Major Applewhite is the new sheriff in town. He even led the rodeo parade as Grand Marshall on Saturday. Monday opens the real business for Applewhite and the Cougars as they seek to maintain the level of excellence established by Tom Herman.
Spring ball starts in 3rd Ward and here's what we'd like to see.
How Does Kyle Allen Fit
Most folks have penciled Kyle Allen in at quarterback. The former five star A&M recruit transferred into Houston last season and sat out. In the mean time Tom Herman left and Offensive Coordinator Major Applewhite bumped up to the head job. Brian Johnson comes over from Mississippi State to run the Cougar offense and Greg Ward Jr., last year's starter, is gone.
That's a lot of change on the offensive side, most notably the transition from Ward Jr. to Allen. Allen has talent, there's no doubt about that. He started in the rugged SEC as a true freshman and might possess the best arm talent on the Houston campus since Kevin Kolb.
Some thought Allen, now a graduate, might follow Herman to Austin, but he looks to be stable in his decision to stay at Houston. Houston has other options on campus, the most intriguing of which is D'Eriq King who played in the slot last season. He's an athlete on par with Ward Jr., but he won't see action this spring due to injury. Last year's backup Kyle Postma is out as well.
Johnson tutored Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott in Starkville so he knows how to develop talent, but Allen brings unique skills to the job and each of the returning signal callers are different even among themselves. Fitting those skills with a system will be critical for Houston's spring. It's doubtful that Applewhite wants to deal with a full fledged quarterback battle coming out of the spring, so he'll give Allen first shot at taking the job.
Replacing Defensive Talent
Houston replaces a ton of defensive productivity. Up front the Cougars must replace rotation lineman B.J. Singleton, starter Cameron Malveuax, and all everything end Tyus Bowser. Linebacker Steven Taylor was as disruptive a force as there was in the AAC and on the backend, Houston's top two corners, Brandon Wilson and Howard Wilson are both gone. Each of those players accumulated twenty or more starts during their Houston careers.
Now it's up to Mark D'Onofrio and company to find replacements and depth for the Cougar defense. Ed Oliver, Matthew Adams, and Garrett Davis are a very good core to build around. Adams returns after finishing 2016 as the second leading tackler and Oliver looked like a top five pick as a true freshman. Davis was a second team All-AAC selection as a sophomore.
Replacing two starting corners is never easy, neither is replacing solid line production up front. The Wilsons, Bowser and Taylor were All-AAC members. Houston has some big shoes to fill defensively.
Establishing a Run Game
Last year Houston's run production fell off the cliff and was a major reason the Cougars struggled down the stretch. A major focus of spring and fall camp has to be establishing a running game and running mentality. The Cougars will have to do so without a dynamic running threat at quarterback.
Ward Jr. was a very good playmaker outside the pocket. Kyle Allen didn't demonstrate that ability in his time at A&M. He's clearly more comfortable in the pocket so the Cougar rushing attack will be more conventional in 2017.
Houston has the benefit of returning basically their entire offensive line two-deep, though starting center Will Noble will miss the spring with a leg injury.
They also return the bulk of their rushing yards and carries from 2016. Look for Dillon Birden, Duke Catalon, and several newcomers including Colorado transfer Patrick Carr to get looks this spring.
Tom Herman dared to dream the impossible dream at Houston. Then he left to redecorate Charlie Strong's spot in Austin. Houston got one more year than anyone really thought after Herman's 2015, 13-1 season. Now the powers that be have tagged Major Applewhite to take over what has been a very steady if not great era in Cougar football. Not many programs could survive losing Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin, and Tom Herman to in state Power 5 jobs and maintain the success the Cougars have enjoyed. Houston is the rare G5 program that has a decade long track record of finding the right coach to step in. Even Tony Levine's squads didn't suffer a huge drop off.
Each of those coaches put their own unique stamp on the program, now it's Applewhite's turn. If the people in the know are correct, he should carry on with business as usual. This year may be a struggle as Applewhite tries to get out of Herman's shadow, but there is talent on campus and if Applewhite can lay the foundation of his own culture in the next few months, Houston should be just fine.