As UH heads into spring practice, the ingredients are in place for a strong run at the Conference USA title this fall. But how the coaches blend those ingredients, and how well some newcomers play should determine the team's destiny. If some questions get the right answers, the Coogs could have a breakout season in ‘09.
The only question at quarterback is who will be Case Keenum's backup. With Blake Joseph transferring, either Cotton Turner, Austin Elrod, or Crawford Jones will earn the second spot. Turner, who was one of the Houston areas most prolific passers a few short years ago and played at Blinn Junior College, is the frontrunner; in fact, he could start after Keenum graduates. But the other two have good qualities. Jones, for example, seems to be a natural leader. Still, Turner will likely be the backup quarterback. Keenum, who led the nation in total offense last season, will be hard pressed to improve upon his numbers. He's now listed at 6-2, 210, and no one will be able to accuse him of having the weenie arm he may have possessed when he came in as a 180 pound freshman. If he has the same kind of numbers he did last year, he may position himself for a run at the Heisman in ‘10.
Running back should be one of the team's strengths. Bryce Beall is a likely preseason all-conference RB, and last year‘s top reserve, Andre Kohn, returns. Chris Wilson, a redshirt freshman with good size, will push for playing time, and the coaches are very high on incoming frosh Charles Sims, who may have been the best back in HISD last season. Justin Johnson is a solid blocking back, but he's lost some weight and gained some quickness, so he may be getting more carries as well. It's doubtful that any team in C-USA is as blessed at running back as the Cougars, and there's not a senior in the bunch. If there's any question here, it's whether any of the backs will challenge Beall to start. Chances are that question is moot.
The Cougars are also loaded at receiver. Almost 10 receivers lettered last year and return in ‘09. Additionally, UH signed a top junior college wideout in James Cleveland as well as a Parade All-American, A.J. Dugat. Fans had some legitimate concerns about the receiving corps last year. But the development of Patrick Edwards before his injury and then Tyron Carrier to go with Mark Hafner helped the Coogs field a competent group. This season, the position is expected to be one of the team's best. Even so, the Cougars need to develop a go-to receiver, much as Mark Hafner was last year. Tyron Carrier is a flashy game breaker, who could fill that role. Patrick Edwards, assuming he's 100%, may as well. And receivers such as L.J. Castile, Chaz Rodriguez, Tim Monroe, E.J. Smith, Kierre Johnson, and Isaiah Sweeny will be looking to pick it up a notch. Keep an eye on Cleveland, who made the All Big 10 Freshman Team a few years ago. And Dugat doesn't get along well with the bench. It's hard to imagine him not getting plenty of playing time. Wesley Scourten will fill the tight end.big slot role vacated by Hafner. He's not a speed merchant, but he has great size and good hands and could have a breakout season. True freshman Tyler Chambers has bulked up to 233, and may see the field at tight end or big slot as well. So while Keenum will spread the ball around, the question at this position is who will step up and be the go-to receiver. The top candidates are Carrier and Edwards, and possibly Cleveland or Dugat.
The raw talent is there in the offensive line, but new offensive line coach B.J. Anderson will have to work to get two newcomers to jell with the returnees and hope his guys in the trenches stay healthy. Those newcomers are Roy Watts and Jarve Dean, both of whom are behemoths in the 330-pound range. The coaches' initial plan was to play Watts and Dean at tackle, but Dean is working at guard, his natural position, in the spring. Whether he'll move to tackle when Jordan Shoemaker returns is one question. But he is a steamroller inside and is capable of opening some gaping holes for Beall and co. to run through. Watts needs to improve his footwork a bit, but he's capable of mauling defensive ends. Chris Thompson should start coming into his own as a redshirt sophomore and returning starter. Jordan Shoemaker also started at guard later in the season, but he's sitting out the spring recovering from an injury. Carl Barnett will be starting for the third year at center. Besides the obvious question of whether the new offensive line will mesh well, a big concern is the health of Josh Bell. A fifth year senior, who was a consensus state top 100 choice coming out of Hitchcock, Bell, who is 6-5, 315 and played tight end, has the tools to be a fine tackle. If he's healthy and aggressive, Dean could stay at guard, which would likely improve the line. Someone else to watch is redshirt freshman Jacolby Ashworth, who looks ready to go. At the very least, he should provide good depth and ought to be a fixture in the offensive line in the future. Bottom line is if the offensive line can develop into one of the league's best units, the Cougars will have statisticians and scorekeepers pulling their hair out all season. The question, of course, is will they.
But the biggest questions to answer are on defense. UH loses all four starters in the defensive line, though Isaiah Thompson, Tyrell Graham, and David Hunter played quite a bit. Thompson is a man mountain, not a penetrator like Cody Pree but an interior lineman who can stack things up. Hunter has a bright future. Hopefully he takes a quantum leap and develops into an all-league quality player. He has that drive to succeed that separates the best from the also-rans. Demarcus Lattier provides solid depth, but he's about it as far as interior linemen. Doug Winfield and possibly true freshmen or walk-ons round out defensive tackle. Talented freshman DeAnthony Sims may need to forego a redshirt. The situation at defensive end is scarier in some respects. Tyrell Graham could have a breakout year. He's a great athlete, who's only played the position one season. But he needs to put on some muscle. He may be great with a speed rush, but he'll get pushed around in the running game if he's only 225. The other end position is up for grabs. The top contenders are Michael Ray, Mohammed Usman, and just possibly true freshman Radermon Scypion. Apparently Doran Guillory has left the team. UH really needs at least one of those players to come on strong this season. Ray has a lot of potential. Hopefully he'll begin to realize it. The defensive line is undersized, especially on the flanks, and depth is thin as paper, but there should be more quickness up front. The question is whether that will mean the defense gets to the runner faster and improves the pass rush or whether the defensive line will get consistently blown off the ball on dives and off tackle runs.
Linebacker's biggest question is smack dab in the middle, and it largely involves the health of Matt Nicholson. If he's 100%, he should be a very competent middle linebacker. Nick Thurston is manning the position in the spring. On the outside, fans will want to see if Marcus McGraw can improve on his spectacular freshman season, in which he led the team in tackles. C.J. Cavness, who was fourth on the team in tackles, should man the other outside spot unless there's a surprise. Some questions to ask are will last year's juco signees, Thurston and A.V. Johnson, make their presence felt this season, and also will Anthony Lewis start to realize some of his potential. Will Kris Johnston make the move to OLB seamlessly and have an impact? And could a true freshman such as George Bamfo, Steven Robertson, or Phillip Steward have the kind of season McGraw had last year in his freshman campaign? Nicholson is the key. If he's healthy and plays well, the junior college transfers step up, and a freshman or two can at least provide some depth, the linebacker corps should be in pretty good hands.
The defense will welcome several newcomers to the secondary, so obviously a big question is how much they'll contribute. Hopefully, two junior college transfers, Jacky Candy and Devin Mays, will be solid starters, though Mays won't be at UH until August. And how well redshirt freshman Jackie Hinton, a terrific athlete, and sophomore Nick Saenz, who has a nose for the ball, are able to step in is critical. Brandon Brinkley was a question mark a couple of years ago, but he's become an exclamation point, not to mention the closest thing the Cougars have had to a lockdown corner in a couple of years. So there's hope that the secondary will be improved. The newcomers are fast and athletic, but the biggest question for the defensive backs may be what kind of pass rush the front seven will get.
Special teams look to be pretty set and don't have many questions to answer. Chase Turner is the best punter at UH in years, and Jordan Mannisto came on strong as a placekicker toward the end of last season. The Cougars' return men could compete for an NCAA track championship with Tyron Carrier, Kierre Johnson, and Isaiah Sweeny on hand. Cory Johnson provided needed consistency as a long snapper, and he‘s back for three more years. And with the quality of athlete improving at UH, chances are so will coverage on the punting and kicking teams.