battle is a story for next off-season, however. As for this season, if Ward is once again injured, Postma showed he’s more than well enough equipped to handle being thrown into the fray. The former walk-on displayed extreme athleticism last year when he played in place of Ward, especially via the read-option game. The Trinity Valley Community College transfer completed 63-percent of his passes (43-for-68) for 453 yards with three TDs to one interception. He also keyed the comeback against Memphis in which Coogfans will never forget as he subbed for a hobbling Ward with the team trailing 20-0 just minutes before halftime. They trailed 34-14 heading into the fourth quarter before Postma led them to three scores for the final 35-34 score, including the game winning 7 yard TD run. He completed 21-of-36 passes that night for 236 yards with a TD while adding another 49 yards on the ground, on 6 carries, and that game winning scamper. He also helped clinch the Florida State Peach bowl victory with a 29 yard run setting up the final score that would put the Noles away late in the game.
Sells has a great arm according to Applewhite, is physical and has experience as he was a four year starter at Lucas Lovejoy where he threw for over 8,700 yards and 95 TDs. As an early enrollee, Sells is setting himself up to be in the picture next year. Fenimore has the size for the position at 215 pounds but hasn’t established himself in the pecking order just yet.
Rounding out the position includes walk-on’s Hunter McCoy (6’4, 220, Sr.), Luke Klingler (6’3, 200, So.), Mason McClendon (5’10, 190, So.), Austin Robinson (6’3, 220, Jr.) and Jose Blankenship (6’1, 210, RFr.). Four star signee D’Eriq King (5’10, 170) could liven up the battle for backup once he enrolls during the summer. King is in much the Ward mold, a small but explosive athlete who passed for over 10,000 yards with an additional 3,000 on the ground over a four year career at Manvel.
The QB’s were able to have the success they did last year because of the offensive line, which lose bookend tackles Alex Cooper and Carter Wall to graduation. Will Noble (6’4, 290, So.) returns after starting the final seven games of the season at center due to injuries. The true freshman would later be named a Scout, ESPN, FWAA and USA Today Freshman All American. Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RSo.) started the first six games at center before giving way to Noble due to a shoulder stinger injury that would linger for the rest of the season. Over the final eight games he would start four at right guard, where my guess is he’s probably penciled in for to start spring ball this year. Freeman was online to start his true freshman season at center before being redshirted due to injury.
As for left guard, that should be a battle between Kameron Eloph (6’3, 294, So.) and Mason Denley (6’4, 305, RSo.). While Eloph was switched from the defensive line early in the season due to injuries and finished the season starting three games at guard (two at right guard and one at left) while playing in nine total, Denley started six games at left guard including three of the final four so he probably has the upper hand at this point. Both youngsters have the toughness for the position but just need to polish their technique. Josh Thomas (6’6, 332, RJr.) provides depth at guard as he started saw plenty of action early inside, even starting against SMU at left guard before being lost for the season due to an ankle injury.
As for the all-important tackle spots, my money would go on Iowa Western Community College transfer Na’Ty Rodgers (6’5, 292, Jr.) at left tackle and Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, Jr.) at right, though they could easily flip positions. Offensive line coach Derek Warehime described Rodgers as being very athletic for his size, which is needed in their zone based blocking scheme, and “long” which is important in keeping opposing defensive linemen at bay. Oliver started the first five games of the season at the left side until his season was derailed by an ankle injury that continued to linger. One other player to keep an eye on is Josh Jones (6’5, 280, RSo.) as he was the first huge recruit to sign and begin the #HTownTakeover as the 11th ranked offensive tackle in Texas by Scout, out of Richmond’s George Bush High, but was ultimately redshirted.
Hopefully this season won’t need the ELEVEN different starting combinations that least season required (yes, in 14 games). Warehime should have received the Frank Broyles Award for assistant coach of the year in my opinion, but is reserved for a coordinator from a P5 school unfortunately, or so it seems. Warehime on the outlook he taught his line to take last season during the Coogs signing day television show, “Really it was ‘man up, man down.’ We weren’t going to be the ones to let this team down. It’s our goal to outwork everyone else on the team.” And that they did.
The tight end position was instrumental in helping the pass protection and run blocking, especially the outside run game and is once again stocked led by the return of Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Sr.). Those QB sweeps that Ward was so effective on were led by the senior from Houston Memorial High. Per tight ends coach Corby Meekins, “the tight end makes our system work. He has to be a receiver and play down along the offensive line. He has to be versatile enough to where we don’t sub when we go to out four receiver sets.” McCloskey needs to learn to set his routes up better as he only caught 14 passes last year for 157 yards and a score. That’s where Iowa State transfer Alex Leslie (6’5, 240, RJr.) comes in, as Meekins described him as having “great hands” in the passing game but big enough to block if he’s lined up along the line. Leslie played at New Braunfels high where he was an All-District 25-5A first team as a wide receiver during his senior season in 2012. Rounding out the position are Romello Brooker (6’4, 241, RSo.) and Kobe Idumwonyi (6’2, 245, RFr.). Both are out of the Leslie mode of being pass-catchers first as Brooker made some impressive receptions during spring ball last season, while Idumwonyi was ranked as the 26th ranked tight end by ESPN coming out of Cedar Hill High, winning back-to-back state titles while being named all-district first team during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Incoming freshmen this summer include Dixie Wooten (6’5, 322), Keenan Murphy (6’2, 295) and Braylon Jones (6’3, 278) which add plenty of beef. Hopefully they can all be redshirted as linemen are valued more as redshirt seniors than they are as true freshmen.
Who they’ll be blocking for remains the biggest mystery of spring ball as both Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson have graduated, taking their combined 954 carries for 4,905 yards and 52 TDs with them. The leader in the clubhouse is probably Duke Catalon (6’0, 210, RSo.), who sat out last year after transferring from Texas. The Aldine Eisenhower product rushed for almost 3,500 yards during his high school career and according to running backs coach Kenith Pope was “hard to bring down on the scout team and has great vision and speed.” Depending on how Catalon performs, cornerback Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, RSr.) could contribute greatly to the position after rushing for 188 yards on 37 carries (5.1 ypc) with 2 scores over the final three games of the season due to injuries. Recruited as a running back out of Shreveport, Louisiana’s Calvary Academy, Wilson hadn’t played the position at all over this first three seasons. Once given the chance, he showed he hadn’t lost what it takes to master the position, especially in the areas of footwork, vision and patience in setting up his blocks and not just taking the first hole he saw his line open up for him.
Behind Catalon and potentially Wilson include Kaliq Kokuma (5’11, 210, RSo.) and Kevrin Justice (5’11, 190, RFr.) as the only backs on scholarship as the depth took a hit with the dismissals of Javin Webb and Davon Crookshank over the off-season for undisclosed reasons. Kokuma had 92 yards on 18 carries (5.1 ypc) in three games last season. Justice ran for over 3,400 career yards and 51 TDs at Kilgore High. For name appeal, son of legendary former Cougar track and field athlete and current coach Leroy Burrell, Josh Burrell (5’10, 247, RFr.) is a walk-on who’s more along the lines of an H-back with his sheer size. Mulbah Car (5’11, 194) arrives in the summer and brings a physical and violent temperament with him as well as possessing great speed, according to Pope.
As for wide receiver, Demarcus Ayers steadily improved over his three years along Cullen Boulevard, catching 11 passes during his true freshman season of 2013, 33 in 2014 and 98 last season (tying him for sixth nationally). His yardage went from 130, to 335, to 1,222 last year with a combined 9 TDs. Ra’Shaad Samples (5’11, 190, RJr.) is the leader in the clubhouse in replacing Ayers as they both have the same types of traits, namely speed. Samples reportedly ran a 4.32 40 at Oklahoma State before transferring and sitting out last season. He has the same types of shifty moves from the slot as Ayers did, and can also be utilized in the rushing game via the speed sweep used from the slot. Getting the ball into his hands in space, whether on a deep post or a bubble screen, will be a major focus during spring ball. During his career at Dallas Skyline, the former 4-star recruit caught 48 TD passes.
The two outside receiving spots will be secured by returning starters Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Sr.) and Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, Jr.). Allen was both the second leading receiver in receptions and yards behind Ayers with 56 and 752 respectively. The former Oregon transfer also hauled in 6 TDs, tying Ayers for the team lead. Dunbar meanwhile was third with 31 receptions for 382 yards and three scores, a season after catching 20 balls for 286 yards as a true freshman.
The spring will also focus on building depth as Coach Herman had stated early on last season that the second team didn’t have an NCAA division-1 receiver in the bunch. Whether said to simply motivate or not, the words helped light a fire under former walk-on Linell Bonner (6’0, 202, Jr.) who caught 25 passes for 317 yards and a second leading five TDs. Isaiah Johnson (6’4, 205, RSo.) caught 6 passes for 43 yards as an outside receiver as well during the early portion of the season. John Leday (6’0, 200, RJr.) also saw time last year along the outside with 4 receptions for 41 yards. Inside, Donald Gage (5’11, 190, RJr.) caught 6 passes for only 19 yards. Early enrollee Terry Mark (6’1, 190, Fr.) could also make a push for playing time as a reserve at the slot as he gets a heads up on fellow freshmen Courtney Lark, Marquez Stevenson and Keith Corbin who won’t arrive until the summer. If he doesn’t win the backup QB spot, which he’s expected to, a wildcard at receiver could be Postma, who caught 6 passes for 145 yards (24.2 ypr) in the first few games before moving to QB due to injuries. Herman mentioned early last season on how Postma was a “10 foot broad jump guy” in speaking of his athleticism.
Though kicker is a part of the special teams, we’ll consider that spot as part of the offense as he kicks extra points and field goals, with the punt and kick returners as well as they give the offense field position. In our next article on defense we’ll include the punter. The kicker spot is in the secure arms (or foot in this case) of Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Sr.). After taking over during the fifth game of the season, Cummings connected on all eight of his attempts, but only had one opportunity from 40 yards on out as it’s Herman’s philosophy to “go for it,” especially on fourth-and-short from the 30 yard line on out. The only other kickers on the roster are walk-ons Joel Scarbrough (5’10, 182, RFr.) and Blake Boyles (6’1, 255, RFr.)
Ayers takes his game-changing ability in the punt return game to the NFL. The only student-athlete on the roster are defensive back Joeal Williams with a one return for 12 yards, and Ward with 9 for 69, and we all know Ward won’t ever be returning a punt again. As for the kick return spot, depending on how much action he sees, Wilson may or may not be used even though he averaged 26.6 yards-per-return (20th nationally) with two TDs, though the only other two players that have any experience are Dunbar and Bonner, whom each have one return for 37 and 3 yards respectively.
The keyword this spring, if you haven’t already figured it out, is competition as it’s one of Herman’s hallmarks. Everything about the program under Herman is about competition; the winners get rewarded just like in real life, with starting spots and playing time. Stay logged into Coogfans as our next article takes a look at the defense under coordinator Todd Orlando.