Many University of Houston football fans think 2006 could finally be the year that the Cougars put it all together. Art Briles and his staff have been pointing to the upcoming campaign as a breakout season, one in which UH wins the conference and even barges its way into the Top 25, an area the Cougars haven't visited since a brief stay in 1991. But some changes and improvement in some areas must first be made. And some coaching philosophies may even need to be modified. Here are the major issues that need to be addressed if the Cougars are going to have that magical season their fans are hoping for.
Kevin Kolb needs to play well, he needs to play smart, and he needs to be a leader. If he misses receivers every now and then, fine; all quarterbacks do. But if he throws passes into defenders' waiting arms, then forget the breakout season. He must make better decisions next year. The interceptions (and they weren't all his fault) against UTEP and SMU essentially cost UH an 8-3 season and a possible slot in the Liberty Bowl. As a freshman he often threw balls away when it was obvious there was no play. Cougar fans haven't seen much of that the past two years. He needs to see the field better and find second and third receivers rather than hone in on one target, especially when pressured, though sometimes that is as much the fault of receivers not coming back to the ball. Kolb is a good player and a possible first-team all-conference quarterback. To rate with the best to have come through UH such as Andre Ware and David Klingler, he'll need to start making some great plays, not just some nice throws. A more apt comparison for Kolb might be Chuck Clements, who was a first-team all-conference quarterback as well as a conference co-MVP. Kolb's a fine passer, and while he's no speed merchant, he's a better runner than Clements was; in fact, he was the team's third leading rusher in 2005. And he'll be a senior starting for his fourth consecutive year. He's paid his dues, he's a veteran, and that's the kind of guy who needs to assert himself and make the people around him better players. As goes Kevin Kolb, so goes the Cougar offense.
The Cougars must find a running back to replace Ryan Gilbert, who was incredibly productive last year when given the chance. Gilbert averaged 6.1 yards every time he ran the ball, and he also caught 21 passes for an 11.3 yard average. Jackie Battle is a 245-pound bruiser waiting in the wings for his chance. Battle could possibly be a Christian Okeye-type back. He has good speed for his size. But he needs to do his damage between the tackles. Defenses will try to force him to run east-west, so that his power won't be as much of a factor. If the offensive line can give him some room and he can hold on to the football, he could have a big year. Anthony Alridge may be the perfect complement for Battle. Alridge is a red blur on the field. A legit 4.4 guy, he can take it to the house if he gets a seam. He played wide receiver this past year, and should be a good receiver out of the backfield. Replacing Gilbert will be tough, but those two together just may pull it off. Finding some depth at running back would also be helpful.
The Cougars also need to take advantage of their embarrassment of riches at wide receiver in 2006. Vincent Marshall, a first team all-conference WR, returns as does playmaker Donnie Avery and lanky possession receiver Jeron Harvey. Biren Ealy, a former four-star recruit out of Cy-Falls, has transferred in from Arizona, and should have an immediate impact. Perry McDaniel and Brennan Gleason are in the same mold as Kendal Briles before his shoulder injury, the Coogs signed a junior-college transfer in Jamaiel Dickerson, and three redshirt freshmen—Tim Monroe, T.J. Scranton, and Chris Gilbert—will be ready to make their mark. And there may be another receiver or two in the program by next year. These players must be put in positions to make plays, not catch passes three yards behind the line of scrimmage with a defensive back right in their face. Receivers like these can win games for UH; give them the chance to do it!
The offensive line saw substantial improvement over its 2004 performance, but even better play is needed from the big guys up front next year. Pass protection is especially important in Coach Briles' offense, so the offensive line must jell as a unit and give Kolb time. They also need to need to get a push when the Cougars are running the ball. Three starters return, and several other solid players who would have played key roles this year if not for injuries are available, so the offensive line should be all right. If they can perform like the 2003 group, the UH offense could be close to unstoppable.
Defensively, the coaches must find an end to replace Kade Lane, a backup nose tackle to spell Marquay Love, and the Cougars must get a better pass rush. Those are the top priorities. Love and Cody Pree are set at two of the three down linemen spots, but the third is up for grabs. Tate Stewart, Phillip Hunt, and L.C. Kirkpatrick are contenders. Ricky Barela could move to second team nose tackle. But if there aren't any junior-college transfers coming, one of those potential starting defensive ends will need to make substantial improvement over the spring. And unless there is a position change, Barela will have to make major strides since nose tackle is probably the most important position in the 3-4 and requires that the starter get several breaks during the game or be exhausted by the fourth quarter. As a unit, the big problems in '05 were the lack of a pass rush and stopping the run. The sad truth is the Cougars just didn't have any first-rate pass rushers. Because of that, they blitzed and would often get stung by a screen or quick pass that would go for big yardage. In the 3-4, the outside linebackers are largely responsible for getting pressure. Having DaVell Lauder and Kenny Atkins with the team would likely go a long way toward improving the rush, and Brendan Pahulu should be better coming into his third year. The young inside backers need to do a better job of stopping the run.
Special teams were a nightmare for the Cougars this past season, and if they aren't dramatically improved, the breakout season will become a pipe dream. Bad snaps, blocked punts, missed chip-shot field goals, fumbles, and allowing big returns combined to kill the Cougars' hopes for a New Year's Eve appearance in Memphis. The good news is most of the key players on special teams were freshmen. Kickers Ben Bell, T.J. Lawrence, and Garrett Lefevre had some problems but also performed well at times. Lawrence, for example, connected on a 50-yard field goal. And deep snapper Norby Juist was a true freshman as well, who should be much improved with a year of experience under his belt. Punter Justin Laird, who was injured much of the season, averaged 45 yards per punt in the Fort Worth Bowl. But UH needs an assistant coach who will be able to devote much of his time to special teams. No C-USA program has a coach whose only duty is special teams, but it may be wise to make an exception in this case or hire someone known for producing good special teams and let him double as a position coach not as essential as a coordinator or line or quarterback coach. A tight ends coach/special teams coordinator might work. Alan Weddell's plate was simply too full this past season to devote as much time as was needed to coordinate special teams, and as the likely new defensive coordinator, he'll have even less in 2006.
As far as overall coaching philosophy, UH would do well to be less predictable. One would think an offense that, at times, appears innovative and explosive would be one that has opposing defenses in the dark about what's going to hit them next, yet Cougar fans often had a pretty good idea what play was coming before the ball was snapped. So Coach Briles, who knows about a thousand times more about offense than I do, might consider a play-action pass when Jackie Battle dots the I-formation on 3rd and a yard; he might fake a slip-screen and throw deep to the other side of the field; he might throw downfield more with some big, sure-handed possession receivers such as Jeron Harvey and Biren Ealy. More than anything, it would be encouraging to see the Cougars diversify the offense a bit more. In some games it seemed that the delay handoff, the slip screen, and the bomb were about the extent of the playbook. When UH did throw over the middle or to the tight end or call some other play the defense hadn't seen much of, it almost always went for good yardage. And UH simply must do a better job in the red zone, whatever it takes to get that done. Scoring more points when the Coogs are inside the 20 is absolutely essential to a breakout season. And the predictability doesn't apply only to the offense. The defense must disguise its blitzes better. Everyone knew when UH was bringing the kitchen sink, and all a competent quarterback had to do was throw a short, quick pass over the middle and watch his receiver race toward the goal line.
Much has been said about the team's lack of discipline. I'm not sure I fully buy that, but I'm as opposed to foolish penalties, dropped passes, and fumbles at the goal line or when running the clock out as anyone else. I suppose those could be attributed to a lack of discipline. They could also be caused by not playing smart football, something young teams have a tendency to do. I think Cougar fans will see less of those kinds of mistakes as the freshmen and sophomores (some who should have been redshirt freshmen) mature.
So a strong season from Kevin Kolb, finding a new running back (or a pair of them), giving the talented receivers a chance to shine, further improvement in the offensive line, developing some defensive linemen, getting a pass rush, fielding at least competent special teams, mixing things up offensively and defensively, and eliminating or at least cutting down on the mental mistakes seem to be the major areas the Cougars need to focus on in the spring. If the coaches can work out those potential problems, there is no reason why UH shouldn't be playing in the Liberty Bowl next year.