The kick-off to college football season is just over two months away. In order to judge where Houston stands heading into their final season as a member of Conference USA, we'll be breaking down the Coogs position-by-position. Today we start with the special teams.
It's no secret that special teams will be an emphasis under new head coach Tony Levine, who was the special teams coordinator at UH from 2008 until his promotion. Levine has also coached special teams at Louisiana Tech, Louisville, and for the NFL's Carolina Panthers. In replacing himself, Levine brought in Jamie Christian, who has been the ST coordinator at Arizona State since 2007.
Christian describes his style thus:
I keep it simple, so the kids can play fast...playing fast is knowing what you're doing...
If the players understand that it's a privilege to be on special teams, then we're gonna be good.
Looking back at the numbers produced in their most recent stints as coordinators, both Christian and Levine have been better at "offensive" special teams than defensive. Levine's Cougars have ranked between 34th and 86th nationally in net punting during his time at Houston, while Christian's Sun Devils were as good as 47th (last year) and as bad as 101st (the year before). On kick return defense, Christian led the Sun Devils to the 11th-best finish, allowing just 18.8 yards per return in 2009, but that number grew to 23.1 yards per return (good for 90th best) in 2011.
Those numbers aren't awful, but neither are they inspiring. But where the real magic has taken place is on returns. Under Christian, ASU finished in the top 10 nationally in punt returns twice, and the top 10 in kick returns each of the past two seasons. Houston has put up similarly impressive numbers in the return game under Levine.
The dampener for those of you who like watching long kick returns is that, while the special teams units of Christian and Levine have combined for 14 kickoff return touchdowns in the last three years, the NCAA is following the NFL's lead and moving the kick-off line from the 30-yard line to the 35, which figures to lead to a big uptick in touchbacks, and decrease in kickoff return scores.
There is also the matter of personnel. Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards have handled the kick return duties in recent years (the former tying an NCAA record for career kick return touchdowns) and both have graduated. Houston has always done a stellar job of recruiting speed, so there will be athletes returning kicks, but experience in that department will be short. Seniors Jeffery Lewis and Isaiah Sweeney, and sophomore Damian Payne have all seen limited action in that capacity the last two years.
We do know that if Houston isn't performing at a high level on special teams, it won't be due to lack of talent on the field. According to Christian, the Cougars will not hesitate to use both offensive and defensive starters on special teams, if those are the most capable players for the job.
While Houston may be lacking in experience at the return positions, they have it in spades when it comes to the guys who will be putting foot to pigskin. Matt Hogan, the former third-string walk-on, is now entering his fourth year as Houston's starting kicker. Junior Richie Leone will be handling the punting duties for the third straight year.
Hogan has been about as steady as they come so far in his career, connecting on a stellar 37-of-39 field goals from inside of 40 yards. He also set a new NCAA record by making 78 straight extra points. He hasn't shown a lot of range, going just 2-for-7 on field goal attempts from 40+ yards out, although he hit one long bomb that you may recall rather fondly.
Under Christian, ASU was an impressive 20-of-31 from beyond 40 yards, so it'll be interesting to see if he can help add that weapon to Hogan's repertoire in 2012.
Leone has proven himself a college-ready punter from day one, putting up remarkably consistent numbers over his first two seasons. As a sophomore, his punt average dropped a hair from 41.4 to 41.2, while his fair catch percentage grew incrementally from 34% to 35%. In two years as an underclassman, Leone pinned the opposing team inside the 20-yard line three times as often (27) as he surrendered touchbacks (9).
Leone has also split time on kickoff duty, and figures to take over that responsibility full-time in 2012 with the graduation of kickoff specialist Jordan Mannisto.
The emphasis on special teams shown by Levine and Houston has already paid dividends in recruiting, as the Cougars have found Hogan's replacement for 2013 in Ty Cummings of Southlake Carroll. Cummings is ranked as the top kicker in the nation for 2012 by multiple sources.
In the recent Cougars history, it seems as though one game every year comes down to an odd play here or there on special teams. If that's the case in 2012 and moving forward, the odds are that the Cougars will benefit.
For more on the Houston Cougars and the 2012 college football season, check out SB Nation's college football page.