This is the second-part in SB Nation Houston's position-by-position preview of the 2012 Cougar season. If you missed the Special Teams preview, check it out here.
There has been much said about the loss of so many offensive stars for Houston heading into the 2012 season, and rightly so. The Cougars have plenty of holes to fill in the offense that scored a no-that-can't-possibly-be-right 49.3 points per game last year, breaking NCAA records with seemingly every passing week. But one area where the Cougars will not be hurting for experience, talent or size in the coming season is the offensive line. With sophomore quarterback David Piland breaking in four new starting wide receivers, the big nasties up front buying him enough time to pick out the right target may very well be the single most important factor in Houston's continued offensive dominance.
After three years with the Cougars, offensive line coach B.J. Anderson followed Kevin Sumlin up to Texas A&M this off-season. Replacing him is Lee Hays. Hays previously assisted Anderson is coaching the offensive line during the 2010 season. After a one-year stint as the offensive coordinator at Tarleton State, Hays is back at UH.
Offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt has lots of play-calling experience, but none of it at the Division 1-A level, whereas two of Hays' six years as an offensive coordinator came at Baylor, so Hays may have a larger role in the offensive than your average O-line coach.
As mentioned, the Cougars figure to have their best offensive line in many years, any way you look at it. Houston will have four returning starters on the line for the first time in years. Size-wise, the Cougars had both their tallest (6-foot-4.2 inches) and heaviest (298.2 pounds) line since sometime before the Conference Championship in '06. While Chris Thompson was an important cog on the offensive line, starting 49 career games, and being named all-Conference twice, he was the smallest starter last year, so his graduation means that the line in front of Piland is only getting larger.
Returning starters Jacolby Ashworth, Kevin Forsch and Ty Cloud all stand at least 6'4", and tip the scales at at least 300 pounds. Rowdy Harper, who started every game as a sophomore a year ago, is the new "smallest" on the line, at 6'6", 290. Potential replacements for Thompson like Emeka Okafor (6'5", 315) and Ralph Oragwu (6'3", 310) have excellent size, as well. And of course, all these measurements are accurate as of the 2011 season. Another year of college-level training figures to have the returnees even more physically prepared.
All that size has not gone to waste. The returning starters have been some of the most productive in recent Cougar history, as well. After six straight years of allowing 20+ sacks from 2003-08, the Cougars have stayed under the 20-sack barrier each of the past three seasons. The 2011 Houston offensive line also opened holes for an offense that rushed for over 5 yards per carry for just the second time in over a decade.
It's entirely possible, even probable, that the Cougars will not fare as well with the injury bug as they did in 2011, when they remarkably had the same starting five up front in all fourteen games. But even if a starter or two goes down, the depth of the offensive line will allow the offense to keep marching along without missing a beat - all five backups from last year return to the roster in 2012.
Houston has seen some recruits come in and compete as true freshman on the line in recent years, like Okafor and Josh McNeill. Mac Long, one of the most highly-touted recruits in the Coogs' incoming class, looks like the most likely candidate to accomplish that this year. But with the depth of talent in front of him, even Long might get the redshirt this year. The crop of Long (6'4", 282, ESPN 4-star), Jacob Abels (6'5", 290, ESPN and Scout 3-star) and Blake Herman (6'7", 290, Honorable Mention All-State) show UH's continued commitment to recruiting big, talented athletes on the offensive line.
Looking even further ahead, Houston has received verbal commitments from 2013 recruits Ja'Braylin Thomas (6'6", 320) and Josh Thomas (6'7", 336). Both are rated as three-star recruits by Rivals.
The ability to recruit size and talent to the trenches is one of the biggest factors that separates "big" and "small" school football. The athletes that Houston has on the field now, and will be able to put out in the future, prove that the Cougars football program has earned its spot on the right side of that gap.
For more on the 2012 Houston Cougars, be sure to check out SB Nation's college football news page.