After 10 long years of living mostly as a pauper, the University of Houston football team was again crowned prince in 2006; and the Cougars head into '07 determined to again hold sway in Conference USA. Led by record-setting quarterback Kevin Kolb, the Cougars rolled up points and yards and played decently enough on defense and special teams to usurp the throne last year from 2005 champion Tulsa. UH finished 10-4 after a victory in the C-USA championship game over Southern Miss and a loss to South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, which was one of the bowl season's most exciting games. Going into '07, Coach Art Briles must find answers to several questions if the Coogs want to retain the scepter, and the biggest stumper is how to replace second-round draft choice Kolb. UH doesn't need another Unitas Award nominee, but the new QB must play well, distribute the ball to several talented playmakers, and avoid costly mistakes, something that Kolb excelled at his senior year. A number of all but irreplaceable veterans must somehow be replaced. A receiver must step in for Mr. Reliable, Vincent Marshall, at the slot. Jackie Battle's combination of power and speed may not be found on any college campus in the country, not just UH, but a new face will have to take over as the every-down back. Rimington Trophy nominee Sterling Doty will no longer anchor the offensive line at center, and defensive stalwarts Marquay Love and Will Gulley will be missed. But there are still many talented Cougars on hand, and the young, formerly inept Wart has finally pulled the sword out of the stone and assumed his rightful place as king. And the head on which this crown rests is not uneasy. UH has no plans to relinquish the royal ring, and even if they do, it won't be without a ferocious fight.
Obviously the biggest key for the Coogs is finding a new triggerman, not one as good as Kolb, who ranks with the best quarterbacks in UH history, but someone who makes good decisions, throws the ball well, and has enough speed to roll the pocket and maybe even call his own number on occasion. Three contenders—Al Pena, Blake Joseph, and Case Keenum—are battling for the job, which, at this point, remains up for grabs. Pena is a senior transfer who signed with Georgia Tech and then transferred to Oklahoma State, where in 2005 he completed 89 of 179 attempts for 1102 yards and eight touchdowns. But he threw 13 interceptions, albeit for a weak team with a porous offensive line, but he must cut that number by about half. He is two years older, he's slimmed down from 6-4, 230 to 215, and he's practically turned the film room into his personal study, so hopefully he'll pick up the offense quickly. If he avoids throwing to the other team, he could and likely should start. A talented quarterback who started in the Big 12 two years ago doesn't transfer and petition the NCAA to play so that he can hold a clipboard. Blake Joseph is a redshirt sophomore with a howitzer for an arm. Cougar players, in fact, have commented that Joseph has a better arm than Kolb. That doesn't mean he's a better passer, but he has an impressive zip on the ball. So Joseph may be the best thrower, but his temperament is a concern. As Kevin Kolb realized by his senior year, the quarterback doesn't need to win games in Briles' offense; the guys who run 4.4s are there to do that. There is some concern that Joseph hasn't yet learned that lesson. Case Keenum is the best runner of the three, and while he's not Dan Marino, his passing is adequate. He's the youngest of the quarterbacks, but he seems to have grasped the offense better than his competitors. The guess here is that Al Pena will be the starting quarterback when the Cougars tee it up in Oregon on September 1st. But nothing's settled yet, and Joseph and Keenum have qualities that could help UH win. Just as in 2003, Cougar fans may not know who the starter is until the lineups are announced before kickoff on opening day.
Anthony Alridge will be expected to energize the UH offense, which again should be predicated on big plays. Alridge isn't an every-down back, but he will likely average about 15 carries, five receptions, and a couple of kickoff returns. Given that he averaged 13 yards per play last year, some 20 touches should be enough for the 5-9, 170-pound Cougar version of the Flash to gain a lot of yards and score points yet still keep him from being banged up and slowed down. Spelling him will be three new running backs: Randall Antoine, Andre Kohn, and true freshman Terrance Ganaway. They are inexperienced, but if they play competently, having three solid backs will mean fresh legs for four quarters. Antoine was wanted by Southern Miss more so than Derrick Fletcher two years ago. He has a unique running style, but he's fast and hard to bring down. Kohn was signed as a receiver out of Florida, but the coaches saw that he is a natural runner and moved him to RB. He's one of those 5-8 type backs who have a knack for finding the seam and getting through it in a hurry. He may not be the most talented athlete at the position, but he may be the best running back. Cougar fans have high expectations for Ganaway. He's a big boy, who will report in the fall at close to 6-1, 225. He also ran track in high school, and while he's not a blazer in the class of Alridge (who is?), he's plenty fast, especially for a big back. This year's backfield will be successful if Alridge has a dazzling highlight reel at the end of the season, and the newcomers play well enough and avoid key mistakes. If Antoine, Kohn, and Ganaway combine for some 800 yards to go with about a thousand more from Alridge, UH is likely to finish in the top 20 nationally in total offense for the fourth time in five years.
Despite losing Vincent Marshall, who was a big reason the Cougars got to three bowls in the past four years, and Biren Ealy, talented receivers remain in the fold. The top name is Donnie Avery, a 4.3 speedster who can stretch the field. After Rice's Jarrett Dillard, Avery is statistically the league's top returning receiver in receptions per game and yards per catch. UH needs him to have a big year about as much as Alridge. Six-foot, five-inch Jeron Harvey will line up on the other side. Harvey is deceptively fast with his long stride, and has shown good hands in his two years at UH. His blocking skills are often utilized on quick screens. Harvey is a solid intermediate receiver, who can also turn a 15-yard pass into a 50-yard gallop. He and Avery should be as fine a pair of starting wide receivers as any in the conference. Chris Gilbert will try to fill Vince Marshall's literally small yet figuratively big shoes at slot receiver. Gilbert is reminiscent of the run-n-shoot receivers who ignited the UH passing game in the late 80s and early 90s. He's fast, but more than anything he's quick and shifty with an explosive burst, a quality that will come in handy on many of the short passes and screens he'll catch. Several other wideouts figure in the mix, and the competition should be stiff for playing time after the three starters. One to watch is L. J. Castile, the former hotshot quarterback from LaMarque, who was moved to receiver in part to take advantage of his athleticism. Perry McDaniel is a senior who will catch most anything thrown in his direction. He plays the slot, and could be especially valuable when five or six yards are needed. Brennan Gleason is a junior, who up to this point has not developed as much as the coaches had hoped. But he's only been in the program for two years, and he blocks well, which is important for receivers in Briles' offense. Tim Monroe has the potential to be a deep threat with his size and speed. Anthony Reasno and Jordan Brown may also contribute. And don't be surprised if a true freshman or two sees the field. The Cougars signed five very talented receivers. So there's a lot of depth, though none of the reserves stands out. If the front-liners stay healthy, the offense has a chance to amass close to the same kind of passing numbers they have the past couple of years, 278 yards per game in '06 and 272 in '05.
Mark Hafner was one of last year's most pleasant surprises. He proved to be sure-handed and someone who could pick up tough yards after the catch. Hafner's a good blocker as well, not a 280-pound bulldozer, but a 230-pound guy who has the strength to drive block but also the quickness to make blocks requiring more agility. Briles has never made a habit of throwing to the tight end, but Hafner is likely to assume a bigger role in the offense this year. His backup may remind Cougar fans of last year's, Rodney Hannah. Wesley Scourten is 6-6 and helped his high school basketball team, Richardson Berkner, reach the regional finals. Scourten looked good in the spring and will give the Coogs a target almost as big as Hannah was last season.
With two returning all-conference selections, Jeff Akeroyd and Dustin Dickinson, along with a third returning starter, Mike Bloesch, the offensive line should be as good or better than last year's as long as the two newcomers play well, and the Cougars aren't hit by the kinds of devastating injuries to linemen that they were in ‘06. The exact lineup from tackle to tackle is still murky at this point. Obviously Akeroyd and Dickinson, both fifth-year seniors, will start, just where is the question. Both have played guard and tackle in their careers at UH, and both are really better fits at guard. Bloesch will definitely play guard. Chances are 6-8 Sebastian Vollmer will line up at left tackle. The coaches think he is gifted enough physically to one day play in the NFL. He has an impressive wingspan and quick feet, ideal qualities for a left tackle. But all the talk about Vollmer has been just that—talk. He has talent, but no one can say how good he'll be until he shows what he can do. Redshirt sophomore Matt Hart is developing quickly at tackle. He has good size at 6-6, 300. He could be a bit more agile, but he's going to be a good one by the time he's done. Josh Bell is a former consensus Texas Top 100 player who's been moved from tight end to tackle. He has the tools to excel but needs to acquire the mentality of a big ugly. Jordan Shoemaker, one of the team's strongest players, is another top reserve at tackle. So UH looks to be in excellent shape at tackle, both in terms of talent and depth. The concern is the interior of the line. Some of that anxiety would be relieved if Akeroyd or Dickinson lines up at guard along with Bloesch. If so, the Cougars would be in good shape at guard as long as they could avoid injuries since depth is thin. One reserve is sophomore Jerrod Butler, a massive offensive lineman who's as much a wide body as some 747s. He can drive block a building, but he needs to work on his pass blocking. With some more seasoning, he should be a fine offensive lineman. Jared Lindsey is a redshirt freshman who was recruited as a defensive end, but was moved to guard to bolster depth. And, if necessary, Akeroyd or Dickinson could slide down from tackle if that's where they start the season. The major issue is replacing first-team all-conference center Sterling Doty, who provided both big holes for Cougar backs to run through and outstanding leadership. The top candidate is Carl Barnett, a redshirt sophomore. Actually, Barnett probably has more physical ability at this point in his career than Doty did. He's quick off the ball, but needs to be a more consistent blocker and also a reliable snapper playing in a shotgun offense. How he plays will go a long way to determining how good the offensive line will be. And the Cougars don't have the luxury of a first-rate second-teamer at center, so it's important that Barnett stay healthy. If he were injured, Dickinson would likely have to move to center, which could discombobulate the offensive line almost as much as last year when Sir Vincent Rogers, Byron Alfred, and both reserve tackles were MIA. But all things considered, the line appears much more promising at this point than it did as mid-season approached last year and practically every position was manned by a reserve or someone playing out of position. With a new QB and running backs, it is incumbent upon the offensive line to be effective, and as long as key injuries can be avoided and Barnett plays competently, it should again be one of the best lines in C-USA.
The defensive line could be the best at UH since 1989, which is auspicious if the old adage that games are won and lost in the trenches and with defense is true. No longer will the Cougars start a pair of 250-pound true freshmen or a near-dwarf at defensive tackle as they did earlier in the decade. All three of this year's top defensive linemen are all-conference candidates; in fact, two have been named first-teamers on preseason all-league squads. Cody Pree is the man in the middle. His return in last year's UTEP game after being injured made an obvious difference in the play of the defense. He started as a freshman, and is now a fourth-year junior who should be able to shut down the inside. And his backup, Tate Stewart, is also a seasoned veteran and a fine player in his own right. So with Pree and Stewart spelling one another, both should be fresh throughout the game. And redshirt freshman Isaiah Thompson is a very large young man who possesses excellent potential and should earn a letter despite having two good ones ahead of him. When the Coogs are in the 4-2-5, look for Pree and Stewart to line up inside and make it doubly tough for teams to find any room up the gut. The Cougars' starting defensive ends should be the best in the conference. Phillip Hunt, body built by Fisher, is coming off an all-conference season in which he led the team in sacks. He runs like a gazelle, attacks like a lion, and should be even more effective getting to the quarterback in the new alignment. Ell Ash has a chance to be a dominating player. At 6-5, 285, he has the size and the quickness to be the best defensive lineman in the league. And UH has solid depth at end as well. Sophomore Brian West is a physically gifted transfer from Auburn who is beginning to get his sea legs. Billy Hartford was a top reserve last year, and has a motor that won't quit. Raymond Alake and Anthony Roulette are promising youngsters. The defensive line is going to be good, and the team will have to count on them early as the offense finds itself with a new quarterback. How well the front four plays early in the season may determine what kind of season UH will have.
The linebacker corps isn't all that far behind the defensive front as a team strength. Three starters return along with several key reserves. On the inside, Trent Allen, an all-conference selection last year, and Cody Lubojasky will both be starting for the third year. Neither are physical specimens, but both are savvy, play very hard, and are solid inside the tackles. They could be step or two faster, but the new bandit position will provide more speed, and most defensive coaches would be happy with a pair of three-year starters. Rodney Rideau runs a 4.6 and is the top inside backer off the bench; in fact, Rideau should log about as many minutes as either of the starters. Chris Pilot has been moved inside to take advantage of his athleticism, and Luke Caden transferred in from Navy, where he was in the rotation, and will push for playing time. Matt Nicholson is coming along nicely, and two second-year players, Britton Maxwell and J .T. Rudd, both of whom played as true freshman, may represent the future at inside linebacker. On the outside, Brendan Pahulu has about as much talent as anyone in the conference. He needs to play with more discipline and technique, but in the 4-2-5, his wilder instincts will be given free rein as he becomes a speed rusher off the corner. Pahulu's been starting since his freshman season, so with him, UH will have one four-year starter and two three-year starters at linebacker along with solid depth. Despite being a 245-pounder, Shomari Williams is very quick; in fact, the coaches thought he had enough speed to give him a tryout at running back last season. Additionally, James Francis and/or Broderic Bean could end up at outside linebacker, the new bandit position, or strong safety. Both have the size to play linebacker and the speed to be successful in the secondary. With the experience, talent, and depth, there's no reason the Cougars shouldn't have one of the best groups of linebackers in C-USA. With wise substitutions, the defense could have good fits at linebacker for most every situation.
Safety Will Gulley was last year's Houston Chronicle C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, and there's no denying that his loss hurts. While he didn't have blazing speed, Gulley led the team in interceptions, and played the run so well that UH could almost be said to have had five instead of four starting linebackers. But the Coogs aren't bereft of talent in the secondary. The top returnee is cornerback Kenneth Fontenette. Fontenette has speed to burn. Cornerback may not be his natural position, but he is such a great athlete that the transition from free safety doesn't put any undue burden on him. The Cougars need him to be a lock-down corner, and he should be. Junior Quinte Williams is the frontrunner on the other side. Williams' coverage skills have been questioned, but he can hold his own. Williams' problem is his size. He may have trouble matching up with bigger wideouts, and could be a liability on sweeps. But UH has three or four other corners, and Williams remains ahead of them all, so either the Cougars are woefully deficient at the position, or Williams has developed into a better player. Harry Simon is even smaller than Williams, but he is adept as a cover man. Kellen Yancy has never quite worked out as the coaches had hoped when he was recruited as a junior-college prospect, but he does provide depth. Carson Blackmon, Teric Williams, and Jamal Robinson need more experience, but all have the talent to become solid cornerbacks in time. The new bandit position, which is a hybrid of linebacker and safety, will be manned by three-year starter Rocky Schwartz. While his coverage skills are lacking, he's a headhunter, and headhunting will be what he is primarily asked to do in the 4-2-5. And no one plays harder than Schwartz. Two players blessed with outstanding physical ability are Broderic Bean and James Francis, both of whom can play any of three positions. They will log plenty of playing time, though the coaches may wait until August to decide just which position fits them best. If Bean plays strong safety, receivers may run short crossing patterns very gingerly. Schwartz is a good hitter, but Bean packs a punch like George Foreman, so much so that he may end up at outside linebacker. After Fontenette, Ernest Miller is probably the Cougars' top defensive back. He proved his worth in the Liberty Bowl, where he led the team in solo tackles and had a sack. He's an excellent athlete and should start at strong safety. The free safety is Joseph Gonzales. He gives the Cougars yet another big hitter in the secondary, but his coverage skills are lacking. So in obvious passing situations, Brandon Brinkley should play. The coaches don't want Brinkley coming up to stop the charge of a fullback, but he has a sharp break on the ball, and can be an effective centerfielder. Carson Blackmon could also see time at free safety. Of the three defensive units, the secondary is the Achilles' heel. With the 4-2-5, the DBs should provide good run support, but the defensive line and linebackers will need to get pressure on the quarterback against good passing teams.
The Cougars' special teams have been somewhere between woeful and decent the past few years. 2005 was ugly, but there was some, though not enough, improvement in '06. There's good news and bad news for this year's unit. The good news is Ben Bell and T. J. Lawrence return. Bell won't be kicking 60-yarders, but he's mostly reliable within 40. Last year he connected on 14 of 18 attempts for a 79% average, which was good for second in the conference. More than half of T. J. Lawrence's kickoffs were touchbacks. So kicking should be fine. Punting is another story. On the other hand, how much worse can it be than last year, when the UH punter didn't even finish in the top 10 in C-USA? The most likely candidate is Tommy Skinner, who has zero experience. But who knows? He may surprise and have a good year. Long-snapping has been a problem and may have cost the Cougars the game at Southern Miss last year. But Norbie Juist has ability; there's a reason Auburn offered him a scholarship. Hopefully experience will be the difference for him. As for the return men, Vince Marshall isn't around to provide thrills bringing back punts, but the Coogs have an abundance of sprinters available. Randall Antoine is likely to take over. The kickoff return team is promising. With Anthony Alridge and Donnie Avery, there's no reason the Cougars shouldn't be closer to fourth than fortieth nationally, as they were last year, in returns. And UH didn't return any kickoffs for touchdowns, which seems almost like a crime given that one good seam is all that Alridge and Avery need. Hopefully the blocking will be improved this year. The Coogs covered well last year on kickoffs and punts, and with the program getting better athletes, that should continue. Matt Nicholson is an especially valuable special teamer.
The Cougars have as much talent as anyone in C-USA. Alridge, Avery, Harvey, Akeroyd, Hunt, Ash, and Fontenette could play for most anyone. A BCS bowl would take a miracle, but something in the range of 8-4 or even 9-3 along with a possible division championship is a good bet, and another conference championship certainly isn't out of the question. The tell-tale part of the season should come between October 27th and November 10th when the Cougars get UTEP, SMU, and Tulsa in consecutive weeks. Win two of those three, avoid conference upsets, and UH will have a strong chance to appear in the championship game for the second consecutive year. Win all three of them and it's all but a sure thing. Obviously the Coogs need a quarterback to take over and play well. The offensive line needs to stay healthy, and while the new running backs don't need to be in the Heisman derby, they need to be effective and avoid mistakes. Alridge must have a big season, and Avery needs to put super glue on his hands before games. The defense will likely have to carry the team through the early part of the schedule, but as long as a QB comes through, the offense should eventually start hitting on all cylinders. And UH isn't playing in the SEC. C-USA was ranked the ninth-best conference in the country last year. That doesn't mean that playing at the Rock or the Sun Bowl is a walk in the park; it's not. And UH misses Southern Miss this season. But a good team should be able to navigate a C-USA schedule with no more than two conference losses. All things considered, the Cougars need a few things to fall into place this year to win the conference, but it's not as if those few things are major rebuilding jobs. The concerns are mainly a position or two here and there, and a QB taking the reins and leading the team successfully. The talent is there for a return to Memphis in late December. And even if the Coogs don't quite get there, a fourth bowl in five years is a near certainty. But the king is returning in '08 with a fierce determination to continue his reign, leading a mighty army bedecked in scarlet and white and arrayed for battle.