March 20, 2012
Houston, Texas - A new era is underway in Houston with the hiring of head coach Tony Levine. Deeply familiar with the landscape surrounding the budding national football program, Levine spent four productive seasons as an assistant coach (including the final two years as assistant head coach) and wasted little time recruiting a talented staff to join him for his first full season at UH.
It was a historic campaign for the Cougars in 2011. Record-breaking offensive numbers stole the headlines and a late-season flirtation with perfection will live in the memories of Cougars fans for decades to come. While a resounding 30-14 win over No. 22 Penn State in the 2012 TicketCity Bowl will be the "icing" for the UH faithful, the foundation laid by Levine and his staff in a short period of time has fueled an off-season of excitement for his first full year directing the program he is so proud to call "home".
Gone are familiar names like Keenum, Edwards, Brown and Carrier, but the cupboard is far from bare. In fact one of the most intriguing aspects of spring practice for Houston is that Levine immediate came in and created a clean slate for his club. Each starting spot must be re-earned. If you notice the spring depth chart (Page 11), each position is left blank, creating the type of early competition needed for a program to continue its ascent up the college football hierarchy.
A Look At The Coaching Staff
Already 1-0 as a head coach following the bowl victory in Dallas, Levine stocked his coaching staff with Texas products, familiar with the brand of football that has become synonymous with Houston. Offensively his staff has three former offensive coordinators, two of which have called plays for the Air Raid. Mike Nesbitt, who directed some of the country's top offensive attacks at Stephen F. Austin, will lead the UH Air Raid in 2012. The Lumberjacks passed and ran with incredible efficiency last year and Nesbitt gives UH its most experienced play-caller in years.
Lee Hays, formerly the offensive coordinator at Baylor when the Bears ran the Air Raid, will coach the offensive line and spent time as a staff assistant at Houston in 2010.
Travis Bush will coach running backs and came to Houston after serving as the offensive coordinator at UTSA, a club now in the Western Athletic Conference.
Houston also welcomed home former receiving standout Brandon Middleton, who will coach the outside receivers next season after a stint playing in the National Football League.
Coaching the inside receivers and coordinating the special teams will be Jamie Christian. The veteran assistant spent time running the Air Raid at Arizona State and has been one of the country's top recruiters throughout his tenure.
Defensively names like Jamie Bryant, Zac Spavital and Carlton Hall are back. Bryant will be the club's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, while Spavital will coach the secondary and coordinate the UH recruiting. Hall will continue to mentor the defensive line, along with another Houston newcomer, Ricky Logo, who was the defensive line coach for a pair of NFL Pro Bowlers, Osi Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware, at Troy University.
A Look At The Offense
Coaches love competition and there will plenty of competition for spots on the offensive depth chart this spring. Five starters are back from last season's record-breaking group, all-five of which were key figures associated with an explosive running game.
Sure Houston made headlines for its passing productivity, but the club also ran for more than 2,000 yards and that production is anchored by the return of four offensive line starters and First Team All-Conference USA running back Charles Sims.
Houston was a rarity in college football in 2011, starting the same offensive line for all 14 games and four of those five starters are back in 2012, although competition will be stiff. The most highly-touted of those returners is left tackle Jacolby Ashworth. Now entering his senior at left tackle, Ashworth earned Second Team All-Conference USA honors last year and is one of the more experienced pass-protectors in college football. A native of Lufkin, Texas, the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder has 29 career starts in 30 career games and is likely a preseason All-C-USA pick in 2012.
DeAnthony Sims will provide competition for Ashworth at the position and was solid in action as a redshirt sophomore in 2011.
Rowdy Harper is back at right tackle and made 14 starts as a redshirt freshman. The Freshman All-America selection improved steadily as a first-year player and should be even better in his third season with the program. Competing with Harper will be junior Josh McNeill, who brings very good size (6-foot-6, 305 pounds) to the position.
Kevin Forsch is making a move to center this year in place of the graduated Chris Thompson. An athletic, heady player, Forsch was an honorable mention all-conference pick at right guard in 2011 and should fit in nicely in the middle of the UH offensive front. Bryce Redman is slated to compete with Forsch and saw time as an extra tight end in short-yardage situations.
Ty Cloud and Emeka Okafor will be two contenders at guard this spring. Cloud started 14 games at the left guard spot, while Okafor, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound sophomore, played as a true freshman. Austin Lunsford will add depth along the line after starting his career at defensive tackle and Ralph Oragwu is back and should be ready to compete for extended time in 2012.
Running back will be another area of strength for Houston in 2012. Sims is back after racking up 821 yards rushing on just 110 carries a year ago. The 206-pound speedster ranked No. 3 nationally with 7.5 yards per rush and tied for the team lead with nine rushing scores. He is also a potent pass-catcher out of the backfield and made 51 receptions for 575 yards and four TDs.
Braxton Welford played in 14 games last season and will help provide quality depth at the position. Welford had 21 carries for 83 yards and a score last year and played behind one of the most effective tailback trios in school history.
The Cougars also have a young, talented group of running backs entering the program and should have plenty of options once again after rushing for more than 2,000 yards and 33 scores in 2011.
Perhaps the most hotly-contested competition will be at receiver where UH welcomes in four new starters. The Cougars are notorious for turning out quality pass-catchers and while this group will be young, they are both talented and quick.
Houston lost the services of its all-time receptions leader (Tyron Carrier, 320 rec.) and yardage leader (Patrick Edwards, 4,507 yards) and also another first team all-league performer (Justin Johnson), but welcome in a new wave of play makers. Ronnie Williams and Dewayne Peace each made starts in 2011 and Williams had a great effort in the TicketCity Bowl making a career high six catches for 58 yards against a stout Penn State defense. Williams has good size (5-foot-11, 188 pounds) and speed and made a number of important catches in the bowl victory after Carrier left with an injury.
Peace, a junior college transfer with two years of eligibility remaining, should be ready for increased playing time this season and had 13 catches in limited action due to the UH depth.
Opposing defenses will also see more of true sophomores Daniel Spencer and Mark Roberts. Spencer found the end zone twice in wins against Marshall and UAB, catching three passes for 61 yards and a 41-yard score vs. the Thundering Herd. The 6-foot-4 Roberts also has big-play ability and caught a 58-yard pass in the win in Birmingham.
Two more players with excellent speed are Isaiah Sweeney and Gino Collins. Sweeney is a former Conference USA 200m and long jump champion and should be 100 percent for his senior season, while Collins made 10 receptions for 178 yards and a score last year. The Houston native caught a 43-yard touchdown in the win over SMU and added two catches for 61 yards at Tulane.
UH welcomes in some of the country's top receiving threats. Andrew Rodriguez from Allen High School was a First Team All-State selection making 64 catches for 1,462 yards and 18 scores. He is one of five wide outs entering the program, which includes first team All-American Deontay Greenberry. The Fresno, Calif., native caught 109 passes and produced state-record totals of 2,165 yards and 33 touchdowns in 14 games at Washington Union High School in 2011, leading the Panthers to a California Division III State Championship with a 14-0 mark. They join talented newcomers such as junior college transfer Xavier Maxwell, and freshmen game-breakers Larry McDuffey and Devin Parks.
For the first time since 2007, the quarterback position will be loaded with competition following the departure of the NCAA's all-time passing leader, Case Keenum. However the Cougars do return quality experience at the spot with David Piland back after a redshirt season in 2011. Piland saw extensive action as a true freshman in 2010 with the injury to Keenum's knee early in the year and was a Freshman All-American after throwing for 2,641 yards and 24 scores in eight starts. Piland responded nicely in his rookie campaign, ranking among the national leaders with 330.1 yards throwing per contest and he showed improvement each week finishing with career high passing totals of 467 yards and 441 yards respectively in tough road environments at Southern Miss and at Texas Tech. One area Piland has worked heavily on over the past season is his familiarity with the offense and his decision making, which should cut down on the 14 interceptions he threw as a rookie, however his 24-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio would be envied by most true freshman starters in college football.
The competition at quarterback will be heated however and redshirt freshman Bram Kohlhausen, senior Crawford Jones and sophomore Aaron Johnson will lead the way. Kohlhausen, a 6-foot-2 signal caller, brings great athletic ability to the position and led his high school team to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons (2008-10). Jones has incredible familiarity with the offense and brings a veteran presence, while Johnson was converted back to quarterback, a position he played successfully in high school after beginning his career as a receiver.
A Look At The Defense
One of Levine's first moves this off-season was the promotion of Bryant to defensive coordinator. If you ask many around the program the primary reason for Houston's dramatic defensive evolution in 2011 was the steady work of Bryant, who also quickly molded his linebacking unit into one of the country's most productive.
In 2012 UH will convert back to the 4-3, a factor that could mean big things for the defensive line. The interior of that line will start with Dominic Miller. Miller was a difference maker for the Cougars at nose and made 13 starts as a first-year player. A transfer from Blinn College, Miller had 2.5 tackles-for-loss, and did an incredible job keeping blockers away from a linebacking core that ranked as one of college football's best.
Also back is Radermon Scypion, a three-year letterwinner. The senior has good athleticism and saw time in seven games and should be even more productive as a senior. Joey Mbu returns and backed up Miller last season at nose and joining the fray in 2012 are redshirt freshmen Alex Cooper and Keithen English. The Cougars did recruit well along the defensive line and have a pair of all-state defensive tackles joining the squad in Donald Hopkins (Under Armour All-American) and Tomme Mark.
Depth will also be a key factor at defensive end in the new alignment. Kelvin King and Lloyd Allen give the Cougars active rush-ends, while Eric Braswell made 11 starts as a redshirt freshman. Braswell led all defensive linemen with 47 tackles, including four stops against Penn State. King had four tackles-for-loss, two sacks and an interception and will provide a more explosive pass rush to fill in the for the departed Brown. Allen played in 13 games last season and ranked second on the team with 3.5 sacks, three of which came in the win at UAB.
Providing more depth will be Zeke Riser who at 6-foot-4, 270 pounds gives the Cougars some ability to play inside as well after playing in 14 games with four starts last year. B.J. Singleton joins the program and has the ability to compete for a spot in the rotation early in his career.
Linebackers will again be a strength in 2012, although there were two key departures. Brown was one of college football's most disruptive players racking up 30 tackles-for-loss (led the nation) and 13.5 sacks, while Marcus McGraw became the school's all-time tackles leader. Back however are Derrick Mathews and Phillip Steward. A first year starter as a true freshman, Mathews finished second on the team with 106 tackles while Steward led all linebackers nationally with six interceptions. Both Steward and Mathews will compete alongside another former starter, Efrem Oliphant, who returns after missing 2011 with an injury.
The 6-foot-2, 228-pounder had 66 tackles and 3.5 tackles-for-loss as a freshman in 2010 and brings an ideal frame for the middle of Houston's speedy defense.
Kent Brooks and Colton Valencia saw time as starters at safety last season and both will be back. Brooks made nine starts and ranked among team leaders with 75 total stops. He also forced a pair of fumbles and is coming off a 10-tackle performance against Penn State last year. A physical player, Brooks started the final nine games in place of Valencia who battled injuries towards the end of the year.
Valencia is now back at full strength and will move to the free safety spot. Despite injury he played in 12 games in 2011, making four starts. His top performance came against UCLA in the opener, where he had 10 tackles.
In competition at both spots are Earl Foster (SS) and Jeffery Lewis (FS). Foster redshirted the 2011 season, but is a very good athlete, while Lewis has earned a pair of letters and had 21 tackles on the year, including an interception at Tulsa.
The cornerback duo of D.J. Hayden and Zach McMillian will be among the best in Conference USA and Hayden could be poised for a breakout season after earning Conference USA Newcomer of the Year honors in 2011. Few junior college transfers had a bigger impact than Hayden as he played lock-down defense and forced a team-leading five fumbles. He also had two interceptions while leading the team with 11 passes broken up. Hayden will be an early front-runner for Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year accolades.
McMillian made 13 starts as a sophomore and finished second on the squad with seven passes broken up. He recorded an interception against Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship game and was an important figure in Houston jumping to No. 35 nationally in scoring defense.
A Look At The Special Teams
It should surprise no one that one of Houston's strengths will again be on special teams. When the head coach is a former special teams coordinator, no detail falls through the cracks and special teams has been a strength for Houston since Levine's arrival. Matt Hogan and Richie Leone lead that unit and each were honorable mention all-conference picks last season. Hogan is the NCAA record holder for consecutive extra-points made in one season (78) and is No. 2 in NCAA history with his 91 extra-point makes a year ago. Already No. 2 in career kick scoring, Hogan has 292 career points and will become just the second player in UH history to top 300 points in a career.
He is also one of the more accurate place kickers and has made 39-of-46 career field goal tries, with a career long of 51.
Leone, who also could handle the kickoff chores as a junior, was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy National Punter of the Year Award in 2011. He averaged 41.1 yards on 51 punts, with 12 boots of 50+ yards and 15 kicks downed inside the 20. He also had just seven touchbacks.
Other key figures returning are senior long snapper Brandon Hartson and the holder, Crawford Jones. Hartson should be C-USA's top snapper in 2012 after a near flawless 2011 season and few holders were as steady as Jones in 2011.
One area with some new faces on special teams will be the primary punt and kick returners. Gone are Edwards (PR) and Carrier (KR), the NCAA's all-time leader for kickoff return TDs, but Damian Payne returned a punt 76 yards for a score at Tulane and several players could be in line for kickoff return duties as the spring progresses.