There was not much more you could ask of Tom Herman from his first season as a head coach at Houston. The Cougars ripped through most of their schedule en route to the first American Athletic Conference Championship Game in conference history and concluded the season by taking down Florida State in a New Year’s Six bowl game. By most Group of Five standards that would be considered a dream season, but at Houston the Cougars are looking at the 2015 season as merely a stepping stone to a return to national prominence. Could bigger things be on the horizon in 2016 as the defending AAC champs go through their spring practices?
The Cougars are the new leader of the Group of Five pack, setting the bar high for themselves in 2016 with the expectation of playing in the College Football Playoff. This may be a tall order, but given the return of quarterback Greg Ward Jr., some notable additions through recruiting and transfers and the schedule in front of them in the fall, it is not out of the realm of possibility we could be talking about Houston in quite an interesting discussion later on this year. For now, those big topics of conversation are on hold as Houston simply looks to get back to work to figure out how to take that next step forward.
5 Storylines to Watch in Houston's Spring Practice
1. Replacing Playmakers
Two key big playmakers from Houston's wonderful 2015 are taking their game to the next level. The Cougars open the spring looking to fill the vacancy left by wide receiver Demarcus Ayers and defensive back William Jackson III. Ayers led the Cougars in 2015 with 1,222 receiving yards and six touchdowns and he also added 290 punt return yards and a punt return for a touchdown on special teams. Chance Allen will likely be the new leading receiver after finishing last season second with 752 yards and six touchdowns, but the question will be who steps up to be a complementary receiver. Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner, both sophomores last season, should compete for a bigger role in the offense. Additionally, Oklahoma State transfer Ra'Shaad Samples is poised to compete for a major role in the receiving corps. Jackson led the defense with five interceptions, returning two of them for a touchdown last fall. That kind of leadership and impact is hard to replace.
2. What's Next for Greg Ward Jr. under Tom Herman?
Houston's dual-threat quarterback was a one-man show at times last season. Ward was quite the efficient passer, completing 67.2 percent of his attempts for 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns with six interceptions, and he was Houston's leading rusher with 1,108 yards and 21 scores. The Cougars can ride Ward to a ton of wins in the AAC, but this spring will give us an indication if there will be a push to reduce the importance of doing just that. Taking some of the work load off his shoulders in the running game helps reduce the risk of injury to the star offensive weapon, but he should still be counted on to run. Herman is a smart man and knows there may be a need to take some of the running game out of Ward's more-than-capable hands at times. That should be a focus in the spring.
3. Enter RB Duke Catalon
One way to help do that is by getting Catalon involved in the running game. The former 4-star recruit originally signed with Texas but has arrived at Houston and is now available to play a role after sitting out the 2015 season due to NCAA transfer rules. The addition of Catalon to the Cougars’ offense could potentially add a solid running option to the mix. His arrival comes at a key time after Houston saw its top two running backs move on after graduation. Catalon will have to earn the starting job, as he will face competition from sophomore Kaliq Kokuma, but this Texas high school star brings plenty of reasons for optimism and could be the perfect fit in the backfield with Ward in the fall.
4. Tightening up the Red Zone Defense
There really was not a whole lot to complain about with Houston last season. Even their 11th-ranked pass defense (in the AAC) could be explained away by having an offense forcing opponents to take to the air (Houston also intercepted 21 passes while allowing 20 TD passes). One area the Cougars’ defense could tighten up, not that it hurt them much in 2015, is in the red zone. Opponents scored inside Houston’s 20-yard line 91.43 percent of the time in 2015. The only school in the AAC to allow a higher scoring percentage in such situations was SMU. The Cougars gave up a touchdown inside the red zone a whopping 71.43 percent of the time, third highest in the conference.
5. Setting the Playoff Tone
The odds are probably pretty good Houston will not crack the four-team College Football Playoff at the end of the season, even if they happen to go undefeated in the regular season (which would include wins against Oklahoma and Louisville), but that should not stop the Cougars from setting their mindset to do just that. Houston could be a deeper team this season despite losing some key players to graduation and the NFL. Herman has been through the Playoff once before as an assistant at Ohio State, and he has brought that championship pedigree with him to Houston. Everything fell into place in his first season, aside from a misstep against UConn on the road (when Ward was injured). After experiencing the thrill of playing in the New Year’s Six, Houston is as equipped as any from the Group of Five to make a bold case for a Playoff spot if it handles its business on the field this season. Set the bar high now and try to clear it in the fall.
Pre-Spring Houston Outlook in the AAC
Few would argue Houston is in the best possible shape of any team in the American to make a run for the conference crown. Memphis and Cincinnati lose their starting quarterbacks from a year ago. Temple could lose an edge on defense and still needs offensive consistency. South Florida could be on the rise after a solid finish to the 2015 season. Houston, though, has all of the pieces in place with just a couple of holes to plug.
Having put together a 13-1 record last season, the expectations are high, and deservingly so. Keeping the focus on the practice field and not letting the national hype over the newest dominant power in the Group of Five not get out of control will be a key for Tom Herman and company. Houston is the favorite in the AAC barring any significant injuries to key players in the spring. They may even be the favorites should some injuries occur.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.