Houston Insider: 5 Questions

The 2014 season opener at Houston is just days away. Coogfans.com Reporter Jimmy Schofield gives us some insight on the Cougars.

Coogfans.com is the Scout.com affiliate for the University of Houston. Reporter Jimmy Schofield gives us his take from the other side.

1.) What's the excitement like in general for Houston Football with the new stadium? What the overall expectations like?
The excitement for Houston football is “off the chain” (as the kids say) with the debut of their new on campus stadium, TDECU Stadium, upon us. This has been an event in the making for some 68 years as their first on-campus game was in 1946 at the then known as “Public School Stadium,” which was originally built for Houston high school football in 1942. They played there until 1950 before moving to “Houston Stadium,” or what’s known today as Rice Stadium on the campus of their inner-city arch rivals, Rice University, some 7 miles down Main Street. They moved to the Astrodome in 1965 before finally moving back on-campus in 1998 full time when it was known as “Robertson Stadium” or “The Rob” to many UH fans. History lesson aside, along with playing at three different stadiums from 1946 to 2012, the team played in two different stadiums just last season alone while awaiting TDECU Stadium to be built. While playing five games at Reliant Stadium (home of the Houston Texans), they also played twice at BBVA Compass Stadium (home of the MLS Houston Dynamo), because of scheduling conflicts with the Texans. Needless to say, the fans and the student-athletes themselves are ecstatic to have a stadium to call their own. The coaches are also definitely excited to have a true home field advantage while also being able to use the 40,000 seat stadium to recruit as well.

2.) Is it possible that Sophomore QB John O'Korn can be better in his second season? How good can O'Korn and his receiving corps be?
Not only is it possible, but the coaching staff is banking on the improvement of O’Korn in order to take the offense to the next level. O’Korn was a true freshman last season who, while everyone within the program knew he would become the starter sometime during the season, probably became the starter a little too early but only by default as then senior starter David Piland was lost for the season, and his career, due to concussion issues during the second game of the season at Temple which basically fast-tracked O’Korn’s ascension to the top of the QB depth chart. All he accomplished by season’s end in his 11 starts was being named the American Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the year as he passed for over 3,000 yards with an almost 3-to-1 TD to interception ratio (28 TDs to 10 interceptions). Those 28 TDs were a UH Freshman record as were his 259 completions, while his 3,117 passing yards were second all time for a Cougar freshman as he was just 14 yards shy of Kevin Kolb’s mark. Having said that, the Coogs coaching staff, led by offensive coordinator Travis Bush, want O’Korn to become a better decision maker and stand tall in the pocket as he took off too many times last season if he even remotely sensed the pocket collapsing, leading to many unnecessary hits. The coaching staff loves his work ethic though as he’s gained more than 20 pounds over the off-season standing now at a robust 225 pounds.
His receiver core is scary deep, led by Biletnikoff Watch List finalist Deontay Greenberry. The junior inside receiver doubled his yards from his true freshman season of 2012 (569 yards) with 1,202 yards on 82 receptions to go with 11 TDs. The physical (6-foot-3 inches, 200 pounds) former five star recruit from Fresno, California has a wide catch radius meaning if the ball is remotely in his area he’ll come down with it. Daniel Spencer is the other inside receiver who’s also become a reliable target over the years. The senior was second on the team last season with 768 yards on 52 receptions with 6 TDs. Outside receivers Markeith Ambles, Demarcus Ayers and Greg Ward Jr. along with inside ‘possession’ reserve Shane Ros round out the deep receiving core while adding a combination of size for jump ball opportunities, (Ambles stands at 6’2, 201) with speed outside in Ayers and Ward (both of whom are just true sophomores). One route Roadrunner fans should be leery of is the inside slant between Greenberry and O’Korn, as Bush loves to use play-action to suck in opposing linebackers before burning defensive backs down the seam against a physically imposing Greenberry who has the speed to ‘take it to the house.’

3.) On of the biggest questions Houston faces is the offensive line. Three new starters will lineup vs UTSA, what are the expectations from that group?
The expectations of the offensive line are high despite the three new starters as even though they may be starting for the first time in their careers, none of the new starters are new to the program. Starting right tackle Alex Cooper (6’4, 297) along with left guard Emeka Okafor (6’5, 320) are both juniors who have been in the program for a few years now. Left tackle Damian Parris (6’6, 290) is also a junior who sat out last year due to rehabbing a knee injury after transferring from California’s Contra Costa JC. The other two starters are Bryce Redman (6’2, 295) and Rowdy Harper (6’5, 295) at center and right guard respectively. Both are seniors who have combined for 60 starts over the years, with Redman starting the past 21 games at center. Transfers Ben Dew (6’4, 315) out of Hawaii and Travis Cross (6’4, 290) from Oklahoma State will add solid depth along with the likes of redshirt freshman Josh and Ja’Braylin Thomas who stand at 6’6, 315 and 6’6, 348 pounds respectively, for what could be a solid nine man rotation. Long story short, Cougars head coach Tony Levine and staff has done a solid job in recruiting as true freshman are no longer needed to play along the interior lines on either side of the ball.

4.) "The Third Ward Defense" made a huge improvement in 2013 and adds A&M transfer Gavin Stansbury. What are the expectations on Stansbury and the rest of the defense? Also who are some of the players to watch?
For the first time in a very long time the defense could carry the Cougars through the early part of the season, especially if the offensive line doesn’t gel as quickly as needed. The “Third Ward Defense” led the nation in turnover margin last season (plus 25) as coordinator David Gibbs simplified the scheme in his first season. While most of the nation thought of the defense as a bend but don’t break type of defense, the truth of the matter is they were 34th in the nation in yards per play last season allowing only 5.23 and more importantly, only allowing 21.8 points per game, ranking them 20th nationally. As for Stansbury, he’ll add to an already deep defensive line as Gibbs regularly rotated 9 linemen along the line, with them all returning with the exception of strong side defensive end Eric Braswell, who tore an ACL during spring ball. Stansbury, the 2013 Texas A&M defensive player of the year (as voted by his teammates), doesn’t lack for confidence as he’s stated he’s ready to dominate the American Athletic Conference this season. Fellow defensive ends Tyus Bowser and Trevor Harris get after opposing QB’s pretty good and my favorite under-the-radar defensive player is reserve defensive tackle Jeremiah Farley. The 6’0, 281 pound senior was second on the defense with 9 tackles-for-loss as he used his “smallish” frame on the interior to leverage his way into collapsing the pocket often last season. Gibbs has stated that in order to have a good defense you have to be good “up the middle,” and he has one on each level of the defense in starting tackle Joey Mbu (6’3, 310), Mike linebacker Derrick Mathews and free safety Trevon Stewart. Mbu’s stats aren’t sexy but his job is to cause chaos in the backfield, allowing Mathews and weak side linebacker Efrem Oliphant (the defenses leading tackler last season with 134 including 13 for loss) to clean up. All Mathews has done over his first three seasons is to accumulate 175 solo tackles, including 39 for loss over the course of his 39 consecutive starts. Stewart, leader of the “Jack Boys,” the nickname of the Cougars defensive backs, led all of college football last season with 10 forced turnovers by himself with 6 fumble recoveries and 4 interceptions. Stewart, along with Mathews, just has an instinct that always places them around the ball.

5.) Last year's UTSA vs Houston was close before the fourth quarter. The Cougars are favored by double digits this time around. Do you feel like they should be able to win going away or is a close game expected? What is your score prediction?

Many Coogfans are expecting a blowout to christen the new stadium. I, however, am not. The type of leadership the Roadrunners have, along with motivation for last season’s game between these two, has me thinking this game will be close all the way. Plus first games are always messy on both sides. My final score prediction has the Coogs winning 31-27, which is exactly the type of game that got away from them last season as their five losses came by an average of just 7 points.

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