What a debut last season was for Head Coach Art Briles! After the Houston Cougars had sat at home and watched the bowl games on television for six consecutive years, and gone bowling only once in the last fourteen, Coach Briles led the Coogs to Hawaii to play in what many consider the best bowl game of the 2003 season. But the really good news for Cougar fans is that it will only get better from here on out. Now UH has a brutal schedule, so the Cougar faithful should temper their enthusiasm. The team will be good, but they're not quite yet ready to meet a USC or Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. But with some luck, they just might be ready to meet BYU or Utah in the Liberty Bowl.
Last season the Cougars averaged 36 points and 491 yards per game, and were one of only three teams, the others being Texas Tech and Texas, to score 40 or more points in seven games. Those are some phenomenal numbers, but, even so, given the offensive returnees and an infusion of new, exciting talents, there's no reason to think that the latest Cougar model won't purr just as well. After all, does anyone really think Art Briles will field a feeble offense?
For starters, record-setting quarterback Kevin Kolb is back for his second year. If what coaches say about players making the most improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons is true, then Kolb is going to shock and awe in ‘04. Last year his completion percentage was an astounding 61%, his interception percentage of 1.67 set a new C-USA record, and he passed for 3,131 yards while rushing for another 346; in fact, he became only the fourth player in the history of college football to pass for 400 yards while rushing for 100 in a single game. Most importantly, he led the Cougars to a seven-win season as a true freshman. The only other freshman QB at UH to have even close to that kind of impact was Gerald Landry, and, he, of course, guided the Cougars to a New Year's Day bowl game in his sophomore year. And, believe it or not, Double K looked much better in the spring. He could very well be the best quarterback in Conference USA. With Kolb back at the helm, it's difficult to imagine the Cougars not having an explosive offense again this year. The second-string quarterback, Kendal Briles, would be the starter at a lot of Division I-A schools. Briles, who is a good, accurate passer, doesn't have the kind of arm Kolb has; however, the head coach's son brings great speed to the position and will run the option like UH quarterbacks of old. Briles could be a difference-maker. He is an incredible, versatile athlete who can hurt defenses running, passing, and catching the ball. His speed and running ability will come in handy when the Cougars have a lead late in games and need to milk the clock. Jordan Brown, a walk-on redshirt freshman who led Alief Hastings to the state quarterfinals two years ago, is the third-team quarterback.
The Cougars‚ hydra-like running attack will be multi-headed and extremely dangerous. Leading the charge will be Anthony Evans, the Pearland Express, who rushed for 1,149 yards in ‘03. Evans is a slasher with power and speed, but the Cougars have other talented backs. AE is the starter because he is such an instinctual runner. Evans is one of C-USA's best. The Cougars have a power back extraordinaire in 250-pound Jackie Battle. Battle has unusual speed and moves for such a big back, and those 250 pounds are all wrought iron. Yet another gifted runner, LSU transfer Ryan Gilbert, is also available. Gilbert, like Evans, was highly recruited, and has a similar running style; he will be especially effective catching passes out of the backfield. The Coogs won't lose a step with him in the lineup. Freshman Harold Taylor is quick and good enough to get see some action despite the numbers crunch at running back. An often overlooked but valuable member of the backfield is Matt Schirmer. Reminiscent of the Nebraska fullbacks of the 90's, Schirmer is tough between the tackles and an outstanding blocker. When the Coogs are in a power formation with him, Battle, and Evans, it would almost take a court order to stop them. Carl Francis, a senior letterman, is Schirmer's understudy.
Brandon Middleton, the Cougars‚ first-team all-conference wideout has graduated, and Chad McCullar, who was expected to help fill the void, will be ineligible this season. But there is talent at wide receiver, and if a couple of players step up, the position could become a strength. Right now, however, due to a lack of experience and depth, it is something of a concern. There are a few returnees, including the team's leading receiver in 2003, Vincent Marshall, who grabbed 60 balls last season. Marshall, one of the fastest players in college football, has that uncoachable ability of turning a seven-yard hitch pass into a 77-yard touchdown. Leonard Gibson, another sophomore, also started last year and caught 25 passes, a number he'll look to improve on this season. Mark Hopkins is a sure-handed senior with tight-end size. He's slated for duty at the big slot position. The key newcomer is Donnie Avery, who impressed mightily in the spring. He's the heir-apparent to Middleton as the team's best long-ball threat. His development will go a long way to determining the effectiveness of the UH receiving corps. Kenyada Tatum, from nearby Yates HS via Garden City CC, could be a playmaker in the slot, and Perry McDaniel, a redshirt freshman, established himself as a dependable receiver in the spring. Three talented walk-ons, Josh Hairston, Josh Carethers, and Raphael Hearne, will also get the chance to contribute. Hairston made some circus catches in the spring and could even start. Carrethers has the kind of size and speed the coaches love at the outside receiver position.
As long as Steve Cucci stays healthy, the Coogs will be in great shape at tight end. He was named all-conference in 2002 and also the top college tight end in Texas last year by Dave Campbell's Texas Football before suffering a season-ending injury. Cucci possesses both outstanding size (6-4, 270) and good hands. Blade Bassler, a former bluechip quarterback, has successfully made the transition to tight end, the position his dad played for Bill Yeoman in the early 70's. Bassler has great athletic ability which could be best utilized at his new position. John McGilvray has also been moved to tight end, only he's coming from the offensive line. At 280 pounds, McGilvray and the 270-pound Cucci will be very unpopular with outside linebackers in short-yardage situations. Former Katy Tiger Jacob Jones provides solid depth.
Coach Briles‚ innovative offense and the play of Kevin Kolb and the skill-position players were instrumental in the success of the offense last year, but the prolific numbers they put up may have been sliced in half or more if the offensive line had not formed one of the best units at UH in recent memory. Rex Hadnot, Bubba Evans, and Matt Mattox brought talent, intensity, and senior leadership to the offensive line. They are gone, but thanks to three veterans and a few newcomers this gang of trenchmen could turn out to be as effective as last year's group. The three returning starters are left tackle Phil Hawkins, left guard Roy Swan, and David Douglas, who has been moved back to right tackle after starting seven games at right guard in ‘03. Hawkins and Swan comprise as good a guard-tackle combo as there is in C-USA. Hawkins is one of those rare offensive linemen who weighs over 300 but still manages to look as svelte as a ballerina, well, maybe that's going a little too far! He's a skilled pass blocker, who also loves the mano-a-mano aspect of run blocking. Swan is a load at 325 pounds. He doesn't sport a 32-inch waist, but he's worked himself into good shape in Coach Briles‚ edition of Camp Fun. Big Roy was up to 350 last season. It's hard not to feel sorry for linebackers who will have to defeat Swan's block and then take on Jackie Battle. Both Hawkins and Swan have a chance to play on Sundays. Douglas, who picked UH over Kansas State, was one of the prize recruits of the highly touted ‘01 class, and he now appears ready to fulfill his potential. Sterling Doty, a sophomore who played for Briles at Stephenville, takes over at center. While he won't be the dominant force in the offensive line that Rex Hadnot was, Doty is bright and knows the offense inside-out, which is especially valuable given that the center will have to call the blocking assignments and also make some difficult snaps in the motion offense. The question mark in this year's offensive line is right guard. A battle is still being waged between Jeremy Davis, Byron Alfred, and now John Harrell, who was moved from defensive tackle to center and then given a shot at right guard. Going into August, there was no clear-cut favorite. Whoever lays claim to the job will need to play well and mesh with Douglas so that defenses won't stack against the other side of the line. There will be more depth. Besides the players mentioned, center/guard Taylor Cobb, guards Beau Tuft and Dustin Dickinson, and tackles Jason Wagner and Jeff Akeroyd are competent linemen who will only get better; all are freshmen.
But even if the offense were to average 50 points a game, it wouldn't much matter if the defense were giving up 51. Last year the Cougar defense started strong, holding Rice to 14 points and 242 yards and Louisiana-Lafayette to 14 points and a measly 196 yards. Even mighty Michigan gained a grand total of only three yards on their first three possessions against UH. But as Yeats wrote, "Things fall apart," and certainly the Cougar defense did, giving up 39 points per game the rest of the way, including 66 to Louisville, 62 to TCU, and 54 in the Hawaii Bowl. Obviously the bleeding has to be checked for the Coogs to be successful this season.
UH could have its best defensive line since the ‘99 front four, which included Adriano Belli, Nikia Adderson, Ahmad Charles, and T.J. Light. The Cougars are deep and talented at tackle. Marquay Love, Kade Lane, Gerard Richard, and L.C. Kirkpatrick all return. Newcomer D.J. Johnson, an NJCAA All-American who was selected as the best defensive lineman in the always-tough Jayhawk Conference, could turn out to be the best of the lot. Love, a 320-pounder, is on the verge of becoming a dominating defensive lineman. He has the kind of strength and quickness that make him virtually unblockable. Lining up next to him could be D.J. Johnson or Kade Lane. Johnson is just what the doctor ordered: a big, talented DT who should prevent teams from double teaming Love. Kade Lane, however, won't go gently onto that cold bench. He‚s a gifted two-year starter who has bulked up to 275. He will be invaluable regardless of whether or not he starts. Gerard Richard is another one of those "Body by Fisher" linemen who will provide excellent depth. Actually Richard was slated to start coming out of spring training last year. If he improves his technique, the sky's the limit. L.C. Kirkpatrick is improving daily and will be hard to keep off the field. The team's best defensive lineman and arguably the conference's best defensive end is Joe Clay, who has been picked on everyone's preseason All-C-USA Team. Clay is cat-quick and has the heart of a champion. He played so hard last year that he could hardly walk off the field after several games. This season there is better depth, and he'll get a breather or two. Matt Bentley, who started as a true freshman against Rice in the ‘02 season opener, is trying to hold off a strong challenge from fifth-year senior Kendrick Goss at right end. Travis Griffith, a super athlete who has never quite found his position at UH, was moved to defensive end in the spring. He has the physical tools to excel there. At 6-5, 260, and with 4.6 speed, all Griffith needs is to learn the position better. By mid-season or sooner, he could be quite a force rushing the passer. Newcomer Todd Cox was signed as a linebacker, but he may play some DE as well if needed to provide depth. The defensive line looks solid all around and could be the foundation of a much improved defense.
The linebacker corps could also be a strength. Lance Everson will play on the outside, his natural position, and should be among the best linebackers in C-USA. His backup could be Army transfer Todd Cox, who, as mentioned, may also play some defensive end, or possibly true freshman Brenden Pahulu, who was named defensive MVP in the Texas High School All-Star Game. Pahulu may be just too good to keep off the field. The weak side (although technically, the UH outside linebackers may be lined up on either the weak or strong side) position will be manned by either Bryant Brown or Wade Koehl. Both have good speed and excel against the run. Brown is such a great athlete that he has been tried at strong safety and also defensive end! Tristen Robertson has excellent speed and is the best pass rusher of the group. Just as right guard is the position of concern for the offense, middle linebacker is the same for the defense, and just as there are three contenders to start at right guard, so are there three possible starters at middle linebacker: Trent Allen, Ashley Subingsubing, and James Fitch. The most physically gifted of the trio is Allen, a redshirt freshman, who, at 6-2, 235 pounds has good size and can get to the ball in a hurry. Subingsubing is athletic and the best pass defender. Fitch, a transfer from Texas Tech, may have won the job because he may be the most complete player of the three; however, he has been ill and had to miss August drills, so he starts the season a little behind the other two. As with the defensive line, there is good depth at linebacker and the position will be better in ‘04; in fact, the Coogs‚ front seven looks stronger than it's been since the ‘99.
Pass defense at UH has been somewhere between atrocious and nonexistent the last couple of years. No one in the conference gave up more touchdowns through the air last season, and only Army's defense allowed more yards per catch. But the secondary wasn't completely responsible for all those yards and touchdowns. Playing in the pass-happy C-USA, the Cougars averaged fewer than two sacks per game, so a decent pass rush would help immensely. Even so, the secondary must get better; it will. Stanford Routte could be one of the league's best cornerbacks. Certainly none will be any faster. Routte just missed qualifying as an Olympic sprinter. Willie Gaston started four games last year and should start coming into his own in his third season. He was a quarterback in high school, and one doesn't learn to be a top-notch cornerback over night. Gaston has a lot of potential and showed flashes last year of how good he can become. If Courtney Sterling were 6-2, he'd be starting. A former state top 100 prospect at Dallas Carter who transferred to UH from Arizona State, he has excellent speed and is a solid cover man. The problem at cornerback is not talent but depth. After Sterling, the cupboard is pretty bare. Fifth-year senior Gerard Daniels and true freshman Sean Bailey will battle for the fourth spot. Redshirt freshman Rocky Schwartz takes over for three-year starter Jermain Woodard at strong safety. Schwartz is a great example of what a good eye for talent Coach Briles has. He was hardly recruited at all, yet in his freshman year he has beaten out senior Courtney Brooks, a physical safety who earned one start at linebacker last year. Will Gulley returns and gives the Cougars the prototype big (6-4, 215), rangy free safety. Opposing coaches may have their receivers wear ear muffs when playing the Coogs for fear of hearing footsteps, especially if Brooks, a 6-3, 220 pounder, is in the secondary with Gulley. But safety is as thin as cornerback, so it is essential that the Cougar DB's avoid injury.
Dustin Bell, who's on the preseason Groza Award watchlist, is back for his final season with the Cougars. Bell currently holds the UH record for highest field goal percentage, and is on track to join Roman Anderson and Mike Clendenen as Cougar kickers with more 200 points. Chances are the Cougars will be involved in some close contests this year, and Dustin Bell could mean the difference in such games. He is also trying his leg at punting this year, and either he, Justin Laird, or J.J. Wyatt will earn the job. So far Bell has been the most consistent in practice. Thomas Gafford is back for his final year of steady snaps, and J.J. Wyatt will again be Bell‚s place-holder. Ryan Gilbert, Donnie Avery, and/or Kenyada Tatum will return kicks. Tatum is slated for punt-return duties. All three are capable of taking it to the house at any time.
The Cougars have lost some key players and have what one publication calls the toughest out-of-conference schedule in the nation. In one stretch UH will play five games, including contests against Oklahoma, Miami, Memphis, and Southern Miss, in only 27 days! There are question marks in the offensive line and at wide receiver and middle linebacker. But every team has question marks. Newcomers will step up just as they did last year, remember what a liability fans thought quarterback was going into '03, and good programs handle adversity and want to compete against the best. While the Coogs may take a lump or two against OU and Miami, what better preparation for conference could they get than playing arguably the two best teams in the college football? And UH finally has some quality depth this year, so, at least at most positions, an injury or two won't be as devastating as it has been the past few seasons. Despite the schedule, the only bugle you'll hear on Cullen Boulevard will signal a charge, not a retreat. Art Briles has put UH back on the map, and the Cougars plan to stay there.