Blue Ribbon Preview: Houston
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Fans can absolutely excuse Kevin Sumlin if the 2010 season is not one of his favorite topics of conversation.
"We're through talking about last year," he said.
And why not? After a '09 campaign that featured 10 wins and enough offensive fireworks to satisfy the July 4 needs of the entire state of Texas, the Cougars fell hard, thanks to a combination of crippling injuries. The headline, of course, was quarterback Case Keenum's torn ACL in in the third game of the season that caused considerable upheaval and turned what was supposed to be a championship season into a struggle to retrench. It didn't help that backup Cotton Turner was hurt in the same game, giving the Cougars a pair of freshmen under center.
Add in a late season knee injury to senior linebacker and defensive leader Matt Nicholson, and you can see why the Cougars slid to 5-7.
"There were a lot of circumstances that happened that forced guys into roles they had never been in before," Sumlin said. "We were trying to make younger kids leaders, and that added pressure to them. I think our guys responded. We had some close games, but we couldn't close them out. That's where leadership comes to the forefront."
The good news for Cougars fans is that the NCAA granted Keenum a sixth year of eligibility. That means the man who has already thrown for 13,586 yards, including a ridiculous 5,671 in 2009, has the chance to shatter Timmy Chang's career passing yards record (17,072). More importantly, Keenum can return the Cougars to their previous status as one of the nation's most feared offensive attacks.
But it's not all Keenum, and last year the Cougars learned that. His absence from the lineup in 2010 forced Sumlin and his staff to develop reliable contributors in other parts of the roster in order to play a complete game, rather than just outscoring the opponent.
That transition began after the 2009 campaign, when Sumlin hired Brian Stewart to direct the defense and switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4. That change was prompted by a desire to have a scheme that played to the team's recruiting strengths. Houston is unable to put eight- to 10 quality defensive linemen on the field during a game. Instead, it has a collection of talented linebackers. So, UH decided to emphasize its second line of defense. This year, the linebackers ought to be the best part of the unit.
The overall skill position picture is improved, too, thanks in large part to a trio of running backs, each of whom is capable of piling up big yards. Houston has been committed to running the ball under Sumlin, even though most people have the impression the Cougars throw on every down. But the team ran it only 74 fewer times than it passed in 2010 and could be even more balanced this season, even with Keenum back under center.
Whether the improved defense and balanced offense translate into a run at the C-USA crown is another topic. Houston must overcome UCF's tough D, SMU's productive offense and whatever other contenders emerge in the always-unpredictable league. The one thing Sumlin understands is that the conference is getting better every year, and that's why he is trying so hard to improve the way the Cougars conduct business.
"The league has gotten better over the years," he said. "There are more impact players in the NFL from Conference USA, and some of our teams have been nationally ranked. The league has steadily improved, and the talent level has improved. Even the numbers on TV reflect that.
"Are we there yet? No, but everybody will say the league has improved the last five- to seven years."
After a year of injury and uncertainty, Sumlin would like people to say the same thing about his program. The return of Keenum and the continued improvement of the roster would indicate that is not an unreasonable hope.
Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin (Pudue '88)
Record at school: 23-16 (3 years)
Career record: 23-16 (3 years)
• Tony Levin (Minnesota '96) Assistant Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator/Inside Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
• Jason Phillips (Houston '01) Co-Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers
• Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech '01) Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Brian Stewart (Northern Arizona '92) Defensive Coordinator/Safeties
• B.J. Anderson (Stephen F. Austin '97) Offensive Line
• Jamie Bryant (Ohio Wesleyan '93) Linebackers
• Carlton Hall (Vanderbilt '98) Defensive Line
• Clarence McKinney (University of Mary '94) Running Backs/Recruiting Coordinator
• Zac Spavital (Murray State '04) Cornerbacks
By week four of last year, the Cougars had gone from a great QB situation to one that featured tremendous uncertainty. After spring drills, the position's fortunes had swung completely in the other direction.
"We went from having the least experienced quarterback group in the country to the most experienced quarterback team in the country," Sumlin said.
He's not exaggerating. Losing Case Keenum (6-2, 210) and Cotton Turner (6-1, 199) in the UCLA game forced Houston to go with then-freshman David Piland (6-3, 185) and Terrance Broadway, another freshman who is no longer with the program. Piland ended up throwing for 2,641 yards, 24 TDs and 14 picks in eight games, pretty impressive numbers. He spent the spring battling Turner, a senior, for the role of Keenum's backup.
In some ways, Cougar fans should be rooting for Turner, a solid veteran, to win the competition. That way, Sumlin can redshirt Piland in 2011 and get three years of starting duty from him. The coach, of course, gives no indication that he would prefer that plan.
"Our program is based on the best players playing," Sumlin said. "I told David and Cotton during the spring that they were competing for a backup job, and that will continue through two-a-days this summer. I told them they need to prepare as though they were going to be the starter. They need to prepare to start and win games."
Piland entered the spring with the usual assignments that young quarterbacks have. He has to improve his decision-making, as evidenced by his 58.3 percent completion rate and 14 interceptions. He also had to improve his strength and weight, the better to handle a full-time quarterback job.
"He handled things as well as any freshman I've been around," Sumlin said. "He was thrown into the fire and put into some situations that a lot of quarterbacks would have wilted in. He was learning on the run and handling criticism. That can destroy a quarterback's psyche. He was resilient.
"He's a talented guy, but he needs to increase his strength and weight and knowledge of the game. He's a student of the game. He's a natural born leader and a talented quarterback. Those guys usually end up being pretty good."
Turner threw only 31 passes last year and completed 74.2 percent for 180 yards. His role over the last few years has been "mop up," in Sumlin's words. But he has the experience and talent to be a quality backup and would have been the starter last year had he not been injured against UCLA.
"He gets it pretty well," Sumlin said. "He has done a lot of good things, but he's been in the shadow of Case. He does have some game experience, and he is capable of winning."
Now that we have cleared up the backup situation -- at least somewhat -- it's on to Keenum, who underwent surgery last fall and has progressed well. He was not cleared for contact during the spring and won't face an angry pass-rusher until the Cougars' opener against (gasp!) UCLA, the very team that ended his 2010 season. Keenum did participate in seven-on-seven drills toward the end of spring practice and has continued what Sumlin calls an "aggressive" rehab of his knee.
"In June and July, he'll continue his rehab and strengthen himself," Sumlin said. "There are still three months to go, and I think he feels good about it."
When healthy, Keenum is one of the nation's best, as evidenced by his '09 campaign (5,671 yards, 70.3 percent completion rate, 44 TDs, 15 interceptions), when he inspired Heisman talk and led the Cougars to dramatic wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. There is no reason he can't be just as good this year, even if his numbers aren't as big. His tremendous command of the offense and ability to make the right throw make him as successful a leader as there is in college football.
With two standouts from 2010 returning and a 2009 C-USA Freshman of the Year eligible again, the Cougars are as well stocked at this position as any team in the league. Expect Houston to deploy two backs quite often, and there may be times when all three are on the field, the better to make defenses uncomfortable.
"We have three quality running backs, who can do a lot of different things for us," Sumlin said. "They can catch the ball and get us tough yards carrying it."
Senior Bryce Beall (5-11, 215) is the best inside runner of the bunch. He gained 870 yards last year, scored 12 times and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. He doesn't have the speed to break it long every time, but he's surprisingly tough to handle once he gets past the line.
"He's the stronger, bigger guy of the three," Sumlin said. "He's a little thicker guy, and he got beat up some last year. He played a couple games with broken ribs."
Sophomore Michael Hayes (5-9, 195) gained 629 yards and scored eight TDs in a solid debut last season. He can move fast, handle the tough stuff and is quite a weapon in the passing game, as evidenced by his 30 receptions.
"He has a low center of gravity, but he has a good burst," Sumlin said.
In '09, junior Charles Sims (6-0, 195), rushed for 698 yards and nine TDs, but last year he was waylaid by a retroactive NCAA Clearinghouse decision that kept him out for the season. Now clear of the mess, he provides a bit of speed to the equation and gives Sumlin and his staff plenty of options. Sims, Hayes and Beall make Houston especially dangerous.
"Our screen game has helped us, and we'll have the ability to run the ball on second and medium and third and medium," Sumlin said. "That puts pressure on the defense and gives us the ability to change personnel."
Ask Sumlin about what senior Patrick Edwards (5-9, 175) must do to improve, and you won't get a laundry list. In fact, Sumlin can't do anything but rave about the man who has posted two consecutive 1,000-yard receiving years and has made a near-miraculous recovery from a severely broken leg in 2008.
Though Edwards' catch total fell from 85 in 2009 to 71 last year, Edwards improved his yards per catch total to a strong 15.5 (from 12.2) and scored 13 touchdowns, up seven from his 2009 total. He's one of the best in the country but isn't mentioned when the roll is called of top receivers. That should change this year.
"Ever since his horrific injury against Marshall as a freshman, Patrick has challenged himself," Sumlin said. "We didn't think he'd walk again, much less play football. He came back from that injury to put up 1,000 yards receiving and back that up again last year. He's probably one of the most un-talked about receivers in the country."
Keenum will no doubt enjoy having Edwards at his disposal, but he needs some other reliable targets to emerge, because last year's second receiver, James Cleveland (57 catches, six TDs) is gone.
One strong possibility is senior Tyron Carrier (5-8, 170), who caught 53 balls last year but averaged just 9.1 yards a catch and scored only once. That's quite a drop from his freshman and sophomore seasons, when he posted 1,000-yard efforts each time and caught a combined 171 balls. Still, Sumlin has great faith in Carrier, and Keenum's return could mean a lot to him. Carrier is also a dangerous return man who has five career kick returns for TDs.
"He's a sprinter who reached the NCAA nationals in the 200 meters," Sumlin said. "He's proven he can do it. Last year was a rough year for him, because we were cutting the offense back. He's a team guy and is capable of 1,000 yards again."
Sumlin was happy with the performance of 6-1, 223-pound senior Justin Johnson (16 catches, 3 TDs), whom he considers a fine leader and good special teams player. Senior E.J. Smith (6-1, 187) is expected to get plenty of action in four-receiver sets but needs consistency.
Building depth will be extremely important in the receiving corps. Juniors Isaiah Sweeney (5-9, 170) and Ronnie Williams (5-11, 188) and sophomore Kenneth Bibbins, Jr. (6-4, 236) will get more opportunities in the fall to impress, but don't be surprised if freshman C.J. McElroy (5-11, 195) gets on the field.
When Sumlin talks about assembling the components of a successful line, he does so in terms of the unit, not the individual parts. "We want them to work like a nickel, not five pennies," he said.
To that end, don't be surprised if things look differently than they did at the end of spring drills. Even though junior left tackle Jacolby Ashworth (6-4, 300) is a fixture, there will be movement along the rest of the line.
For instance, senior Chris Thompson (6-2, 285), who moved from right guard to center when junior Blake Sargent (6-3, 297) went down with a shoulder injury, could well stay there, particularly if he and Keenum develop a solid chemistry.
"Chris embraced center," Sumlin said.
If Thompson remains at center, perhaps redshirt freshman Austin Lunsford (6-3, 290) could handle the right guard spot. Or, the job could go to sophomore Josh McNeill (6-6, 285), a late junior college signee who has shown versatility in his career.
"He was a guard on a good team in high school and played tackle in junior college," Sumlin said.
McNeill may also move to the tackle spot, if sophomore Ralph Oragwu (6-3, 310) struggles in August. Sophomore Ty Cloud (6-4, 315) is expected to be at the left guard position.
Sumlin's overriding concern, beyond crafting a unit that works well together, is increasing the size of the group. That's why McNeill is important, as are Oragwu and Cloud. It's possible highly regarded freshman Kourtland Akins (6-5, 290) could find his way into the rotation, too. And redshirt freshman Rowdy Harper (6-6, 285) may see time at tackle, too.
Even though the Cougars are playing only three men up front, that doesn't mean they don't need that trio to be strong. Opposing teams averaged 4.8 yards a carry last year and scored 28 TDs on the ground. With three players returning who have starting experience, the expected healthy presence of sophomore end Zeke Riser (6-4, 270), who hurt his knee last year, and the summer arrival of JUCO tackle Dominic Smith (6-3, 301), the front should be better.
Senior end David Hunter (6-2, 295) made 51 tackles last year, including eight behind the line, and he could become a real force on the outside, while junior Tyrone Campbell (6-1, 293) had 22 stops last year and started eight games at the nose tackle spot. Those two should be fixtures.
Expect junior Kelvin King (6-2, 256), who contributed four sacks last year, to swing between end and outside linebacker, thanks to his combination of speed and strength, while redshirt freshman Eric Braswell (6-4, 250) handles some work on the outside, too.
Riser made an impact as a freshman in 2009, starting all 14 games and making 36 tackles. He can handle the end spot or kick inside on occasion. Smith is a run stuffer and will get time, along with freshmen Joey Mbu (6-3, 308) and Keithen English (6-2, 315).
The versatility along the line should help the Cougars switch to a 4-3 configuration at times, giving opposing offenses some trouble.
Sumlin is right on when he calls this group "the strength of our defense." The Cougars return three starters and have a fourth player, sophomore Efrem Oliphant (6-2, 215), who started three times last year and was actually fifth on the team in tackles with 66.
It will be interesting to see what Sammy Brown (6-3, 240) does this season. Brown made quite an impact in his first season after transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, registering 20 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, both team highs. But Brown made almost as many errors last year as he did big plays, so it's important for him to become more reliable this season.
"He's extremely raw and made too many mistakes that hurt us last year," Sumlin said. "He made a lot of plays to help us, too. He needs to be more disciplined, because he can be a dominant player in this league."
Brown plays beside inside man Marcus McGraw (6-0, 225), a senior who led the team with 110 tackles last year. Oliphant has plenty of potential at the other inside position, while junior Phillip Steward (6-2, 220) is a versatile outside performer who made 84 tackles and had two picks last year.
"He can do a lot of things," Sumlin said. "He can play in space and cover receivers."
The Cougars hope junior Kris Johnston (6-0, 215) can help inside, along with redshirt freshman Jon Witten (6-2, 222), while sophomore Austin Wilson (6-2, 210) will get a chance on the edge.
But all three must look out for a quartet of newcomers, led by JUCO imports Everett Daniels (6-0, 210), who plays the outside, and Lloyd Allen (6-4, 240), who can play inside. Freshman Derrick Matthews (6-0, 193) is a speedster who could cause problems on the outside.
When Sumlin said he and his staff consider junior college transfers like "free-agent signings," he could well have been referring to Chevy Bennett (6-1, 190) and D.J. Hayden (6-0, 185), two JUCO imports who will be starting at cornerback at the beginning of the season. Bennett (Navarro [Texas] JC/Sachse HS/Dallas, Texas) and Hayden (Navarro [Texas] JC/Ft. Bend Elkins HS/Houston, Texas) arrived in January and grabbed the spots during spring drills.
"They're two pretty good cornerbacks," Sumlin said. "They came in and did a good job. They give us size and ability on the outside."
The Cougars can use some of that, because they allowed rival QBs to complete 59.2 percent of their throws last year and toss 21 TD passes. Bennett and Hayden will need some time to get comfortable against FBS quarterbacks, but they have potential.
Expect depth to come from junior Jeffery Lewis (5-9, 185), a converted running back, and sophomore Thomas Bates (5-11, 180), who played in all 12 games last year and made seven tackles.
The safety spots have some experience, but more consistency is needed. The healthy return of senior Nick Saenz (6-1, 190), who started in 2009 and '10 and made 72 tackles, will help. He missed spring drills with a torn labrum but should be fine.
Sophomore Kent Brooks (5-11, 205) started last year against Texas Tech and had an interception to go with double-digit tackles, but he remains raw and needs experience.
Sumlin hopes sophomore D.J. Jones (6-0, 185) can help after limited experience last year, and Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia (5-10, 190) showed well enough in the spring that he might start. Valencia is an interesting story. He arrived on campus last summer but left the team after one scrimmage, only to return in the spring. He has talent and could end up starting. Like Brooks, he is good against the run.
"We have improved the defense," Sumlin said. "We start up front, where we have to get guys solidified, but we need to play all over with better technique and more discipline."
If Carrier isn't the nation's best kick return man, no team in the country would like to face the guy who's better. He averaged 23.5 yards a return last year and took one for six points. He's fast and capable of going the route every time he touches the ball. Sweeney, another speedster, gets a little work there, too.
Edwards gives the Cougars perhaps the nation's top return tandem, thanks to his 15.4-yard average bringing back punts last year, including a 74-yarder for a score. If necessary, Carrier will fill in there.
The Cougars need to tighten up their punt return coverage, though; they allowed 12.3 yards a return in 2010. Their 22.3-yard average defending kick returns could be better, too.
Don't mention to Sumlin that junior Matt Hogan (6-1, 196) was 1-of-4 from 40 yards and longer last year. He'll just remind you that Hogan didn't miss (13-of-13) from inside 40.
"He's an experienced guy, and from 40 and in, he's been deadly," Sumlin said. "He understands where he is. From 40-to-49 yards, I think he'll be a lot better."
Hogan made a 49-yarder against Texas Tech in the finale and ended the season by making nine of his final 10 kicks.
Sophomore Richie Leone (6-3, 200), the Cougars' punter, handles kickoffs and did a fine job last year, registering seven touchbacks.
Last year, Richie Leone averaged a strong 41.4 yards per kick and put 12 of his 35 kicks inside opponents' 20-yard lines.
"He's a good young talent, and he handled things well as a true freshman last year," Sumlin said. "His best days are ahead of him, because he's a talented guy. He will respond as he matures and gets older."
The Cougars ought to have plenty of fresh faces on the field in 2011 as they try to build depth and upgrade their defense. McNeill and Akins will help fortify the offensive line, while McElroy has the potential to be a contributor this year and a good one down the road.
Kenneth Farrow (5-11, 195) is listed as an "athlete" and could help at running back, receiver or even in the secondary.
Akins has potential along the offensive front, and quarterback Bram Kohlhausen (6-1, 193) has the skills to thrive in the offense.
Bennett and Hayden will start at corner, while Daniels and Allen provide depth at the linebacking positions, along with Matthews. Expect Mbu and English to get looks in the middle of the defensive line, and freshman safety Earl Foster (6-0, 205) has a bright future.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
There's a big reason Sumlin doesn't want to talk about 2010 anymore, and it has less to do with the 5-7 record the Cougars managed and more with the turmoil the program endured as it tried to overcome Keenum's injury. Players who weren't yet ready to contribute were asked to play a lot, and in some cases, lead. The result was a disappointing campaign and plenty of changes as the 2011 season dawns.
The offense won't feature too much new, although the line could well feature four fresh starters, plus a variety of unfamiliar position groups, the better to take advantage of UH's backfield strength.
Keenum, of course, is the key to everything. If he returns with no loss of effectiveness, there is every reason to believe the Cougars will again have the best offense in C-USA, as well as the country. Having Beall, Sims and Hayes at his disposal will help. Expect another big year from Edwards and a return to form by Carrier.
If Houston is to return to the top of the conference, the hard work must come on the defensive side of the ball. Now in the second year of Stewart's 3-4, the Cougars should be more familiar with it, and with the addition of the JUCO transfers and the maturation of some youngsters on the roster, the defense will be deeper. Fear not about the linebackers, Cougar fans, but worry whether the secondary can come together, especially with the possibility of three new starters, and hope the front three is stout enough to stand up to rivals who want to pound the ball on the ground.
This should be quite an interesting year for the Cougars. They'll have enough firepower on offense to outscore just about anybody on their schedule. The difference between eight and 10 wins, however, will be whether the defense becomes stout enough to prevent shootouts from occurring. If that happens, the memories of 2010 will be washed away, and Sumlin won't have to talk about them anymore.
BLUE RIBBON: C-USA PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2011 season for each Conference USA school. Take a look: