Note: In no way am I trying to compare a football game to actual warfare, this clip is from the movie “All Quiet on the Western Front” and is merely meant as an alliteration to a popularly used football phrase. As a person with friends and family in the military, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the brave men and women who serve our country.
After back to back 8-5 seasons, Houston’s now former athletic director Mack Rhoades decided that wasn’t good enough and fired coach Tony Levine. Fortunately for him, he nailed the hire bringing in offensive coordinator Tom Herman from Ohio State after a national title and one of the most impressive and bizarre offensive coaching season’s in recent memory.
There is one big question hanging over this team heading into the season, and that’s how will the Cougars fare in the battle in the trenches? The answer to this question, good or bad, will play a major role in determining what this team’s record looks like at season’s end.
Since I’ve already stated that I think line play will be critical, let’s start with the offensive line. There is a lot to replace up here, chiefly RG Rowdy Harper who was a 1st team all-conference selection last year and started 52 career games. For those of you who hate math, 52 divided by four is thirteen making Harper a four-year stalwart at the right guard position.
There is plenty of talent though and a few experienced pieces to help guide the new starters. Ben Dew and Alex Cooper have each started 13 games in their careers and figure to play a prominent leadership role for the offensive line. All in all, this group may experience some growing pains, but the potential is there for the line to be good.
Greg Ward, Jr. should put up decent numbers even if the line doesn’t mesh, but he could be the best in the conference if they do come together. Ward is a true dual threat, and he has something that so many “dual threat” signal callers lack: instinct. Ward is adept at knowing when to tuck the ball and run and when to hang around in the pocket. His 7.4% sack rate may not be a clear indicator of that, so I’m going to have to ask you to trust me on that claim.
A dynamic duo at running back should hopefully be able to thrive, too. Kenneth Farrow was a 1,000-yard rusher last season and punched in 14 touchdowns. His backup, Ryan Jackson, had 610 yards and 5 touchdowns. They were also an efficient pair averaging 5.6 and 5.4 yards per carry, respectively, and only losing one fumble between the two of them.
Somebody will have to step up at receiver after the Houston receiving corps faced plenty of attrition in the offseason. Demarcus Ayers is the most likely candidate. Ayers was the 2013 Special Teams Player of the Year, and is still one of the top return men in the conference, but he needs to play a bigger role in the offense and probably will this season. He also might be the fastest receiver in the conference.
Also, expect redshirt freshman Isaiah Johnson to play a factor. Johnson has a good frame, and as a former high school track star could be another viable downfield threat alongside Ayers.
Todd Orlando has a great track record as a defensive coordinator, and his aggressive 3-4 scheme plays right into the scheme that former David Gibbs ran, so the transition shouldn’t be too difficult. However, the Coogs are facing a significant rebuild up front. Every line starter is gone, as is last year’s MLB and leading tackler Efrem Oliphant.
Steven Taylor and Matthew Adams were a disruptive pair last year with a combined 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks at linebacker, so the linebackers should be decent with them leading the way. DT B.J. Singleton is the leading returning tackler on the line, but that isn’t saying much as he only had 14.5 tackles. DE Tyus Bowser is a guy to watch. Bowser has a great last name, and even though he only recorded nine tackles, three of them were sacks.
As many question marks as there are surrounding the front seven, there are next to none in the defensive backfield. All four starters return, and they are all good. This ought to be the top secondary in the conference. Safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart combined for over 100 tackles and 8 interceptions last year, and both have garnered preseason all-conference praise.
William Jackson is the more heralded of the two corners after breaking up ten passes by himself last year and hauling in two picks, but don’t sleep on Howard Wilson who did his fair share with three interceptions of his own.
Even with stars in both the offensive and defensive backfield, I think the question marks up front added to the usual growing pains of a new coaching staff are enough for this team to do essentially what it did last year. The toughest non-conference game will be a trip to Louisville in the second week of the season. After that, a trip to UCF is never easy, but Houston does get Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis all at home. If they can beat two of those three at home then this team will more than likely end up in the conference championship game. However, I like the other three teams just a little bit more this season. Good things are on the horizon for Houston, though.
Credit Cover Photo to Mel Evans