Houston Season Preview: Under New Management

Major Applewhite is ready for this. He's been groomed under coaches like Nick Saban, Mack Brown, and of course Tom Herman. When Herman left for Austin, the decision came down Applewhite or defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Applewhite was the pick and he inherits a program on the rise and one that is spending in such a fashion that it simply cannot survive a dip. Applehwite knows this as much as anyone. His contract also dictates that he won't jump ship as quickly as predecessors Herman, Kevin Sumlin and Art Biles did. He's a long haul hire and he's the caretaker of the most decorated program in the State the past five years. 

On offense new quarterback Kyle Allen has the promise that most coaches drool over. He'll have a talented group of receivers to work with, especially Linell Bonner. Applewhite brought in Brian Johnson to be the architect of Houston's offense. Johnson mentored Dak Prescott at Mississippi State prior to his becoming the next "it" quarterback in Dallas and helped Nick Fitzgerald develop into one of the most dominant dual threat quarterbacks in the SEC in 2016. Johnson will need to manufacture a more conventional running game to help ease the pressure on Allen, but Houston has the pieces to be balanced. 

The bigger question mark is Mark D'Onofrio taking over the 3rd Ward Defense. D'Onofrio sat out last season after he and the rest of Al Golden's Miami staff were let go after 2015. The 3-4 base scheme isn't changing, the approach might be. Orlando was known for his one gap pressure packages and up to 40 different blitz packages in a given gameday. D'Onofrio has promised to continue the work Orlando started. Can he field the spread killing unit Houston's become accustomed to? This season will tell us a lot. 

Key Numbers

Scoring Drive % (AAC Rank) Touchdown Drive % (AAC Rank) Scoring Drives % Allowed (AAC Rank) Touchdown % Allowed (AAC Rank) 3rd Down % (AAC Rank) 3rd Down Defense (AAC Rank) Turnover Margin (AAC Rank) Total Adjusted Run Rate (NCAA Rank)
41% (6) 31% (5) 31% (3) 21% (3) 47% (2) 34% (2) -7 (10) 0.356 (52)
  • Scoring Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in points.
  • Touchdown Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in touchdowns. 
  • Scoring Drives % Allowed: Percentage of drives allowed that ended in points. 
  • Touchdown % Allowed: Percentage of opponent's drives that end in a touchdown. 
  • 3rd Down %: Offensives success on 3rd down. 
  • 3rd Down Defense %: Can a defense get off the field.
  • Turnover Margin: Total number of giveaways minus total number of takeaways. 
  • Total Adjusted Run Rate: Taking the national average of yards per carry and yards allowed per carry and comparing that to the relative team. Teams that end up with a plus Total Adjusted Run Rate average 8.4 wins per year. Teams with a negative Total Adjusted Run Rate average 5.5 wins per season. The top 20 teams in Total Adjusted Run Rate Averaged 9.7 wins per season over a five year period. 

Quarterback

Houston faces the challenge of replacing the dynamic Greg Ward Jr. Over the past two seasons Ward accumulated nearly 8,000 yards of total offense and played a part in 70 touchdowns. Now the Cougars turn to a very different player with very different skills in transfer Kyle Allen

Kyle Allen

Kyle Allen

Allen was a five-star recruit out of Arizona who initially landed at Texas A&M before transferring to Houston and sitting out 2016. This spring Allen fit right in as Major Applewhite took over for Tom Herman. New offensive coordinator Brian Johnson has overseen the development of several highly productive quarterbacks: at Utah he coached Jordan Wynn and Travis Wilson, both lanky athletic pocket passers; and at Mississippi State Dak Prescott, current Cowboy wunderkind, and bulldozer Nick Fitzgerald. Allen is unique among them, the best pocket passer, but lacking the running ability, not only of those four but also of Ward. 

That fact will mean a shift if philosophy, away from Ward's quarterback/point guard role, where Ward was given the freedom to distribute and create with both his legs and his arm. Houston will look more conventional in their passing and running approaches.

Make no mistake, Allen can flat out spin it. He has the arm strength and confidence to go downfield and challenge the top of the defense. He used those traits at A&M to sit near the 70th percentile in yards per attempt.

Two years ago Allen struggled with completion percentage and sack rate. Part of his completion issues were due to a serious case of the drops by A&M receivers, but Allen played a part as well. A year away from game action could lead to rust or perhaps a change in perspective. Allen was an Elite 11, 5-star, can't miss prospect who's career has taken turn. Houston gives Allen a fresh start and a chance to put up big numbers. 

Kyle Postma is a rarity in this day and age, a backup with experience. Postma was Ward's understudy the past two seasons, making the odd spot start due to injury. He's played in nineteen games over two seasons starting three with a 2-1 record. If something happens to Allen, Houston will have a fighting chance. 

Applewhite made a strategic decision to allow sophomore D'Eriq King  to compete at quarterback after playing the slot last fall. He sat out the spring with an injury. King was a gifted receiver and punt returner in 2016, but was just one season removed from starting for Houston area power Manvel. King was a 4-star recruit and put up over 13,000 yards of total offense and 188 touchdowns. King is listed at 5-11, he's not. He might crack 5-9, so size is an issue. King may end up being a package player at quarterback, a change of pace. But if Houston needed to, King's athleticism could cause opponents a lot of problems. 

Running Backs

What if I told you that Houston would miss Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson to the tune of almost 1,500 yards? That's the difference between the 2015 Coogs, who gained 3,301 yards on the ground and the 2016 Coogs who gained 1,912 yards. That's the crater that Farrow and Jackson left. A crater that Houston couldn't fill last season. Houston tries once again to find those missing yards will largely the same cast of characters.

Duke Catalon led all backs with 145 carries but for a paltry 3.6 yards. Catalon, a former Texas signee, spent two seasons sitting out after transferring and never really found his footing last season. He also missed time with a concussion in 2016 that cost him four games. Houston is hoping last season was about rust rather than Catalon's ability. Dillon Birden, who walked on at Blinn before walking on at Houston, finished third on the team in rushes last season but a running back best 4.6 yards per carry. He also added six touchdowns in his four starts.  

Patrick Carr

Patrick Carr

A player to watch for as he speeds up the depth chart is Colorado transfer and former Woodlands Highlander Patrick Carr will be eligible to see the field this fall. He impressed in the spring game with over 100 yards rushing. Carr was very highly regarded out of high school and he's a fireplug at 5-9, with tremendous leg drive. Assuming Carr isn't rusty from his year away from the game, he'll give the Coogs a boost.

Mulbah Car came in as a true freshman last season and showed signs of being a very good back. The native of Liberia missed time with a knee issue last fall. If he's healthy he'll be in the rotation. The Cougars signed Davion Ford out of Rockdale, he had offers from Boise and UCF among others. He rushed for 3,200 yards in just over two seasons in high school. Ford is considered an all-purpose back with very good hands as well.  

Receivers

Linell Bonner

Linell Bonner

Houston's receiving group has the most productive receiver from 2016 returning in Linell Bonner. Bonner caught 98 passes last season at an overly efficient 73% catch rate. He's dependable, strong, you can't knock him off his route, and when gets the ball he goes north and south. Bonner does a lot of damage from the slot position. He benefitted from Chance Allen last season and he needs a deep threat to create space, but Houston has one or two of those as well. 

Steven Dunbar's season would have been the lead story for most teams, but his 54 catches finished 3rd on the team in 2016. He might get top billing when Bonner gets the kind of defensive attention that his 98 catches merit. Dunbar is long, lanky, and good downfield. He's not great after the catch but he pressure the defense upfield. 

After Bonner and Dunbar, the Houston receivers get pretty green. Talented on paper, but not much in terms of production. 

Sophomore Keith Corbin was a highly recruited high school player who spent last year adjusting to the college game. From a tools standpoint there isn't much he lacks, but he needs to take advantage of opportunities at a higher rate than last year's 50%. Courtney Lark was a four-star recruit out of Bellaire who didn't see the field much as a true freshman. 

Marquez Stevens a sophomore from Shreveport battled injuries last season and appeared in two games. He was recruited by Mississippi State, Baylor, TCU, and several other Power 5s. 

Lastly Arizona State transfer Ellis Jefferson comes over for his senior season. Jefferson played high school football at Denton Guyer and should be part of the rotation, in particular from the slot. 

Tight Ends

Houston loses Tyler McCloskey and his 21 catches, but return a few interesting prospects at the position. 

Romello Brooker saw a fair amount of playing time behind McCloskey. Brooker had two catches and a touchdown in 2016. He came to Houston as a 175 pound receiver, but has bulked up to 240. He's still a plus athlete and can stretch the defense. 

Iowa State transfer Alex Leslie played sparingly for Houston in 2016. He's 6-6 and 250 pounds and better run blocker. Redshirt freshman Mason Tobola out of West and true freshman Parker Eichenberger could factor in as well for the Cougars. Eichenberger out of Katy was the 8th tight end prospect in the state last season and chose the Cougars over Illinois and Tulsa. 

Offensive Line

The question for Houston is were last years issues running the football due to continuity and injury issues or does it come down to talent and/or scheme? We'd like to think it's the former. The Coogs return almost everyone from their 2016 line, including some young players thrown into the fire who gained valuable experience. Houston fell from 13th in the country in rushing to 99th in 2016. They're production on the ground dropped by nearly 1,400 yards. Can Houston get back to running the ball? It all starts up front. 

If Will Noble stays healthy, he's a bell cow in the middle at center. Noble missed spring practice recovering from injury. He's a two time Rimington Watch List finalist and has started 2o games in his two seasons at Houston. Noble also improved from year one to year two, that development should carry on as he continues masters the Cougar offense. 

On Noble's left and right are Marcus Oliver, brother of freshman phenom Ed, and Mason Denley. Denley missed the spring with an injury but started six games last season as a redshirt sophomore. Oliver, a senior, has made fifteen starts in his career including eight at right guard. Houston used six different guards last season, rarely lining up the same pair back to back. Junior Kameron Eloph gained valuable experience making four starts at left guard. He will challenge for playing time as well. Alex Fontana started five games at guard in 2016. He's a thumper inside, but limited athletically compared to Denley and Oliver.

Redshirt sophomore Josh Jones was the only Cougar to start every game on the offensive line, holding down the left tackle position. We like Josh Jones a lot. He's a plus athlete and really grew into the position as a young player. He moves well and played more physical later in the year. Still we wouldn't mind seeing him get a little more junk in the proverbial trunk to take on physical edge players.

At the other tackle position Na'Ty Rogers and Braylon Jones split starts with Rogers, a JC transfer, starting the first seven games and Jones filling in for the last six. Ideally Rogers, a four-star recruit, would play the position. Braylon Jones, was thrown in as a true freshman. That experience is invaluable. He lacks ideal size to play on the edge and might be better inside. 

Defensive Line

Ed Oliver is one of the best defensive players in college football and he's still so young. If he can stay healthy, and that's hard to do playing with his motor inside, he's a pretty sure bet for All-American status and other post season awards. He's an athlete in the same vein as a Warren Sapp but with a physicality and mean streak rarely seen in combination. He can hurt you in so many ways. He penetrates with speed and quickness, bull rushes, and even if he doesn't get back to the quarterback he plays somewhat akin to a volleyball middle blocker, batting balls at the line. 

Ed Oliver

Ed Oliver

What is Oliver's ceiling? We don't know, if he gets much better he'll be one of the great interior lineman in recent memory. Think Ndamukong Sun but, you know, less of a dick. By the way Houston ranked 2nd in yards per rush allowed behind Alabama. That's an elite of elite level of smothering the ground game. 

Nick Thurman will get the start at defensive end. He's 6-4, 290 pounds. Thurman made five starts as a junior. Zach Vaughn looks like he'll be a rotation player in 2017 after starting once in 2016. At 6-5, 280 Chauntez Jackson is on the all hotel lobby team, but he missed 2016. If he can contribute that's a huge bonus.

Jerard Carter started nine games at defensive end last season, he's sidelined with an injury until at least mid-season according to coach Applewhite. He's from just across I-45 from Oliver's high school stomping grounds, having played at Spring Dekaney. The Cougars were also stung in June when the NCAA refused to clear 4-star defensive end Bryan Jones. Jones could have plugged in and may have been a starter by seasons end. His potential was immense and he was the jewel of Major Applewhite's first recruiting class. 

Houston received some good news when A&M transfer Reggie Chevis announced he was heading to 3rd Ward as a graduate transfer. Chevis is a nice rotation player who never got enough playing time at A&M after moving positions a couple of times. Aymiel Fleming is listed as Oliver's backup coming out of spring ball. There's obviously a big drop off between one of the best defensive linemen in the country and his backup.    

Linebackers

Houston is set to deploy another quartet of athletic aggressive linebackers in 2017. The question will be how does Mark D'Onofrio use them? Under Todd Orlando the Cougars regularly deployed 30 to 40 pressure schemes per game. D'Onofrio, at Miami, was criticized for his passive approach. Maybe a year away from the game changes that. Regardless, he has some horses he can set loose. 

Matthew Adams should be in line for a big 2017. The senior playmaker started eleven games of the Cougars last season. Lining up next to Adams inside is senior D'Juan Hines out of Spring Dekaney. He made seven starts and flashed a lot of athleticism when his number was called. Jordan Milburn is the heir apparent to Adams and Hines inside. The sophomore from Galveston Ball will be a key part of the rotation. 

Outside the Cougars will go to junior Emeke Egbule from North Shore. Ebgule can run, cover, and make explosive plays. The key will be consistency down to down. On the other side Austin Robinson will get a chance to start. The transfer quarterback from UTSA saw action last season on special teams. 

Leroy Godfrey and Ralph Harvey Jr. will back up on the outside. Godfrey is a big, athletic player who could be a good one but his sample size is too small to be definitive. The same can be said for Harvey Jr. who saw very limited action after transferring in from the JC ranks. 

Defensive Backs

Houston is quickly becoming DBU. The Cougars lost both corners to the NFL, just a year after losing multiple secondary defenders to the league. 

Khalil Williams

Khalil Williams

This group's strength is at safety where Garrett Davis, Khalil Williams, and Terell Williams all return. Add in Collin Wilder and the Coogs return one of the deepest safety units in the AAC. Davis and Khalil Williams are the keys here. Davis is a big, rangy player just tapping into his potential. He was good enough to garner second team All-AAC selection in 2016. Khalil Williams is a downhill, physical safety who finished third on the team in tackle last year. 

At corner Jeremy Winchester bring the most experience. Javian Smith played big minutes as a true freshman, as did Ka'Darian Smith. The most intriguing prospect at corner might be converted receiver Isaiah Johnson who at 6-4 should translate his receiver skills into great ball skills on the defensive side. 

Specialists

Houston went and found themselves an Aussie to do the punting as well. Dane Roy is roughly the size of a defensive end or power forward at 6-7 and 240 pounds. He averaged 40 yards a punt put 20 inside the 20 and hit six of 50 yards or more. 

The Coogs look to turn the kicking over Dalton Witherspoon, a JUCO transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Witherspoon hit a 58 yarder in junior college so he's got a big leg. 

Collin Wilder and D'Eriq King highlight the returning punt returners, though neither averaged more than five yards a return. King moves to quarterback so its doubtful that he continues to play in the return gamed. The same can be said for kickoff returners as Brandon Wilson took most of the kicks last season. He's moved onto the NFL. Dillon Birden will get a look returning kicks heading into fall camp. 

2017 Schedule

Best Case

Kyle Allen continues to lineage of great Cougar quarterbacks. Ed Oliver stays healthy and stays Ed Oliver. Someone steps up to create a ground game offensively and Mark D'Onofrio doesn't lose the identity of the defense. Ten wins are within site. 

Worst Case

Houston struggles to run the ball. Again. The defense plays passive and its spirit is destroyed. Yes that's dramatic, but that's our concern with D'Onofrio. The lack of bodies and depth play a significant role. The wins could dip to six or seven. Cougar fans yearn for Tom Herman and his grill.

@ UTSA Win

Houston goes on the road to a hornet's nest to start the season. 

Don't sleep on UTSA. 

@ Arizona Pick'em

Cougars travel to 'Zona as Rich Rod tries to save his job. 

Houston faces a season defining road trip in week two. 

Rice Win

The Bayou Bucket returns as Houston opens their home slate. 

Coogs in a rout. 

Texas Tech Win

First time a Texas P5 travels into TDECU. 

Tech's lack of defense and Houston's surplus of defense make the difference. 

@ Temple Win

Heading to the Linc to open AAC play. 

Temple won't be an easy matchup in Philly. 

SMU Win

Payback time for Houston. 

Coogs haven't forgotten what it was like to watch the Mustangs blow up their season. 

@ Tulsa Pick'em 

Tough back to back with Tulsa and Memphis. A two game stretch could settle the AAC West. 

Cougars beat the Golden Hurricanes thanks to strip sack touchdown and goal line stand in 2016. 

Memphis Loss

TDECU needs to be rocking when the Tigers come to town. 

Memphis is the consensus AAC title pick. 

East Carolina Win

Defensively challenged ECU comes to Houston.

Cougars get respite between two tough league foes. 

@ South Florida Loss

Could be the AAC game of the year. 

Charlie Strong's Bulls could be undefeated when Houston comes to Tampa.

@ Tulane Win

Sneaky Tulane and their run based offense comes up next. 

Can't fall into a trap heading into Navy week. 

Navy Win

The Midshipmen have been a thorn in the Cougars' side. 

Cougars have a short week to prep for the flexbone. 

Prediction 8-4

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