Whether a joke or not, Houston president Renu Khator turned heads when, shortly after coach Major Applewhite's hiring, she defined success as 10-win seasons and said, "We'll fire coaches [for going 8-4]." Two seasons since a New Year's Six appearance, Houston took a step back at 7-5 in Applewhite's first season, and he'll attempt to get the Cougars back on a 10-win track and a solid showing in the AAC this season.
Previewing Houston Football's Offense for 2018
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Houston made headlines with the controversial hires of ex-Baylor assistants Kendal Briles (offensive coordinator) and Randy Clements (offensive line coach). Briles will attempt to bring some explosiveness to a Cougars offense coming off its lowest point production (28.3 ppg) since 2005.
Quarterback D'Eriq King gives Briles an important piece to build around. King, who played mostly wide receiver his first two seasons, threw for 1,260 yards with seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. He led a fourth-quarter comeback at USF and went 2-2 in four starts to end the season. Quinten Dormady, a grad transfer from Tennessee, should push King in preseason camp. His arrival could allow the Cougars to temporarily move Bryson Smith to wide receiver.
Applewhite promises a more exciting brand of offense with an up-tempo, vertical passing attack. To do so, the Cougars will need to find reliable pass catchers following the graduation of Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner, who combined for 156 receptions and 1,959 yards last season. Courtney Lark and Keith Corbin are the top returners and will play bigger roles.
The backfield took a hit with the unexpected departure of leading rusher Duke Catalon. Mulbah Car, a bruising 210-pound junior, worked with the first team during the spring. Patrick Carr will compete for carries with Kevrin Justice, Davion Mitchell and Kelan Walker. Applewhite added help to the backfield in the offseason in the form of Baylor graduate transfer Terence Williams. He rushed for 1,859 yards during his career in Waco and is expected to push for the starting job.
Center Will Noble anchors an offensive line that has some holes to fill.
Previewing Houston Football's Defense for 2018
All-America defensive tackle Ed Oliver ended any suspense, announcing in March that he would forgo his senior season and enter the 2019 NFL Draft, where he'll likely be a top-five selection. But he still has one season to go. One of the nation's premier defensive players, Oliver has 39 tackles for a loss in two seasons and as a sophomore became the youngest winner of the Outland Trophy. The defensive front could be dominant with Oliver, a healthy Jerard Carter and the addition of TCU transfer Isaiah Chambers.
At linebacker, Houston must replace the top two tacklers, D'Juan Hines and Matthew Adams. The preference is to keep Emeke Egbule (6.5 tackles for a loss) at one of the outside spots. Leroy Godfrey (8.5 TFLs) is a strong contender at one inside linebacker spot.
Cornerback Jeremy Winchester, who made 16 starts the past two seasons, left the program in March, but the cupboard is hardly empty with returners Alexander Myres and Isaiah Johnson, who made a successful transition from wide receiver. Applewhite dipped into the graduate transfer ranks in June, landing former Notre Dame corner Nick Watkins. Safety Garrett Davis had four interceptions and provides steady leadership. Ole Miss transfer Deontay Anderson gained immediate eligibility over the summer and is expected to start at one of the safety spots in 2018.
Previewing Houston Football's Specialists for 2018
Caden Novikoff made 80 percent of his field goal attempts (12-of-15), including 10-of-11 to end the season. Australian import Dane Roy averaged 41.8 yards on punts and had 25 downed inside the 20-yard line.
PR hit or not, the hiring of Briles shows that the pressure is on to return to the top tier in the AAC West. Back-to-back non-conference games against Arizona and Texas Tech in September should tell us where the Cougars stand. Otherwise, the schedule is favorable with just three trips outside the state of Texas.