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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 24. Houston Cougars

24. Houston Cougars

Herman is gone, but the impressive talent remains

  • Location: Houston, Texas
  • Conference: AAC (West)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Major Applewhite (first year)
  • Last Years Record: 9-4 (5-3 AAC)
  • Bowl Result: Loss in Las Vegas Bowl


Life after Tom Herman begins in Houston, Texas this year as the Cougars most move on from the rising head coach, who will now be roaming the sideline in Austin. Herman led Houston to tremendous heights in his two seasons as head coach, going 22-4 overall, winning a New Year's Six Bowl and beating some of the powers of the sport, namely Florida State and Oklahoma. It is now time for the team's former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to take over the program. Applewhite may not be regarded as a coach at Herman's level in terms of player development or recruiting, but he is a great game manager and inherits a team stocked with talent on both sides of the ball. It is completely realistic to assume the Cougars will endure a dropoff with Herman now absent, but if a new quarterback can take the reigns of the offense and the defense is able to replace some veterans in the secondary, an American Athletic Conference crown is not completely out of the question.

Linnell Bonner
Offense: One of the major keys to Herman's success in Houston was quarterback Greg Ward Jr., whose impressive arm strength and improvisation ability made him a constant threat. However, Applewhite must now find a new signal-caller to run his offense, as Ward graduated. The most likely candidate has to be Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen, who sat out the entirety of the 2016 campaign. Once the nation's top prep quarterback, Allen showed flashes at A&M but soon fell out of favor with coaches and decided to head elsewhere inside the state. Allen doesn't have Ward's legs, but he is a better passer, which should enable Houston to return to a more traditional passing offense. At running back, the Cougars are hoping that junior Duke Catalon, a former Texas transfer, can improve after a rocky '16. Catalon led UH with 528 rushing yards, but that number was the lowest for the team's leading rusher since the 1990's. With his vision and powerful running, Catalon should be able to produce more this year, particularly with the Cougars' offensive line helping him. The O-Line returns four starters to a group that was inconsistent, but talented, a year ago. The most notable returnee has got to be junior center Will Noble, an All-AAC linemen who has plenty of playing experience. The only hole on the unit will be at left guard, where a wide range of linemen are competing for the starting gig. What should help Allen out at quarterback should be a superb receiving corps, spearheaded by two impressive seniors. Linell Bonner had a breakout 2016, hauling in 98 receptions for 1,118 yards, while fellow senior Steven Dunbar had 53 catches for 692 yards. Both Dunbar and Bonner offer great size and athleticism, which should help them gain some key mismatches against smaller defensive backs in the wide-open AAC. Expect sophomore Courtney Lark and senior John Leday to also play big roles in the aerial attack. Lark had just three catches all of last year, but his game-changing speed has wowed Houston's staff, and he may quickly establish himself as one of the team's premier deep threats. Another name to watch on the offensive side of the ball is senior Kyle Postma. Postma has seen action in 19 games over the past two seasons at quarterback, but has been taking snaps at receiver in the spring. The vet has exceptional athleticism and has proven he can pick things up quickly; the new staff could experiment with him at any number of roles. From top to bottom, the Cougars' offense is still stocked with playmakers and experience, although they may not have Ward to bail them out anymore. If the ground attack can pick up, UH could improve on their 35.8 PPG last season (fifth in the AAC, 26th nationally).

Ed Oliver
Defense: While Houston's defense didn't get much attention this past season, it produced a number of impressive NFL Draft prospects (Howard Wilson, Tyus Bowser) and had some real proven playmakers (Steven Taylor, Brandon Wilson). New defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio recognizes the success this team had with a 3-4, attacking front the past two seasons and should roll with a similar look in 2017. That aggressive, blitzing front should become even more lethal with the continued growth of sophomore Ed Oliver. Oliver surprised plenty when the former five-star recruit announced he was heading to Houston, giving them their first five-star in school history. What was perhaps more surprising was just how good Oliver was in Year One; he had a staggering 19.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last year, despite playing at the defensive tackle position, one not known for racking up the stats. His real coming out party was his play in Houston's upset of Lamar Jackson and Louisville, where he did it all, recording two sacks, three tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. Offensive linemen will almost certainly focus on the true sophomore, likely bringing in double and triple teams against him. That may slow him down slightly, but his versatility and ability to make an impact in so many different ways (he had nine pass deflections last year, leading all defensive linemen nationally) should carry him to a very successful campaign. The hope is that fellow defensive linemen such as junior Jerard Carter and senior Nick Thurman can occupy some blockers, and open up even more lanes for Oliver to work with. Newcomer Bryan Jones arrives from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as the top prospect in the 2017 Class for the Cougs, and ready to see snaps right away at defensive end. The big transition for the Houston defense should be at linebacker, where they must move on from Bowser and Taylor, who made such impacts in their time here. Senior Matthew Adams is back at one of the inside linebacker spots and is UH's top returning tackler with 82, but will need help. Senior D'Juan Hines is primed to take over Taylor's spot next to Adams in the inside, but who takes over at the two vacant outside linebacker positions is really anybody's guess. The defensive backfield will miss the Wilsons at corner, but returns three starters and plenty of experience. Junior Jeremy Winchester is the favorite to take over the No. 1 cornerback spot, while a host of candidates compete for the CB slot opposite him, namely sophomore Javian Smith and converted receiver Isaiah Johnson. The two safety positions will be in good hands, with the returns of junior Garrett Davis and senior Khalil Williams, both who have played in some big games over their Houston careers.

Special Teams: A position battle to watch as fall camp approaches will be the kicker spot, where JUCO transfer Dalton Witherspoon is in a full-on battle with Joel Scarbrough for the starting job. At punter, Houston should be in good hands, as sophomore Dane Roy is back, and one of the coolest stories in college football. At 28, Roy is one of the oldest players in FBS football, and also a former ice cream man all the way from Australia. 

There is nothing easy about losing a head coach and much of his staff, particularly when he is one as talented and innovative as Tom Herman. However, don't expect Houston to completely slide off the national radar. This is a team with loads of talent on both sides of the ball, and possesses a defender so dominant and disruptive he could be in the Heisman conversation in 2017 (yes, that's how good Oliver is). Another thing working in Houston's way is the non-conference slate, which doesn't feature any schools with Oklahoma's talent this time around. A trip to Arizona in early September could pose a possible challenge, but if UH gets past Texas Tech two weeks later this team should be 4-0 entering the conference schedule. Inside the division, Memphis and Navy, two teams who beat the Cougars last season, will be tough and likely expected to do better. Yet, if some of the question marks on this team are answered (the ground game, linebacker position, kicking game) an AAC West title should definitely be in play.

Player to Watch
Courtney Lark, WR
Despite the fact Lark had three receptions last season, many people around the program expect a huge sophomore season from him. A former four-star pickup who chose Houston over a host of other Texas schools, Lark has blazing speed, decent ball skills and is a fine route runner for his age. A good showing in spring has only raised the hype surrounding him, and while Bonner and Dunbar may be the top two weapons in Houston's passing game, Lark should find a way to make an impact.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 5-7 (4-4 C-USA)
2013: 8-5 (5-3 AAC)*
2014: 8-5 (5-3 AAC)*
2015: 13-1 (7-1 AAC)*
2016: 9-4 (5-3 AAC)*

*= Bowl game

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