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College Football Preview 2016-2017: 6. Houston Cougars

Greg Ward Jr. 
6. Houston Cougars

Conference: American Athletic (West)
Location: Houston, Texas
2015-2016 Record: 13-1 (7-1 AAC)
Bowl Result: Victory in Peach Bowl
Breakout Player: RB Duke Catalon
Heisman Hopeful: QB Greg Ward Jr.
X-Factor: CB Howard Wilson
Recruiting Rundown (via Rivals)

How did former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman follow up helping lead the Buckeyes on a miraculous journey to the National Championship in 2014-2015? By taking over as head coach at Houston and promptly working some wonderful magic there. The Cougars, who had underachieved as of late, went on to dominate the American Athletic Conference, with their only loss coming to UConn, when star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was injured late. A dominant showing to win the conference and a beat down of Florida State on national TV in the Peach Bowl showed just how quickly the program had risen and the result was a 13-1 mark. Entering 2016, the expectations have raised significantly for Herman (who opted to stay with UH despite plenty of other job offers) and the Cougars, but some rich talent still remains. With Ward leading the charge, expect Houston to work some magic once again, and possibly even fight for a CFB Playoff berth.

Backfield: Once relegated to receiver duties, Greg Ward Jr. has evolved into a superstar and a legit Heisman candidate entering '16. Ward, who entered 2014 playing receiver after sophomore John O'Korn won the QB job, soon took over and hasn't looked back. Last year, Ward threw for 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns while also showcasing his playmaking abilities with his legs, with 1,108 yards on the ground and another 21 scores. Ward is undersized, standing at just 5'11", 185 pounds and some worry about his durability, especially considering he is a fearless rusher. Herman may hope Ward is a little bit more cautious this season, but will still let Ward use his huge arm to stretch the field and open things up for the Cougs. If anything does happen to Ward, junior Kyle Postma saw a decent dose of snaps last season, and looked very good. He isn't the runner that Ward is and isn't nearly as explosive, but he has a more accurate arm. The Cougars will also be excited for another quarterback to debut, although one that isn't eligible until next season. Former Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen arrives and will give the position a bright future even though Ward enters his final season. The running back position will undergo some transitions this season after Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson both depart. Farrow just missed back-to-back 1,000 yard campaigns in '14 and '15, as he was slowed by injuries last season, while Jackson provided a great change of pace and had four touchdowns. Due to injuries, Houston did use cornerback Brandon Wilson at back in the Navy game and he played very well. However, Wilson enters his senior season playing an important defensive role, so don't expect him to be seeing much carries offensively. The player most likely to take over the rushing load is sophomore Duke Catalon, who started his career at Texas. Catalon was a highly touted high school prospect who held offers from a number of big-time programs but never got on the field at UT due to a hamstring injury early in his career. In Houston's up-tempo, spread scheme Catalon should get plenty of carries and some big holes to run through; he could be in store for a major breakout. Houston is extremely thin beyond Catalon however, without any proven commodity in the backfield. Newcomer Mulbah Carr and redshirt freshman Josh Burrell are two playmakers that could see some action and make an impact.

Receivers: As exciting as Greg Ward was last season, the Cougars most electrifying player was probably receiver Demarcus Ayers. The big, athletic wide out recorded 1,222 yards off of 98 receptions and had six touchdowns. Unfortunately, Ayers made the relatively surprising jump to the NFL (seventh round, Pittsburgh Steelers). That leaves the Cougars without their top receiving option, but the cupboard is far from bare. Senior Chance Allen should take over as Ward's go-to weapon in UH's dynamic passing attack. Allen is a former Oregon transfer who showed reliable hands and a great feel for the game last season, as he picked up 752 yards and six touchdowns himself. Allen isn't the type of player Ayers was; he isn't quite as explosive or agile, but makes up for it with his good size (6'3", 215 pounds) and soft hands. Junior Steven Dunbar also returns to help out Ward in the passing game, after he produced solid numbers in 2015. Dunbar picked up 382 yards off of 31 catches and showed he was a threat to pick up big yards every time he touched the ball. Dunbar benefited last year from defenders focusing more on Ayers and Allen, a luxury he won't have this season. Even so, expect his numbers to jump with an increased role in the Cougars' offense. Sophomore Isaiah Johnson and junior Ra'shaad Samples are also going to be weapons the Cougars will utilize in different ways. Johnson is inexperienced with just six receptions all of last season, but he is a burner who could become a lethal deep threat. He has shown plenty of promise in practice and spring, and could surprise some AAC defenders. Samples is yet another transfer that could play a big role in the Houston offense. Samples began his career at Oklahoma State, and knows how to succeed in a spread offense. He is another good athlete that should stretch the field and open things up. True freshman Courtney Lark was Houston's top offensive recruit. Lark is a four-star prospect from Texas that can make plays every time he touches the ball. He will certainly need time to adjust to the collegiate level, but the talent is there for him to make an impact early in his career. At tight end, Houston will lean heavily on senior Tyler McCloskey. The tight end position doesn't play a huge role in the Cougars' offense, but McCloskey still proved he could help out, with 14 receptions for 157 yards. Sophomore Romello Booker and Iowa State transfer Alex Leslie should help out the senior at the position.

Offensive Line: The Cougars' offensive line may not get a lot of credit with the speed and explosiveness they have at other positions, but it does play a pivotal role in their success. The unit should be okay in 2016, but will have to overcome the loss of three starters. Junior Marcus Oliver will be looked at as the star of the group, as he brings the most experience and plays a key role at left tackle. Oliver isn't as big as other tackles around the nation, but he makes up for it with great athleticism and mobility. Oliver will not be alone as the only experienced piece on Houston's offensive line, as sophomore Will Noble returns. Noble wasn't supposed to see much action last season with the talent in front of him but was forced in due to injuries and poor play. Noble earned Freshman All-American honors for his great play, and should be even better in 2016. The other remaining spots on the unit are up for grabs. Sophomore Kameron Eloph made four starts last season, two at each guard spot. He could lock down a starting job at either right or left this season. Sophomore Mason Denley and junior Josh Thomas could also fight for snaps at either guard position. The Cougars are hoping for big things from newcomer Na'Ty Rodgers, who enters his junior season. Rodgers was a Under Armour High School All-American who ended up signing with South Carolina. He never really got the right opportunities with South Carolina and transferred to join the junior college ranks for two years. He arrives as a pretty highly touted JUCO transfer, and could start at right tackle, where Houston is very thin. Fellow newcomers Keenan Murphy and Braylon Jones could provide valuable depth to the unit.

Defensive Line: Houston runs an aggressive defensive scheme, and that starts with their defensive line. The unit should once more be strong in '16, thanks to the return of a number of veterans and a big-name newcomer. Senior Cameron Malveaux is an important returnee to the unit after posting solid numbers a season ago. Malveaux isn't extremely explosive but he has good power and uses his sturdy frame to his advantage. The veteran had 33 tackles and six tackles for loss last season and should continue to grow as a defensive end. Also returning is sophomore Jerard Carter, who should lock down a spot at defensive tackle. Carter proved he could be a solid helper in run support, with 13 tackles last season. Houston will ask more from him this season, and he bulked up to become a better pass rusher. Fellow defensive tackle B.J. Singleton was Second-Team All-AAC last season, and will compete for snaps. Singleton had 20 tackles a year ago and also proved he could disrupt the passing attack, batting down three balls with his long, athletic frame. The American Athletic has plenty of good running backs (Marlon Mack at USF, Jahad Thomas at Temple) so having those two veterans in the heart of their defensive line should give the Cougars a distinct edge. The other defensive end spot is up for grabs as solid Tomme Mark departs after making all 14 starts a season ago. Junior Nick Thurman is a well-rounded defender who had 27 tackles last year, with five of them going for a loss. Former tight end Chauntez Jackson is going to see playing time as well as he continues to transition to end. Jackson is a great athlete, and possesses plenty of upside. While he'll provide valuable depth, the Cougars are ready to see what another defensive end can do named Ed Oliver. Oliver was just Houston's second ever five-star recruit as the local product opted to stay close to home and play for the rising Cougars. Oliver has the versatility to help out at either tackle or defensive end, but is more natural coming off the edge and getting after the QB. While Malveaux and Thurman may well lock down the starting jobs at end, defensive coordinators Todd Orlando and Craig Naivar should give Oliver plenty of action to see what he can do.

Linebackers: Houston's new 3-4 scheme that was implemented last year by Orlando and Naivar may not have benefited any player more than inside linebacker Elandon Roberts. It finally gave Roberts the playing time and role he needed, and the former Morgan State transfer showed what he could do. He recorded a whopping 142 tackles, six sacks and 13 tackles for loss, while making plays all across the field. Unfortunately, Roberts departs and so does his impressive stat-line. Houston will obviously miss him, but there is enough returning at linebacker that someone will pick up the slack. If not for Roberts, senior Steven Taylor would have led the Cougs in tackles, as he finished off with 92 last season. Taylor is a prototypical inside linebacker with good size and speed to the ball, and he has a ton of experience. With 165 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, it is reasonable to believe he will put up huge numbers again in 2016. The other returning starter to the unit is fellow senior Tyus Bowser, who plays a much different role than Taylor. Bowser is a pass rusher off the edge that Houston often unleashes on blitzes. He is pretty one-dimensional but he does his job very well, proven by his 50 tackles and 5.5 sacks last year. Great play by Malveaux, Thurman and Oliver should help Bowser as blockers will spend more time on the other guys, opening up lanes for the vet to work with. The question of who will take over Roberts' absent inside 'backer spot will be interesting to watch and will likely last deep into fall camp. Sophomore Emeke Egbule showed plenty of promise in his true freshman campaign last year, with 11 tackles. With a 6'3", 240 pound frame and fabulous instincts, Egbule could be a breakout candidate. Junior Matthew Adams had 40 tackles last season and has more experience, but may not have quite the upside. Junior D'Juan Hines is another guy that could compete for a starting job after showing he could produce at a high level last season, with 17 tackles. Overall, the group may undergo some growing pains as they won't have Roberts to support them, but Taylor and Bowser can certainly lead the charge. It should still be a very good group of players.

Brandon Wilson
Secondary: This past NFL Draft, perhaps no defensive player shot up draft boards quite like cornerback William Jackson III after the NFL Combine. A great showing had NFL scouts drooling at the former Houston playmaker. He ended up going No. 22 overall to Cincinnati, and Houston will obviously miss him as well, as his loss may have more of an impact than the departure of Roberts. Jackson served as the Cougars No. 1 cornerback last season and proved he could get his hands on everything, batting away a staggering 23 balls and also picking off five passes. Jackson is not the only departure, as Houston also saw safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart. McDonald had 92 tackles and four picks himself, while Stewart added 76, six sacks and four interceptions as well. Those losses will push Houston to find new playmakers to step up. Senior Brandon Wilson is at least back, but he'll play a hybrid role at nickelback. Wilson proved he could play running back (as he did in high school) but also showcased good potential as a defender. With 58 tackles and eight pass break-ups, he can certainly make plays. Without Jackson, Houston is hoping junior Howard Wilson can take over No. 1 CB duties. Wilson has played extremely well as a reserve, including 48 tackles in 2014. However, he took a medical redshirt last season and it is unknown how he will recover from injury. Sophomore Jeremy Winchester and sophomore Carmen Mayfield return to fight for the the other corner spot. Winchester had two starts a season ago and proved he could use his great speed to his advantage. Safety is possibly Houston's thinnest position on their entire roster. Sophomore Garrett Davis is going to see some action, as well as junior Khalil Williams and redshirt freshman Darius Gilbert. None of those players are very proven, but they at least bring plenty of potential. The addition of some junior college transfers will certainly help in a big way. Terrell Williams arrives from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M CC as a pretty highly touted option and he could certainly find some action at strong safety. Also arriving is J.J. Dallas, a corner with significant upside from the JUCO ranks. Dallas comes from JUCO powerhouse Blinn College and knows how to help defenses in a multitude of ways. With no clear cut option next to Wilson, Dallas could even start. Houston will have to figure out their defensive backfield issues fast. Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will be throwing against it on the first weekend, and it could be a big problem if nobody steps up.

Special Teams: Senior kicker Ty Cummings is back to give Houston a pretty reliable option. Cumming split time last season, but was perfect when he was kicking, going 51 for 51 on extra points, and knocking down 8 for 8 field goals. Punter is thin for the Cougars, and backup QB Kyle Postma was listed as the starter in the spring. If he doesn't work out, Cummings could also serve there. Houston will miss Demarcus Ayers in the return game.

When the College Football Playoff was introduced it left something very clear: Non-Power Five teams (not in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC) would have a tough time leaping those teams to get into the small, four-team field. Even so, Houston could challenge that, as they do have a decent shot at running the table. Sure, Oklahoma to begin the season on September 3rd will be a huge challenge, but a win very well could give them a huge resume booster to carry them through. A late date with Louisville on Nov. 17th will also be perilous, but this Houston team beat them last season and is talented enough to do much the same this season. There isn't a team in the AAC West that can really challenge Houston if they stay healthy; Ward is an elite quarterback, Herman is a wonderful coach and the defense is filled with good, strong veterans. Even if UH doesn't beat OU or Louisville and doesn't run the table, they still are the best Non-Power Five team. Perhaps even at the very least, another New Year's Six Bowl could be in store.

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