Blue Ribbon Preview: Houston
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Many of the important faces that produced a historic 2011 season for Houston are no longer on campus.
Former head coach Kevin Sumlin left to take over at Texas A&M. Record-setting quarterback Case Keenum is now in the NFL. The top three receivers are gone. Two of the top three rushers and tacklers will not return.
Tony Levine begins his first full season as Houston's head coach after working four years under Sumlin. He spent the last two as assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. Announced as head coach on Dec. 21, Levine won his head-coaching debut when the Cougars beat No. 22 Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl to cap a 13-1 season.
"I think any time you can win 13 games you've had an outstanding season," said first-year defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant, who coached linebackers last season. "Not many teams can say that every year."
No C-USA team can.
Houston posted the best record in league history -- bettering Tulane's 12-0 mark in 1998 -- after being ranked as high as sixth nationally. The Cougars tied LSU for the most victories in the FBS, set the program's single-season wins record and ranked 14th in the final coaches' poll.
First-year offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt points out that Houston is more than a one-year wonder. The Cougars are in the top 25 nationally over the last six seasons with 54 total wins.
Houston returns 16 starters -- five on offense, seven on defense and four on special teams -- from last season. The Cougars also welcome back 47 letter winners, the fourth most in the league.
Levine's first full season begins Sept. 1 at home against Texas State.
"Our guys bought in right away and gravitated to Tony," said Nesbitt, one of six new coaches on the staff. "They got after it in the spring. There's been a high standard here, and these kids want to live up to those expectations and keep it going."
Head Coach:Tony Levine (Minnesota '96)
Record at school: 1-0 (First year)
Career record: 1-0 (First year)
• Mike Nesbitt (New Mexico '96) OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR/QUARTERBACKS
• Jamie Bryant (Ohio Wesleyan '93) DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
• Travis Bush (Texas State '00) RUNNING BACKS
• Jamie Christian (Central Washington '99) INSIDE RECEIVERS/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR
• Carlton Hall (Vanderbilt '98) DEFENSIVE LINE
• Lee Hays (Texas A&M-Kingsville '96) OFFENSIVE LINE
• Ricky Logo (NC State '92) DEFENSIVE LINE
• Brandon Middleton (Houston '04) OUTSIDE RECEIVERS
• Zac Spavital (Murray State '04) SECONDARY/RECRUITING COORDINATOR
For the first time since 2006, Case Keenum is not on Houston's roster.
Houston coaches decided in the spring that sophomore David Piland (6-3, 200) would be the starter. Keenum finished as the most prolific quarterback in NCAA history after setting records for total offense, passing yards, touchdown passes, completions and 300-yard games and becoming the school's first QB to start four bowl games. But Piland has replaced Keenum once before.
In 2010 as a true freshman, Piland went from fourth on the depth chart to becoming the starter after Keenum suffering a season-ending knee injury. Piland passed for 2,641 yards with 24 TDs and 14 interceptions in eight games.
That season Piland led C-USA in league games in passing yards, was second in total offense and third in pass efficiency. He also passed for 467 yards and four TDs at Southern Miss and 441 yards and two scores at Texas Tech.
Last season, with Keenum back in the lineup, Piland sat out as a redshirt. Piland is the most recent college QB from Southlake Carroll (Texas) High, following Chase Daniel (Missouri), Greg McElroy (Alabama), Riley Dodge (North Texas) and Kyle Padron (SMU). Piland, who also ran hurdles in high school, threw for 276 yards and two TDs in the spring game. He will be asked to keep Houston's Air Raid attack playing at a high tempo under Nesbitt, who called the plays for Stephen F. Austin's nationally ranked offense last season.
Nesbitt describes Piland as being fundamentally sound with a quick release and the ability to run the zone read. He takes over a unit that averaged 49.3 points per game in 2011 and ranked either first or second nationally in total offense in three of the last four seasons.
"He's a guy who knows how to handle himself and play in this offense," Nesbitt said. "You never know what it's like to be the starter until you're the starter, and he's done that before. Even though he redshirted last year you could see his development in the spring."
Jones has been the team's holder for field goals and extra points since 2010. His only statistics at quarterback came last season: He completed 1-of-2 passes for 18 yards against Georgia State and rushed three times for 11 yards at Tulane.
Kolhausen, who sat out last season as a redshirt, posted a 28-6 record as a starting QB at Lamar High in Houston while passing for 33 TDs in his final two years.
"Crawford might be a little ahead of Bram because of his knowledge of the offense," Nesbitt said. "They're really close to each other."
Levine and junior Charles Sims (6-0, 206) had a little fun with Houston fans last spring.
On April 1, Levine issued a press release that the first-team all-conference running back had requested to move to cornerback. The news was shocking given Sims ranked fourth nationally last season with 7.5 yards per carry. He also rushed for a team-high 821 yards and nine TDs and was second nationally among running backs with 51 catches for 575 yards and four scores.
Later that same day Levine tweeted it was an April Fools' joke.
"Charles is a great athlete you love to coach," Nesbitt said. "He's the first one in line for every drill, is explosive and makes great cuts."
Last season's second- and third-leading rushers, Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall, have exhausted their eligibility after combining for 1,038 yards and 18 TDs on the ground. The loss of Hayes and Beall means Sims will get even more touches this fall.
"He's going to have to do a lot more heavy lifting than what he's been used to doing," but he's talented enough to do it," Nesbitt said. "And he works hard enough to do it."
Redshirt freshman Kenneth Farrow (5-11, 195) will play after a surprising spring.
Farrow accounted for 1,233 yards of total offense and 17 TDs in eight games as a senior at L.D. Bell (Texas) High but practiced at safety while sitting out as a redshirt last fall. With Hayes and Beall gone and Sims held out of spring drills to avoid injury, Farrow moved back to offense. He rushed for two TDs in the spring game and added four catches for 60 yards and a score.
"He's really physical and a steady player," Nesbitt said. "He understands the offense and is smooth."
Senior Braxton Welford (5-11, 195) could also get some reps. He had 21 carries for 83 yards and one score last season and made 15 tackles on special teams. In the spring game he rushed nine times for 57 yards.
The biggest question for the Cougars is at receiver after losing Tyron Carrier, Patrick Edwards, Justin Johnson and E.J. Smith. That quartet combined for nearly 63 percent of the team's receptions (301 of 479), 67 percent of its receiving yardage (4,249 of 6,301) and 72 percent of its TD catches (39 of 54).
Fifth-year senior Ronnie Williams (5-11, 188) led the returning receivers with 16 catches last season for 138 yards and one TD. Williams, a cousin of Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, has 20 career receptions for 160 yards and three scores in 34 games.
"I expect Ronnie to be one of those guys who's going to have a great year," Nesbitt said. "He's been waiting for his turn after being surrounded by some great receivers."
The other two projected starting receivers are sophomore Daniel Spencer (6-0, 193) and junior Dewayne Peace (6-0, 190). Spencer had 12 receptions for 171 yards and two TDs last season. He made five catches for 80 yards and a score in the spring game.
"He had a great spring and showed a lot of athleticism and great ball skills," Nesbitt said. "He [was] our most consistent guy coming out of the spring."
Peace, a former Michigan pledge who spent one year at Arizona, had 13 catches for 105 yards in 11 games last season after transferring from Blinn (Texas) College. He had six receptions for 66 yards in a win over Georgia State. In the spring game he hauled in eight passes for 104 yards and two scores.
"Dewayne has earned his stripes," Nesbitt said. "He can stretch the field and create separation. He just needs to be more consistent. We hope he will bring some toughness to the position."
The fourth receiver will probably be senior Isaiah Sweeney (5-10, 175). Sweeney had two catches for 28 yards and one score last season. In 2010 he won the C-USA championship in the long jump and 200-meter race and was an NCAA regional qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter races.
In the spring game Williams had 10 receptions for 115 yards, Collins caught six passes for 97 yards and Beadle had a TD catch. Johnson is a converted quarterback who sat out last season as a redshirt.
One unit with some continuity is the offensive line, which has four of the team's five returning offensive starters.
First-team all-conference center Chris Thompson is gone after starting 51 games for the Cougars, but the rest of the line returns intact.
Senior left tackle Jacolby Ashworth (6-4, 300), junior left guard Ty Cloud (6-4, 315), junior right guard Kevin Forsch (6-5, 301) and sophomore right tackle Rowdy Harper (6-6, 290) all started 14 games last season as Houston led the nation in multiple offensive categories.
"Everybody in that group pushes themselves," Nesbitt said. "They don't tolerate one guy being lazy or slipping up."
Ashworth, whose brother Jermichael Finley (Green Bay Packers) and cousin Rex Hadnot (Arizona Cardinals) play in the NFL, was a second-team all-conference selection. He has 29 career starts.
Cloud, Forsch and Harper are second-year starters. Forsch was honorable mention all-conference in 2011. Harper, who played for the father of Houston assistant coach Zac Spavital at Broken Arrow (Okla.) High, was a freshman All-America choice by at least one national publication.
Ashworth also worked at guard, and Forsch spent some time at center in the spring. The starting center job is still wide open.
Sophomore Bryce Redman (6-2, 290) can play guard and center after playing in 14 games last season. Juniors DeAnthony Sims (6-3, 315), Ralph Oragwu (6-3, 310) and Josh McNeill (6-6, 305) and sophomore Emeka Okafor (6-5, 315) were also reserves a season ago.
In the spring the Cougars transitioned to a four-man front after previously using a 3-4 base. Several players also moved from other positions to the defensive line.
"We were trying to get faster on defense and more athletic," defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant said. "In the spring we focused on everybody getting in the proper alignment and stances and playing fast, physical and aggressive."
Two starters return on the line -- senior nose tackle Dominic Miller (6-3, 301) and sophomore end Eric Braswell (6-4, 250). Miller played in all 14 games last season and made 13 starts. He led the team's defensive linemen with three quarterback hurries.
"As the spring went on he played with a better pad level," Bryant said. "He is a guy who can beat one-on-one blocks."
Braswell started 11 of the 14 games he played last year and made the C-USA All-Freshman Team, but he moved to tackle in the spring. He led Houston's defensive linemen with 47 tackles, including six against Southern Miss and five at Tulsa.
Scypion, a native of Hawaii, made five tackles in seven games last season. Pulliam, a former tight end, sat out as a redshirt in 2011 and had one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss in the spring game.
Bryant listed Braswell, Miller, Scypion and sophomore Joey Mbu (6-3, 320) as the top four players at defensive tackle. Mbu played 12 games last season as a true freshman.
At defensive end, Pulliam, senior Kelvin King (6-2, 260), junior Zeke Riser (6-4, 270) and senior Lloyd Allen (6-4, 240) were the top four performers in the spring. King has played in 38 games -- making 10 starts -- with 75 tackles, six sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss over the last three years. He had 26 tackles and two sacks last season.
Riser made 36 tackles in 14 starts in 2009 to earn C-USA All-Freshman honors. He missed the following season with a knee injury before starting four of 14 games played last year.
Allen was second on the team last season with 3.5 sacks -- three of them coming at UAB -- in his first year with the Cougars. The former Mississippi State pledge also had 23 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in 13 games. In the spring sophomores Efrem Oliphant (6-2, 228) and Jon Witten (6-2, 230) moved from linebacker to defensive end. Oliphant, who sat out last season as a redshirt after being a C-USA All-Freshman Team selection in 2010, had six tackles, 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss in the spring game.
Houston was second nationally in tackles for loss last season largely because of the play of McGraw (141 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss) and Brown (30 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks).
Steward, who plays on the strong side, led all NCAA linebackers last season and was 11th nationally with six interceptions. He also racked up 77 tackles and seven pass breakups. Steward had a season-high 12 tackles in wins over Louisiana Tech and Rice.
"Phillip is very versatile and played a lot on the No. 2 receiver last season, and that allowed him to make more plays in the pass game," Bryant said. "He adds some depth to the linebacking crew."
Mathews was second on the team last season with 106 tackles and added 10 tackles for loss and three interceptions to make C-USA's All-Freshman Team and College Football News' Freshman All-America Team. He made a career-high 16 tackles against Louisiana Tech and had 12 stops in a win over Rice.
"We tried to keep things as simple as we could a year ago because he was a young guy and it was a long season," Bryant said of Mathews, who moved to the weak side in the spring. "In the spring we worked on the finer points like where he fits in gaps and run schemes and in the pass game. He continued to get better."
Senior Everett Daniels (6-0, 210) emerged as the top middle linebacker in the spring. Daniels had 38 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in 13 games last season. In a win over Georgia State, Daniels made seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. The primary backups are junior Austin Wilson (6-2, 218) on the strong side, junior George Bamfo (5-11, 215) in the middle and senior Kris Johnston (6-0, 220) on the weak side.
Wilson made seven tackles last season in 11 games. Bamfo posted three sacks and seven tackles a year ago in a win over East Carolina and played in 12 games. Johnston has 36 tackles in 23 games over the last three seasons.
Last season the Cougars ranked third nationally in interceptions and fifth in passes defended. Three starters from that playmaking secondary will be back on the field this fall -- senior D.J. Hayden (6-0, 190), junior cornerback Zach McMillian (5-10, 175) and junior safety Kent Brooks (5-11, 200).
Hayden was the 2011 C-USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year and second-team all-conference after tying for seventh nationally with five forced fumbles. He led the team with 11 pass breakups and 13 passes defended and made 66 tackles.
"I think D.J. has tremendous physical ability," Bryant said. "He's a bigger kid who can run and has been upgrading his technique."
McMillan finished with seven pass breakups and eight passes defended last season. He also had 44 tackles. "Zach has a lot of ability," Bryant said. "He's gotten bigger and stronger and is a really smart football player." A starter nine times last season, Brooks was third on the team with 75 tackles. He also had three passes defended and three pass breakups.
Senior Chris Cermin (5-10, 190) is expected to replace departed starter Nick Saenz at strong safety. Cermin has only five tackles in 13 games the last three years -- he made two stops in six games last season -- but had a strong spring.
Junior Thomas Bates (5-11, 180) and senior Chevy Bennett (6-1, 200) provide depth at cornerback. Bates made three starts last season and finished with three interceptions and 10 passes defended. Bennett started five games a year ago.
Other players in the mix at free safety are junior Colton Valencia (5-10, 190) and senior Jeffery Lewis (5-9, 185). Valencia made 40 tackles last season while starting four games. Lewis had 21 tackles in 14 games. Redshirt freshman Earl Foster (6-0, 190) will fight for playing time at strong safety. Foster, who sat out last season as a redshirt, had an interception in the spring game.
Last season's top kickoff and punt returners (Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards) have moved on. Sophomore receiver Damian Payne (6-0, 208) was a threat on his five punt returns, averaging 21.6 yards per touch and scoring on a 76-yard runback at Tulane. Marcus Williams scored on an 85-yard kickoff return in the spring game.
The race to return kicks appears to be open with Jeffery Lewis handling only three returns last year, averaging 13.7 yards with a long of 26 yards.
Redshirt senior Brandon Hartson (6-3, 250) and senior Crawford Jones are likely to be the long snapper and holder, respectively.
Senior Matt Hogan (6-1, 200) is one of the nation's most dependable kickers. Last year he was honorable mention all-conference after ranking 14th nationally in scoring with 130 points and setting the NCAA record for consecutive made extra points in a season (78). His 91 extra points -- on 92 tries -- ranked second in NCAA history, first in the league for a single season and led all FBS kickers in 2011.
Hogan also made 13-of-17 field goal attempts, including three apiece against Penn State and SMU. He made a season-long 38-yarder in the bowl win over Penn State.
Junior Richie Leone (6-3, 200) averaged 63.5 yards on 35 kickoffs last season. Leone, who also punts, had five touchbacks. Hogan did not attempt any kickoffs a season ago.
Offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt, a former NFL punter, said the Cougars are "solid" with Richie Leone punting again. Leone was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award and honorable mention all-conference after averaging 41.1 yards per punt last season.
In eight games Leone averaged better than 40 yards per kick. He had 12 punts of 50-plus yards and 15 caught/downed inside the 20. In addition to a long punt of 63 yards at North Texas, Leone helped the return game with 18 of his kicks being fair caught.
Houston's first signing class in the Levine era included 25 players, four of which earned high school All-America honors.
With heavy losses at receivers from last season, several newcomers could push to make an immediate impact in the fall.
Former Notre Dame pledge Deontay Greenberry (6-3, 187) was a member of ESPN's Top 150. As a prep senior in California, Greenberry set state records with 2,165 yards and 33 TDs on 109 catches at Washington Union High. Junior Xavier Maxwell (6-2, 183) led Blinn (Texas) College in receiving yards (630), yards per catch (26.3) and receiving TDs (six) last season.
A three-star recruit by ESPN, Larry McDuffey (5-11, 165) had nine TD receptions and averaged 21 yards per catch last season at North Shore (Texas) High.
Andrew Rodriguez (5-10, 181) was an honorable mention All-American by Sports Illustrated as a senior at Allen (Texas) High after grabbing 64 passes for 1,462 yards and 18 TDs.
"Those are some really good high school football players," Nesbitt said. "They are explosive and have good ball skills but still need to get acclimated to college football before we know what they can do this season."
A newcomer could also get some carries at running back because of a lack of depth at that position.
Terrence Taylor (5-11, 205) was ranked one of the country's top 50 running backs and rushed for 1,950 yards and 22 TDs as a senior at Diboll (Texas) High. Ryan Jackson (5-10, 180) racked up 1,703 yards and 23 TDs on the ground last season at Angleton (Texas) High. A former Stanford pledge, Jontrey Tillman (5-9, 183) totaled 1,440 yards and 14 scores on 112 carries as a prep for West St. John (Louisiana) High.
On the other side of the ball, freshman Donald Hopkins (6-2, 285) from Lago Vista (Texas) High could be a factor at defensive tackle. The four-star recruit by ESPN is the first Under Armour All-American to sign with the Cougars. He had 92 tackles and six sacks as a senior.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Houston has several players stepping into new roles this season, but there's optimism among the coaching staff for continued success.
A bowl win over nationally ranked Penn State and a strong set of spring workouts have fueled those expectations. "We're not really young," Nesbitt said. "A lot of these guys have been there. Some of them just haven't played much, but they've been around and seen other guys practice and prepare and be successful. Now this group is learning how to practice and prepare to play."
Despite extensive personnel losses, the Cougars have some quality playmakers on offense and will be faster defensively after several players made position changes in the spring.
Levine is one of five new head coaches in the league, which means Houston could still find success -- even if it's not at the same level as in 2011 -- in a new-look conference.
Bryant said he's hardly concerned with outside expectations for the Cougars coming off their historic season. Instead their focus is on being ready for Texas State on Sept. 1.
"I think we can do anything we want to do this season," Nesbitt said. "It's going to be all up to us."
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"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2012 season for each Conference USA school. Take a look: