Our Texas Tour continues with a preview of the University of Houston Cougars from the Conference USA. Writing our preview is the Collegefootballtopten.com guest blogger Thomas B. Gray, a big Houston fan, alum and blogger. Check out his blog where he writes about many things including college football.
Houston Cogar Cougar Preview
There are always risks and uncertainties involving a new coaching staff, especially one led by somebody with no previous head coaching experience. But Kevin Sumlin, who assumes control of the Houston Cougars following the departure of Art Briles to Baylor, has an excellent pedigree as an assistant coach. Sumlin spent the last five years working under Bob Stoops as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator; previous to that, he served at the same position at Texas A&M. The Indianapolis native, who played for Purdue as a linebacker, has also served as an assistant on coaching staffs at Washington State, Wyoming, Minnesota and his alma mater. Joining Sumlin is an experienced staff including former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson and defensive coordinator John Skladany, who previously served as defensive coordinator at Iowa State and Center Florida.
Sumlin’s first big decision of the fall was made a week ago, when Case Keenum was named starting quarterback. Keenum, last year’s Conference USA Freshman of the Year, had spent the offseason battling for the starting position with Blake Joseph, whom also took snaps at QB last season. The stronger-armed Joseph apparently looked good during spring practices, but Keenum, who clearly has the better scrambling ability and pocket presence of the two quarterbacks, performed better during August drills. Although doubts about his ability to lob the deep bombs persist, Keenum has been working on his arm strength over the offseason and should be able to pick up where he left off last fall as offensive leader.
The offensive line is expected to be the strength of the offense this fall. LT Sebastian Vollmer, RG Mike Bloesch and C Carl Barnett, who had a rough start last year but improved as the season wore on, return as offensive line starters. The biggest news on the o-line, however, is the return of SirVincent Rogers, who hasn’t played since 2006. There’s no denying that SirVincent was one of the most talented linemen in the conference prior to his injury, but he was also so prone to committing devastating personal fouls that teammates gave him the nickname “Sir Penalty.” If he has matured as a player and if he can stay healthy – always a concern for players returning from major injuries – he could be playing on Sundays. As a welcome change, O-line depth is not a concern either: reserves Josh Bell, Isiah Agson and Matt Hart are all experienced upperclassmen. The o-line needs to provide better pass protection than they did a year ago, when they gave up a cringe-inducing 34 sacks. To be fair, however, some of those sacks were caused by young quarterback uncertainty more than anything else.
The wideouts are the weakest position on offense. Mark Hafner, who played tight end last year but is being moved to the slot receiver position in Holgerson’s new offense, is almost certainly the best receiver on the team. Last year, he caught 40 passes for 428 yards. Other than Hafner, the two other most experienced returning wide receivers are LJ Castile and Chris Gilbert. However, neither of them show up as starters on the latest depth chart: Gilbert is still recovering from off-season surgery, and LJ was apparently too inconsistent in practice to nail down a starting gig. The relative inexperience of the other wide receivers that are listed as starters – redshirt freshmen Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, JUCO transfer Kierrie Johnson and sophomore Charles Rodriguez – is cause for concern.
The backfield situation is a bit more set. Terrance Ganaway’s decision to transfer out of the program means that Andre Kohn will assume the starting RB position by default. He didn’t see a lot of action last year, carrying only 28 times for 146 yards, but made a name for himself with his 67-yard touchdown reception in the Texas Bowl. His backups will include true freshman Bryce Beall, who apparently made such an impression in practice that he climbed to the top of the depth chart, and redshirt freshman Justin Johnson. Again, not a lot of experience here, but since the new offense will likely rely on the pass rather than the run, that’s not as big a concern as the wide receiver situation.
The defense is reverting back to a 4-3 scheme in order to take advantage of a line that is expected to be the strength of the Cougar defense this fall. All-Conference senior Philip Hunt, who notched 10.5 sacks and 18 TFLs last season, is the star of the defense. He is joined on the line by seniors Tate Stewart and Ell Ash and sophomore Isaiah Thompson. Experienced backups include seniors Cody Pree and Jake Ebner and transfer Tyrell Graham, who previously played linebacker at Arkansas. Unfortunately, another top D-line sub, Billy Hartford, suffered an ACL injury in practice and is done for the season.
The defense will likely have to rely on the line to stop the run because they feature only one returning starting linebacker, Cody Lubojasky. Lubojasky, a four-year starter, had 59 tackles last season. Junior Matt Nicholson, who played in every game last season and notched 36 tackles, will be joining him, and as will true freshman Marcus McGraw. This position is clearly the weak spot in the defense.
The secondary is going to be anchored by safety Kenneth Fontennette, another defensive leader and all-conference player who had 65 tackles and four interceptions last year. Safety Earnest Miller and corners Quinte Williams and Brandon Brinkley also return from last season’s squad. While the secondary did lead the conference in pass defense, they also gave up 28 touchdowns last season and only managed to pick off 14 interceptions, so there is plenty of room for improvement.
Special Teams were clearly an area of neglect during the Briles era, and it showed. The Cougars were 114th (out of 119 FBS teams) in net punting average, and kicking game (or lack thereof) cost the Cougars at least one win last year (when T. J. Lawrence missed not one, but two, late field goals against East Carolina). Replacing Lawrence at place kicker is Ben Bell, who is back after sitting out all of last season. He is usually reliable from inside 40 yards. He is being pushed, however, by true freshman Jordan Mannisto, who has impressed in practice. Chase Turner returns as punter; after a slow start, he came on strong last season and averaged 42.7 yards per punt. He needs better punt return coverage; the Cougars also need to a better job with kick returns this fall.
Penalties and turnovers were other problems for the Cougars last year, as the team was among the top ten most-penalized programs in FBS last season and was 99th in turnover margin.
SCHEDULE AND OUTLOOK
The Coogs start the Sumlin era at home against Southern, but then have to go on the road for five of the next seven games, starting with a trip to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State and to Fort Collins to play Colorado State. The Cowboys lost to Houston at Robertson Stadium two years ago and will have revenge on their minds, while the UH offense will probably still be working out some kinks. The Cougars then play a pair of Mountain West teams, hosting Air Force and then going to the thin air of Fort Collins to play Colorado State. The Cougar road trip continues the following week with a trip to Greenville, North Carolina to play the East Carolina Pirates.
After a well-timed bye week in early October, the Coogs host UAB and then go on another back-to-back road trip. The game against SMU and new coach June Jones in Dallas will likely be a shootout, and a Tuesday night game against Marshall will give the Coogs some exposure on ESPN. November, however, shapes up nicely. The Cougars do not have to leave the City of Houston and get two of their toughest divisional opponents, Tulsa and UTEP, at home along with Tulane. The Bayou Bucket at Rice Stadium is the last game of the season.
How the Cougars perform in 2008 is going to depend on a variety of factors. The team certainly returns a lot of talent, and that along with a reasonably-favorable schedule are reasons for optimism. But there are also a lot of questions that remain to be answered. How will Sumlin and the rest of his staff adapt to their new roles as coaches? How quickly will the offensive players grasp Holgerson’s spread offense? How will the two biggest question marks on the team – wide receivers and linebackers – perform? Will there be significant improvement in special teams, penalties and turnovers? The answers to these questions will be the difference between contending for the C-USA title and a rough, transitional year.
Thomas B. Gray
Dubai, United Arab Emirates