Cougars Prepping for the Big Time

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The Houston Cougars will have a laser-like focus as they start practice. A focus on the University of Houston. A day-by-day focus of the team getting better. Improving as a program. Improving individually. Of making up for last season's disaster. Of proving they belong on the so-called national stage offered up by the membership in the American Athletic Conference.

And that focus started with meetings on Friday night and the first practices on Saturday. The coaches have to choose a quarterback. And a kicker. They've got to figure out new tackling drills because of new NCAA tackling rules. But most of all, it's about improving. About winning football games.

"We've got a group of men right now -- student-athletes -- coaching staff, that are excited about this season," Levine said Saturday morning. "We feel like we've got something to prove. And we're going to take it one day at a time. It's going to be a tremendous challenge."

The challenge starts with quarterback. Will it be David Piland, who was given the starting job to start last season and responded with less than stellar results? Or will it be stud recruit John O'Korn, upon whom many fans are placing their hopes? Or will it be somebody else? The answer to that question, if all goes as planned, should come in about two weeks.

"They're being evaluated on leadership, on how they stretch when they get on the field." Levine said. "They're being evaluated on everything they do for the next two weeks. We've got five young men who are extremely talented. Some have more experience than others. They're all from different backgrounds...everybody's in the mix."

It's not just about who has the most experience running the offense. Or who looks best throwing the football. It's about who makes the best decisions under pressure. Who best communicates to the team. Who best commands respect on the field.

"There's a lot put on the ability to just throw a pass, but for us, I think the ability to play the position is very important," new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham said. "Being a quarterback, what does that mean? It's a guy that can get you in and out of the right plays, that can communicate everything to the backs, to the o-line, to the receivers, who can do it quickly and make decisive, quick decisions."

The quarterbacks aren't the only players on a two-week deadline. Levine made it known that he's put all of the newcomers on that same timeline. Prove themselves capable of playing with the big boys in two weeks or say hello to a redshirt. That may seem a bit rash, but from that point on, Levine wants the focus to be solely on the team next up on the schedule.

John Royal
Head coach Tony Levine addresses the media on Saturday.
But while the offense figures out who will lead it, the defense will be figuring out how to deal with new tackling rules. Rules prohibiting the use of the crown of the helmet for tackling and defenders targeting defenseless backs and receivers. The penalties can be stiff, they can lead to game ejections and they're rules that not even officials have quite yet figured out how to call correctly during games.

"It's the way the game's played," said new defensive coordinator David Gibbs. "You have to adjust. The players have to adjust to it. Is it going to be pretty? Probably not. Are there going to be some games lost because somebody gets ejected? Probably, but that's part of football, and it's part of the way the game's played now."

But Gibbs faces another challenge: fixing a demoralized unit whose play, according to statements made by Levine, has been negatively affected over the years by the style of play and pace of the offense. Gibbs wants his guys to forget about that, to be the players he knows they are.

"Down through the history, Houston hasn't played very good defense," Gibbs said (obviously knowing very little about Bill Yeoman's or Jack Pardee's squads). "I think the key for us is to build on what we started in the spring. Have good two-a-day practices, start with Southern and play some decent games and build some confidence as we go."

And with all of that, this is the season the Cougars find themselves playing in a brand-new conference, making a step up, according to Levine, on the national stage. A conference with bigger names, more travel, more talent, than Conference USA. One that gets a guaranteed BCS bowl slot in this, the last year of the BCS. But let's just hope that Levine doesn't forget that UH never exactly dominated play in C-USA and that a large number of the schools that make up the American Athletic Conference are, like the Cougars, former C-USA teams.

Levine said the first year is always the toughest. And that he's learned from last year. This season's going to be a different one for the Cougars. A successful one. The season's less than a month away, with the Cougars kicking off against Southern inside Reliant Stadium on August 30. And if the Cougars can pull off the win in this game, then they will have gone a long way toward erasing the stench of last season.

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