After winning the mythical C-USA recruiting championship two years‚ running, the Cougars go into the 2003 recruiting wars with some areas of need but none of desperation. The team is deeper and more talented than it has been in over a decade, and Dana Dimel deserves much of the credit for that. It will be up to Coach Briles to build on the recent recruiting success by signing more good players and molding them and the ones already on campus into champions. Most Cougars think he will. Here, then, is a position-by-position analysis of the Cougars‚ recruiting needs and likely priorities. The number in parentheses is an estimation of how many players will be signed at that position.
What a difference a year makes! Heading into spring training in 2001, UH had no scholarship quarterbacks on campus. Yes, you read that correctly! Going into spring practice last year, the Coogs did not have one, single, solitary scholarship QB. Bubba Teague, the likely #1, had quit school, and Kim Helton had not recruited anyone else. The situation is different this time around, but it's not as if the quarterback cup overfloweth. Barrick Nealy, possibly the most exciting quarterback to wear the scarlet and white since Andre Ware, will return for his sophomore year after a knee injury. Nick Eddy struggled at times as a starter in 2003, but developed into a competent Division I QB by the end of the season. Given that he is not yet 20-years-old, he should only get better. Former State Top 100 signal callers Blade Bassler and Shang Moore will either provide a challenge for the two front runners or possibly move to new positions. Both are better athletes than quarterbacks, at least at this point. Even so, with Coach Briles installing his own system, he undoubtedly will want to sign his own quarterback, and given Nealy‚s injury and Eddy's classification (he'll be a senior), the Cougars need at least one.
RUNNING BACK (1-2)
The Cougars have another fine young stable of running backs, but more are needed. There is talent and some depth, but no one has yet stepped up and proclaimed himself to be the guy. Any one of Anthony Evans, Jackie Battle, Bobby Tillman, or Cody Thibodeaux is capable of doing just that, but an outstanding freshman could have a chance as well. Evans looks a little like Joffrey Reynolds, both physically and as a runner, as a freshman, so maybe AE eventually will replace Reynolds as the next C-USA rushing leader. Reynolds developed into a good RB over time as Evans will. Evans has better speed (10.4 100 meters) than Joffrey and three more years to improve. Jackie Battle was the top local running back on the recruiting board for the previous coaching staff. He has great size at 6-2, 240 and impressive speed (4.5) for a big man. Cody Thibodeaux, like Battle, is big and fast and could really surprise Cougar fans with his ability when he gets on the field. Bobby Tillman, if he can overcome health problems, could be the most physically talented of all the backs. At least one walk-on, Anthony Smith, has distinguished himself and could contribute. The situation at running back is much like that at quarterback. The position is well-stocked in one sense, but injuries and other concerns mark it as a position where UH could use help. The new staff will want to sign a good one to come in and compete. As aforementioned, none of the running backs have yet declared themselves to be the horse that can be ridden 30 times in a big game.
WIDE RECEIVER (3)
Three productive receivers--Keykowa Bell, Brian Robinson, and Jeremy McCardell are leaving the program this year, but some young, fleet and/or sure-handed types are still on hand. The leading returnee is Brandon Middleton, the Coog's best deep threat this season. Middleton could be looking at a big year in Coach Briles‚s offense. Mark Hopkins, who possesses the team‚s best pair of hands, will be back from a season-ending injury. Choni Francis of Westbury redshirted and will be available for duty. The most intriguing prospect is Chad McCullars, a consensus state top 100 selection from North Shore who sat out this year. McCullars looked almost like a shorter version of Randy Moss in practice and could team with Middleton to provide the Coogs with two big-play receivers. Leonard Gibson, Josh Carrethers, and speedster Vincent Marshall, MVP of the Texas High School All-Star Game, should provide solid depth, and Roshawn Pope may be moved to WR. Anything familiar about Middleton, McCullars, Pope, and Francis? All are reminiscent of the Cougar receivers of the late 80s and early 90s who made the run-n-shoot go. Coach Briles will definitely want to bring in some speedy receivers though, especially with a three-wideout set. UH is in pretty good shape at WR, but a recruit with a lot of ability shouldn't have a problem finding his way onto the gridiron.
TIGHT END (1-2)
The Cougars are set at several positions but none more so than tight end; however, all Cougar tight ends will be seniors next year. So there is definitely a need for at least one signee at this position. Jon Pritchett may be the best blocking tight end in C-USA, and if he‚s not, Matt Mattox probably is. Steve Cucci made all-conference. He blocks, catches, and runs well. Jon Clarke is more of an H-back than a true tight end and also one of the best receivers on the team at any position. Look for the new staff to want to bring in as many as two tight ends so that the position won't be depleted in 2004.
OFFENSIVE LINE (5-6)
Help is needed at all offensive positions but perhaps none more so than the offensive line. The Cougars lost three starters--Chris Wheeler, Chris Redding, and Rufus Williams-- this year and will lose three again next year, yet there aren't more than a few younger players ready to replace them. Only two high school offensive linemen were signed in February, and both were defensive players who have been converted. UH's first 5-8 offensive linemen look pretty solid, but there's a significant dropoff after that. Al James, Rex Hadnot, and Brandon Evans will give the Cougars the best combination in the league from center to left tackle. The right side will be manned by players such as David Douglas, Roy Swan, and John McGilvray. But, again, there's not much depth. Phil Hawkins, Jessie Bryant, and redshirt freshmen Jeremy Davis and Blake Garrison could be called upon in a pinch, but Davis and Garrison may not be ready. Typically, offensive linemen are redshirted, but freshmen with size and ability may very well have a chance to contribute next year.