Houston put its full faith into Major Applewhite to add to the legacy of Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin, and Tom Herman. Few programs have hit hiring out of the park as frequently as Houston. The Cougars have fed coaches into three in-state Power 5s and a Chick-Fil-A franchise. Eat more chicken for Tony Levine, fam. Hence why we refer to Houston as the Third Ward Springboard, because for fifteen years, Cougar coaches have found a nice cushy landing spot.
Enter Applewhite, oddly not named the initial interim coach when Herman left, that designation went to Todd Orlando, but he received the nod over Orlando just prior to the bowl game. Applewhite received the keys to the winningest program in Texas over the last five plus years, a program positioned to jump into a better, more lucrative league when the next round of restructuring happens. It's the best G5 job in college football with no hesitation.
Houston's achieved that status by spending money. Lots of it. Not just on the football program, but on almost every sport, including a new basketball arena that will be the envy of a lot of "power conference" members. That spending means there is a balance and a revenue point that Houston must hit. When you win the AAC and make a New Year's Six bowl, that number is more easily attained. If you go 7-5, the dollar margin can get tight or even upside down.
Folks made a lot of University president Renu Khator's statement, after Applewhite's hiring, that winning is defined at Houston as 10-2, not 8-4. First of all, we love that, Houston's administration wants to win from Khator to AD Chris Pezman to Regent Chair Tillman Fertitta. Second, if Houston wants to make the jump to an expanded Big 12 or restructured, more fiscally stable league, winning is everything. Facilities are on point, the media market (if that still matters) is a plus, and the recruiting footprint is as fertile as any in America. Just win baby. Embrace the mantra.
All that to say that the 2018 Coogs have no built-in excuse to fail to compete for the AAC West or challenge for another big-time bowl game. Houston has the quarterback, the skill players, the offensive scheme, playmakers on defense including two of the best safeties in the AAC, and perhaps the best player in college football in Ed Oliver. It's not now or never for Applewhite, but it is now. The Cougars have to go get skins and reestablish themselves as the program to watch in the AAC and most attractive option for leagues shopping around.
A year ago we assumed Kyle Allen would waltz into the Cougar's huddle and play like a five-star, best pocket passer in America, model of efficiency that we assumed Allen was. After all, he was a five-star prospect and the top-rated passer in America out of high school. We were wrong. Three starts in, Houston turned to steady eddy Kyle Postma. Houston's offense was nothing to write home about, but we weren't writing home about how pissed we were that Kyle Allen was looking dazed and confused.
Then, at the 8:19 mark of the first quarter of the South Florida game, Houston found their quarterback, playing receiver - D'Eriq King. The Cougars averaged over a yard more per play in King's starts than in games started by Postma or Allen. They also averaged more passing yards per game (310) than the offense averaged in Allen's starts (298) or Postma's (249).
Oddly, and perhaps by design, Applewhite and then offensive coordinator Brian Johnson slowed the offense down in King's five starts. The Cougars averaged fifteen fewer snaps per game with King. If you projected King's stats out over a full twelve game season, not likely, but instructive and fun, King would throw for almost 3,800 yards and run for another 800 yards. Fourteen players threw for 3,700 or more last season; ten quarterbacks ran for as many yards. Two guys did both or at least got close to it: Lamar Jackson and J.T. Barrett. To translate that to Houston terms, King's number project equal if not better to Greg Ward Jr.
We're expecting big things from D'Eriq King. If/when King gets dinged, Houston can now insert Tennessee grad transfer Quinten Dormady or a young player like Bryson Smith or Clayton Tune. Dormady can make any throw in the book and should benefit from a defined offensive identity, something the Vols coaching staff failed to establish last season.
That identity comes from perhaps the most significant addition to Houston this offseason, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. Briles' Bear Raid attack sat atop the Big 12 in total offense in five of six seasons before he went to FAU. At FAU the Owls led CUSA in total offense, including averaging 100 more rushing yards than any other team in the league. He knows what he's doing and what he'll do is get Houston running again.
When Houston went to the Peach Bowl and kicked the hell out of Florida State, the Cougars averaged 235 rushing yards per game, in the two years since they've averaged just under a hundred yards per game less.
The running game will rely on King as well as backs Mulbah Car, Kevrin Justice, Davion Mitchell, and grad transfer Terence Williams from Baylor. Williams didn't exactly mesh with Matt Rhule and the new Baylor staff. He thought about transferring before the end of the 2017 season when, according to Rhule, Williams wasn't living up to the program's standards. Williams almost separated from the program which is the PC way of saying kicked off, but a team vote allowed him to remain with the squad.
Assuming his head is in the right place, Williams is a former thousand yard rusher in Briles' offense and will help buffer the loss of 2017 leading rusher Duke Catalon. Justice was impressive in the spring game.
If the offense has a glaring weakness, it's at receiver where Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner take their combined 135 catches to the next level. Add to that John LeDay's 25 catches and D'Eriq Kings' 29, and Houston loses the overwhelming majority of their targets and catches from 2017. Courtney Lark caught thirteen balls last season to lead the returnees. Keith Corbin will get another shot to step up to his potential. He and Lark are both tall, rangy athletes, each 6-2 or taller.
Terry Mark had an excellent spring, culminating in a spring game that saw him repeatedly targeted by King and the other quarterbacks. Raelon Singleton transferred in this offseason from Utah. The Crosby grad played in 34 games with the Utes, making nineteen starts. Singleton adds another long body to the receiving corps, but he's also a physical, strong route runner.
Some redshirts and newcomers will get a chance to contribute as well. Julon Williams from Judson transition from high school quarterback to receiver. Jeremy Singleton, a redshirt from New Orleans was the highest regarded receiver from the 2017 class.
At tight end/h-back, Romello Brooker returns along with Sid Turnbull-Frazier who performed well in the spring game. Redshirt Parker Eichenberger saw quite a bit of action as well. Houston didn't show much in the spring game, but Briles did show a lot of eleven personnel with a tight end or h-back especially near the goal line.
Up front, Houston returns four-year starter Will Noble at center. He's once again on the Rimington watch list and anchors the interior along with Braylon Jones who started all twelve games last season and five in 2016. Mason Denley has experience at the other guard position, where Marcus Oliver started every game in 2017.
Big Kameron Eloph missed the entire 2017 season due to a herniated disc, and if healthy he can play either inside position. Ryan Deshotel backs up Noble at center and fire hydrant Keenan Murphy is back for depth as well.
Josh Jones is a pillar at left tackle, after starting 23 games over his two-year career. He's an All-AAC, caliber lineman. At right tackle, the departed Na'Ty Rogers made virtually every start the past two seasons. Huffman Hargrave product Dennis Bardwell looks to start for Rogers after seeing limited action as a true freshman. Jarrid Williams filled in for Jones in two games last year at tackle, so he's seen a fair amount of live action. That position battle should carry into fall camp.
Yes, you can overstate Ed Oliver's impact on Houston's defense, but it'll take you a while to get there. Oliver is such an anomaly in both his skills and his mindset that we may never see the likes of him again. Oliver has the best get-off since perhaps as far back as Warren Sapp combined with brute strength and a motor that reminds us of John Randle.
He also had the guts to pick and stick with his hometown Cougars. It's almost a badge of honor for Oliver that he didn't run to some traditional Power 5 program, where 5-stars are commonplace. He chose to take his own path, close to home, playing with his brother, and in an attempt to elevate Houston's program rather than play for a name brand.
Oliver is the focal point of any offensive game plan. You'd better deal with him, or he'll deal with you. That's why Houston's other defensive lineman and linebackers must raise their bar and take advantage of the attention paid to Big Ed so they can relieve stress from Big Ed. It's a vicious cycle.
Isaiah Chambers, in that vein, is primed for big things. The TCU transfer, former four-star, came back home and will start at defensive end. He sat out last season to fulfill the NCAA's transfer requirements, so he'll have to dust off a little rust, but if the spring game is any indication, he'll be a menace.
Zach Vaughn and Jerard Carter will play on the other side with Carter getting a slight edge. He played right across I-45 from Oliver in high school at DeKaney and started three games last year after recovering from injury. Vaughn is an experienced hand as a senior; he'll bring a physical presence.
If Oliver goes down, and after we coax Cougar fans off the nearest bridge, Aymiel Fleming will back him up. The drop off is stark, but that says more about Oliver's abilities than Fleming's.
Payton Turner is an outstanding athlete who has a frame to build some good weight on while maintaining his movement. He'll see action at defensive end. Tahj Brown enrolled in January from Louisiana, he played rush end for Donaldsville, he might be better suited at outside linebacker, but he'll get a look with his hand on the ground first.
Two pieces of big linebacking news came out of the spring, Darrion Owens is eligible after sitting out due to transfer rules and the NCAA granted Austin Robinson a sixth year. And just like that the Cougars decimated linebacker corps isn't as decimated. D'Juan Hines and Matthew Davis, Houston's top two tacklers, are both gone leaving a void. Owens and Robinson help fill that void.
Owens will start at one inside backer, and either Robinson or Roman Brown will play next to him. We like Brown's physicality, but Robinson looks like the better athlete. Jordan Milburn will get a look as well. SMU/Navarro transfer Jordan Carmouche is also available. He impressed coaches in the spring.
Outside Emeke Egbule is back after starting every game in 2017. He's the most versatile of the group and comes off a productive season. On the other side, Leroy Godfrey is a potential star after getting a taste of things last season. Elijah Gooden learned to play linebacker full time as a true freshman, and his upside, based on his athleticism is exciting.
The NCAA's clearing Deontay Anderson to play in 2018 might be the biggest news to hit the Houston roster. Anderson looks like a guy who played as a true freshman in the SEC West because that's what he did. He elevates Houston's secondary play immediately.
Garrett Davis is no slouch either; he's a three starter and ball hawk. Davis and Anderson give Houston the best safety duo in the AAC. Gleson Sprewell, Darius Gilbert, and Grant Stuard provide depth. Sprewell transferred in from Mesa State.
At corner, Isaiah Johnson made a successful transition from receiver to cornerback last year, and at 6-4, he matches up with just about anybody. Jeremy Winchester left the program in April after starting seven games last year. Alexander Myres made ten starts last season at the other corner position.
The other big news came from South Bend where Nick Watkins announced his transfer to Houston. Watkins made nine starts at corner in 2017. He'll challenge for a starting role, allowing Mark D'Onofrio the flexibility to play an experienced coverage man at nickel.
Behind Johnson, Watkins, and Myres things get a little murky. Ka'Darian Smith and Javian Smith will get first shot on the second unit. Javian Smith missed last season due to injury. In the spring game, the second team corners spent a lot of time chasing.
If Oliver, Chambers, et al. provide the pressure we anticipate and D'Onofrio channels his inner Todd Orlando, the secondary will be better by association alone, but regardless the talent level on the back end is better.
Aussie Dane Roy is back to handle the punting, he averaged 41.8 yards per punt, right in the meaty middle of the AAC. He drilled eight punts of 50 plus plays.
Caden Novikoff hit on 80% of his field goal attempts last season, with a long of 45 yards. 40% of his kickoffs went for touchbacks.
D'Eriq King - Quarterback
King is a revelation at quarterback and a full season at the position should be significant for the Coogs.
Will Noble - Center
The reliable Noble saddles up for one last ride at center. His 32 career starts and steadying presence are essential for Houston's offense.
Josh Jones - Left Tackle
Jones is another mainstay on the offensive line. The edge protector was part of a unit that allowed just seventeen sacks last year.
Ed Oliver - Defensive Line
What else can we say about Oliver? Enjoy him while you can Houston fans because he'll be playing on Sundays soon enough.
Isaiah Chambers - Defensive Line
Chambers has the size, length, and athleticism to be another big time, front-line defender.
Deontay Anderson - Safety
Anderson will help quarterback the defense and provide a physical, downhill defender for the secondary.
Garrett Davis - Safety
After three years starting, Davis is the productive, elder statesman/leader of the 3rd Ward Defense.
Best Case: Ok, let's get this out of the way, Houston CAN beat any team in the AAC. If you can fault Houston for anything it's, as Greg Tepper says, "playing with its food" the past two seasons. That's how you lose Navy and San Diego State in 2016 and Tulane and Tulsa in 2017. That bleeping Tulsa game should be played on a loop in the Houston weight room. Best case in 2018, Houston takes care of business, including a win in Lubbock or Memphis. 11-1.
Worst Case: The Cougars trip into a couple of bear traps (Navy and Tulane) and can't figure out how to deal with 'Zona, Tech, and Memphis. 7-5.
For Applewhite another five loss season probably tosses his keister squarely on the hot seat and makes 2019 a nine win or bust season. But Houston is better in 2018 and they won't stall out waiting for a quarterback to emerge.
Oliver deserves another run at a big-time mark in a bowl game. This year he has the horses to get him there, assuming the Coogs stay reasonably healthy, run efficiently in Briles' new offense, and take care of business. That middle factor is the lynch pin. A good ground and pound game will open up the edges for Houston's fleet of tall receivers.
If that happens, watch out.