Life in 2016 for the Houston Cougars was a roller coaster, and it didn’t end how fans had predicted at the beginning of the season. With the uncertainty surrounding Tom Herman, the Cougars had to deal with a lot of pressure. Herman is now gone, and the Cougars can refocus on playing football and leaving that drama behind. Houston’s program turns to Major Applewhite, and he leads a team loaded with talent in 2017. Even the new faces should play vital roles in the team’s success. This is a transition year, but don’t expect a drop off in success. This team will make a strong push to win the conference and play in a New Year’s Bowl.
Applewhite was somehow able to steal Brian Johnson away from Mississippi State to be his offensive coordinator, and Johnson has plenty of talent to work with in his first season with the Cougars.
Major Applewhite has utilized the attention received from his quarterback battle well, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if he announces a starter the day before the first game. Kyle Allen has been considered the frontrunner from the beginning with Kyle Postma and D’Eriq King backing him up. Allen is more of a passing quarterback, but has plenty of speed to run as well. If Houston averaged 296.3 yards passing last season with Greg Ward, imagine what they can do with a better passer at quarterback.
The passing numbers from last season were high due to injuries at running back, and staying healthy will be this group’s biggest asset. Duke Catalon has the best skillset and should be the starter, but he needs to stay healthy. Dillon Birden and Patrick Carr will compete for backup reps while Kevrin Justice nurses an ankle injury. If this team is going to be successful offensively, the run game needs to evolve from last year. Gaining yards on the ground will take pressure off Allen and the pass game, and will open up lanes for the wide receivers to run and catch passes.
Linell Bonner returns as the top receiver after a breakout season, and could be in contention for national recognition. Opposite of him will be Steven Dunbar, who has proven he can dominate his matchup when needed. Arizona State transfer Ellis Jefferson (6’4”, 220) is a top candidate for the third spot as well, and has utilized his size and speed well in the fall. Sophomore Keith Corbin received valuable reps in the spring and Courtney Lark will compete after sitting out spring practice with an injury. Tight ends Alex Leslie (6’5”, 240) and Romello Brooker (6’3”, 240) will provide big targets and assist in blocking as well.
Houston’s youth at offensive line has suddenly turned into valuable experience. Center Will Noble could be in the running for multiple national awards, and is the leader of the group at center. Noble needs to stay healthy as his backup, Kameron Eloph, is injured with a herniated disc. Marcus Oliver and Mason Denley should be the starting guards, and Alex Fontana and Auburn transfer Deon Mix should see the field as well. A three-man rotation at tackle will include Josh Jones, Braylon Jones and Na’Ty Rodgers. This group, when healthy, has proven they can compete with any defensive front they play. Any improvement in the run game can also be attributed to their improvement, and returning plenty of experience will yield large dividends in 2017. The cliche of “it all starts up front” could not be more true for this team.
Houston was one of the top defenses in the country, and multiple contributors return at each position. New defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio has some of the top players in the conference to utilize, but he will need to create depth quickly before the season begins.
Depth is a concern up front, and Jerard Carter’s injury didn’t help that issue. Ed Oliver is one of the best players in the nation, and words cannot do justice to what he can do on the field. Oliver will once again dominate his competition despite seeing more frequent double teams in 2017. Nick Thurman returns on the end, and Texas A&M transfer Reggie Chevis will take over for the injured Carter. Incoming recruit Bryan Jones was expected to compete for a spot, but won’t join the Cougars in 2017. Oliver is going to be a focal point for every offense the Cougars face, and the success of Thurman and Chevis will focus some of that attention off of their star defensive tackle.
At linebacker, D’Juan Hines moves from the outside to join Matthew Adams on the inside. Adams was the leading tackler for the Cougars last year, and Hines is a playmaker that saw plenty of action last season. Senior Austin Robinson and junior Emeke Egbule took control of the outside linebacker positions in the spring, but will still be competing to keep their spots. Incoming freshman Amaud Willis-Dalton could compete for playing time with little depth at this position.
While cornerback may need work, the safeties of the defense won’t be a concern. Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis return at safety, and their backups, Terrell Williams and Collin Wilder will also be solid. At corner, Jeremy Winchester received valuable experience last season, and will have one side of the field locked. Former receiver Isaiah Johnson is competing for the other side of the field, and his combination of size and blistering speed would make him difficult to beat. He must fend off Javian Smith and Ka’Darian Smith for playing time, but these three will look to create some much needed depth at the position.
Junior college transfer Dalton Witherspoon should have the kicking job to himself, and punter Dane Roy returns after averaging 40.6 yards per punt last season. Kick and punt returner roles still need to be filled, but Dillon Birden could return kicks and Collin Wilder fielded punts in the spring game.
9/2: at UT-San Antonio
An opening road game in a hostile environment against a vastly improved team.
9/9: at Arizona
Wildcats’ head coach Rich Rodriguez is on the hot seat, and Arizona won’t be a tough out despite that pressure.
9/16: vs Rice
Not the Owls you need to worry about. A good tune-up game for the next week.
9/23: vs Texas Tech
Red Raiders can sling the ball around the field, but could this be the dagger in Kliff Kingsbury’s time as head coach?
9/30: at Temple
These are the Owls you need to worry about. Temple may be in a transition year, but a visit to Philly is not one to take lightly.
10/7: vs SMU
Houston lost to the Mustangs last year in brutal fashion, 38-16.
10/14: at Tulsa
Relatively unknown at this point, but we will know if Tulsa reloaded or is rebuilding by this point.
10/19: vs Memphis
If both teams are 7-0, this should draw even more national attention.
10/28: vs East Carolina
First meeting since 2012, and both teams look a lot different.
11/4: at USF
The Bulls are the favorite to win the conference, but this could be a battle if Houston is still healthy at this point.
11/18: at Tulane
Green Wave has a long ways to go, but did provide plenty of resistance in last year’s 30-18 loss.
11/24: vs Navy
Navy started the downfall of the Cougars in 2016, and ruined Houston’s playoff aspirations.
There’s significantly less pressure on this team with a new coaching staff taking over, but that doesn’t mean that the goals should be lowered as well. This is a team that has the talent to make a significant run at a New Year’s bowl game, and winning the conference should also be an expectation. Depth will be the primary concern for the Cougars in 2017, but that will come with experience. I can see this team going 9-3, but there are plenty of games that could swing that record either way. The national perception seems to be that they will regress, and that should provide Houston with plenty of motivation to prove that Houston hasn’t fallen off.