The Houston Cougar offense rolled up mind-boggling numbers in 2009 in the second year under head coach Kevin Sumlin. The Coogs led the nation in total offense, passing and scoring. Quarterback Case Keenum threw for 5,671 yards, putting himself within striking distance of the NCAA career passing record. Even with all of the mileage accumulated in the air, the ground game wasn't neglected by Houston. Bryce Beall and Charles Sims combined for 1,368 rush yards, and Sims was named Conference-USA freshman of the year.
There's not much to gripe about there. So, the question entering 2010 becomes: is there any room for improvement?
There are certainly reasons to believe that things can get even better, but there are obstacles to overcome, too. First and foremost, the Cougars enter the season without offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who left to take the same position at Oklahoma State in the offseason. Houston promoted from within, giving the job to long-time assistant and recruiting guru Jason Phillips. Kliff Kingsbury was promoted from quality control to Phillips' old position of co-offensive coordinator. Kingsbury, the second-leading passer in Texas Tech history, will also replace Holgorsen as quarterbacks coach.
Phillips has a great deal of experience to draw from when calling the plays for the Cougar offense. He was a wide receiver in the run and shoot days at UH under Jack Pardee and John Jenkins. He has coached at Houston under Art Briles, Sumlin and Holgorsen, each of whom brings their own unique twist to the wide open offense. Most of the quotes coming out of the Cougar camp indicate that the Phillips offense will most closely resemble the Holgorsen offense of the last two years.
Let's take it position-by-position and see what Phillips has to work with.
Starter: The Cougars have this signal-caller named Case Keenum. You may have heard of him. The only mark on Keenum's record traces back to the end of last season, which saw him throw nine interceptions in Houston's season-ending losses to East Carolina and Air Force. Keenum has been using that setback as motivation throughout the offseason. Soon enough, we'll find out if Keenum and the Houston offense have been 'solved', or if Keenum can go out with a bang in his senior season.
Backups: I don't want to talk about backups, because Keenum's backups would only come to the forefront in the event of the I-word, and that's a taboo subject when it comes to Houston's Heisman hopeful. So we'll take a look at the candidates to replace Keenum in 2011. Honestly, it's hard to handicap a race in which we have yet to see any of the horses in action. But we can fairly safely say that when Houston kicks off the 2011 season, we'll see one of these guys calling the shots:
-Cotton Turner. The Dulles graduate played one year at Blinn JC before transferring to Houston as a walk-on. He has since earned his scholarship, and was Keenum's primary back-up in '09, seeing action in the second halves of the Memphis and Rice blowouts. He was impressive in limited action, completing 30 of 40 pass attempts on the year, for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Turner struggled somewhat in the Spring, however. He will have one year to play after Keenum graduates.
-Drew Hollingshead. The 6'3" passer from Rockwall Heath redshirted in '09, so he will have three years to play after Keenum's graduation. Scout and Rivals didn't agree on what to make of Hollingshead out of high school. The former called him the 119th ranked QB in his class, while the latter pegged him at number 37. There's not a lot of talk about Hollingshead, but he is the elder statesman among the Sumlin-recruited QBs.
-Terrance Broadway. The Cougars haven't needed to leave Texas much in recruiting, but they made an exception and nabbed the Louisiana native Broadway, the fifth-ranked dual-threat QB in his high school class. With the current amount of depth at quarterback, Broadway figures to utilize a redshirt year in '10 and will have four years to play after Keenum sets sail. From an overall talent standpoint, Broadway probably tops the depth chart, but much of his appeal stems from his running ability, and the Cougars have been encouraging their quarterback to throw before he runs the last two years. Broadway will have to beat out his competitors as a pure passer to win the job. Then, his elusiveness will be a nice bonus.
-Dave Piland. A four-year letterman at vaunted Southlake Carroll, Piland is a more traditional pro-style QB, and early reviews of his passing ability are favorable. Piland is in the same class as Broadway, and while it's no secret that Broadway is considered the gem of the class, Sumlin has already built up a history of playing whoever he feels is the best fit, regardless of the hype.
-Bram Kohlhausen. Kohlhausen is entering his senior season at Lamar High, and will be a true freshman in 2011. He's not the most mobile of quarterbacks, but he's got a power arm and had drawn a scholarship offer from Utah before choosing to stay close to home. With all of the talent ahead of him, it's hard to imagine Kohlhausen getting the nod as a true freshman, but you never know. He is one of the highest-rated commitments in Houston's current class.
Starter: Bryce Beall. The man they call "Brick" was lightly recruited out of high school. Many believed he would play safety, due to his physical nature. Houston plugged him in as its starting running back beginning in the fourth game of the 2008 season, and he went on to break a bunch of freshman records while racking up 1,743 yards of total offense. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry, and showed flashes of being a big-play receiver out of the backfield, averaging 14.6 yards per catch. Most impressive was the way Beall always seemed to fall forward when hit. This made him ideal in short-yardage situations.
But 2009 saw a dip in production, as his rush average fell to 4.8, he didn't have as many game-breaking receptions, and he scored 10 fewer total touchdowns than the year previous. Sophomore jinx, indeed. He earned just 13 carries over Houston's last three games. It would later be known that Beall was battling injuries essentially all season, which allowed freshman Charles Sims to become the feature back. Sims is academically ineligible in 2010, so the load falls back on Beall. If he's physically and mentally healthy, and if can return to his freshman form, it will go a long way to taking some of the pressure off of Keenum.
Backups: His backups figure to include freshman Xavier Brown (who I am hearing a lot of good things about), junior Michael Hayes (who recently transferred from Blinn JC), sophomore Chris Wilson (who has track team speed), junior Justin Johnson (who has been a jack-of-all-trades; rushing, catching passes, and helping out on special teams) and sophomore Jeffrey Lewis (who has been converted from safety).
Starters: While Houston has taken some hits at this position in the off-season, it remains one of the most stacked positions of any school in the country. Phil Steele called it the third-best receiving corps in the nation. Rivals pegged it the country's best. The stars are:
-James Cleveland, senior. Cleveland was a Big Ten All-Freshman team performer at Iowa, but left the school and spent a year at a junior college before coming to Houston. While the Cougars are bursting at the seems with small, speedy receivers, Cleveland is a big, physical presence. In his first year at UH, he struggled to get his timing in sync with Keenum early on, played all year with an injury, and even missed two entire games. And he still lead the team with 1,214 receiving yards and 14 TD. He was instrumental in narrow victories over Mississippi State (11 catches, 131 yards, 2 TD), Southern Miss (13 catches, 190 yards, 2 TD) and Tulsa (12 catches, 167 yards, 3 TD). If he stays healthy all year, he has first-team All-American potential.
-Tyron Carrier, junior. After two seasons, Carrier is on pace to become Houston's all-time leading receiver, despite a stature (he is generously listed at 5'8"...I've stood next to the man, he's maybe 5'6") that left most schools recruiting him out of high school as a return specialist only. Houston promised him the opportunity to catch passes, and Carrier has jumped at the chance, catching 171 passes for 2,055 yards and 16 TD as an underclassman. Oh, the return thing has worked out pretty well, too. Carrier has returned five kickoffs for touchdowns so far, leaving him just two shy of C.J. Spiller's NCAA record of seven.
-Patrick Edwards, junior. The diminutive receiver didn't receive a Division 1-A offer out of Hearne High, so instead of accepting a scholarship to Henderson State, he chose to walk on at UH. After spending a year redshirting, he earned his scholarship, and promptly wowed coaches and fans alike as a freshman. He had a 106-yard performance in his second collegiate game, and accumulated 342 yards receiving over a three-game span heading into the Marshall game. Against all odds, he was Houston's leading receiver to that point. Then, chasing an out-of-reach pass at the back of the end zone, Edwards ran into an ill-placed metal cart belonging to the Marshall band, breaking his leg in horrific fashion. This ended his season, and some feared might end Edwards' football career. But beating the odds is kind of a thing for #83. He was one of Houston's most consistent receivers in '09, catching at least four passes in thirteen of fourteen games, and piling up 1,021 total yards.
Backups: The other guys include..
-Kierrie Johnson, senior. A slightly taller, slightly slower receiver in the Carrier/Edwards mold (note: being "slightly slower" than those two still makes you really freaking fast), Johnson was a lightly-heralded transfer from Blinn JC heading into the '08 season. But he made his mark, hauling in an 84-yard TD pass in an upset against ECU, and ended up with 499 receiving yards, and 5 TD. Last year saw Johnson take a step back, however, with his catch total halving from 32 to 16. Still, with the loss of fourth WR Chaz Rodriguez, and with no L.J. Castile or A.J. Dugat to take his place, Johnson is expected to be a starter for the Coogs. With opposing defenses having to focus on the Big Three, expect Johnson to break some big plays.
-E.J. Smith, junior. We haven't seen much of Smith thus far, but he did make the most of some garbage time minutes in the blowouts against Rice and Memphis last year, hauling in seven passes for 109 yards in those games. He is the fifth-leading receiver returning to the Cougars.
-Chance Blackmon, sophomore. The brother of recently-graduated Cougar safety Carson Blackmon, Chance sat out the '09 season while transferring from Colorado. Blackmon graduated from Tatum High, where (like so many of his Cougar receiver brethren) he ran track in addition to playing football.
-DeAndre Perry, freshman. One of the top players in last year's recruiting class, Perry has the size (6'4", 210) that makes one think he could replace Cleveland (next year, of course) as the big, possession receiver in a Cougar receiving corps filled with smaller speedsters. I don't know how much he'll see the field this year, but he's certainly one to keep an eye on.
The 2009 season was a mixed bag for the Cougar O-line. Despite the emergence of Charles Sims, Houston's run production dropped by 0.7 yards per carry from the previous season. On the other hand, the 18 sacks allowed represented the lowest total surrendered by Houston since 1999. Was that a testament to an improvement in the line play, or to Keenum's has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed elusiveness? Probably a bit of both. Whatever the case, the quotes coming from Sumlin concerning the offensive line have been pretty rosy so far.
Starters: Gone from the team are Chris Barnett, a three-year starter at center, and Jarve Dean, a JuCo transfer who was effective at the right tackle position. Here's how the line looks at present:
Left Tackle: Jacolby Ashworth, sophomore. Ashworth was talented enough to earn the starting nod protecting Keenum's bline side as a redshirt freshman a year ago, but was lost to a season-ending ankle injury four games in.
Left Guard: Isaiah Thompson, senior. It may be hard to believe, but the expectation is that Thompson - who appeared in all 14 games as a defensive lineman last year and accumulated 47 tackles - will start from Day One after switching sides of the ball.
Center: Jordan Shoemaker, senior. The big man from Midlothian slides over from left guard to center to replace Barnett. He has three years of experience on the O-line, but like Ashworth, missed some time last year with an ankle injury.
Right Guard: Chris Thompson, junior. Thompson started every game at this spot a year ago, earning All-C-USA Honorable Mention, after making the C-USA freshman team in '08.
Right Tackle: Roy Watts, senior. A big-time recruit out of Navarro JC after originally signing with Texas-Austin out of high school, Watts only narrowly chose Houston over a scholarship offer from Miami. He was invaluable in '09, appearing in every game, and starting at left tackle after Ashworth went down.