2009 CoogFans' Houston Cougar Football Preview
"No one ever defended anything successfully; there is only attack and attack and attack some more." -- General George S. Patton
Old Blood and Guts' quote may be fitting for UH this year. The team appears loaded offensively and ready to attack defenses on the ground and through the air, though one wonders if they‘ll be able to defend anything successfully. Some eight starters return from a unit that ranked second nationally in total offense. And one of those returnees is quarterback Case Keenum, who only led all of college football in total offense last season. Coach Sumlin has stocked the skill positions with young talent. Running back Bryce Beall is a preseason first-team all-league selection, as is receiver Tyron Carrier. And the Coogs' leading receiver before he suffered an injury in the team's eighth game, Patrick Edwards, could be ready to start in the opener. The offensive line is a work in progress, but the material is available to sculpt a near-masterpiece. UH has some new linemen, especially junior college transfers, who are working on getting in shape and learning the offensive schemes. College football isn't what it was some 20 years ago when UH beat Nebraska 17-14 in the Cotton Bowl, and the two teams combined gained exactly as many yards, 562, as UH averaged per game last season. But offense is king in C-USA. Of course, having a good defense helps, but the team that has finished first in the conference in total defense has won the league only once, and that was last year with East Carolina. And many analysts thought two or three C-USA clubs were as good or better late in the season than ECU, which looked feeble in a Liberty Bowl loss to Kentucky. Houston isn't bereft of talent on the defensive side of the ball. The defensive line has some talent, and head coach Kevin Sumlin has said the Cougar linebackers will be the best in the conference. The real problem for the front seven is depth. Despite losing two starting safeties, the secondary could be improved in '09. The Cougars may finally have something resembling a shutdown corner in Brandon Brinkley, coverage should be tighter, and there is some depth here. Special teams ought to be outstanding. The punter's leg may be strong enough to qualify him for the X-Men, and there are two able, experienced kickers who will compete for or possibly share the position; furthermore, there is an abundance of speedy smurfs to ignite the kickoff and punt return teams.
Expectations for the Cougars run high in the media. The New York Times claims UH is the nation's 30th best team. An early CBS poll has the Cougars coming in at #25. Texas Football says the Coogs will finish 10-2, and 11 of 19 Texas sportswriters polled in the magazine predict UH will win C-USA. One website had the audacity to pick Houston #16! The team's offense should be Top 25-caliber, and special teams should be about as good. But the defense is a problem. Finding ways to get pressure on the quarterback is paramount for defensive coordinator John Skladany. The mood of the season should largely be determined in the rising action. After the opener, the Cougars next four opponents include three BCS schools, two of whom were ranked in the top six at one point last season and another from the SEC, and a conference foe that may prove to be Houston's toughest rival in the West--UTEP; moreover, three of those four games are on the road. Sure, the Coogs could go 2-3 or even 1-4 in their first five and still salvage the season, much as they did last year after a 1-3 start. But to achieve the kind of season much of the media (and many UH fans) has predicted, then winning at least two and probably three of the first five is essential. And if the Cougars can navigate the hazardous shoals of the early schedule, they could be in for smooth sailing. The second half of the slate includes six conference games, including four at home.
Case Keenum is ready to make the case that he's one of the University of Houston's all-time great quarterbacks. In only his sophomore season, he finished second among all UH quarterbacks in yards passing and second in passing efficiency. So one could argue that he's already one of the best. Keenum is one of those rare players with magic about him. He doesn't necessarily look like a great one, yet he consistently makes plays that leave fans shaking their heads and opponents shaking their fists. He has a soft touch on his passes, his accuracy is good, he doesn't have a rocket arm, but he can throw the deep ball, his ability to elude the rush is uncanny, and coaches are hoping that his best quality this year will be getting the ball to the right receiver. He did pretty well at that last season given the numbers, but with a full season and spring as the starter in offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson's system, well, the sky really is the limit for him. With the departure of Blake Joseph, Blinn Junior College transfer Cotton Turner, who was the Second-Team All-Greater Houston quarterback in '06 after passing for 2500 yards at Sugarland Dulles, is the new understudy. Turner resembles Keenum as a passer; he too has a light touch and is accurate. But the coaches would like the sophomore to get some more practice time before being thrown to the Bulldogs or Tigers or anyone else on the schedule.
Bryce Beall (6-0, 205) bowled over Cougar fans as much as he did defenders last year after he took over starting duties in the fourth game of the season. He finished the '08 campaign with 1247 yards on 198 carries for a 6.3 average, which was highest in C-USA. Beall (6-0, 205), a fluid runner and excellent athlete, is close to ideal for the UH offense He‘s fast (4.5), he's not Jackie Battle, but he has some power--and should have more this season after gaining 15 pounds of muscle in the weight room--he has good vision and instincts, and he's a real threat as a receiver. By the end of last season, the screen pass to Beall may have been the Cougars‘ most effective play. He should only get better in the next few seasons. Justin Johnson (6-1, 220) had a strong spring could start coming into his own this year if he doesn‘t end up being moved to tight end after Wesley Scourten‘s injury. Johnson was a high school quarterback, who has morphed into a fullback and power tailback. He blocks well, and, like Beall, has good hands. Chris Wilson (6-0, 210) is third on the depth chart. A redshirt freshman, he doesn't have quite the speed of Beall or the power of Johnson, but combines a bit of both. And keep an eye on Charles Sims (6-0, 185), a true freshman from Westbury. He has exceptional football speed and catches the ball very well. He needs to fill out some, as most freshmen do, but don't be surprised if he's the #2 running back by midseason.
An embarrassment of riches describes the Cougars' receiving corps, though Case Keenum's face will be smiling rather than turning red. The headliner may be sophomore slot receiver Tyron Carrier (5-8, 162), who was named to the preseason all-conference first team. Carrier finished fifth in C-USA in receiving last season, ahead of heralded Southern Miss freshman DeAndre Brown. Carrier runs a sub 4.4 forty, and competed in the NCAA 200 meters. Or should Patrick Edwards (5-9, 175), who was leading the team in receptions last year before being injured, be considered the feature presentation? Edwards was remarkable against top competition. Against #23 East Carolina, for example, he caught 11 passes for 146 yards, and did about as well at Oklahoma State, grabbing eight balls for 106 yards. As fast as Carrier is, Edwards is even faster on the field, according to Holgerson. Whoever gets top billing, several opening acts could wind up stealing the show. Chaz Rodriguez (6-2, 190) was fourth on the team with 40 receptions, and this year he'll move to the Y-slot, the same position that Mark Hafner, who caught six more passes than Carrier, played last year, not that he'll be handed the job. The coaches are impressed with James Cleveland (6-1, 205), a junior college transfer, who should push if not overtake Rodriguez. Cleveland, who began his career at Iowa, where he made the All-Big 10 Freshman Team, has a combination of size, toughness, speed, and big-game experience unique to this group of Cougar receivers. Tim Monroe (6-2, 185) gives UH another fast receiver with some size at the position. L. J. Castile (6-3, 210) has shown flashes of brilliance, but the coaches want more consistency from him. He will be Edwards' backup at X receiver, and could be a challenging change of pace for cornerbacks. Kierre Johnson (5-10, 175) is another speedster with a knack for big plays. He caught critical TD passes against ECU and UTEP last season. He's set to start, but he'll have to fend off probably the bluest bluechip the Cougars have signed in years in A. J. Dugat (5-11, 180). Ronnie Williams was impressive in the spring, and E. J. Smith and Isaiah Sweeney add more blinding speed.
The Cougars won't be lining up with a tight end all that often. When they do, letterman Wesley Scourten (6-6, 240) is the likely starter if he's recovered from a foot injury. While Scourten only caught three balls last year, he is a good blocker and his size makes him a threat in the open field. But it's hard to say how long his rehabilitation will take. Plenty of others would like the job. One is Arizona transfer Fendi Onobun (6-6, 250), who played basketball for the Wildcats, but decided to give football a try after being told by scouts that he has a shot at the NFL. Former Baytown Lee star and Cougar baseballer Barry Laird is walking on at tight end. Actually, Laird was considered a pretty good tight end prospect in high school; he was recruited by Iowa and BYU. Justin Johnson also could end up at tight end. That may depend on how the coaches evaluate the others at the position. Onobun's athleticism could eventually win out. And who better to try to block field goals up the middle than a 6-6 former hoopster whose formidable dunking skills could have gotten him pledged into Phi Slama Jama?
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the skill players at UH, the way Kevin Sumlin is building the offensive line into one that looks like more like a Big 10 than a District 10-5A unit is just as impressive. The Cougars have fielded patchwork offensive lines almost every season this decade. The best programs are two and three-deep in the trenches, and UH is getting there. There will be competition for at least a couple of spots, and some players could move to a different position, though that won't be the case with center Carl Barnett (6-2, 290), a fifth-year senior and member of the Rimington Award Watchlist; he should be the group leader. Barnett has always been a fine athlete, skilled at pulling and running interference on screens, but as a sophomore, he would sometimes be overpowered by big nose tackles. That should not be the case in his final campaign. Barnett's work in the weight room has paid off; he's now one of team's strongest players. Redshirt freshman Blake Sargent (6-3, 275) is listed as the backup center. The starters at the end of last season at guard, Jordan Shoemaker (6-3, 280) and Chris Thompson (6-2, 295), return. Shoemaker missed spring practice with an injury, but he should be 100% in the fall. Thompson, probably the Cougars' fastest offensive lineman, returns to his natural position at right guard. He had to fill in at tackle last year when both the starter and his reserve were injured. Thompson is safe at right guard, but Shoemaker will have to fend off a challenge from Jarve Dean (6-3, 325), who can absolutely maul defensive linemen. He's going to be tough to keep out of the starting lineup. And the coaches have been extremely pleased with the progress of former walk-on Jaryd Anderson (6-4, 280). No one on the team works harder, both in the weight and film room. Everyone has been assuming someone would usurp redshirt freshman Jacolby Ashworth (6-3, 285) at left tackle, but no one has; however, that's because Ashworth has been playing more like a fifth-year senior, protecting Keenum's blindside like a Swiss guard watching the Pope. The Coogs have two big ones vying at right tackle, junior-college transfer Roy Watts (6-6, 315), who signed with Texas out of Houston Worthing, and senior Matt Hart (6-6, 310). Hart was slightly ahead coming out of spring practice, but don't be surprised if Watts overtakes him. Watts has quicker feet, and can dominate defensive linemen. Hart knows the blocking schemes better, and the fifth-year senior has more experience at this level. The bad news is that the line hasn't played together and needs to jell quickly. The good news is the talent is there to do just that, and the competition for spots is creating solid depth in the trenches, something the Cougars haven't had in a long time.
First, some need to be disabused of the notion that UH has a "small" defensive line, at least when considering the starters. The starting tackles go 295 and 290, and Isaiah Thompson may be 300+ by now. One end, Michael Ray, is a very typical 6-3, 250, and rush end Tyrell Graham stands roughly 6-4 and weighs about 235. The front four at the University of Texas isn't much bigger, and the defensive line at Texas A&M includes a 6-0, 265-pound tackle flanked by one who goes 256. No, "the Fridge" won't be starting for the Cougars, but the line, while not a huge one, isn't undersized. Defensive coordinator John Skladany is more concerned with speed than size anyway, and he's got it with Tyrell Graham, who could have a breakout year. After his transfer from Arkansas, Graham looked like a man among boys practicing with the scout team while sitting out to get eligible. He played linebacker at Yates and for the Hogs, but he was moved to rush end last season and seems to have found his groove there. On the other side is Michael Ray, who plays the run tough but needs to improve his pass rush. Depth is almost non-existent at end. A. J. Johnson (6-2, 240) played the position some in spring, but the coaches are expecting true freshmen Radermon Scypion (6-4, 235), Kelvin King (6-2, 255), and Zeke Riser (6-4, 250) to work their way into the rotation. The team will look to Thompson to play traffic cop inside and blow the whistle as running plays develop. The Cougars also really need him and David Hunter to get pressure up the middle this year. Hunter has all the tools needed to be a special defensive lineman except experience. Coach Jackson described him as "freakishly strong." The real concern at tackle, as at end, is depth. Demarcus Lattier was a highly recruited defensive lineman out of Garland. He's a little undersized at 6-2, 270, but he must step up and play well in a reserve role. Doug Winfield (6-1, 260) is listed behind Thompson, but don't be surprised if true freshmen DeAnthony Sims (6-3, 307) and Tyrone Campbell (6-2, 280), two of the best linemen in Greater Houston last year, don't quickly work their way into the rotation. Usually playing freshmen in the trenches is a scary prospect, but Sims and Campbell along with Scypion were top recruits and offered by Big 12 programs. The front four is a competent group, but injuries would be a major problem. Unless the freshmen are truly special, there simply isn't enough depth to cope with the loss of starters.
As mentioned, Coach Sumlin said UH will have the best linebackers in C-USA. Bold statement but very possible. Marcus McGraw (5-11, 225) led the team in tackles last season, and was named to the media's preseason all-conference team, Texas Football‘s All-Texas Team, and the 2008 C-USA All-Freshman Team. If, as it has been said, players do show the most improvement from their freshman to sophomore years, then McGraw will be something special. He's been moved to the middle to take advantage of his speed and instincts. He has everything coaches love in linebackers, especially in today's game, except ideal height. Before he was injured against Marshall, senior Matt Nicholson (6-3, 230) was the team's top tackler, and his return should be a big boost. He'll again play on the outside. Nicholson is an unspectacular but very solid defender, who should bring some stability to a defense with a lot of question marks. C. J. Cavness (6-1, 220) took over after Nicholson went down and filled in ably. Although he doesn't have the physical tools McGraw does, he usually is where he's supposed to be on the field, and given the responsibilities of the weakside linebacker, that's very important. Depth is very thin. Nick Thurston (6-1, 255) backs up McGraw and is strong against inside running games, but he can be a liability defending the pass. Kris Johnston (6-0, 210) was moved from strong safety to outside linebacker in the spring. A. J. Johnson could end up in a reserve role at OLB or DE depending on which freshmen show they're ready to contribute. George Bamfo is a good candidate. He may remind Cougar fans of McGraw with his speed and height. If he does with his play as well, he'll be on the field as much as any linebacker outside the starting three.
Maybe the best defensive talent is at linebacker, but the most depth can be found in the secondary. And at least one player could be a star. Cornerback Brandon Brinkley (6-0, 185) is a preseason all-conference choice. Brinkley, who led the league in passes defended last season, is a wily veteran who can sniff out patterns and disrupt passing plays. He may be the closest thing UH has had to a shutdown corner since Stanford Routt, who is now with the Raiders. Still, the secondary is still a bit unsettled in regard not only to who will start but who will play where. The other cornerback could be Carson Blackmon (5-11, 190), Loyce Means (5-10, 175), or Devin Mays (5-11, 170), a junior-college transfer. Much depends on the progression of sophomore free safety Roisean Haynes (5-11, 185). Haynes was a sprinter in high school and is a fine athlete, but he's a newcomer. If he's up to the challenge, Blackmon is the likely starter with Brinkley. But if Haynes isn't ready, the coaches will move Blackmon to safety, a position he's played before and one for which he is well-suited. He has good instincts and also is a little bigger than the other Cougar DBs, so he could be better in run support. If Blackmon plays safety, Loyce Means (5-10, 175) or junior-college transfer Devin Mays (5-11, 170) will start at the other corner. Means is talented. He was one of the state's top defensive backs at Houston Madison. But to win and hold the starting job, he has to show consistency. Means had three interceptions against Tulsa in the Coogs' big 70-30 win, yet he was beaten for two long TD passes the following week against UTEP. Mays reportedly excels as a cover corner, but no one can say how quickly and easily he'll make the transition to big-time college football. Nick Saenz came on strong in the spring and won the strong safety position going away. He's a good athlete, but he also has a good head on his shoulders and gets to where he's supposed to be on the field. He could become a leader in the secondary as only a sophomore. B. K. Johnson, Jamal Robinson, and Tim Mercer give the Coogs some more experienced depth, and don't be surprised if impressive freshman Thomas Bates makes the two-deep.
UH could field its best special teams in years. A few more punts, and senior Chase Turner would have been rated one of the top 10 punters in the nation last season. He's capable of launching the kind of 50-yard spiral cannonballs that UH fans haven't seen from their punter in seemingly ages. Turner also had 12 punts inside the 20. His leg could be a major asset to a defense that may struggle to find itself early. The Cougars have two good ones at kicker in Jordan Mannisto and Ben Bell. Mannisto came on strong at the end of last year, converting 66% of his attempts. Additionally, he averaged 61 yards per kickoff. And Mannisto was a freshman. No doubt his leg will only get stronger. Bell was all-conference in ‘06 based on his consistency; he hit 14 of 18 field goal attempts and led conference kickers in scoring. Although he doesn't have a rocket for a leg, Bell was close to a sure thing that season from inside the 40. So it'll be interesting to see if Coach Sumlin settles on one kicker, or if Bell is used inside the 40 and Mannisto for longer attempts. Although Tyron Carrier's average on kickoff returns wasn't as impressive as it seemingly should have been, he did return one 93 yards for a touchdown. So he's shown he can take it to the house. His punt return average was a very respectable 9.6. And he's got help this year with Kierre Johnson, Patrick Edwards, and possibly some freshmen, maybe A. J. Dugat. The Cougars did an excellent job covering kickoff returns, allowing only 19 yards a return, and that stat should remain high given the quality of athlete that has been and is being recruited into the program.