The Art of War: 2005 University of Houston Football Preview "It's time to go to war" - Art Briles
With a coach with a first name like "Art," writers can't help but take some poetic license. Coach Briles' first year just had to be called "Modern Art" or "Renaissance Art," given that he played for UH some 30 years ago and planned to oversee the rebirth of a high-flying, innovative offense and a return to national prominence after a decade of languishing in the bohemian slums. One may have been tempted to title last season "Bad Art," or maybe after watching a gimmicky play go awry (and plays tend to look more gimmicky when the blocking breaks down, which happened a great deal last year), recall Kipling's comment and query, "It's clever, but is it art?" While last season made Cougar fans think more of the horrors of the Greeks' Laocoon or Picasso's Guernica than the beauty of Michelangelo's Pieta or Monet's Water Lilies, the team is primed to execute a masterpiece more pleasing to the eye of the Cougar beholder. The famous Chinese general Sun Tzu had a different type of art in mind in his classic on military strategy, The Art of War, and since the Cougars will be back on the prowl in '05, a martial preview seems more fitting than one about paintings of flowers. This season's work may not stand the test of time as well as the '69, '73, '76, or '79 seasons, but 2005 could very well take its place alongside pieces such as 1996 and 2003. A winning season and possibly even a run at the Conference USA title are possible. So the Coogs are ready to follow this dictate of Sun Tzu, along with several others from the master tactician quoted in this piece: "In war, then, let your great object be victory!"
"Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places you are not expected."
That axiom of war describes the Cougars' offensive philosophy. Coach Briles likes to find openings in the defense and exploit them with as much speed as can be mustered. There is talent to spare at the skill positions, more than enough to "march swiftly to places" on the field; the question is will the front-line troops hold up under fire. No one in C-USA has better running backs or receivers than UH. If the Cougar offensive line is at least competent, chances are the offensive stats this season will resemble those of 2003 much more than last year's.
"Thus it may be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the [team's] fate."
The leader of the Cougars is Kevin Kolb, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and how he goes, so goes the Cougar offense. Of course, he can't don't it all himself, but he can do quite a bit. Despite a porous offensive line and a group of mostly rookie receivers, Kolb managed to rank in the top 20 last year in total offense and passing. Coming into his third year as a starter, he may be ready to take his place among the great Cougar signal callers: Andre Ware, David Klingler, Danny Davis, and Gary Mullins. He's a heady quarterback with excellent instincts, a scope on his throwing arm, and enough quickness to elude the rush and even run the veer on occasion. He embarrassed TCU's vaunted 2003 defense when he led the Cougars to almost 700 yards of total offense. He's the total package, and could even be a Heisman darkhorse, if not this year then next. His backup will be Kendal Briles, who should also see time at wide receiver. Briles is a better runner than Kolb and can give defenses fits inside the red zone with the option, especially with 250-pound Jackie Battle and a couple of thoroughbreds like Anthony Evans and Harold Taylor in the backfield with him. But I'm sure the coaches would be more than happy to keep him at receiver all year. Kevin Kolb is the guy the Cougars need to win a conference championship, but it's good to have such a capable QB as Briles in reserve. And while some UH fans have criticized the system that calls for Kolb to come over to the sideline to confer with Coach Briles, well, as Sun Tzu writes, "The general receives his commands from the sovereign."
"Let your plans be dark and as impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt."
I think many UH fans would like to see the Cougars passing when the defense expects a run and vice-versa. What made the running game so effective during the run-n-shoot years was that the defense seldom saw it coming. With cavalrymen par excellence such as Anthony Evans, Jackie Battle, Ryan Gilbert, Harold Taylor, and Anthony Alridge, quick hitters could seem like thunderbolts to opposing defenses, especially when they are not looking for them. The Cougars have as fine a set of running backs as most any school in the country. Evans is a fifth-year senior just waiting to break out. He averaged almost 100 yards rushing per game last year despite a nagging injury, and he ran for an astounding 282 yards in one contest. Battle is a battleship with the moves of a light cruiser. He also nursed injuries and was seldom 100% last season. Keep an eye on him; he could be ready to fire all his guns this year. Ryan Gilbert is a fine, versatile back who can give a team 25 carries and is also effective catching the ball out of the backfield. Harold Taylor and Anthony Alridge are shifty speed merchants who complement the bigger backs.
"Let your rapidity be that of the wind."
Some of the Cougar receivers could beat a strong gust in the forty-yard dash, and if Kendal Briles is ready to go and Jeron Harvey is nearly as good as the coaches are saying, the receiving corps will be the equal of the running back stable; and that is saying something. Vincent Marshall, an all-conference pick, returns, yet he may not even be the go-to receiver this season. But Marshall is a gamebreaker, and he will get his chances. Harvey, known as "Little Mutumbo," has deceptive speed and stands 6-5. He could be the deep threat the Coogs have been missing since Brandon Middleton went to the NFL. Briles is just an extraordinary receiver. He may not be the fastest or the quickest, but he does what's most important: he gets open, and he catches the ball. No C-USA team will have a better starting three. Reserves include Donnie Avery, another fleet-footed wideout who should be among the team's most improved players, steady Perry McDaniel, and former walk-ons Josh Carrethers and Josh Hairston. And Brennan Gleason, very much in the mold of a Kendal Briles, may forego his redshirt year to provide depth. The coaches hope to see more production from the tight end this season. Blade Bassler appears ready to have a big season—few tight ends have his kind of athleticism—but one of the surprises of the spring was John McGilvray, who has been used almost exclusively as a blocking tight end but impressed with his receiving abilities. A former offensive tackle who weighs around 280, McGilvray will be a chore for 170-pound defensive backs to bring down. Redshirt freshmen Brian Boehm and Mark Hafner are also in the mix and will see action.
"The stronger men will be in front."
Cougar fans certainly hope so! There is no question that the youth and inexperience of the offensive line was a major culprit in last year's poor record. One couldn't have expected much more given that the starting right tackle was a true freshman, the right guard a redshirt frosh, and the center, a sophomore transfer, was for all intents and purposes a freshman himself. The offensive line will be better. The question is how much. Sir Vincent Rogers, who has been moved to left tackle to take advantage of his quickness, earned preseason all-conference accolades from several magazines, quite a feat for a second-year player. He may be the best OT at UH since Marcus Spriggs; the physical ability is there. But let's see if he can't cut down on the penalties some this year. Roy Swan and David Douglas, both fifth-year seniors, provide as fine a pair of starting guards as any team in the league. Both can be bulldozers, and both have the talent to be all-conference, if they give 100% on every play. Sterling Doty struggled last year at center, but he had a good spring and appears improved. He is a smart player; he just doesn't have the physical gifts of a Ben Fricke. But the Cougars don't need a Dave Rimington at center this year. They need a player who will make good line calls, good snaps, and good blocks. Doty is not the kind of offensive lineman who will often take defensive linemen to IHOP for pancakes, but good decisions and some movement is all that's needed from him. The real question mark is right tackle where Mark Kimmey is slated to start. Kimmey has ability. He's 6-5, 300 and has good feet. But he's a freshman. The coaches will be pleased if he holds his own and avoids major mistakes, at least until he matures. He could be a very fine player in time. Byron Alfred and Jeff Akeroyd were injured in the spring, but have made excellent progress and could be playing in a matter of a few short weeks. They would give UH a huge boost, at least in terms of depth. Dustin Dickinson is flexible and can play guard or tackle; don't be shocked if he lines up at right tackle on the first play of the Oregon game. Sebastian Vollmer, the 6-8 tackle via Deutschland, is improved and will get a close-up view of the field this year. But there's no question about it; if running backs are being hit at the line of scrimmage, and Kolb is again running a marathon most every game, the Cougars will struggle; but if the offensive line can meld into one of the top three or four units in C-USA, and the potential is there for them to do just that, then Cougar fans could be in for a fun ride this season. The Oregon Ducks, a team considered by many to have one of the top defensive lines in the country, will provide a rigorous, early test.
"Rapidity is the essence of war."
And according to new inside linebacker coach Alan Weddell, it is the essence of good defense as well. The Cougars are switching to the 3-4 to take advantage of their depth and speed at linebacker. Speed is the name of the game today, especially with more and more teams switching to the spread offense. As good as some of the greats of old were, players such as Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, one wonders how such hulking linebackers, really defensive tackles placed in a standing position, would fare in today's game with its ultra-accelerated pace.
"Offer an obstinate resistance."
That will be the task of the three down linemen, and none will be more important than nose tackle Marquay Love. He must keep offensive linemen off Cougar linebackers, who must be free to flow to the ball and make plays. Love has the ability to do that and more. He can defeat double teams and wreak havoc on opposing offenses. A nose tackle takes a beating, so he'll need a capable replacement to give him a breather every few series. Fortunately the Coogs have one in senior D. J. Johnson, a solid technique player who would be starting for many C-USA teams. All-conference defensive lineman Kade Lane will line up over the tackle instead of the guard this year, but the new position may suit his talents well. Lane is a quick one, who excels at stringing out the play, something he'll have more of an opportunity to do at his new spot. Gerard Richard will man the other side. If his technique were as good as Johnson's or Lane's, he might be an All-American. He has the physical ability, but he needs to put it together in his final campaign as a Cougar. Junior college transfer Scott Lee, a former linebacker and Texas Tech signee, will push for playing time, as will redshirt freshmen Cody Pree, Tate Stewart, and Phillip Hunt, each of whom brings different talents to the defensive line. These youngsters won't be making any all-conference teams, but they don't need to do that. They do, however, need to provide solid depth and allow the starters to get some rest. This is one position where the Cougars can't afford to lose one of their front-line players. Love and Lane are about as valuable to the defense as Kolb and Rogers are to their side of the ball.
"In raiding and plundering, be like fire, in immovability, like a mountain."
The job of the linebackers in the new 3-4 will be to raid and plunder opposing offenses, and stand strong as a mountain against the run. The talent is on hand to do just that, especially on the outside where Wade Koehl and Brendan Pahulu will roam like two big, hungry cats. Koehl has always had the speed to get to where he needs to be. Now he's added the muscle to bring the lumber along with him. Pahulu has a chance to be special. He could end up being the best to play the position at UH since Wayne Rogers. He has that other gear when he nears the ball carrier that only the great ones have. Chris Pilot, one of the team's best athletes, will spell Koehl, and solid senior James Fitch backs up Pahulu. The picture isn't quite as rosy on the inside. The Cougars' inside backers have talent, but they are young and haven't played a down of college football. The one to watch is Cody Lubojasky. Only a redshirt freshman, Lubo, as he is known, flies to the ball. He just may have the physical talent and the instincts to be as good as Pahulu eventually, though he may need a year under his belt before he makes his presence felt in a big way. But we shall see. Trent Allen, who has been called a "tackling machine," will be Lubo's partner at the other inside slot. Allen and Lubojasky have to mature quickly and play more like seasoned veterans than rookies. In the 3-4, the inside linebackers must get to the ball and make tackles. If they aren't doing that, opposing quarterbacks such as Oregon's Kellen Clemens, UTEP's Jordan Palmer, Tulane's Lester Ricard, and others will exploit them all day. Rodney Rideau, a talented freshman from Port Arthur Memorial, will keep battling Lubojasky for the starting job, while senior Todd Cox moves from the outside to support Allen.
"Forestall your opponent by seizing what he holds dear."
Obviously what the offense holds dear is the football, and the Cougar defensive backs will be trying to seize it. The secondary looks better this year than it has in awhile. Losing Stanford Routte doesn't help, but Ricky Wilson and Willie Gaston give UH two solid, athletic cover corners. Gaston's progress has been slow, but he started coming into his own late last year. Keep in mind that Gaston had played as much cornerback, probably the toughest defensive position to learn, as he had offensive guard when he arrived at UH. It takes awhile to get acclimated to such a tough spot. Wilson is one of the fastest players on the team, a guy who can gamble because he has the speed to recover. Unless there is a blown coverage, don't look for opposing wide receivers to be getting wide open on deep routes this season. Just as Gerard Richard might be an All-American if he had great technique, so Courtney Sterling, all 5-7 of him, might be if he were four or five inches taller. He has excellent speed and is one of the Cougars' best in coverage. And he's not afraid to throw all 175 pounds into a 230-pound fullback. He could be the team's nickel back and is pushing Wilson to start. Junior-college transfer Kellan Yancy, redshirt freshman Sean Bailey, and true freshman Quinte Williams are fighting for playing time at corner. The Coogs got a huge boost last year when Rocky Schwartz stepped in at strong safety and played like an old hand rather than a freshman. Schwartz returns and will be backed by Joseph Gonzales or Tristen Robertson. Roshawn Pope moved to free safety, and that switch may turn out to be a godsend for him. He will be able to utilize his great athleticism better there than possibly anywhere else on the field, and Pope, a martial artist, packs a punch, a prized possession at free safety, for a 200-pounder. Speedster freshman Kenneth Fontenotte, a converted cornerback, will be in reserve. Will Gulley will redshirt this year and be back in 2006. The secondary looks fast and athletic. If the front seven can bring the pressure, UH ought to rank among the best in the conference in pass defense.
"When an army has penetrated into the heart of a hostile country . . . it is serious ground."
So serious, in fact, that three points can be gained with a quality field-goal unit and even six with explosive kickoff and punt-return teams. On the other hand, first-rate kick-off and punting teams can help prevent opposing teams from marching into your territory. Right now it appears that Justin Laird will be the field-goal kicker, and Garrett Lefevre will kick off. Laird will pull double duty as the punter. The Cougars need him to have a good year. The deep snapper is true freshman Norbie Juist. Ricky Wilson will try to show UH partisans why they call him "the Rocket" as he will be returning punts and kicks. Roshawn Pope will join him on the kickoff return team. The Cougars should definitely be better at kickoff returns. Wilson can take it to the house at any time; he's done it before, and Pope is also dangerous. How the Coogs will kick and punt the ball is tough to ascertain, but it can't be much worse than it was last year when the net punt average was 31 yards and the field-goal percentage was under 60%. Those numbers need to improve.
So to Coach Briles we offer these encouraging words from Sun Tzu:
"The general that harkens to my counsel and acts upon it will conquer."
Happy conquering, Coach!