After a 13-1 record and a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Florida State last season, Houston is aiming even higher in coach Tom Herman’s second year. The Cougars are projected to be college football’s top Group of 5 program once again in 2016, and a schedule that features games against Louisville and Oklahoma provide opportunities for marquee wins. Dynamic quarterback Greg Ward leads the way on offense, and two transfers – running back Duke Catalon and receiver Ra’Shaad Samples – bolster the skill positions. Five starters return on defense, but the secondary is a concern after the departure of three key performers.
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Previewing Houston’s Offense
Greg Ward Jr. had a breakout season, and Houston will need more of the same to repeat the success of coach Tom Herman’s rookie season. Ward joined Clemson’s Deshaun Watson as the nation’s only quarterbacks to throw for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards last season. He could emerge as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, but Herman says his quarterback needs to improve his leadership in the huddle and overall command of the offense.
The unknown is in the backfield, where Houston must replace Kenneth Farrow, one of the most productive backs in school history. Duke Catalon, a transfer from the University of Texas who sat out last season, enters the fall atop the depth chart. He’s already received high praise from Herman, who puts Catalon behind only Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott among backs he’s coached for his combination of speed, power and physicality in the open field. Incoming freshman Mulbah Car is expected to see immediate playing time.
At wide receiver, the unexpected early departure of Demarcus Ayers to the NFL Draft leaves a sizable hole. Chance Allen (56 receptions for 752 yards) is the top returner, and Oklahoma State transfer Ra’Shaad Samples is the leading candidate to replace Ayers in the slot. A ballyhooed group of incoming receivers — led by Courtney Lark and Marquez Stevenson — will be counted on to make big contributions.
Na’Ty Rodgers, a top-10 junior college recruit, takes over at left tackle while Josh Jones and Alex Fontana, a late signee from New Mexico Military Institute, will battle for the right tackle job in fall camp. Houston received some bad news in April when Colton Freeman, who started 11 games at center and guard, was forced to retire due to a neck injury.
Previewing Houston’s Defense
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Losses were heavy in the offseason with the graduation of four defensive backs, including standout William Jackson III and leading tackler Elandon Roberts, who was considered the heart of the defense. Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart combined for 26 interceptions the past three seasons, and their leadership and production will be difficult to replace. Herman does believe this year’s group may be slightly more athletic. Brandon Wilson was the only player in the nation to score multiple TDs on offense, defense and special teams.
Outside linebacker Steven Taylor, who had 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss, returns for one more year. Tyus Bowser has shown flashes from his hybrid pass-rush position but needs to put together a full season.
The defensive line returns Cameron Malveaux, B.J. Singleton and Nick Thurman, but all eyes will be on Ed Oliver, a top-10 national recruit who picked Houston over LSU and Texas.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was reportedly courted by Wisconsin in the offseason but received a pay raise to remain with the Cougars.
Previewing Houston’s Specialists
Wilson is a home run threat on kickoff returns after averaging 26.6 yards and scoring two TDs last season. Unless another option emerges in the fall, Herman plans to experiment with backup quarterback Kyle Postma at punter. Houston does not attempt many field goals, and that doesn’t figure to change. Ty Cummings takes over after connecting on 8-of-8 in a shared role last season.
What can Houston do for an encore after going 13–1 in Herman’s first season? We’ll know how good the Cougars are after their top-20 matchup against Oklahoma in the opener. A win would propel Houston into the early discussion for the College Football Playoff. Any chance hinges on the secondary coming together quickly and the offense not skipping a beat.
(Credit to /Stephen Pinchback for the top photo of Tom Herman)