Give Me Liberty or Give Me BCS

2006 University of Houston Football Preview - Based on the personnel, the schedule, and other factors, UH fans have ample reasons to anticipate a Cougar "Redvolution" in the upcoming season.

Actually, historians aren't quite sure if Patrick Henry made that famous statement. Well, they do know he didn't include "BCS" at the end. Okay, so a BCS bowl may be a stretch, not that stranger things haven't happened. But University of Houston fans are hoping for a breakout season in 2006. Expectations are higher than a Fourth of July Roman candle just as it bursts into its bright colors. Many of the Cougar faithful assume those colors will be red and white this year. The Spirit of '06 has descended upon Cullen Boulevard, much as the Spirit of '76 did when the Cougars shocked the college football world by winning the SWC and finishing #4 in the nation. Based on the personnel, the schedule, and other factors, UH fans have ample reasons to anticipate a Cougar "Redvolution" in the upcoming season.

The Cougars' leader is senior Kevin Kolb, the top triggerman in C-USA and among the best in the nation. 2006 will mark his fourth consecutive year as a starter. Besides inching up on the hallowed records of Cougar legends such as Andre Ware and David Klingler, Kolb is also the active NCAA leader in pass completions, passing yards, and total offense. He had a sensational freshman season, but his performance dropped off the following year. But the decline had more to do with two freshmen and a sophomore starting in the offensive line and no go-to wide receiver than it did with his ability. It's tough to throw well on your back or running for your life. When Kolb has time, he'll thread the needle. He also has a strong arm and is a constant threat to beat defenses deep. Kolb won't be mistaken for Michael Vick, but he's not slow, and even runs the veer on occasion. Coach Briles has said that he plans for Kolb to run the ball more this season. By now, he's thoroughly familiar with Briles' offense, and that knowledge along with an experienced offensive, the best receiving corps in the conference, and potentially one of the league's top runners should put the Coogs in the national top 20 offensively for the third time in four years. For Kolb to have a shot at the Heisman and be ranked with Ware and Klingler, he must do two things, and the one will inevitably lead to the other: make good decisions and lead the Coogs to that hoped-for breakout season. In his freshman year, Kolb was an expert decision-maker, getting the ball to the right receiver and throwing it away when necessary. He hasn't done that as well the past two seasons, but, again, the supporting cast has most likely been the culprit. This year he has the players around him to showcase his talents, and with what should be the stingiest defense since he's been here, he should get plenty of chances to shine. Kolb going down would be catastrophic, but if he did, Blake Joseph would be the likely replacement. Joseph is a fine passer, but lacking as a runner. Tremaine Dorsey has been impressive in practice. He's the polar opposite of Joseph in that he has good speed but needs to improve his passing. Freshmen L.J. Castile and Case Keenum are expected to redshirt.

The Cougars are a little thin at running back, and if they ran a two-back set, that would be more of a concern. Even so, they can't afford for their workhorse, Jackie Battle, to come up with a hitch in his get-a-long. Weighing in at 260 last year, Cougar fans may as well have cried "anchors aweigh" when the Battleship carried the ball in short-yardage situations, but this year, after losing 20-25 pounds, he should be more like a heavy cruiser, speedier but still big and able to bombard opponents' fortifications. His ability to take over the role as feature back will help determine just how effective the offense can be. If he had been nothing more than a short-yardage back all his career, concerns about whether he could handle the new role would be graver, but when he was lighter his freshman season and still had his quickness, he showed that he could hit the hole quickly, reverse field, and still demolish would-be tacklers. Roshawn Pope could be the perfect change of pace. Pope is a converted defensive back, though some observers think he should have been on offense from the get-go. He was a consensus Top 100 choice at Galveston Ball where he was an outstanding running quarterback. He committed to Alabama but made a Signing Day switch to UH. So there's no question he's a fine athlete. He has excellent balance, good quickness, and isn't afraid to stick his nose between a tackler's numbers. He laid the wood to some ball carriers (and being a martial artist, he can break wood as well) when he played DB. He should excel at screens, draws, and traps, and being a former quarterback, he makes the flea flicker a viable option for the Coogs. Anthony Alridge may be the fastest player on team. He will play wide receiver but also be a situational running back. Defensive coordinators will not want to see him isolated against one defender on the flank. If Alridge gets past his man, he's gone. Two freshmen, Randall Antoine and Anthony Reasno, may figure in the running back situation, but the coaches would prefer to redshirt them. Both are speedy but may not be ready for prime-time. Roy Otis returns at fullback, and versatile Jake Ebner should see time there as well when the Coogs go to a full-house backfield.

The strength of the offense, aside, of course, from Kolb, is the receiving corps, which could be one of the best in the nation. Vincent Marshall is a returning first-team all-conference player who gives the Cougars one of the top playmakers in C-USA. He has great speed, and defenses have to prevent him from getting in the open field. He had 26 more receptions than anyone on the team last year, and he averaged over 13 yards per catch. But chances are passes will be distributed more evenly this year with newcomer Biren Ealy and returnees Donnie Avery, Jeron Harvey, Allen Alridge, and Perry McDaniel. Ealy is the wildcard. He was rated one of the top receivers in the nation when he came out of Cy-Falls. Despite offers from Texas and others, he signed with Arizona, where he was the team's leading receiver as a sophomore and expected to contend for All-PAC-10 honors the following year. But he suffered an injury and ran afoul of the coaches, so he wound up at UH. He's 6-3, 200 and has good speed. He should give Kolb that target over the middle that has been so sorely missing from the Cougars' passing attack. Ealy may be as talented a receiver as there is in C-USA. If Allen Alridge isn't the fastest Cougar, Donnie Avery may be. His juke on a UCF defender which led to a 76-yard touchdown is must-see material for any UH fan. Look for him to have a more prominent role this year. He's a fine wide receiver who's been a little overshadowed by Marshall. Jeron Harvey is the biggest of the group, standing 6-5 and weighing 215. He is a solid possession receiver, and should be a threat on the loft pass this season. Allen Alridge needs to make sure he catches the ball before turning on the afterburners, a problem not uncommon to speedsters, but notice how much cushion cornerbacks give him. He caught TD passes of 62 and 53 yards last season. Perry McDaniel may have the best hands on the team. He doesn't possess the speed of a Marshall, Avery, or Alridge, but if a pass is catchable, McDaniel will find a way to haul it in. A sophomore, Brennan Gleason, and two freshmen, Tim Monroe and Chris Gilbert, are also available. Unlike the last few years when UH has had a veteran tight end, the Cougars will be breaking in a rookie this season. Mark Hafner, a redshirt sophomore, appears to be the favorite to start. He's very quick for a tight end and could be effective in the intermediate passing game. He's bulked up to 230, so while he's not John McGilvray, last year's 280-pounder, he's not a liability as a blocker either; in fact, given the nature of the UH offense, it may be better to have a quicker tight end who can get out on screens and make rather than miss blocks. In short-yardage, Jake Ebner, who matches McGilvray pound for pound, will give the Cougars the tank they need to get a push up front. Sebastian Vollmer may also play tight end in short yardage. The mystery man is Rodney Hannah, who looks like the Farnese Hercules sans the beard. No comment on other anatomical parts. But are his hands made of stone as well? We shall see. If he could become a receiving threat, the Cougar passing game would be virtually unstoppable, not that it won't be anyway.

But it all starts up front. The Cougars must get solid play from their offensive line. If they do, C-USA defenses will confront a juggernaut. If they don't, the offense will likely be little better than last year's hit-and-miss group. UH will finally have upper classmen in the offensive line. Nowhere is experience more critical, not so much because players learn more about the position but rather because of the time spent in the weight room gaining size and strength. The linchpin of this year's unit will be left tackle Sir Vincent Rogers, who was recently named to the Outland Trophy Watch List. Rogers has started since he was a true freshman. He should be about ready to take his place among the best offensive linemen to play at UH during the C-USA years. His backup, Sebastian Vollmer, has a world of potential. Vollmer is 6-8, 290, has good feet, and an impressive wing span, just the attributes coaches want in a left tackle. He broke his leg several months ago, but he's now healthy and progressing every day. Don't be surprised if at some point during the season he takes over the LT duties and Rogers moves to LG or RT. Sterling Doty, the team's center, will also be starting for his third year. No one is more dedicated or works harder than Doty; in fact, he has improved so much that he earned a spot on the Rimington Watch List. While not a physically dominating player, Doty is heady and quick, which is important in the Cougar offense given that the center is responsible for line calls, often has to deal with a shotgun formation, and sometimes even has to snap the ball with the quarterback sprinting to one side. Jake Ebner is listed as the second-team center, but right guard Byron Alfred can also play the position. Speaking of Alfred, he is about the only other entrenched lineman; he'll be the starter at right guard. Alfred started in '04 as a freshman and played very well. He had to miss last year because of an injury. He's an athletic, strong drive blocker. Sophomore Mike Bloesch has bulked up to 305 and backs Alfred. Jeff Akeroyd, a junior, was pegged as the '05 starter at right tackle, but an injury kept him out of action for most of the season. Dustin Dickinson stepped in and performed competently. Cougar fans may not know exactly who will start where at LG and RT against Rice, but chances are good that Akeroyd will man one of those positions and Dickinson the other. Mark Kimmey, a talented sophomore, is pushing hard at right tackle and could figure in the mix. At the least he'll see plenty of playing time. Jerrod Butler, an imposing 6-2, 330 pound redshirt freshman, is the second-team left guard. The offensive line probably won't be a dominating group, but they will be competent upper classmen who know their roles, and one or two should garner post-season honors. So the offensive line should be as good or better as last year's group, which helped the Coogs finish #19 nationally in total offense.

But explosive offense is becoming a trademark at UH. The Cougars have ranked in the top 20 nationally two out of the last three years in total offense. If they had been ranked that highly defensively, the players would probably be wearing a couple of C-USA championship rings. Most observers think that UH will have its best defense in years, that new defensive coordinator Alan Weddell is about to unleash a new version of the old mad dog defenses of the late 60s and 70s. But to do that, the big dogs up front will need to prevent any push by the opponent's offensive line, often take on double teams and hold their ground, and get penetration when they do go mano a mano. In the 3-4, it is essential that the defensive linemen absorb offensive linemen and keep them off the linebackers, who need to be free to run to the ball. The centerpiece, literally and metaphorically, of the defense is nose tackle Marquay Love. "Big Love," as he is known, is a senior who will be starting for his third year. He's an incredible athlete for his size, 6-0, 310, and that's down some 30 pounds from what he was, so he'll be quicker this year. He will dominate most centers, handles double teams effectively, and gets good penetration. With the frequent double teams, the nose tackle takes a beating in the 3-4, so his backup is almost as important. That bodes well for UH since L. C. Kirkpatrick, another senior, had an extraordinary spring practice. He played so well, in fact, that he challenged Love for the starting job. He'll be an able reserve and keep Big Love fresh. Ricky Barela is a walk-on senior who will also log minutes at NT. Cody Pree is one of the most impressive young defensive linemen at UH in a long time. He has prototypical size for a defensive end in the 3-4 and a good burst that allows him to get into the backfield. Look for him to start developing into one of the league's top defensive linemen. On the other side is the aptly named Phillip Hunt, whose speed will allow him to go on the hunt for quarterbacks and running backs. There's probably not a faster DL anywhere than Hunt. He should excel at getting to the ball on sweeps and screens, and the coaches want him to become a force as a pass rusher this season. The question with Hunt is how he will hold up against the inside running game. He may be a year away from fulfilling his potential, but who knows? In the 3-4, nothing beats speed. Another question is the quality of the second-team defensive ends. Tate Stewart is back with the team, and he provides a boost, especially against the run. The other DE could be Anthony Roulette, Carl Barnett, or Billy Hartford. Roulette, a redshirt freshman, has a lot of potential, but has missed time with an injury. Barnett, a converted offensive lineman, has excellent feet, and while Hartford isn't that big, he's quick and gets to the ball. He's a little reminiscent of Kade Lane as a youngster. UH inked a passel of defensive linemen in February, but all will most likely redshirt. They also got some outstanding transfers in Ell Ash (6-5, 295) from Tennessee and Brian West, formerly of Auburn, though Ash will sit out this season. There is an outside chance West could be cleared to play. UH put in for waiver to the NCAA for him since he's from Beaumont, and his family's home was hit by Hurricane Rita. A 6-4, 270 pounder, he would, at a minimum, improve depth at defensive end.

The Cougar linebackers should form the best unit in years, and that's good news since their play is so critical to the success of the 3-4. They must swarm to the ball to stop the run, cover running backs and tight ends, and one or more will typically blitz. The ringleader is senior Wade Koehl, who will be starting for the fourth year. A Butkus Award nominee, Koehl is an excellent athlete who's bulked up to 235. If he stays healthy, he should be a first-team all-conference selection. On the other side is Brendan Pahulu. As good as Koehl is, Pahulu may be more physically gifted. A junior who had offers from OU and A&M, Pahulu closes faster than a real Cougar, and is plenty big enough at 6-3, 230 to knock down his prey on first contact. The Coogs are deeper than the Mariana Trench at outside linebacker. Many Conference USA schools would be thrilled to have the Cougar second-teamers as their starters. Scott Lee is the biggest of the lot, but he still has good wheels; he'll see plenty of time. James Francis, a transfer from Baylor, is the fastest. Look for him in passing situations. The Coogs may have finally found the bottle of lightning for their pass rush in Francis, who could be a terror coming off the corner. Also in reserve are Chris Pilot, an outstanding athlete, Kenny Atkins, and Quentin Smith. The inside linebackers, Trent Allen and Cody Lubojasky, are also returning starters. Allen is 245 and the type of linebacker who will plug up the middle and can bring down big backs. Lubojasky roams from sideline to sideline making tackles. He has just the type of intensity needed to do that; only a sophomore, he has a bright future at UH. While depth on the outside is outstanding, it's a question mark on the inside. One inside backer, Rodney Rideau, is very talented and will likely start next season. He's a vocal type who gets to the ball in a hurry; he should play about as much as the starters. But once past the first three, there's no experience. Chris Mitchell's experiment at fullback is over, and he's back at inside LB. He has talent, but at 5-10, does he have the size? Walk-on C.J. Cavness will battle Mitchell for the number four spot on the inside.

If linebacker isn't the strength of the defense, it's the secondary. Instead of starting a freshman, two sophomores, and a junior, this year the Coogs will take the field with two fifth-year seniors, a junior, and a sophomore. Willie Gaston is an outstanding cover corner. He led the nation in pass breakups halfway through the season last year before teams suddenly realized the futility of throwing at him. He needs to provide better run support. If he can do that, he's an all-conference player. The likely starter at the other corner is last year's starting free safety, Kenneth Fontenotte, the fastest of the DBs. Cornerback is Fontenotte's natural position, and he has a world of potential. Backing up Gaston and Fontenotte will be Quinte Williams, an impressive sophomore who's giving Fontenotte a run for his money, and juco transfer Yancy Butler. Walk-on Harry Simon looked good in the spring and should also play. The Coogs arguably have the two best starting safeties in the league. Rocky Schwartz, who will be starting for the third year and was voted defensive MVP by his teammates last season, is the strong safety. Schwartz is not a burner, but he's a very intelligent player, he gives 100% on every play, and he's a sure tackler, a skill that is critically important for his position. Junior two-year letterman Joseph Gonzales is in reserve. The Cougars welcomed back Will Gulley with open arms. Going into the '04 season, the potential NFL draftee, was considered one of the best free safeties in the country, but he suffered an injury and was forced to sit out the year. But he's completely healthy now, and will bolster the defense tremendously. At 6-3, 220 pounds, wide receivers will wonder how this linebacker is playing so deep and staying step for step with them on their routes, at least until they start wondering why they're seeing stars instead of the football field. Sophomore Ernest Miller, a fine athlete, is the backup, but Gulley probably won't be leaving the field much unless the Coogs have a big lead late. Joseph Gonzales or possibly Quinte Williams will be the nickel back. Williams is the better cover man, Gonzales the better tackler.

Most observers are fairly certain that the Cougars are going to put up a lot of points and have one of their toughest defenses in years. What does cause concern is special teams, which could be the Achilles' heel if there isn't vast improvement over last season. Coach Fitzpatrick now oversees special teams, and the Cougars should be more athletic this year, which ought to help. Most importantly, kickers Ben Bell and T. J. Lawrence are no longer freshmen. They've faced the heat and now may be cooler under fire. Bell is the short-range kicker, while Lawrence has the stronger leg and handles kickoffs and longer field-goal attempts. 2005 signee Garrett Lefevre is also in the mix. Senior Justin Laird will handle the punting duties. Laird was respectable last year, averaging 39.5 yards, but one must take into account that he had a serious leg injury. That will tend to affect a punter's performance. But in the Fort Worth Bowl when he was back to 100%, he was the only Cougar to shine as he boomed some pretty spirals and averaged 45 yards per punt. The Cougar return men could very well team up and win the C-USA relay sprint. Vince Marshall is the punt returner and a threat to take it back all the way, as he did last year at Mississippi State. He just needs to be sure to receive the ball before running. Returning kicks will be Donnie Avery, Allen Alridge, and/or Roshawn Pope, flyers who, if given a seam, are more than capable of taking it to the house. So special teams are a question mark, but there is reason to believe there will be substantial improvement.

Several other important factors figure in the Coogs' potential success this year. One is the schedule. UH plays seven games at Robertson, eight games in Houston, and nine games in the state of Texas; moreover, the only perennial power on the docket is Miami, and the top challengers for the West Division, Tulsa and UTEP, come to Robertson, as does East Division favorite UCF. Road contests at USM and Memphis certainly won't be cakewalks, but there is reason to believe those programs may be down somewhat this year. Other than Miami, all the Cougars non-conference games are at home and include Oklahoma State, which is coming of a 4-7 season, Louisiana-Lafayette of the Sun Belt Conference, and Division I-AA Grambling State. So the itinerary seems to be in Coogs' favor, though they must hold serve at home, something they've had trouble doing. Additionally, the arrival of strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson just may have the impact of a meteor in the Cougars' improvement. More often than not, a new S & C coach ultimately isn't that big a deal, but the players and coaches regularly sing Jackson's praises. His old school approach has instilled a new, tougher mentality in the team, and the players' conditioning will be noticeably improved, which could make the difference in the fourth quarter of tight games; and the Coogs should be involved in several against tough foes such as Tulsa, UTEP, UCF, and Oklahoma State. New coaches Tony Fitzpatrick (defensive line and special teams), Charlie Rizzo (outside linebackers), and Chris Thurmond (cornerbacks) bring over 70 years of combined experience. And Head Coach Art Briles will be on the job for his fourth season. Briles knows football, but there's a learning curve for any new head coach, not so much about X's and O's as all the other facets of the college game, on and off the field. If the Coogs capture the crown, he'll likely be the conference coach of the year, not a coach still learning on the job. So after suffering in the wilderness for years, a clearing may finally be in sight. The breakout season Cougar fans have been wanting for so long could be at hand at long last. UH has the best quarterback in the league, outstanding skill players, and an offensive line filled with upper classmen; the defense looks solid across the front, four talented, returning starters man the linebacker positions, and the secondary has three potential all-conference players. Special teams should be at least somewhat improved, conditioning is superb, and motivation is sky high, higher than that Roman candle many Cougars think is going to explode into a magnificent display of red and white this season.


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