Houston's dramatic step-up on the national scale last season was preceded by a 2015 recruiting class that was... not so dramatic. In fact, it was basic and lackluster. Head coach Tom Herman was placed in the difficult situation of trying to turn around a class with just a few months of control, but he and his staff could not do better than a 92nd-ranked class from 24/7 Sports.
Unsatisfied, they went after their 2016 class with a vengeance. Cutting down on two-stars, building a foundation of three-stars and adding a few four- or five-star recruits shot the Cougars all the way up to 40th in the 24/7 Sports class rankings. This was also good enough for the best in the Group of Five, let alone the American conference.
That's not just improvement, that's an astronomical jump. It's obvious that Herman's strategy is set up with long-term success in mind, but the jump in quality poses another question: Which of these young talents can provide the biggest, most immediate impact?
The first that comes to mind is...
DT Ed Oliver, Houston, TX (Westfield)
The sole five-star signee of the class, Oliver's signing was a statement from the Cougars that they were no longer satisfied with being a part of the Houston recruiting hotbed, but that they plan to dominate it.
It was no secret that Oliver had been wanting to go to Houston for a while, as seen in his interview in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The presence of deeply established programs like LSU and Texas A&M was significant, but not enough to pull Oliver from his hometown choice.
It's because of that choice that we will see Oliver play plenty of snaps from the beginning of his freshman year. Current DTs B.J. Singleton and Jerard Carter haven't been the most impactful members of the defense, so it may be Oliver's job to lose.
With an appetite for the ball and a knack for finding the QB, Oliver has gotten used to being one of the most explosive players on the field. With such little depth resistance, the opportunity to continue that is open.
However, Oliver certainly isn't perfect, and there will be growing pains, especially with his strength. His 6'2", 277-pound frame matched up with his talent at the high school level, but now Oliver must put on more muscle to help him excel for the Cougars.
OT Na'Ty Rodgers, Pomfret, MD (Maurice J. McDonough)
A big part of Houston's offensive success in 2015 was the veteran play of tackles Alex Cooper and Carter Wall. Now, the two seniors are departing, and replacing them will be a challenge. That's where four-star tackle commit Na'Ty Rodgers comes in.
Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. seemed to be electric enough on his own, but solid protection from the outside was crucial. Rodgers will likely hop in as a freshman starter, and he'll need to get on track with Ward and his style as quickly as possible.
Rodgers has impressed with his raw size and athleticism, but he has shown that he can vary his technique as well. While there has been significant improvement in his technical work, it should be a primary focus in his early days in Houston.
There is a chance Rodgers doesn't start, but the possibility of his talent translating to the next level is worth playing out. Cooper and Wall will be missed as the season progresses, but getting Rodgers on the field, developing experience and honing his game will be the best move for the Cougars and for this 6'5", 290-pound tackle.
WR Courtney Lark, Bellaire, TX (Bellaire)
Courtney Lark may be coming into a very fertile place in Houston. The departure of top receiver DeMarcus Ayers to the NFL has left an important gap in the Cougars receiving group and that means more of a chance for Lark to make moves in the early going of his college career.
Ayers totaled nearly 500 more yards than fellow starting WR Chance Allen, although the two both brought in six receiving TDs. Replacing Ayers' production will be on Allen, WR Steven Dunbar and Lark, and all of them have various ways to contribute.
While Allen and Dunbar can certainly help, neither seem able to reach the same level of play that Ayers was consistently displaying. Lark is certainly a question mark as well, but his high school performances are exciting to say the least.
He totaled 2,602 yards and 36 touchdowns over the past three years in high school, evidence that he has a knack for scoring. Ayers was obviously important, but could Lark put up more TDs in his freshman year than Ayers did in his last?
All three players mentioned have the talent to take a starting job with the Cougars. They fit in nicely with a lack of depth at their positions and look ready to embrace the changing tide of UH football.
Herman's plan is in place and the pieces are coming in. Now, a new question arises: Who will step up first?