After two successful seasons under Tom Herman, it’s up to former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to maintain Houston's upward trajectory. Applewhite has plenty of pieces returning on offense, but he’ll have a new quarterback leading the attack. The defense has one of the nation’s best anchors up front, but was hit hard by departures at linebacker and cornerback. The Cougars will remain a threat in the American Athletic Conference, but probably won’t make much noise from a national standpoint.
Previewing Houston Football’s Offense for 2017
Kyle Allen, a Texas A&M transfer and formerly the nation’s top prep quarterback recruit, sat out last season and now is the heir apparent to Greg Ward Jr. Gone is Ward’s improvisation that made him one of the nation’s most electrifying dual-threat quarterbacks, replaced by the strong-armed Allen, who should allow Houston to return to a more traditional passing offense. D’Eriq King, who missed the spring while recovering from a knee injury, is the likely candidate to serve as the backup.
First-year coach Major Applewhite was able to lure Brian Johnson from Mississippi State to serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
With Ward, the Cougars were able to rely on his ability to run to mask some of the deficiencies in the running game. Duke Catalon’s 528 yards were the fewest for the team’s leading rusher since 1993. Catalon was limited to seven starts because of an ankle injury and concussion, and there is concern whether he can remain healthy for an entire season. Walk-on Dillon Birden was a bright spot, starting four games and finishing second on the team with six rushing touchdowns. But after those two, the Cougars need to find some depth.
Linell Bonner is coming off a breakout season with 98 catches for 1,118 yards and three touchdowns and should again be the top receiving target. Steven Dunbar (53 catches, 692 yards) gives the Cougars a solid No. 2, and John Leday had a strong spring. Kyle Postma is expected to move full-time from quarterback to receiver for his final season.
All five starters, led by center Will Noble, return from an offensive line that struggled through injuries and inconsistency. The Cougars’ 3.4-yards per carry average was their worst in 12 years.
Previewing Houston Football’s Defense for 2017
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With new coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, the Cougars promise to keep the same 3-4 base that features multiple fronts and attacking style that has made them one of the nation’s best at stopping the run and forcing turnovers in recent years.
All eyes will be on what defensive tackle Ed Oliver does for an encore. The former five-star recruit earned Freshman All-America honors after recording 23 tackles for a loss and five sacks.
The biggest holes to fill come at linebacker, where Houston must replace Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, who combined for 24 tackles for a loss and 17 sacks. D’Juan Hines is the frontrunner for Taylor’s inside spot, and Emeke Egbule is the top candidate to replace Bowser at edge rusher. Texas A&M graduate transfer Reggie Chevis could also factor into the mix this offseason.
For the second straight year Houston was hit hard by losses in the secondary with the departure of cornerbacks Brandon Wilson (graduation) and Howard Wilson (NFL Draft). Terrell Williams has moved into the nickel corner spot, leaving Jeremy Winchester, Javian Smith, Ka’Darian Smith and former wide receiver Isaiah Johnson competing for the two corner spots.
Previewing Houston Football’s Specialists for 2017
Dane Roy, a 28-year-old former ice cream salesman from Australia, averaged 40.6 yards on punts in his first season. Houston signed Dalton Witherspoon out of the junior college ranks to compete with Joel Scarbrough for the kicking job.
For two years the Houston program conducted business under constant speculation over the future of Tom Herman, who became the school’s third coach in the last nine years to leave for a more high-profile job. Applewhite, Herman’s offensive coordinator, signed a five-year deal with the hopes that he can keep the Cougars relevant on the national scene.
The schedule is more manageable this year since the Cougars play three key AAC West Division rivals (SMU, Memphis and Navy) at home. A second league title in three years likely hinges on progress of the offense — namely Allen at quarterback and the development of a consistent running game.
National Ranking: 59
AAC West Prediction: 3
(Ed Oliver photo courtesy of University of Houston Athletics)