This is the fourth part in SB Nation Houston's position-by-position preview of the 2012 Cougar season. Be sure to check out the Secondary, Offensive Line and Special Teams previews, as well.
The average rush in a college football game usually goes for a gain of between four and four-and-a-half yards in a given year. Some schools can fairly consistently beat that average. It probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that Navy has averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry for each of the past 10 seasons. There are two schools tied for the second-longest such streak, having beaten the 4.5-yard mark each of the past six years. One of them is Oregon, and the other (as you've probably guessed by now) is Houston.
Is that reaching for a statistic? Maybe a little. But it should give you some indication of just how effective Houston's ground game has been, despite the spotlight given to the Cougar passing attack. The Houston running back corps that featured three stars a year ago is down to just one in 2012, but finding talent in the backfield hasn't been a problem at UH for some time.
After a four-year stint as the Houston running backs coach, Clarence McKinney (stop me when this sounds familiar) followed Kevin Sumlin up to Aggieland this off-season, so the Cougars will be breaking in a new positional coach.
Enter Travis Bush...eventually. The Cougars actually initially hired Claude Mathis, coming off a successful stint as the head coach of DeSoto High in Dallas. But soon after, Mathis returned to DeSoto, saying the timing wasn't right to leave. The move ended up working out pretty well for both parties, as the Cougars arguably upgraded with Bush, who unlike Mathis, has several years of college coaching experience. After a stretch as a graduate assistant at TCU while completing his masters degree, Bush moved to his alma mater, Texas State, where he spent six years, three of those as co-offensive coordinator. Bush moved on to UTSA, where he was named the full offensive coordinator. He coached UTSA's players during the 2010 season in which they didn't play any games, and then called plays in their first season of football in 2011.
Bush actually coached receivers and quarterbacks in San Marcos and San Antonio, respectively, and moves on to coach the running backs in Houston, showing his versatility. Nabbing a positional coach of Bush's experience, and even having a positional coaching vacancy that was more desirable than calling plays at the 1-A level elsewhere is an impressive coup for the Cougars.
Charles Sims broke onto the scene in 2009, averaging over five yards per carry as a true freshman, accumulating 1,457 total yards, and shockingly earning an even split of the carries at running back with Bryce Beall, who was coming off a 1,200-yard rushing campaign of his own. Sims didn't get to play any games in 2010 due to an academic issue, but was by all accounts one of the hardest workers on the team, anyway. The hard work paid off, both on and off the field. For his classroom work, the NCAA granted Sims the ability to count the 2010 season as a redshirt year, after originally stating that Sims would lose a year of eligibility. For his football work ethic, Sims came back and didn't miss a beat, proving himself even more dynamic a player than before.
Sims rushed for a staggering 7.5 yards per carry in 2011, ending up with 1,409 total yards despite splitting time now with two seniors in Beall and Michael Hayes. As impressive as Sims' freshman season was, his redshirt sophomore season saw him rack up just 48 fewer total yards despite 41 fewer touches.
Success doesn't seem to have put a dent in Sims' work ethic, either. Just ask head coach Tony Levine, who tweeted this off-season that Sims, who weighed 174 pounds as a freshman, and was listed at 205 last year, is up to 212.
While Sims may have bulked up enough that he can be Houston's workhorse in the backfield this year, you can't count out the possibility of the Cougars finding another back to split time with Sims. After all, the Cougars have had two different backs with at least 600 yards rushing each of the past three seasons.
While all Cougar backs not named Sims only have a combined 30 career rushes to their credit, given the impressive debut seasons that UH has found from Sims, Beall and Hayes in recent years, that might not be an issue.
If you're looking for another potential star in the making to play alongside Sims, look no further than redshirt freshman Kenneth Farrow. Farrow hasn't received a lot of fanfare since coming to Houston, but took advantage of the available reps this Spring (especially with Levine using Sims sparingly) to become one of the team's breakout stars. Farrow impressed all Spring long, capping the campaign off with an 11-carry, 62-yard, 2-touchdown performance in the Red & White Game.
The success Houston has had in recruiting talent to the running back position, despite an offense predicated around the pass, isn't actually all that surprising. An increasing number of high schools, especially in Texas, are using spread offenses similar to the Cougars', and the chance to be a playmaker both running and catching the ball (consider Sims' 242 career rushes and 121 career catches) holds a lot of appeal to recruits.
While Farrow has flown somewhat under the radar until now, he was a Rivals three-star recruit in the 2011 class. This year's incoming class features three exciting recruits at the back position in Ryan Jackson, Terrence Taylor and Jontrey Tillman. Jackson and Taylor were both three-star recruits, Jackson reportedly picking the Cougars over a scholarship offer from Missouri. Tillman was a long-time Stanford commit before the school told him he wouldn't be accepted, despite his 4.0 GPA. The Cougars were the fortunate beneficiaries of that bizarre decision. While Tillman is also a legitimate prospect at defensive back, Houston's official site lists him as a running back.
Looking all the way ahead to 2013, the Cougars have already snagged a verbal commitment from Bellaire back Denzell Evans, who chose the Cougars over a plethora of other BCS offers, such as Arizona State, Kansas State and Michigan State.
It may always be the Case Keenums of the world who get the headlines in Houston, but from Battle to Aldridge to Beall to Hayes to Sims and beyond, the Cougar ballcarriers have established their own tradition of excellence.
For more on the Houston Cougars and the 2012 college football season, check out SB Nation's college football page.