This is the sixth part in SB Nation Houston's position-by-position preview of the 2012 Cougar season. Be sure to check out the Linebackers, Running Backs, Secondary, Offensive Line and Special Teams previews, as well.
No matter how good your football team is, one inexperienced unit can haunt you. Your quarterback is only as good as the offensive line in front of him allows him to be, a good secondary will get burned eventually if the defensive line doesn't get any pressure on the other team's passer, etc. Along those lines, a Houston Cougar team that has talent and experience at most positions on the field will have to contend with the fact that all four starting wide receivers from a year ago have graduated. That means that the production of Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier, Justin Johnson and E.J. Smith (a combined 301 catches for 4,249 yards and 39 touchdowns) will have to be replaced somehow. Despite Houston's undying love for the halfback screen, those four wide receivers accounted for more receiving yardage than all but six entire college teams in 2011. Only four teams threw for more total touchdown passes than those four caught.
Houston graduated four pretty good receivers, is the point we're trying to make here.
Of course, being inexperienced is not the same thing as being untalented. And there's no indication that the latter will be a problem facing the Cougar receivers. There are scores of receivers coming back from last year's team, and the only thing we know about them is that they weren't good enough last year to crack one of the best receiving corps in the country, which isn't much of a criticism. There is a talented recruiting class coming in at the position, led by one of the most highly-touted recruits in school history.
Exactly who will end up getting the bulk of the reps at the receiver position is undetermined. But you can bet that at least a couple Cougar receivers you don't know well now will be household names by the end of the season.
The inside receivers will be coached by Jamie Christian, also the special teams coordinator. The outside receivers will be coached by first-year assistant Brandon Middleton. While Middleton figures to have more of an impact, given that Christian will be splitting his time among two groups, don't discount the impact of Christian, who has experience coaching receivers in a similar offensive scheme at Arizona State.
If Middleton's name sounds familiar, it's because he was a fan favorite as a wide receiver for the Cougars early on in this century. After a few years bouncing around the NFL, Middleton spent a couple of years at Evangel Christian Academy, including taking them to the 2A State championship game in 2010. Middleton's return to his alma mater in 2012 marks his first college coaching job.
No matter what type of receiver you're looking for (unless you're looking for one with Division 1 starting experience), the Cougars have one or two laying around. The diminutive track star? How about Isaiah Sweeney, a Conference USA champion in multiple track events. The BCS conference transfer? That would be Chance Blackmon, who played sparingly last year after transferring from Colorado. (Damian Payne would qualify here, too, but the coaches moved him to linebacker this fall.) There's Xavier Maxwell, the junior college transfer; tall, lanky Mark Roberts; and hard-working, grind-it-out seniors Gino Collins and Ronnie Williams. There's a pair of capable-of-playing-anywhere-on-the-field athletes in Darian Lazard and Aaron Johnson. Steady-handed Dewayne Peace and Daniel Spencer both enter their second seasons with the Cougars. There's even the tight-end hybrid in Kenneth Bibbins.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Deontay Greenberry, the all-everything prospect who stunned the recruiting world by switching his commitment from Notre Dame to Houston on signing day. Freshmen Larry McDuffey and Andrew Rodriguez don't come in with Greenberry's hype, but are pretty solid gets in their own rights, and both will push the rest of the group for playing time. Head coach Tony Levine recently said that one "or two" newcomers might overtake veterans for starting receiver spots "as early as this first game". So don't forget McDuffey and Rodriguez.
Levine's first two-deep of the fall lists Roberts, Williams, Spencer and Blackmon as the starters. But even with less than two weeks before kickoff, expect that to be a very upwardly-mobile list.
The Cougars are bringing in four newcomers at the wide receiver position in 2012, in the aforementioned Maxwell, Greenberry, McDuffey and Rodriguez. As you might expect of a program that runs the Air Raid offense, the receiver position continues to be a recruiting priority, with three-star recruit Donald Gage of Zachary, Louisiana giving a verbal commitment to the Coogs in the '13 class. Gage has also been recruited by Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Mississippi State.