If compared to a work of art, the University of Houston football program for the past decade has been closer to the drawings of a four-year-old or maybe the paintings of Willem DeKooning than anything done by masters such as Rembrandt or Raphael. But a virtuoso has been hired to run the studio, one whose product has drawn rave reviews everywhere he's been, and now hope gleams in the eyes of Cougar fans, who foresee a masterpiece in the making.
New coach Art Briles has had success everywhere he's been. At one point during his tenure at Stephenville, he was an incredible 90-2-1! Besides being one of the best high school coaches in the nation in the last decade, Briles was an assistant coach at Texas Tech the past three years, and was instrumental in the remarkable success of the Red Raiders‚ high-octane offense. He brings the kind of offense to UH that long-time Cougars became accustomed to from 1967 to 1992: one that is unconventional and racks up points, yards, and first downs. Look for multiple sets and a wide-open offense that does whatever is necessary to move the chains.
But any offense starts with the quarterback, and Briles must get a shaky situation at that most important position settled before the Cougars can hope to compete for a conference championship. Redshirt sophomore Blade Bassler and true freshman Kevin Kolb are running neck and neck to get the starting nod, but both will play in the opener, and how they progress in Briles‚ system will determine who is the guy by mid-September. Bassler is the better runner. He is an excellent athlete with good size and speed. He's also a very bright young man (he is enrolled in the Honors Program), who has overcome some tough injuries to be where he is. Kevin Kolb's spirals are prettier than a Playmate, and he has been running Briles‚ offense for the past 5-6 years. But he is a true freshman, and one can count on his hand the number of first-year signal callers to be really successful at UH. Even so, if a school is going to start a frosh, better to start one who is physically developed and thoroughly familiar with the offense as Kolb is. Matt Stanley is a walk-on who should provide depth, and versatile Shang Moore can be moved to quarterback, the position at which he was named a Texas Top 100 prospect, in a pinch.
Talent is abundant and experience limited at running back, where former bluechipper Anthony Evans and explosive Bobby Tillman will get the bulk of the carries. Evans is an instinctive power runner with speed, who just needed a couple of years to catch up to the college game. He will make his mark over the next couple of years. Tillman gets to the hole like a guided missile and is a defensive coordinator's nightmare once he gets into open field. If anyone questions the talent of these two runners, he should be advised that Evans was offered by Oklahoma and Kansas State, while Tillman could have had a free ride at Nebraska, among other powers. Anthony Alridge, one of the Cougars top recruits, is the fastest of the backs, and could see playing time though Coach Briles would prefer to redshirt him if possible. Charles Sapp is a transfer walk-on who's had some moments running against the first-team defense. Jackie Battle gives the Coogs a bruiser with speed at fullback, and Matt Schirmer is another valuable weapon.
This year‚s group of wide receivers could very well be the best at UH since the days of Manny Hazard and Jason Phillips. Brandon Middleton is a legitimate deep threat who's garnered numerous preseason accolades. Vincent Marshall is one of the fastest wideouts in the nation. Give him a crease, and he'll give you a touchdown. Chad McCullar is enormously talented, and, like Marshall, couldn't fit the new offense any better. He and Marshall, the M & M's, should prove unpalatable to opposing defenses for the next few years. Harrison Arceneaux is a veteran out of Houston Madison, who, in the mold of Fred Biletnikoff and Steve Largent, does nothing well except get open and make receptions. Leonard Gibson looks to be the heir apparent to Brandon Middleton as the Cougars‚ top deep threat, Mark Hopkins gives the team, a big target with soft hands, and Josh Carrethers provides depth.
Few teams in the country have as talented and deep a group of tight ends as the Cougars. Steve Cucci earned all-conference honors last season, and plans to do the same again this year. Cucci has all coaches want in a tight end: he blocks well, has good hands, and is a threat after he makes the catch. Fortunately for UH, Jon Pritchett was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Pritchett is as fine a blocking tight end as there is in C-USA, and one of the best in the country. Travis Griffith has been moved to tight end from linebacker. He runs a legit 4.6 and weighs in at 250+ pounds.
As deep as the Cougars are at tight end and wide receiver, they are that thin in the offensive line. Hat is not to say that there isn‚t talent. Rex Hadnot is a an Outland Trophy candidate and one of the nation‚s top centers, and Brandon Evans, assuming he is eligible, will be playing on Sundays next year. No C-USA team has two better offensive linemen. Left guard Roy Swan and David Douglas, who could end up at right tackle or right guard, are two gifted redshirt sophomores who will likely be the linchpins of the offensive line after this season. Matt Mattox, a former tight end, is slated to start at left tackle. Mattox, who is up to nearly 300 pounds, has the quickness to protect the quarterback‚s blindside. Junior Phil Hawkins, an imposing physical specimen, is pushing to start at right tackle, and John McGilvray is on hand to provide depth for Hawkins, Mattox, and Douglas. But after those seven, there's scant experience. Jason Barganier is a credible backup at center, and Jeremy Davis and Blake Garrison, both redshirt freshmen, have shown promise. Big Willie Thomas returns for his fourth year at UH, but he has yet to letter. Walk-ons such as James Hong and Quinton Jones could be forced into action if more than a couple of the big uglies go down with injuries. But if the offensive line does remain healthy, it should be among the best in C-USA, especially if Mattox develops at left tackle.
Despite all the buzz about the new offense, Cougar fans realize that scoring 50 points per game is pretty pointless if the opponent is scoring 51, which just happens to be the number UAB rang up on the Cougars last season. But optimism abounds this season as Coach Briles and defensive coordinator Ron Harris look to restore the tradition of the Mad Dogs to UH.
The Cougar defensive line should be the best since at least 1999. One of the stalwarts will be Kade Lane, who returns at tackle. Lane is reminiscent of the lighter, quicker interior defensive linemen of yesteryear, yet he‚s study enough to take on the block and whip offensive linemen who outweigh him by nearly 50 or more pounds. His partner should be Gerard Richard, the biggest of the Cougars‚ front four 6-3 and a solid 300 pounds. Richard, a sophomore, is tough to move off the blocks and could develop into one of the best defensive linemen at UH in a long time. Jessie Bryant has turned his play up a notch and is definitely in the mix at tackle as is promising redshirt freshman L. C. Kirkpatrick. Sharrod McGowen's return to the team was iffy as we went to press. If he's available, he should push the starters. True freshman Marquay Love has impressed coaches and may possibly avoid a redshirt. Senior end Farouk Adelekan has been named to most preseason all-conference teams. Despite starting only three games due to injuries, Adelekan amazingly led the Coogs in tackles for losses and sacks. He sniffs out plays like a bloodhound, and with a full season under his belt, Adelekan could set some conference and team records. On the other side will be Kendrick Goss, who appears to have finally settled into a position. No one has questioned Goss's athleticism, but after being moved from position under the previous staff, he was never able to find a home for himself. He now has and should be solid at left end. Matt Bentley and Joe Clay, both of whom started last season, are the first-line backups, and will definitely see their fair share of playing time. Coach Harris should have at least eight players to alternate in and out. This year the Cougars‚ front four will be more fearsome than feeble.
Going into the spring, the situation at linebacker was very similar to that in the offensive line. There were a few very good players, but the operative word was few. But some talented transfers have joined the program, and depth, while still a concern, is no longer keeping Harris up at nights. Damien West, a highly rated prospect from Fort Bend Dulles who signed with Texas A&M, is a rock in the middle. Weighing nearly 250 pounds, West will close the gate on running backs looking to pass. Lance Everson has nailed down the Sam linebacker slot. Everson is an excellent tackler and run-stuffer deluxe. On the other side, Bryant Brown has that aura about him that all the great ones have. Brown is as fast as most running backs and packs a punch at 6-2, 220. One of these days, Cougar fans may be talking about him in the same breath as David Hodge, Charlie Hall, Greg Brezina, and Wayne Rogers. Justin Davis gives the Coogs a super sub at all three positions. Transfers Ashley Subingsubing, Jamie Green, and James Fitch have firmed up the depth chart. The play of those three will very likely allow freshmen linebackers Austin Griffith, Wade Koehl, and Trent Allen to redshirt. Tristen Robertson was injured in the spring and is out for the season.
While there isn't a great deal of experience in the secondary, there is talent galore. One of the starting cornerbacks will be Roland Cola, a strong cover corner with outstanding speed. The other corner may be Courtney Sterling. Sterling, a former Texas Football Super Teamer, transferred from Arizona State, and looked fantastic in the spring. If he were 6-1 instead of 5-8, he may be considering early entry into the NFL draft. Stanford Routte, one of the fastest players in college football, has that prototypical size, but still needs to hone his skills at what may be the toughest position on the field to play. Even so, Routte is improving and, at the very least, gives UH a valuable reserve. Ricky Wilson is a true freshman, but he is simply too talented to keep off the field. He may even start. Jermaine Woodard, who has started the past two years, returns at strong safety. Woodard, a product of Pasadena Dobie, is a smart player who may not have the best 40 time but closes on the ball carrier extremely well. He is facing a strong challenge from transfer Courtney Brooks, a big, fast, rangy type safety that the coaches love. Chad Davis is also on hand. At free safety, Will Gulley has won the job through attrition, but he would have seen considerable playing time regardless. Gulley goes 6-4 and will make opposing wide receivers hear footsteps even after the game. Roshawn Pope has been moved to free safety to better utilize his tremendous athleticism.
If special teams do indeed comprise one-third of the game then the Cougars are in great shape. Both the kicker and punter at UH have earned preseason honors, and Coach Briles is counting on both to have big years. Kicker Dustin Bell nailed 12 of 14 field goal attempts last season, and usually boomed kickoffs well into the end zone. Punter Jimmy McClary, who stands 6-6, is on the Ray Guy Award watch list after averaging 39 yards per punt and sailing 14 kicks inside opponents‚ 20-yard line. So the kickers are very solid. Few plays in college football cause fans to rise to their feet as much as punt and kickoff returns, and Cougar fans may need to wear Dr. Scholl‚s footpads with the players they have returning kicks this season. Chad McCullar, who as an electrifying punt returner at North Shore High School, will field punts, and Brandon Middleton, Roshawn Pope, and Ricky Wilson will team up on kickoff returns.
Like an unfinished painting, the 2003 edition of Cougar football is still something of a mystery. Whether it turns out to be a classic for the ages or an imitation of recent Cougar productions remains to be seen, but in Art Briles, the Cougar faithful believe that they have finally found the artist capable of again producing masterworks at the University of Houston.