Houston football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Cougars, best players and season prediction.
Everyone in the American—and the Group of Five for that matter—is chasing Houston.
The Cougars are surging heading into the 2016 season. In the rear view mirror is one of the best years in program history, capping a league championship by throttling Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, 38-24, and ranking No. 8 in the final AP poll. Up ahead is unbridled optimism.
Houston is all the rage now that exciting QB Greg Ward Jr. is back for another season and hotshot head coach resisted the temptation to take another offer after only one year on the job. Plus, the facilities are being upgraded as the program continues to attempt to look like a Power Five program, even if the Big 12 fails to extend an invitation.
However, now the tough part begins for the Cougars, living up to stratospheric expectations that they created by going 13-1 in 2015.
Herman’s inventiveness plus Ward’s athleticism should lead to plenty of blowout wins this fall. Flanking Ward will be a few new accomplices, including Texas transfer RB Duke Catalon and Oklahoma State WR Ra’Shaad Samples. Catalon, in particular, could be an instant star in this attack, as the Cougars look to balance out Ward’s playmaking ability with a steady force between the tackles. The unit requiring the most attention this summer is an O-line breaking in three new starters, including both tackles.
The Houston D is underrated just about everywhere but in Houston. The Cougars have long been menacing and opportunistic, even before the current staff took charge. And more of the same is anticipated this season, despite wholesale changes in a secondary welcoming back just a single starter. The strength will be in the front seven, with the Cougs poised to win the line of scrimmage and flood opposing backfields with good athletes. However, coordinator Todd Orlando might need to dial back on attack mode if the new corners and safeties are unable to survive on an island.
Houston is blazing hot. Every school with an opening has Herman’s name on the short list. Ward is a legitimate Heisman contender. And high-profile transfers, such as former Texas A&M blue-chip QB Kyle Allen, view Space City as a destination spot. Oklahoma descends upon NRG Stadium in Week 1. If the Cougs can do to the Sooners what they did to the Seminoles eight months earlier, the program will spend the balance of the regular season in the national crosshairs as it postures for inclusion in the College Football Playoff.
Biggest Key To The Houston Offense
If you can’t join ‘em, poach ‘em. The Cougars may not be headed to the Big 12 anytime soon, but they’ll have an unmistakable Big 12 flavor on offense with the additions of RB Duke Catalon and WR Ra’Shaad Samples from Texas and Oklahoma State, respectively. Catalon possesses all of the physical tools to be a monster breakout star in his American debut. Samples is a former four-star Cowboy recruit who’ll help offset the unexpected departure of leading receiver Demarcus Ayers to early entry into the NFL Draft.
Biggest Key To The Houston Defense
Tough sledding for opposing backs. Yeah, the Cougs suffered a few losses in the front seven, namely DE Tomme Mark and all-star LB Elandon Roberts. Still, it’ll remain difficult to pick up rushing yards on this group. DE Cameron Malveaux and DT Jerard Carter are emerging up front, and Steven Taylor headlines a set of frenetic linebackers from the second level. While the secondary is still gelling, it’ll be challenging to move or avoid Cougar defenders near the line of scrimmage.
Houston Will Be Far Better If …
the O-line keeps QB Greg Ward Jr. healthy. The Cougars dropped one game in 2015, and not coincidentally it occurred when the franchise was hobbled with an ankle injury. Protecting Ward is challenging since he’s just 185 pounds and leaves the pocket so often. Plus, Houston is adjusting to a very young front wall that lost four key blockers to either graduation or retirement. Ward is one of the game’s great improvisers, but it’s going to hamstring the attack if he’s constantly getting hammered.
What You Need to Know About the Houston Offense
Head coach Tom Herman plus one more year with Greg Ward Jr. behind center ought to equal another season of 40 points per game … at least. Herman, along with coordinator Major Applewhite, supercharged the Cougar attack in 2015, a trend that’s likely to continue this fall.
There’ll be new parts looking to seize the opportunity of starring in a fine-tuned system that has Herman’s fingerprints all over it. RB Duke Catalon, a Texas transfer, is poised to erupt on the ground now that Kenneth Farrow has graduated.
Oklahoma State WR Ra’Shaad Samples is joining a budding corps that already includes Oregon transfer Chance Allen, veteran Steven Dunbar and emerging sophomore Isaiah Johnson. If there’s a concern on offense, it’s up front, where Houston must replace four full-timers from 2015.
The interior, led by C Will Noble and OG Mason Denley, looks to be in good shape. But neither of the projected starting tackles, redshirt freshman Josh Jones or JUCO transfer Na’Ty Rodgers, has any experience at this level. And protecting the wispy Ward is the utmost priority this season.
Best Offensive Player
Senior QB Greg Ward Jr. In Ward, the Cougars have access to a right-handed version of former West Virginia dual-threat Pat White. Ward is one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the game, burning opposing defenses with his blazing speed, downfield vision and quick release from the pocket. He’s one of those rare playmakers who forces defensive coordinators to devise a specific plan for stopping him. Yet, they rarely end up being successful.
What You Need to Know About the Houston Defense
The offense makes all the headlines, but Todd Orlando’s defense played a central role in last year’s 13-1 mark as well. The Cougars operate with a simple and effective motto—run fast and hit hard. And it works, with pressures and takeaways being commonplace for the past few seasons.
Houston will once again be very tough in the front seven. B.J. Singleton and Jerard Carter are pushing each other in the middle, while DE Cameron Malveaux is turning the heads of NFL scouts. While Steven Taylor is a guided missile from outside linebacker, Tyus Bowser and first-year starter Matthew Adams will also fly around to make a ton of big plays in 2016.
If Orlando has any sleepless nights this summer, it’ll likely be because of his secondary, which lost three all-stars, including first-round Cincinnati Bengal CB William Jackson. Versatile Brandon Wilson, who also played some running back a year ago, slides into the role of the new veteran of the secondary.
Surrounding him will be a cast of critical first-time starters, such as corners Howard Wilson, Jeremy Winchester and J.J. Dallas and safeties Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis. Williams had 18 tackles in 14 games last year.
Best Defensive Player
Senior LB Steven Taylor. Fast and fierce. Taylor is the embodiment of what it means to be a Houston defender these days. He’s the standard by which other Cougars will be judged in 2016, and a veteran that the younger kids on the two-deep will look to emulate. Taylor is the rare—if not the only—defensive player who is his team’s returning leader in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, picks, hurries and forced fumbles.
Key Players to a Successful Season
The newcomer offensive tackles, redshirt freshman Josh Jones and junior Na’Ty Rodgers. Houston is an underrated defensive team, but QB Greg Ward Jr. and the offense drive this team. And one of the only ways to slow down Ward is hound and pound him in the pocket. With the graduations of Zach Johnson and Alex Cooper, the Cougars could wind up using a pair of first-time players on the edge. Jones’ has a high ceiling, yet no experience as he prepares to protect Ward’s backside. Meanwhile, Rodgers is a heralded JUCO transfer who comes by way of Iowa Western Community College.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Cougars match last season by winning the American and representing the Group of Five in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Houston should be favored in all but the opener with Oklahoma and possibly the Nov. 17 visit from Louisville, so anything less than a second straight conference crown would be a major disappointment. And considering the Cougars will begin the season as the Group of Five team to beat, missing out on a marquee postseason event would qualify as deflating as well.
Sept. 3 vs. Oklahoma. This is going to be big moment for Houston, as in one of the biggest opportunities in the history of Cougar football. Facing the defending Big 12 champs at NRG Stadium will drip with possibilities, namely a chance to catapult from plucky Group of Five squad to the College Football Playoff discussion. With an upset here, Houston would have a legitimate shot to run the table and then await the verdict from the committee. The quarterback battle between Greg Ward Jr. and Baker Mayfield will be one of the best games-within-the-game of a dynamite Week 1 slate of matchups.
2015 Fun Stats
– Points off turnovers: Houston 128 – Opponents 25
– Takeaways: Houston 35 – Opponents 14
– Third-down%: Houston 50% – Opponents 37%