2015 CFB Preview – Houston

    Houston CougarsGo to Team Page CougarsGo to Selection Page           Status quo just wasn’t cutting it at Houston, so the program

    July 2, 2015

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    Status quo just wasn’t cutting it at Houston, so the program will be plotting a new direction in 2015.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    After going sideways for three years under Tony Levine, the Cougars cut their losses and hired hotshot offensive coordinator Tom Herman away from Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff. It was a bold and decisive move, as well as a clear statement that mediocrity will not be accepted by the administration.

    Houston, aided by a state-of-the-art stadium and a fertile recruiting base, is eyeing a return to the Art Briles or the Kevin Sumlin years, when 10-win seasons and conference contention were not considered outside the norm.

    Houston wants to get back to winning 10 games and flirting with the Top 25. Of even greater importance, however, it wants to be on the short list of potential targets in the event the Big 12 looks to expand beyond 10 members. And Herman was clearly hired with someday outgrowing the American in mind. The University believes it is Power Five-worthy, in and away from athletics, and now it has a head football coach with a national identity and a national championship ring earned earlier this year. Herman, in many ways, is the face of Houston’s mission of escaping college football’s AAA for a shot at the big leagues.

    The Cougs have a definitive blueprint for the future, but that doesn’t mean anyone is taking his eyes off the ball in 2015. Under Herman, the kids are being introduced to an entirely different level of preparation and physicality, which was evident throughout March and April. No jobs are safe, and only those players willing to bring it in all phases are going to get on the field. The backfields—both offensive and defensive—will be the cornerstones of the team this fall. How well Houston retools the lines and the corps of wide receivers this summer will help determine if league contention is in the cards.

    Houston won eight games the past two seasons, yet still fired the coaching staff. Now that is an administration serious about winning championships. The Cougars believe they have the ingredients, from the facilities and the rich recruiting territory to the traditions and the history, to be more than an eight-win team that plays in garden-variety bowl games. In Herman, they’ve found a young, upwardly mobile head coach who’s capable of carrying out that vision. They’ve landed the big league coach to match those big league dreams.

    What to watch for on offense: Ward-ing off the competition. John O’Korn is a Michigan Wolverine and junior Greg Ward Jr. is the incumbent at quarterback. But he’s not the sure-fire starter, especially since there’s a new staff on campus. Ward was challenged this spring by Utah transfer Adam Schulz, with new player earning the spot atop the post-spring depth chart. While Ward’s athleticism fits nicely into Tom Herman’s spread attack, he’ll need to continue evolving as a passer this summer. Herman will anoint the Cougar who does the best job of getting first downs, producing points and winning games. Period.

    What to watch for on defense: Front seven machinations. The secondary is set, and poised to be among the best in the Group of Five. The front seven, though is a fluid situation, as the Cougars shift to a 3-4 and all-stars DT Joey Mbu and LB Efrem Oliphant are replaced. It’ll take time for certain players to adjust to new roles and positions, as B.J. Singleton shifts outside to end, Tyus Bowser moves back a level to outside linebacker and LB Matthew Adams relocates to one of the two inside spots. Untested Nick Thurman has seized the job at the nose, an essential position in the new alignment.

    This team will be far better if … the new staff can generate more consistency. Man-for-man Houston was talented enough to do better than 8-5 a year ago. Yet, the Cougars lost the opener to UTSA and fell to Tulane, two schools that combined to finish 7-17. Even the thrilling Armed Forces Bowl win over Pitt didn’t occur until after the Cougs fell behind 31-6 through three quarters. The up-and-down, inconsistent nature of this program in recent years is the central reason why a staff change was made last December.

    The Schedule:
    With an unusually early bye in Week 3, the Cougars will conclude the regular season by playing a game on 10 weekends in a row.
    – In Week 2, Houston will renew acquaintances with Louisville, with whom it shared Conference USA membership for nearly a decade.
    – The Cougars will play a 2014 BBVA Compass Bowl rematch against Vanderbilt on Halloween, the first-ever meeting in Houston between the schools.
    – Three of Houston’s most important conference games, Cincinnati, Memphis and Navy, will take place at TDECU Stadium in the pivotal month of November.
    – Houston drew arguably the toughest pair of crossover games among West Division schools, having to face UCF in Orlando and Cincinnati.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Texas State. The Bobcats are a well-coached veteran team that can move the ball with balance. The backfield duet of QB Tyler Jones and RB Robert Lowe is capable of fueling an upset on Sept. 26.

    Best Offensive Player: Senior RB Kenneth Farrow. The face of the Houston offense has historically come from the team’s quarterbacks and wide receivers. But the 2015 edition is loaded in the backfield, led by Farrow and an agile quarterback. The Cougars ranked second in the league in rushing a year ago, with their hard-charging 218-pounder going over the 1,000-yard mark. Although Houston will move at a faster tempo this season, the bruising, unrelenting running of Farrow will provide a complement that wears down gassed opposing defenses.

    Best Defensive Player: Senior SS Adrian McDonald. There is no better unit in Houston than the defensive backfield. And there is no better Cougar defensive back right now than McDonald. He personifies what it means to play on the last line of defense at this school. McDonald is a ball-hound, attacking with relentless intensity as both a run defender and a pass defender. A strong safety today, he possesses the instincts and the coverage skills to make the move to free safety at the next level.

    Key player to a successful season: Sophomore DT Nick Thurman. The Cougars were solid against the run a year ago, allowing just 3.7 yards per carry, but that was when Joey Mbu was manning the middle. Now that Houston has transitioned to a 3-4, the new man on the interior is more important than ever. Thurman rose to the top of the of the depth chart this spring, allowing former tackle B.J. Singleton to move outside to end. But Thurman and backup Melvin Holland have just eight games of experience at this level, so they’ll be tested early on as the program searches for its new run-stuffers.

    The season will be a success if … the Cougars surpass the 8-5 mark of the past two seasons. Tom Herman supplanted Tony Levine to guide Houston over the hump. And there’s a feeling that the program has enough talent to raise the bar immediately. There is a couple of taxing road games, at Louisville and at UCF, but the schedule is largely made up of mediocre teams from the American. If Herman can have his systems in place by September, there’s reason to believe the Cougs are capable of winning nine this season.

    Key game: Nov. 7 vs. Cincinnati. There are a handful of teams capable of competing for an American crown in 2015. The Cougars and the Bearcats are two of them. Cincy visits TDECU Stadium in the middle of a pivotal three-game homestand that starts with Vanderbilt and concludes with a visit from Memphis. Cincinnati will be an intriguing and consequential matchup that pits QB Gunner Kiel and his deep receiving corps versus Houston’s ball-hawking defensive backfield.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Yards per rush: Houston 4.8 – Opponents 3.7
    – Takeaways: Houston 30 – Opponents 22
    – Fourth-quarter scoring: Houston 134 – Opponents 43

    What you need to know about the offense: With the arrival of Tom Herman—and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite—Houston is about to lean on a no-huddle, up-tempo, shotgun-style spread that stretches the field in all directions. The Cougar orchestrating that attack, though, has yet to be determined. Herman, who most recently mentored Ohio State’s stable of quarterbacks, must decide between incumbent Greg Ward Jr. and Utah transfer Adam Schulz. Ward’s athleticism is a plus, but there’s room for growth as a passer. Houston will be able to run the ball behind the one-two punch of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, and possibly Ward. But the passing game needs work; the center is new, the passers lack consistency and the receiver corps is still searching for a No. 1 to replace Deontay Greenberry. Oregon transfer Chance Allen might be that guy, but he’s awaiting a word from the NCAA regarding immediate eligibility. In the meantime, tight ends Tyler McCloskey and Rusty Clark will have an expanded role in Herman’s system, both as downfield blockers and mid-range pass-catchers.

    What you need to know about the defense: The Cougars plan to continue attacking, much the way they did when David Gibbs was the defensive conductor. They’ll just do so out of a 3-4 now that Todd Orlando is in charge. Tom Herman leapt at the opportunity to hire Orlando, who’s shown a consistent track record for coaching up the players he inherits. His glass will be half-empty in Houston in 2015. The secondary is going to be lights-out, with corners William Jackson and Brandon Wilson, and safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart allowing the team to unleash its athletic linebackers. But a year after doing such a nice job against the run, can the Cougs remain on track as the front seven undergoes a transition? Not only have three of the anchors, DT Joey Mbu and linebackers Efrem Oliphant and Derrick Mathews, graduated, but a number of players are being cross-trained at different positions. Some tackles are learning to play end, former ends are moving back a level and linebacker depth is in the process of being built up. From the maneuvers, a couple of reliable pass rushers must emerge.

    Players You Need To Know

    1. SS Adrian McDonald, Sr.
    Houston will once again be home to a dynamite defensive backfield, with McDonald as its leader. The former dual-threat high school quarterback is coming off a First Team All-AAC junior season in which he led the Cougs with five picks, three fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles, while making 75 tackles. In many ways, McDonald is the quintessential Houston defender—just 5-10 and 190 pounds, but he gets to the ball quickly and is hell-bent on creating mayhem for opponents.

    2. CB William Jackson, Sr.
    Since transferring from Trinity Valley (Tex.) Community College, Jackson has flourished in his hometown of Houston. He really turned the corner last season, finishing it with two picks, a team-high 10 pass breakups and placement on the All-AAC Second Team. Jackson even considered leaving for the NFL Draft after receiving favorable information from the league’s advisory committee. At 6-1 and 185 pounds, he has great size to go along with the feet and backpedal of a budding lockdown corner.

    3. RB Kenneth Farrow, Sr.
    Farrow is a lot like a linebacker in that he loves to hit people. One of the nation’s most punishing backs rushed for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns on 186 carries last season, while being named Second Team All-AAC and Armed Forces Bowl MVP. With the 5-10, 218-pound Farrow, there isn’t a lot of wasted movement. He hits the hole and then hits anything in his path, making him the logical option in short yardage and in the red zone.

    4. FS Trevon Stewart, Sr.
    Sure, the numbers were down from 2013, but Stewart remains one of the American’s most disruptive and frenetic defensive backs. A year after forcing a nation’s-high 10 turnovers, he chalked up 56 tackles, two stops for loss and three interceptions. Houston’s version of the Honey Badger flies around the field with reckless abandon, playing much bigger than his size, 5-9 and 185 pounds. Stewart is also a team captain and one of the players that the rest of the Cougars attempt to emulate.

    5. LB Steve Taylor, Jr.
    Houston continues to produce active, playmaking linebackers, with Taylor being the latest example. He’s started 19 games over the last two seasons, racking up 76 tackles, nine stops behind the line, four sacks and three forced fumbles in 2014. While only 6-1 and 220 pounds, he flies all over the field with a fearless and frenetic demeanor. With the graduations of Derrick Mathews and Efrem Oliphant, Taylor is poised to assume a bigger role on D and contend for overdue all-league notice.

    6. QB Greg Ward Jr., Jr.
    Ward was supposed to be the Cougars’ starting ‘Z’ receiver a year ago. Instead, he wound up being the team’s starting quarterback over the final eight games, including a come-from-behind bowl win over Pitt. He brought leadership and a spark to the attack, connecting on 177-of-263 throws for 2,010 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven picks. Ward also ran for 573 yards and six touchdowns, giving defenses a new wrinkle with which to contend. Ward is just 5-11 and 178 pounds, but he’s excited to join forces with new head coach Tom Herman, who favors mobile quarterbacks.

    7. RB Ryan Jackson, Sr.
    Jackson will once again represent the quicker, shiftier complement to Kenneth Farrow out of the backfield. In 2014, He came off the bench to rush for 610 yards and five touchdowns on 112 carries, and he has the best hands among the running backs. The 5-10, 190-pound Jackson does a solid job of setting up his blocks, patiently waiting behind his offensive linemen and then darting in and out of traffic.

    8. WR Demarcus Ayers, Jr.
    Deontay Greenberry’s decision to turn pro early left a gaping hole in the receiving corps that Ayers is hoping to fill. As an eight-game starter a year ago, he finished second on the Cougars with 33 receptions for 335 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-10, 178-pound Ayers has showcased explosive tendencies as a kick returner, but it’s now up to the new staff to maximize his speed and elusiveness on offense this fall.

    9. LT Zach Johnson, Sr.
    The return of Johnson comes at a timely moment for the Cougars, who lose two quality veterans, C Bryce Redman and OG Rowdy Harper, to graduation. A year after starting 11 games at right tackle, Johnson was set to man the left tackle spot in 2014. But an ACL tear in the spring ended his season before it could ever get off the ground. Johnson is healthy again and ready to use his 6-6, 295-pound frame to wall off the edge on opposing pass rushers looking to harass the Houston quarterbacks.

    10. DT B.J. Singleton, Jr.
    Singleton is one of the returning anchors up front for the Cougar D-line, but he’ll have a new assignment in 2015. As Houston shifts to a 3-4 alignment, the more athletic former tackles are now ends, including No. 93. While Singleton enjoyed a solid debut in the lineup, making 22 tackles, three stops for loss and a sack, much more is expected from him in 2015. Even at 6-4 and 290 pounds, he moves well enough to bloom into a quality pass rusher now that he’ll be working with more open space.

    Head Coach: Tom Herman
    1st year: 0-0
    Schedule
    Sept. 5 Tennessee Tech
    Sept. 12 at Louisville
    Sept. 19 OPEN DATE
    Sept. 26 Texas State
    Oct. 3 at Tulsa
    Oct. 8 SMU
    Oct. 16 at Tulane
    Oct. 24 at UCF
    Oct. 31 Vanderbilt
    Nov. 7 Cincinnati
    Nov. 14 Memphis
    Nov. 21 at Connecticut
    Nov. 27 Navy
    Ten Best Houston Players
    1. SS Adrian McDonald, Sr.
    2. CB William Jackson, Sr.
    3. RB Kenneth Farrow, Sr.
    4. FS Trevon Stewart, Sr.
    5. LB Steve Taylor, Jr.
    6. QB Greg Ward Jr., Jr.
    7. RB Ryan Jackson, Sr.
    8. WR Demarcus Ayers, Jr.
    9. LT Zach Johnson, Sr.
    10. DT B.J. Singleton, Jr.

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