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You can read the entire Houston preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 National magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
C-USA West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Tony Levine, 1-0 (First Full Season) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Nesbitt | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jamie Bryant
There’s a lot of new in this year’s Houston offense. Gone are record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum, four starting receivers and two running backs. In Keenum’s place is sophomore David Piland, who started eight games in 2010 when Keenum tore his ACL. Piland gained the confidence of the new offensive coaching staff with his grasp of the Cougars’ Air Raid offense during spring ball.
Piland has one proven skill position player at his disposal. Charles Sims, now a junior, was Houston’s leading rusher a year ago (821 yards), and he also caught 51 passes for 575 yards. The offensive line returns four of five starters from a unit that allowed only 18 sacks in 682 pass attempts in 2011.
There will be four new faces at receiver; look for senior Ronnie Williams, junior Dewayne Peace and sophomore Daniel Spencer to grab starting spots and emerge as playmakers. All three played sparingly as backups a year ago.
New offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt, who has spent the majority of his coaching career running the Air Raid attack, will add some wrinkles of his own. Look for Houston to be one of the nation’s top offenses again, but there will be some growing pains.
The Cougars made big strides last season on defense. Jamie Bryant, who coached the linebackers last season, steps in as the new defensive coordinator after Brian Stewart’s departure. Bryant has transitioned the Cougars back to a 4-3 base alignment after two seasons of running a 3-4 scheme.
The linebackers will once again be a strength of the defense, with senior Phillip Steward and sophomore Derrick Mathews (106 tackles) returning after starting all 14 games in 2011. Nose tackle Dominic Miller and right defensive end Eric Braswell return after starting the majority of last season and will anchor the line.
Perhaps the most important returnee is senior D.J. Hayden, a talented cover corner who led the Cougars in passes defended (13). Hayden is part of an experienced secondary group that returns six players with starting experience.
Houston made big jumps statistically last season, and with Bryant’s aggressive, no-nonsense style, plus experience returning at each position group, look for the Cougars to take another step.
This is an area where there won’t be many new faces. Kicker Matt Hogan, punter Richie Leone, long snapper Brandon Hartson and holder Crawford Jones all return. The Cougars must replace their dynamic return men who have graduated — Tyron Carrier (kickoffs) and Patrick Edwards (punts) — but they have plenty of able candidates, led by Peace, Damian Payne and possibly even Sims.
Expecting Houston to repeat — or even approach — its 2011 win total (a school-record 13) is asking a lot considering all the talent and leadership that graduated. The Cougars can still be a good team, however, and it is easy to draw comparisons to the 2008 team, which won eight games. Like that team, the 2012 Cougars will have a new head coach (Tony Levine), a mostly new coaching staff, a sophomore quarterback (Piland) and a batch of unproven receivers. The advantage this year’s team has is an experienced defense and special teams unit.
Regardless of the new parts, the goals remain the same. “Our goal will continue to be to win the championship,” Levine says. “Win our side of Conference USA and not only play in, but win, the Conference USA Championship Game.”