National Letter of Intent Day was only four weeks off when University of Houston coach Kevin Sumlin began putting up pictures and trophies in his new office. And with NCAA-mandated dead and quiet periods, Sumlin actually had no more than three weeks to cobble together his first class of Cougars. But despite the obstacles, the first-year coach has done remarkably well, bringing in a haul to rival any signed by the previous regime.
Grading a UH recruiting class is a little different than grading one at, say, USC. A mark of B- for the Trojans would probably be an A+ for the Cougars, just as it would be for any non-BCS team. That isn't to say that a non-BCS school can't compete with any program between the white lines, but given recruiting budgets, facilities, fan followings, exposure, and more, UH is often at a decided disadvantage against marquee programs in recruiting. But the Cougars can and have competed successfully with mid-level BCS programs for talent this year, especially local talent. If Houston can do that and then provide excellent coaching along with a first-rate strength and conditioning program, there's no reason UH can't be a BCS at-large program, which just happens to be coach Sumlin's goal.
So, let's get to it.
UH didn't sign a quarterback this year. Heralded recruit Robert Griffin was on board, but defected to Baylor along with Art Briles. The Cougars started a freshman QB this year, which made it tough to sign a quality signal caller; moreover, the new offensive coordinator was named only about a week before Signing Day. Next year the Cougars will need to ink at least one good QB in 2009, and as fortune would have it, next season is already being called "The Year of the Quarterback" in Texas. Friendswood's Jacob Karam is at the top of the Cougars' ‘09 wish list.
RUNNING BACK: B
Two good ones are signed, sealed, and delivered. Chris Wilson (5-10, 208) from Fort Bend Austin switched his commitment to UH from 2007 C-USA champ, UCF. Wilson has a knack for finding daylight, and often cuts back against the grain to get to it. He's neither a burner (but he runs track and has good speed) nor a bruiser, but he is a fine runner--very much an RB than can run both inside or outside, and he can also catch the ball and return kicks. Wilson was also offered by Boise, among others. The other RB is Bryce Beall (5-11, 195) of Tatum. Beall is an outstanding athlete. As a senior, he rushed for over 2,200 yards and had over 150 tackles. Some schools, including Missouri and Kansas, recruited him as a safety (actually, he was a hard-hitting linebacker at Tatum), but he wanted a shot at running back, and UH is giving him that opportunity. He has the athletic ability to play for anyone. With good coaching, he could develop into a star.
WIDE RECEIVER: B-
The headliner is Isaiah Sweeney, a 5-9, 160-pound speed merchant from Fort Bend Hightower. Sweeney let coach Sumlin know how disappointed he was that he didn't win the state 100 meters. Coach Sumlin said he'd take the runner up with a time of 10.5 every day of the week and twice on Signing Days. Sweeney was also a member of the national record-setting 4x200 meter team at Hightower. So he has the kind of speed Cougar fans are used to seeing at wide receivers. But he also runs good routes, and is an explosive kickoff return man. Sweeney was offered by Boston College and other good programs; he's one of the best recruits in this class. The other wideout is Ronnie Williams (5-11, 180) of Houston Sterling. Williams doesn't have Sweeney's speed, but the coaches like his athleticism and intelligence. He earned all-district honors at quarterback as well as in basketball and baseball. He was also a Touchdown Club nominee for academics.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
The Cougars corralled four offensive linemen, possibly three depending on where athlete Ari Tatum ends up. A big boost to this group is Blake Sargent of Friendswood. The new staff likes him more than Cameron Kaufhold, another FHS Mustang who was committed to UH, but then went with Briles to Baylor. Sargent will be tried at center, a position where the Coogs need help. The coaches think he could be an impact player early in his career. He's already 6-3, 275 pounds of muscle. Lufkin's Jacolby Ashworth, the cousin of former Cougar standout OL Rex Hadnot, is also in the fold. Ashworth looks very impressive. He's the same size as Sargent, and has good feet. He plays basketball for the Panthers, so he's athletic. Ashworth could play guard or tackle. Ken Van Huele was a late pickup from Hurst Bell. He was twice named first-team all-district in a tough league, 7-5A. He has a good frame at 6-4, and should be up to 300 after a couple of years in coach Jackson's program. He has good quickness and can get out on and crush linebackers. Ari Tatum played offensive tackle ay Dacula High School in Georgia but could be switched to tight end if his hands are up to the task, or possibly defensive end. He's 6-5, 240, runs a 4.7, and was recruited for his athleticism. Sargent is probably the bell cow of the group, but all appear to be solid college prospects. And given that UH signed five trench warriors last year, the O-line looks set down for the next four years.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C+
This group was a strong B before it was learned that Sargent would switched to offense. And losing DE Tracy Robertson to Baylor didn't help. But this is still a good bunch. Doran Guillory could turn out to be the best player in this class. A product of tiny, private Beaumont Kelly High School, Guillory (6-3, 260) hasn't had much of a weight-training program to develop his strength. Interestingly, his partner on the defensive line at Kelly, Kheeston Randall, signed with Texas, yet Guillory was named the Defensive Line MVP on his team. He could and did demolish blockers, and with a good training program, he'll hopefully be able to do the same at the next level as a defensive tackle. David Hunter of Waller is a prototype interior defensive lineman at 6-2, 270. Hunter didn‘t get quite the recruiting attention one might think he would, possibly because of some high-profile teammates at Waller. But he comes to UH with a lot of potential. Coach Sumlin wants run pluggers, and that‘s just what Hunter should become. He may remind Cougar fans of Cody Pree. And Mohammed Usman, one of two UH signees from Arlington Bowie, may remind the Cougar faithful of Phillip Hunt. A defensive end, Usman is very quick but a little undersized at 6-1, 235. He could end up at outside linebacker, but the initial plan is to develop him at defensive end. Usman and his teammate, Marcus McGraw, both looked to be headed to Pullman to join those Cougars of a different breed, the PAC 10 kind. But coach Sumlin with help from former Washington State and now UH linebacker coach Leon Burtnett got the Bowie duo to Cullen Boulevard.
Strength of the class. The Cougars haven't signed linebackers of this quality, much less as many of them, in a long time. Anthony Lewis, Jarvis Smith, and Marcus McGraw could form the best linebacker corps at UH since the days of Lamar Lathon and Reggie Burnette. The Coogs just haven't signed LBs with this kind of athleticism in years. Lewis, an Aldine Mustang, is rated the 32nd best weak side linebacker in the country by Scout. He made several state top 100 lists, and was recruited by some major powers. A great athlete (he runs a 4.5), Lewis could play as a true freshman. Smith is just as good. Scout has him tagged as one of the top 15 weak side linebackers in the nation. Smith can run as well and was offered a scholarship by national champion LSU. The third amigo, Marcus McGraw of Arlington Bowie, would have been pursued by Texas, Oklahoma, and everyone else if he were 6-4, 220 instead of 5-10, 210. But Zach Thomas and Dat Nguyen were about the same height. McGraw brings yet more speed. He was the defensive MVP of his district. While this is a very solid class, an impressive one for UH, especially given some of the disappointing groups signed in the middle years of the decade, Sumlin is especially looking to make hay next season after having a full year to recruit. Even so, he made a point to say that he'd take these three linebackers any year. UH just signed the best crop of LBs in C-USA and also, yes, the entire state of Texas.
DEFENSIVE BACK: B+
The secondary is another strength of this class. The Cougars signed four good ones. The headliner is Jackie Hinton. Coach Sumlin's pride was apparent when he was discussing how UH beat BCS programs for recruits, but he sounded as if he emphasized the kid who switched from Oklahoma State more than any recruit. That kid would be one Jackie Hinton, a 5-11, 190-pound youngster who is one of the top pure athletes in Houston. Sumlin mentioned that OU thought hard about going after Hinton. On film, he impresses as a defender who does something very well, something that many UH fans haven't seen being done very well at Robertson Stadium--tackle. He takes good pursuit angles, hits hard, and gets the ball carrier on the ground. He also has good speed and covers well. He should be a fixture in the Cougars' secondary for several years. Kris Johnston (6-1, 190) of Texas City could be the steal of this class. He received some early attention--even made a visit to Notre Dame--but the offers were not forthcoming in the summer, and then he was injured and lost for the season. But he's a good football player. He was All-Galveston County as a junior, he lays the wood to receivers, and he has good speed. He is recovered from his injury and running track. He could be the Coogs' starting strong safety in a couple of years. Gino Collins is a fine athlete from Houston St. Pius. An all-stater, Collins received a good deal of recruiting attention, but liked the idea of playing with his cousin, Bakari Maxwell, at UH. Look for Collins to play cornerback. Nick Saenz of Pearland will be an excellent college defensive back if he can gain weight and maintain his speed, which is sub-4.5. He'll need to redshirt, but if he can get up to 180 or more, he could be a lockdown corner for the Coogs. Virginia Tech was on the verge of offering Saenz, who also had interest from Northwestern, Air Force, and others.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
In coach Sumlin's efforts to uplift the Cougars' special teams, UH signed a kicker! And he's a good one. Jordan Mannisto is a Californian, whom the new special teams coach, Tony Levine, begged Sumlin to offer. He did, and the Cougars got themselves a kicker who was asked to be a preferred walk-on by USC, and received full scholarship offers from some five Division I-A programs. They got themselves a kicker who nailed three field goals of 50 yards or more and often sailed his kickoffs into or out of the end zone. Mannisto also recorded a punting average over 40 yards. He plays baseball and soccer.
OVERALL GRADE: B
The Cougars filled some needs. UH hasn‘t had much athleticism and speed at linebacker, and that was definitely taken care of with the signings of Anthony Lewis, Jarvis Smith, and Marcus McGraw. Coach Sumlin wanted to get a couple of talented running backs, and he did just that. Interior defensive linemen were also high on the priority list, and Doran Guillory and David Hunter ought to make a fine pair of defensive tackles in the 4-3. UH picked up some solid offensive linemen as well. Blake Sargent is especially well-liked. Receivers are always needed for the spread offense, and Isaiah Sweeney was one of the Houston area's best. Special teams were addressed with kicker Jordan Mannisto. All things considered, including the coaching change and the short time the new staff had to recruit, coach Sumlin and his assistants did a bang-up job and signed an impressive class.