The 2009 season was highly successful for Houston Cougar football. Even taking into account the disappointing finish to the season, the Coogs put the college football world on notice that they can no longer be taken lightly. Kevin Sumlin's team knocked off then-No. 5 Oklahoma State on the road, defeated Texas Tech at home, and won a road game at Mississippi State, a team that won three SEC conference games and probably should have beaten LSU and/or Florida.
But the season had its lowlights for the boys in scarlet and albino. There were four losses -- UTEP, UCF, East Carolina and Air Force -- in four games that looked extremely winnable for the Coogs. Heading into the 2010 season, with All-Everything quarterback Case Keenum preparing for his senior season, there is no mistaking what is expected of this team. Every last player and coach believes that this team is capable of going undefeated, and becoming the next in the Boise State-Hawaii-Utah-BYU-TCU line of smaller schools breaking the BCS barrier.
Here are the top five players in their first year on Cullen Boulevard who can help get the Cougars over the hump.
5. Ty Cloud-Kevin Forsch-Ralph Oragwu
The trio of offensive linemen will all be redshirt freshmen this season. Towards the end of the '09 season, when the wear and tear of the season was starting to set in, Sumlin made the difficult decision to keep the redshirts on all three of these guys, believing that it would serve UH better in the long term, even when blowouts such as the Memphis and Rice games would have provided great opportunities to get the youngsters some work, and rest the regulars. In the ECU and Air Force losses, it certainly looked like the O-line was a step slower than it was at the beginning of the year. While Cloud, Forsch and Oragwu are all projected as backups this year, they will provide some desperately-needed depth up front.
4. Jacky Candy
The first snap Candy takes this year for UH will be his first as a Division-I football player, despite the fact that he is currently listed as a senior. After burning a redshirt year and spending two years at Coffeyville CC, he transferred to Houston, but missed all of last year with a knee injury. The Cougars can apply for a medical redshirt at the end of the year, but as of now, Candy may only have one year to play. Still, it figures to be an important year. For all of Houston's defensive problems in '09, the secondary was actually a pretty decent group. But with the departures of Carson Blackmon and Brandon Brinkley, there are some holes to fill. Candy is currently listed as a backup on the depth chart, but may be the team's hardest hitter (for me, he was one of the stars of the Spring Game) and will see plenty of the field.
3. Xavier Brown
While the Cougar offense is centered around the pass, a Cougar running back has actually won C-USA Freshman of the Year each of the past two seasons. In '09, true frosh Charles Sims was Houston's most productive offensive player, non-Keenum division, despite splitting carries with sophomore Bryce Beall. And while Beall didn't replicate his award-winning production from '08, he was battling injuries all year, and still remained a valuable asset. So impressive were Sims and Beall that Phil Steele listed the Coogs - a non-BCS team running the spread offense - as the team with the 23rd best running backs in the nation. So there's no way an incoming freshman running back like Brown would see any time, right?
At least, that was the thinking before the NCAA declared Sims ineligible for the 2010 season. Suddenly Beall becomes the guy, and the need for a backup (if not legitimate co-star) presents itself. While there are some in-house options like Chris Wilson and Justin Johnson, expect Brown to be the No. 2 option in the backfield.
2. Sammy Brown
After senior linebacker Matt Nicholson was lost for the year due to injury in the Texas Tech game, the Cougar defense was never quite the same. Behind stud Marcus McGraw and C.J. Cavness, there just wasn't a lot of depth in the linebacking corps. Luckily, Nicholson was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, but with the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense, and the graduation of Cavness, the Cougars' need for linebacking talent was only increasing. Enter Brown, Scout.com's second-ranked junior college outside linebacker in the nation. Brown got into school in time for Spring practice, and has already asserted himself as an impact player on defense. Also look for redshirt freshman George Bamfo to be an important newcomer at the LB position.
1. Matangi Tonga
After playing in every game as a true freshman at BYU, Tonga had some personal issues, left school, and ended up spending a couple years at a JC. He actually gave serious consideration to entering the NFL draft, but after his family expressed a desire for him to complete his education, he decided to exercise his last year of NCAA eligibility. Despite being a one-year rental, Tonga received serious interest from a number of Pac-10 schools before choosing to play for Houston. It's hard to remember the last time UH's defensive line hasn't been suspect, but Tonga just might be the unstoppable force up front to change all that. With Houston's brilliant offense, and plenty of talent in the back eight defensively, Tonga's effect on the D-line could be the difference between an unbeatable team, and a very good team with a fatal flaw.