UCLA will need the defense to disrupt Houston's potent air attack offense once again if they want to start the season off with a win.
Last year, Houston came to Westwood following our embarrassing loss to Stanford. Our Bruins were sitting at 0-2, in need of a big win, and they delivered. Houston took an early 3-0 lead before the Bruins scored 31 straight points. UCLA ultimately won 31-13 after some late Cougar fireworks. Yes, All-American Case Keenum and his backup, Cotton Turner, were injured during the game, but the game was in hand well before Keenum went down.
This year looks to be a different story. We're traveling to Houston and playing in the well chronicled mid-day heat and humidity. Keenum is back, and Houston has been picked by Stewart Mandel of SI as a potential BCS buster.
Kevin Sumlin returns as the fourth year head coach of the Houston Cougars. His bio is strong, and he is known as one of the better offensive minds in college football. Last year, the Cougars were 11th in total offense (480.5 yds/game), 13th in scoring (37.7 ppg), and 5th in passing yards (327.3)nationally. Sumlin took over as HC of the Cougars after Art Briles left for Baylor. Briles had put the Cougars back on the map after the failed Kim Helton and Dana Dimel regimes, but he decided to leave for the bright lights of Waco in 2008. Prior to getting the Houston job, Sumlin coached at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops from 2003-2007, serving as co-offensive coordinator with Kevin Wilson in 2006 and 2007.
As impressive as Houston's 2010 offensive numbers are, they actually dropped from the previous year when Houston scored 42.2 ppg and passed for 430.9 yds/game. In 2008 and 2009, Houston's offense was coached by Dana Holgorson who was brought in from Texas Tech. Holgorson coached under Mike Leach from 2000-07 and brought the famed Air Raid attack with him to Houston.
It's unclear if the drop-off was due to the loss of Holgorson, who served as offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State last season, or if the minor slide was simply due to losing their top two quarterbacks. Regardless, current offensive coordinator and former Texas Tech quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury, runs a similar wide open attack.
As good as the offense was, Houston struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball. They gave up 32.2 ppg, which placed them 96th nationally, and were 114th in the nation against the run giving up 208.7 yards/game. Second year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart returns, but Coach Sumlin made changes at the defensive line and linebacking coaching spots.
Stewart brings good pedigree, having coached under Dom Capers in 2002-03 and Wade Phillips from 2004-08. He coaches an aggressive 3-4 scheme, and Houston apparently had a lot of plays for negative yards last year. Houston struggled to get off the field on third down and are replacing the entire secondary, so expect an abundance of blitz packages in an attempt to counter the inexperienced secondary.
Not much needs to be said about All-American Case Keenum. The sixth year senior has racked up 13,586 passing yards and 107 touchdown passes in his career. He'll likely break the NCAA records for passing yards and touchdowns this season, which will plant Keenum's name alongside former Cougar quarterbacks Andre Ware and David Klingler as NCAA record holders. Keenum is on essentially every preseason award watch list. Ironically, we wouldn't even be worrying about him had he not tried to tackle Akeem Ayers after throwing an interception last season. Keenum now jokes that he'll "curl up in a fetal position" rather than chase down a defender after an interception.
Along with Keenum, Houston returns RS SR Cotton Turner who was also injured in last season's game in Westwood, along with SO David Piland. Last year's injury fill-in, Terrance Broadway, transferred to University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the offseason.
With all of the Cougar's gaudy passing numbers, it would be easy to forget that they have a pretty solid run game. Last year, the Cougars rushed for 153.2 ypg. SR Bryce Beall is on the Doak Walker Award Watch List after rushing for 870 yards and 12 TD's as a junior. RS SR Michael Hayes also returns after rushing for 629 yards and 8 TD's. The Cougars also return RS SO Charles Sims, who had to sit out last season for academic reasons after leading the team in rushing with 698 yards and 9 TD's as a true freshmen in 2009.
None of the Houston backs are big, bruising types, but they all fit the Houston offense well. All three are talented and capable of picking up yards on the ground or through the air. In 2009, Sims caught 70 balls for 759 yards, while Beall added an additional 32 receptions for 309 yards. In 2010, Beall only caught 12 balls for 90 yards, but Hayes caught 30 for 327 yards and former HB Justin Johnson caught 16 for 240.
Houston lost two well used receivers, James Cleveland and Kierrie Johnson, who combined for 94 receptions, 1372 yards, and 12 touchdowns. The Cougars haven't lost production like that since losing Donnie Avery and Jeron Harvey after the 2007 season, which bodes well for us. Houston will undoubtedly fill the production lost by Cleveland and K. Johnson by the end of the season, but it may take some time for the Cougars to replace the two key starters.
Expect to see a lot of four WR sets, led by talented but diminutive seniors Tyron Carrier (5'8 170 lbs.) and Patrick Edwards (5'9 175 lbs.). Carrier plays out of the slot position, while Edwards will line up on the outside. Justin Johnson (6'1 223 lbs.) was listed at HB last year, but is currently listed as the other slot receiver. E.J. Smith (6'1 187 lbs.) will line up on the outside opposite Carrier.
In terms of numbers, Edwards led the Cougars in most receiving categories. He had 71 receptions for 1100 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 15.5 yards per reception, which was only bested by Smith's 19.4 yards per reception. Carrier had 53 receptions for 480 yards and a touchdown, and Johnson had 16 receptions for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Despite Smith's gaudy yards per reception, he only caught 9 balls for 175 yards and a touchdown.
The reserves are mostly untested. Isaiah Sweeney (5'9 170 lbs.) was the most productive of the bunch, and he only had 6 receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Chance Blackmon, a transfer from Colorado, is eligible this season and is currently listed as a back-up to Smith.
Not much is written about the Houston offensive line, which is partly due to their style of play. The Cougar offensive line is a much smaller unit than we'll normally see in the Pac-12. They are led by returning starts 6'2 285 lbs. SR C Chris Thompson and 6'4 300 lbs. JR LT Jacolby Ashworth. Thompson earned first team All-Conference USA last season at guard, but shifts to center this year to solidify the line. They should start three new linemen this year, including redhirt freshmen at RT, 6'6 285 lbs. Rowdy Harper, and RG, 6'2 283 lbs. Bryce Redman, as well as sophomore at LG, 6'4 315 lbs. Ty Cloud.
Back-up tackle Ralph Oragwu is the biggest Cougar lineman at 6'3 310 lbs., and he figures to fight for playing time along with fellow back-ups G DeAnthony Sims (6'3 300 lbs.) and G Kevin Forsch (6'5 301 lbs.).
There you have it. If you have additional notes on the Cougars' staff and offensive personnel, please share it in the comment threads. We will turn to defense in Part 2.