June 21, 2001
Dana Dimel knew he was taking over a gold mine when he accepted the head coaching position at the University of Houston in December of 1999. Unfortunately, the gold mine was rigged with some leftover explosives that detonated as the 2000 season wore on. The implementation of a new staff and offensive and defensive systems, as well as a plethora of key injuries and a special teams meltdown, were all a part of the minefield explosions, but Dimel and his staff feel they have solved these problems during spring practice. Thus, it is time to mine the gold in the eyes of the Cougar leader.
Dimel aggressively will embark on the 2001 season with one thing on his mind: win the Conference USA championship. Even though the Cougars did labor through last season, Houston showed some glimpses of the future on both sides of the ball. Whether is was the receiving tandem of Brian Robinson and KeyKowa Bell or the safety trifecta of Hamin and Hanik Milligan and Heard Robinson, the Cougars do have plenty to build upon heading into the 2001 campaign.
"We are hoping to make the natural improvement from the first year to the next," commented Dimel. "The biggest thing is this football team understanding the system and understanding what we expect of them. Hopefully, this will translate into some victories for this football team in some close games.
"We think having six home games is definitely a much better situation to be in rather than the four games we had last year. We feel that should be a big advantage for us.
"The first goal is to get us into the postseason play, and if we can get through a very tough month of September at .500 or better, I think we have a realistic shot at reaching this goal."
The pressing need for Dimel this off-season was to find replacements for his offensive and defensive leaders-quarterback Jason McKinley and middle linebacker Wayne Rogers. One sure thing for the Cougars for the past four seasons was McKinley, who finished his Cougar career as a four-year starter and a nation's best 41-game starting streak. As for Rogers, the defensive captain led not only with words, but also by example, concluding his Cougar career with the Conference USA Co-Defensive Player of the Year award in 2000.
First to McKinley's replacement, a competition that shaped up to be the most intense positional battle in recent Cougar history. Before the spring the leading candidate to step into McKinley's shoes was sophomore Bubba Teague, who saw limited action last year as McKinley's backup, however, Teague sat out spring drills to concentrate on his academics, which opened up the door for an interesting head-to-head battle between two unlikely candidates.
Junior walk on Kelly Robertson-who played baseball at Western Kentucky before transferring to UH-and senior Alvin Lee, a former junior-college quarterback who has played both wide receiver and defensive back for the Cougars, were the two spring candidates. A classic drop-back passer, Robertson enjoyed a surprising spring and thrust himself into the quarterback hunt this fall. As for Lee, he will add a new wrinkle to the Cougar offense, providing a quick and speedy alternative in goal line and short-yardage situations.
The athletic and mobile Teague is back in the mix with Kelly Robertson and Alvin Lee, but the situation becomes even more contested when three newcomers arrive in August. Junior-college quarterback Nick Eddy, who has three years of eligibility, and the freshmen tandem of Blade Bassler and Barrick Nealy are talented enough to push the three incumbents for that elusive starting nod at quarterback.
"We were very pleasantly surprised at what Kelly Robertson brought to the table," added Dimel. "I though Kelly did a great job, even better than what we expected him to do. If we had to pick a starter today, it would be a dogfight between (Kelly) and Bubba for that position. I think it is going to make both of them better players.
"Of course, Alvin Lee did some good things in the spring, and he will be used in strategic spots. Plus, we have the three young guys coming in, and they are all going to be given the opportunity to show what they can do."
As for Rogers, Dimel has replaced experience with youth, but he believes he has found Rogers replacement in sophomore Justin Davis. After sitting out last season as a partial NCAA qualifier, Davis has exhibited the true instincts of a middle linebacker. Davis pursues with reckless abandon, and he knows the game like the back of his hand. Even though he lacks Division I-A experience, Davis already is a leader by example. In a pinch Dimel can turn to senior Waymond Ervin, who was a part time starter a year ago at the weak linebacker's slot.
"At the middle linebacker position Justin Davis had a great spring for us," said Dimel. "He is a big, physical linebacker who can run, and that is what you want your middle linebackers to look like. It is a tough job replacing someone the caliber of Wayne, but if there is young player out there in Wayne's mold, it is Justin."
Special teams was an area of concern for Dimel this spring, as he sought to shore up an area that was a major headache in 2000. On top of solidifying the weak spots, Dimel had to replace Mike Clark, who handled both the punting and kicking chores through a bevy of adversity last season.
The heir apparent for Clark's punting chores is sophomore Jimmy McClary, who spent last season on the sideline observing Clark after transferring from Hofstra University. As for kicker, freshman walk-on Dustin Bell and senior Jeff Patterson (who was the Cougars' top punter through the first half of the 1999 season) will head into the fall in a virtual dead heat for the number-one job. Expect this battle to rival the quarterback challenge during fall camp.
"Our biggest concern last year was just our consistency in field goals and PATs and punt return," added Dimel. "Those were our Achilles' heals last year. If we get more consistent with these three areas, I feel things will work out for us."
With 20-plus redshirts hitting the field, as well as a slew of experienced walk ons, Dimel feels confident he can turn the special teams into something really "special." The Cougars endured three long snappers last season and were working with a first-time holder, so PATs and field goals were always an adventure. With more experience at the return and cover teams, the Cougars should be able to improve upon kickoff and punt returns, while limiting the opposition to minimal yardage on their respective returns.
The Cougars have plenty of returning starters in which to continue the rebuilding process, including seven on offense and six on defense. As mentioned, the wide receiving duo of Brian Robinson and Bell returns ranked number two in the nation in tandem receiving. Add in the return of All-America candidate Orlando Iglesias, sophomore Brandon Middleton and junior Jeremy McCardell from injuries, and one can see why Dimel feels he has the best receiving corps in Conference USA.
"With Key Bell and Brian Robinson back, with the numbers they put up," said Dimel, "and then with Orlando and Brandon back from injuries, we think we have some pretty good receivers. We feel right now we have eight receivers that I would feel comfortable if any eight of them were in the game. So we have good depth there."
There is also plenty of depth at the wide receiver position. Choni Francis and Mark Hopkins played as true freshmen in 2000, while Ethan Ross is a junior-college transfer who also can return punts. Junior Jonathan Pritchett returns at tight end after missing all of last season with an injury, while his 2000 replacement, junior Stephen Cucci, comes off a 16-catch, two-touchdown campaign in Pritchett's absence, however, Cucci spent the spring recovering from shoulder surgery and could be a question mark this fall. Senior Grover Thompson and sophomore Kyle Brown should have no problem serving as Pritchett's understudies.
As one can see, even with the injuries and subsequent question marks, the Cougars have plenty of hands for the multitude of passes to be thrown.
"Jonathan had a great spring," said Dimel. "He is a good mixture of speed, pass catching and run blocking. Grover is a huge tight end and is improving every day, and Kyle Brown moved over from linebacker and was one of the pleasant surprises of the spring."
In the backfield the Cougars sport a three-headed monster of sorts, as senior Leif Penn and juniors Chris Robertson and Joffrey Reynolds will all battle for the starting running back spot. Penn finished the season as the Cougars' starter, while Reynolds began the year number-one before succumbing to a toe injury that kept him from staying 100 percent healthy. Robertson is the sleeper of the bunch, having spent the last season sitting out after transferring from the University of Texas. Robertson has the size, speed, strength and agility to be a big-time back in C-USA.
"Right there in those three guys, we feel (they) give us the three running backs that are as good as anyone in the conference," said Dimel. "Add in Anthony Evans (freshman recruit) and this position becomes even better."
Along the line the Cougars return seniors Jabari Beauford and Darnerius Watson and sophomore Al James, however, Houston must replace departed senior tackle Josh Lovelady, who not only was a three-year starter, but a two-time member of the all-conference team. Beauford is the most experienced of the returning group, while James is an up-and-comer who was named to the C-USA All-Freshman squad. Arizona transfer Chris Redding will challenge senior Josh Demarr for Lovelady's old spot, while sophomore Rex Hadnot and junior guard Tyrone Green go head-to-head for the other guard slot. Senior Patrick Boatner should back up both James at center and Hadnot and Watson at the two guard positions.
"We were very pleased with what our offensive line did for us this spring," commented Dimel. "They improved on the toughness and on being physical, and it obviously showed with the effectiveness and the efficiency we ran the football (during the spring game.)
"Moving to defense, for us to be a good as we want to be, we have to be better on defense, and that goes without saying. We feel good about our pass defense, and we want to make sure we are always shoring up our run defense."
Defensively, for the second straight year the Cougars return only one defensive lineman from the previous year. This year senior Lee Ingersoll is the sole survivor, and he is being moved from end to tackle to take advantage of his strength and ability to stuff the run. A mixture of youth and junior-college transfers will affront one another for the other three starting slots.
Juco standout Bryan Hill and redshirt freshman Kendrick Goss have the inside track at tackle and end, respectively, facing competition from senior Robin Tremblay and junior-college transfer and former Florida Marlins' farmhand, Quantaa Jackson. Sophomore David Midyett nailed down the starting nod at right end after an impressive 2000 season as a true freshman. Junior college transfer Adrian Lee will provide depth behind Midyett.
"We feel our d-line will come together for us and be quick and athletic," said Dimel. "Even though we only have one starter returner, I feel this is a talented group of players, and all should battle right to the end for playing time."
The up-and-down career of senior Arthur Gissendanner should be up, as he enters his final season with the Cougars. Gissendanner has battled some injuries in his career, but his athleticism at the weak linebacker spot is needed. Freshmen Travis Griffith and Nick Stavinoha will back Gissendanner this season and both bring athleticism, toughness and a nasty edge to the position. Griffith is a former tight end who was a hurdles champion in high school, while Stavinoha moonlighted as a backup catcher for the Cougar baseball team during the early parts of spring.
It is ironic that the outlook should end with the secondary, which might be the most underrated group in Conference USA. Four of five starters return, and the prospects of holding teams to less yards through the air in a pass-happy conference has put a smile on the face of the affable Dimel.
Senior Jason Parker has seen it all in his four years at Houston. Known as one of the better cover men in the league, Parker has been a starter now for three straight seasons and is looking to make it four consecutive. If he shuts down his man like he is expected to, the pressure of the passing game falls on the shoulders of the Cougars' other cornerback, which now belongs to redshirt freshman Bobby Tillman. Tillman is a converted running back with blazing speed. If he should have difficulty in adapting to defense, expect junior-college transfers Roland Cola and Victor Malone to step in and man the corner opposite of Parker.
The strength of the secondary is the safeties, three positions that are expected to cover receivers, rush the passer, stuff the run, and more importantly, make big plays. Junior Hanik Milligan is the best of the group, after leading the Cougars' in interceptions with five and finishing third on the team in tackles with 86 last season. His older brother, Hamin, has overcome two devastating knee injuries to become a heat-seeking missile ready to do some damage. Add in sophomore Heard Robinson, and the Cougars know they possess some of the heaviest hitters in the league.
Depth should never be a problem. Senior Clint deGroot and juniors Greg Holte and Reggie Medlock are versatile enough to play either weak or free safety, while junior-college transfer Jesse Sowells is ready to make his mark on the league as a backup to Heard Robinson. A pair of converted running backs, redshirt freshmen Chad Davis and Jermain Woodard, could make an impact as backups and heavy hitters on the special teams.
"We addressed the corner situation during the off-season with out recruiting and early signees," said Dimel. "Jason Parker is as good a cornerback than anyone has in the conference, so if we shore up the corner spot opposite him, I feel we will be tough to throw against.
"Talking about the safeties, Hamin Milligan is 100 percent healthy and he is a much different player when he's healthy. Hanik Milligan is one of the best safeties in the conference. Those two positions are extremely strong for us.
"Strong safety is our deepest position. Heard Robinson is the starter, but he is being pushed by Jesse Sowells who is being pushed by Jermain Woodard, so the depth is very impressive at this position."
Even though he would've enjoyed having more quarterbacks to work with this spring, Dimel was pleased with his team's performance during the spring. He found out who would be there for him this fall, either as a starter or a key backup. The quarterback spot is still a question mark, but Justin Davis seems to be the answer as to who would replace Wayne Rogers at middle linebacker.
And if it is truly to be a "special" season for Dimel in year number-two, the special teams must rebound from a disastrous 2000 campaign. If all three of these major question marks are answered on September 1 when Rice invades "The Quinn" for the season opener, Dimel will indeed find the mine full of gold, ready for the taking by his battle-tested, experienced crew of Cougars.