The Houston Cougars of 2013 were a bit different than the more recent iterations of the Cougar football team. The offense still scored lots and lots of points behind a flashy quarterback and a quick moving offense. But there was a noted focus on the improved, physical running game. And where once the defense tried to stay out of the way of the offense, last year's Cougars featured an outstanding defensive unit that was one of the country's best.
The Cougars finished 8-5 last season, but there were a lot of close losses, a lot of games lost because of mental mistakes, missed blocks, or missed tackles. This year's team returns many of last season's key players on both sides of the ball, and with practice starting up last weekend, the coaches are eager to get work and get the team ready to start the season on August 29 against UTSA.
So as the Cougars get into practice, readying for that first game, here are some early keys for the start of the season.
SETTLED QB SITUATION
John O'Korn started the season backing up incumbent David Piland. But after Piland's career was ended by repeated concussions, O'Korn became the big man on campus, leading all true freshman with 28 touchdown passes (2nd in the ACC to Teddy Bridgewater's 31). He passed for 3117 yards, and hit the 300-plus yard mark in three games. But O'Korn was a freshman, and at times he played as such. He missed reads at times, wasn't always sure of the game situation, and had issues with fumbling when he ran with the ball.
"As a coach, we didn't give him the entire playbook as a true freshman who was the backup entering game one and game two and thrown into the fire starting game three," head coach Tony Levine said Saturday. "Now, we are able to give him our entire playbook."
The coaches brag as much about O'Korn's intelligence as they do his passing ability. He spent time this summer at the Manning Passing Academy (a type of grad school for college QBs), and he bulked up, gaining weight and strength. He's no longer the high school quarterback stepping up to college. He's the college QB looking to lead his team to glory.
"He looks like a college quarterback and acts like a college quarterback," said offensive coordinator Travis Bush on Saturday. "You can see the confidence. You can see him understand more. There are some light bulbs going off in his head; he's understanding the defense more. He feels confident, and he has a different sense about himself right now." WHAT'S THIS ABOUT THE COOGS HAVING A RUNNING GAME?
The Cougars revamped the offense a bit last season, installing a tight end and a fullback for some snaps. The result was a more physical running game with the ability to pound out yards, something that was very useful in short yardage situations. Both of last year's primary backs,, Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow, return this season, and offensive coordinator Travis Bush is looking to expand the running game.
"The difference between what we're doing now and what we're doing in the past is we have more options in the run game. We have more run concepts, more run schemes to take advantage of some of the things the defense is doing and to help us in short goal-line situations. Instead of having one or two run concepts, we now have four or five concepts we feel we can get in and out of and utilize our personnel well."
There are some issues with the offensive line, primarily caused by injuries and graduation. Bush agrees this will be a big topic of discussion among the staff during practice, but he once the season begins, most questions should be answered.
"We had some spots to fill. We felt good about some of the guys who came out at spring, but now we've added two or three more guys to the rotation. That is probably the biggest evaluation of fall camp, to get those guys in there and see if and where these guys can fit in and where they're going to help us."
THE THIRD WARD DEFENSE
The Cougars of Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin weren't known for good defensive play. But there was a bit of a change last season as the Cougars rose ninety spots to become the nation's 20th best team defense. The Cougars also let the nation with a +25 turnover margin while forcing 43 turnovers. The defense forced multiple turnovers in 12 games, and forced at least three turnovers in 10 games. But defensive coordinator David Gibbs expects more improvement from his squad in year two.
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"Any time you have success, it breeds confidence," he said. "The defenses around here have struggled throughout the years. Creating all those turnovers hid a lot of bad things that we didn't do very well, but because everyone pays attention to the turnovers, there's a lot of stuff that's swept under the rug. We have a lot of work to do, but the kids believe in the system, and they believe in the calls coming from the sidelines. Obviously, we're excited in the second year but, at the same time, you have to go out there and do it every week."
Gibbs stresses that turnovers can't be taught, so he and the defensive staff work on the fundamentals.
"Can you get 43 [turnovers] again?" Gibbs asked. "Probably not, but at the same time, we'll work on it every day and continue to get better, but again we're fundamentally sound. We do things the right way around here. As long as you keep practicing hard and teaching fundamentals, the kids will continue to get better. They will continue to improve. As far as the football skill they will continue to get better as we continue through this process."
It's just a few more weeks until the season starts. It'll be year two in the AAC. It'll be year three of Tony Levine's tenure. And it'll be the inaugural season for the Cougars brand new, 40,000 seat, on-campus TDECU Stadium.