The Year of the Cougar?
Many University of Houston football fans believe the moon is entering the Seventh House, Jupiter is aligning with Mars, and 2010 will be the Year of the Cougar. They may be right. While some questions need to be answered, UH is a heavy favorite to win Conference USA, and a few early Top 25 lists include the Cougars. Coach Kevin Sumlin's third year at the helm of the University of Houston program just may be the charm. UH returns as many as nine starters from the juggernaut that led the nation in total offense by 58 yards per game and tied Boise for most points per game. Former offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson was so successful that Oklahoma State lured him away; co-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips, who has coached with Holgerson and some other pretty good offensive minds, including Dan Reeves, Sherman Lewis, and Art Briles, not to mention Sumlin, the passing game coordinator at Oklahoma when Sam Bradford was first in the FBS in passing efficiency as a freshman, takes the reins. A record-setting Texas Tech quarterback and last season's offensive quality control assistant, Kliff Kingsbury, assumes Phillips's former position. The defensive staff also saw a change as Brian Stewart, the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in ‘07 and ‘08, now fills the same role with the Cougars. Phillips's offensive changes will likely be subtle; Stewart is revamping the defense, moving from a 4-3 to a multiple defense with a base 3-4, which will be more of an attacking than bend-but-don't-break scheme.
But the returning and new personnel are the primary reasons optimism abounds, starting with the return of senior quarterback Case Keenum, last year's Conference USA Player of the Year and an O'Brien Award finalist. Keenum's numbers were outrageous. In both passing yards and total offense, he led the nation by 75 yards more per game than his closest competitor. He'll be throwing to one of the best receivers in college football in James Cleveland, who finished third nationally in receptions per game. Cleveland will be aided and abetted by Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards, the 20th and 27th leading receivers, respectively, in ‘09. Bryce Beall, a former C-USA Freshman of the Year and 1200-yard rusher, is the running back after exciting freshman Charles Sims was declared ineligible for the season. The offensive line has five players back who started last season, so the offense should again be one of the best in the country. Even so, Houston will have to improve defensively if the Year of the Cougar is to materialize. As good as UH was offensively last year, the team was just about as bad defensively, finishing 111th in total defense and 95th in scoring defense. But there are signs heralding a change of fortune. Houston signed Matangi Tonga, one of the top junior college defensive linemen in the nation, and he showed in the spring that he can be a difference-maker. Linebacker Matt Nicholson was an integral piece of last year‘s defense before an early-season injury; he‘s expected back along with Marcus McGraw, who is on the Nagurski Watch List. Defensive lineman David Hunter, who was playing at an all-conference level before an injury limited his effectiveness, returns along with cornerback Jamal Robinson, whose interception sealed the win at Oklahoma State, and safety Nick Saenz. Additionally, numerous true freshmen who saw more playing time than the coaches would have liked are no longer rookies but rather returning lettermen.
Keenum is already one of the all-time great Houston quarterbacks, and he's on track to break most every UH passing record. If he passes for 4123 yards, 1528 less than he threw for last year, he will become the NCAA's all-time career passing yardage leader. But Keenum is more than just a good passer. He has an uncanny knack for feeling and eluding pressure, he has become thoroughly familiar with the offense and reading defenses, and he is the team leader. Strong senior leadership has always been an integral part of the Cougars' best teams. If Keenum has an area to work on, it would be arm strength. He doesn't have a rocket for an arm, and defenses may start cramming the short routes unless the Cougars can demonstrate that the deep ball is a weapon in their arsenal. Keenum worked with strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson in the off-season, and he should be able to go over the top more often, though his 55-yard on-the-money pass against Rice last year showed that he's not incapable of throwing deep. He just needs to do it more consistently. Cotton Turner is the likely backup, though redshirt freshman Drew Hollingshead and Crawford Jones will make a push for the #2 spot.
The Cougars usually run a one-back set, and with Charles Sims ineligible, junior Bryce Beall (5-11, 210) will again be the starter. Obviously losing Sims doesn't help, but people forget what a good back Beall was in ‘08 and part of ‘09. He had bruised ribs last year, which limited his effectiveness. Beall is some 20 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman, and has more power than Sims. He fights for every yard, though he has to be sure to secure the ball while doing that. He doesn't have the explosiveness that Sims has, but he's a quality running back. He is also effective on screens and a good blocker. Beall should be fine; he‘ll likely pass 1000 yards rushing fairly easily and also catch roughly 40 passes. The big question at running back is how Chris Wilson (5-11, 215) will play as Beall‘s reserve. Wilson is a tough runner who can dish out as much punishment as he takes. He was on his high school's regional qualifying 400-meter relay team, so he's not slow. The Cougars need him to fill in ably for Beall with no significant letdown. Utah State transfer Kurtis Shaw (5-8, 193) could add a scatback dimension to the offense.
UH should have one of the finest groups of receivers in the country, and that's not hyperbole. Three of the top 30 receivers in the FBS were Cougars, and they're all back, including the nation's third-leading receiver, senior James Cleveland (6-2, 205). Cleveland, who plays the big slot position, achieved such success despite playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder and a bad ankle much of the season. He heads into 2010 100% healthy. Promising sophomore Tyler Chambers (6-4, 240), a Mark Hafner clone, will be his backup. At the other slot is one of the fastest receivers in college football, junior Tyron Carrier (5-8, 165), but he's a complete receiver, not just a sprinter playing the position. Carrier runs good routes, is effective catching the ball downfield, and has a knack for turning screens into big plays. Defenders will be in for a change of pace when the top reserve at Carrier's position, Justin Johnson (6-1, 225), gets on the field. The coaches hope Johnson can be effective on short routes, and also give the offense a more dependable blocker than the 5-8 Carrier, since the slot receiver's blocking can spring screen passes. As fast as Carrier is, former offensive coordinator Holgerson claimed the fastest receiver on the field last year was Patrick Edwards (5-9, 175), a junior who was the team's leading receiver in 2008 before his gruesome injury at Marshall, one from which he is now completely recovered. Speedy sophomores Isaiah Sweeney and Marcus Williams are next on the depth chart. Edwards is one of two outside receivers; the other will be either senior Kierre Johnson (5-10, 170) or junior E. J. Smith. Both have excellent speed. Johnson has more experience, and has had some big games and catches in his career, but the coaches like the potential of Smith, who is 6-1 and almost 190. Ronnie Williams and Demetrius Woods are also in the mix.
Tight end has been deemphasized in the spread offense at UH. Wesley Scourten (6-6, 240) missed last season with a foot injury, but Coach Phillips may try to get the ball to him a few times this season. Tyler Chambers could also play tight end, but the position will mostly be used for blocking in short-yardage situations.
Unfortunately, second-team all-conference performer Jarve Dean was kicked off the team in March, but the offensive line should still be a strength. All but one of this season's first-teamers started in ‘09. Senior Roy Watts (6-6, 315), the oldest Cougar on the roster, will move over to right tackle, and sophomore Jacolby Ashworth (6-4, 290), the player Watts replaced for most of last season because of injury, is back to protect Keenum's blindside. Both Watts and Ashworth excel at pass blocking, and that's what UH most needs from its tackles. Jaryd Anderson, who started some games at left guard in ‘09 and replaced Watts in the C-USA Championship Game, is listed behind Ashworth, while redshirt sophomore Ralph Oragwu is the top reserve at right tackle. Junior Chris Thompson (6-2, 285) returns for his third year as a starter at right guard and may be up for all-conference honors; he may have the kind of year that would put him on the Lombardi Watch List for 2011. He moves exceptionally well for an offensive lineman. In some respects, Isaiah Thompson (6-4, 300) is just what the doctor ordered at left guard. He can't get outside or downfield as well as his namesake on the other side, but he can do something that Cougar interior linemen had trouble doing last season: He can push defensive tackles off the ball, which is a necessity against 4-3 schemes, and one of the major reasons UH struggled running the ball against ECU and UCF last year. The Cougars had a combined total of 76 yards rushing in those two games. Two impressive redshirt freshmen, Ty Cloud and Kevin Forsch, are behind the Thompsons. Senior Jordan Shoemaker (6-3, 280) takes over for Carl Barnett at center. Like C. Thompson, Shoemaker is very athletic; in fact, he was a blocking back as a sophomore. UH can't afford to have a situation like the team had in ‘08 when the starting right tackle was lost for the season and two games later his replacement was as well. There's some depth, but probably not enough to overcome a couple of season-ending injuries.
When was the last time UH had a first-rate defensive line? It sure wasn't last year. One probably would have to go back to the late 80s, when Cougars such as Glenn Montgomery, Alfred Oglesby, and Craig Veasey prowled the trenches. The 2010 defensive line won't be that good, but there's hope that it will be much improved over last year's unit, which was filled with freshmen. UH will run some four-man fronts, but the base defense will have two defensive ends and a nose tackle. Few, if any, players the Cougars could have signed would have helped the defense as much as Matangi Tonga, a 6-2, 290-pound senior defensive lineman, who played extensively as a true freshman in ‘06 at BYU; was recruited by USC, Nebraska, Oregon, and others; and will likely be drafted after this season. Tonga was the starting right end coming out of the spring, but he may yet play inside. Nose tackle is probably the most important position in the 3-4, and having an all-conference-caliber player there surely appeals to the coaches. The question would then become who starts in Tonga's place at right end. Left end is set with David Hunter (6-2, 290), a junior Sumlin called the Cougars‘ "best defensive lineman" last season. He played very well early, recovering two fumbles at Oklahoma State and causing and recovering one against Texas Tech. If Tonga plays inside, the right end should be either Radermon Scypion (6-4, 245), Michael Ray (6-3, 270), or Ameen Behbahani (6-2, 282). Scypion is making a push to start; however, he has to get bigger to be successful as a 3-4 end. The previous staff was very high on Ray, but he's languished on the bench the past couple of years. Behbahani's size is more in line with what the coaches want at the position. If Tonga starts at end, Tyrone Campbell, who showed flashes as a true freshman last year, will start on the nose. He's now close to 290 and quick. DeAnthony Sims (6-3, 305) is the other kind of nose tackle, a massive lineman who uses raw strength to defeat blocks. They could complement each other well.
The play of the linebackers is especially critical in the 3-4, and the four starters should be up to the job. Marcus McGraw (5-11, 210), a junior on the Nagurski Watch List, was third nationally last season in total tackles. He's an instinctive linebacker who makes up for what he lacks in size with speed and a nose for the ball. Lining up opposite him will be senior Matt Nicholson (6-3, 230), a team captain last year who was injured early in the season. In the three games he played, the Cougar defense allowed 21 points per game. After his injury, the team surrendered 32 points per game, including a 58-point outburst by UTEP the first game that Nicholson missed. UH needs Nicholson to stay healthy this year. There's little experience behind the starters at inside linebacker. John McIntyre and Jeremy Smith, both valuable special teams performers, are the second-teamers. Phillip Steward (6-1, 220), who was thrust into starting duty as a true freshman last year, mans one outside linebacker position. Steward has a world of potential. He runs well and was responsible for the "man-slam" of a UCF running back, yet he was often out of position. A year of experience ought to make a difference. George Bamfo and, if he's healthy, Kris Johnston, will be in reserve. On the other side, junior-college transfer Sammy Brown (6-3, 235) had a strong spring and could be a difference-maker. He showed a knack for getting into the backfield and disrupting the offense. Kelvin King was impressive as well and will see the field plenty. At 255, King can also double as an end when the defense switches to a four-man front.
The coaching staff feels better about the secondary this year than they have since they arrived at UH in ‘08. Cornerback appears to be fairly solid with returning senior Jamal Robinson, who led the team in interceptions. Robinson is especially effective shutting down screens and wide running plays. His backup is Thomas Bates, a good-looking redshirt freshman. On the other side is Loyce Means, a talented defensive back, but one who has yet to put together a complete season. Devin Mays, who signed with Oregon out of high school, is right behind Means, and he will be the nickel back when the Cougars go to a prevent defense. Junior Roisean Haynes (5-11, 190) finished the spring ahead of sophomore Jeffery Lewis (5-9, 185) on the depth chart, but Lewis could still win the job. Both are very good athletes. Haynes ran track for relay teams that challenged Hightower with Isaiah Sweeney and Clyde Lee. Despite his size, Lewis can lay the wood, and he has that sixth sense for the ball. This is a battle that may not be decided until shortly before the opener against Texas State. Junior Nick Saenz (6-1, 185) returns at free safety, and could be on the verge of becoming an all-conference-caliber defensive back. He held off a spring challenge from junior-college transfer Jacky Candy, a player many observers thought would be starting somewhere in the secondary this season.
For the most part, special teams have been outstanding under Coach Sumlin. One reason for such stellar performance is kicker Matt Hogan, who showed tremendous grace under pressure when he nailed maybe the most dramatic field goal in UH history, a 51-yarder as time expired to beat Tulsa on the road. He was also perfect on his twelve field-goal attempts. He should be a major asset to the team. Hogan also finished the spring as the #1 punter, but that job will likely fall to incoming freshman Richie Leone, Georgia's high school punter of the decade. He averaged just over 46 yards per punt as a senior. The Cougars' kickoff return team has become about as lethal as the offense. Tyron Carrier is the active FBS leader in kickoff returns for touchdowns with five, only two short of the all-time record. He could be joined again by 4.4 sprinter Devin Mays, who returned one for a TD himself last year, or Isaiah Sweeney, an NCAA regional qualifier in the 100 meters and the Texas 5A high school 100 meter champion in 2008. The coaches would like to relieve Carrier of punt return duties. A true freshman such as Darian Lazard or Dominique Sanders could get the call. Just as important as the legs of the kickers and return men is the athleticism of the players blocking and in coverage on special teams. That's an area where improved recruiting and a better walk-on program is going to pay dividends, as players such as George Bamfo, Thomas Bates, Jeffery Lewis, Jeremy Smith, Marc Woods, John McIntryre, and Jacky Candy will make a difference.
UH has the talent to beat everyone on their schedule, not that they necessarily will. Last year‘s team won 10 games, and in the process beat #5 Oklahoma State on the road when the Cowboys still had Dez Bryant in the lineup and also a fine Texas Tech team. The Cougars should be better this season; just how much is hard to say. The offense ought to be about as productive as it was last year. Keenum and the three primary receivers are back, so expect fireworks again with the passing game. The offensive line should give Keenum the time he needs, and more size at guard will help the running game. Without doubt, Charles Sims would have provided another weapon, but Bryce Beall is a fine back in his own right. While he may not be quite the playmaker Sims would have been, he runs well between the tackles, and he caught 34 passes in nine games as a starter in ‘08. And Beall's capable of breaking big plays as well. What the offense may need to do is add some new wrinkles and throw deep more often. The defense that caused the most problems for UH, Air Force, seemed to have the team very well-scouted, and managed to shut down the short and intermediate passing lanes. Now some of the problem was Keenum had by far his worst game. Some of that may be attributed to cold, windy weather, but whatever the case, Air Force did what it needed to do to slow down the Cougars. Teams will undoubtedly watch that film and employ similar strategies, so the offense needs to be tweaked enough to move the ball against such schemes.
What the offense may need to do is add some new wrinkles and throw deep more often. The defense that caused the most problems for UH, Air Force, seemed to have the team very well-scouted, and managed to shut down the short and intermediate passing lanes. Now some of the problem was Keenum had by far his worst game. Some of that may be attributed to cold, windy weather, but whatever the case, Air Force did what it needed to do to slow down the Cougars. Teams will undoubtedly watch that film and employ similar strategies, so the offense needs to be tweaked enough to move the ball against such schemes.
The defense simply must improve if the Cougars are to have the kind of big season they want to have. The athletes are superior on defense in 2010, and they are more experienced. Tonga and Hunter up front are potential all-conference linemen, and McGraw and Nicholson should be as fine a pair of linebackers as there is in C-USA. Last year before Nicholson's injury, Sumlin claimed that UH had the best linebackers in the conference. There's talent and experience in the secondary. If the defense can just finish in the 70s in total defense, that should be enough to win the conference. If the unit were to rank closer to 50, a BCS bowl wouldn't be inconceivable. Maybe the biggest question for the Cougars is depth. While the team surely isn't stocked three-deep at every position like some upper-echelon SEC programs, neither will the coaches have to throw true freshmen into the fire as both starters and top reserves. UH faltered at the end of last season, at least in part because of a lack of depth. That lack of depth was telling both in how worn down the team was late, and also in some of the players that were forced to start. The team was playing with a third-team left tackle, for example, in the championship game, and, frankly, the Cougars didn't really even have one. A reserve, walk-on guard was moved over. If the team stays healthy, a Top 25 ranking is very possible. But if, say, a couple of offensive tackles go down, a defensive lineman and a key linebacker are seriously injured, and so on, then UH would be doing very well just to win their division, much less C-USA.
The schedule presents problems, especially with conference games. Last year next to no one thought the team would defeat all three of Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Mississippi State, yet the Cougars did just that. The regular-season losses came against league foes on the road. There are three more tough contests against AQ-conference schools when UH travels to UCLA and Texas Tech, and hosts would should be an improved Mississippi State. Another sweep would be great, but winning two of three would be fine and dandy. The most dangerous threats to the Cougars' season may be when they travel to Dallas to play SMU and to Hattiesburg to take on Southern Miss. And that's not to say that UCF, Tulsa, and UTEP at Robertson will be pushovers, nor even Rice at Rice Stadium. But the SMU game may determine the West's representative in the championship game. The Mustangs should be improved, and their conference schedule is more favorable than the Cougars is. On the other hand, if UH does successfully navigate a tough schedule to one degree or another, the team's RPI and BCS ranking will be higher. If by some chance the team were to pull off a perfect season, there‘s a good chance UH would finish ahead of TCU and Boise, assuming those teams went undefeated as well, in the BCS standings. The strength of schedule would be very close, so close that UH winning a 13th game against an 8-9 win team in the championship could give the Cougars the edge for a BCS bowl slot. That would be a dream season, but maybe the stars are aligning, and 2010 will indeed be the Year of the Cougar.