The start of meaningful football games is finally here, and Saturday night at 6 p.m., the Houston Cougars start their quest to win the Conference USA Title when they take on the Northwestern State Demons of the Southland Conference at Robertson Stadium. The Cougars are starting their second season under head coach Kevin Sumlin, while the Demons are led by first year head coach Bradley Dale Peveto.
"It's game week finally," Sumlin said at yesterday's media gathering. "We're excited. I know the players are excited. They're tired of practicing against each other and the coaches yelling the same things at them each day."
The Cougars will be a young team featuring juniors and underclassmen in many key positions, especially on the defensive side of the ball. This is in contrast to the Demons who are returning 22 seniors to the team, including nine defensive and seven offensive starters. Though young, the Cougars will be returning many of the key members from their high-octane spread offense, including junior quarterback Case Keenum, sophomore running back Bryce Beall, and sophomore receiver Tyron Carrier.
Perhaps the most symbolic of the returning players is sophomore receiver Patrick Edwards who suffered a devastating leg injury against Marshall last season, and who it was thought, at the time, might never be able to play football again. Yet he's back, and he's in the starting lineup.
"He's as strong or as stronger than he was," Sumlin said. "He's gained a little weight. He looks real fast to me. I'll be honest with you, when he and Tyron Carrier run, they look fast to me. I'm not interested in timing them. I just know that people can't catch them. He looks every bit as fast as Tyron. That's fast enough."
With a new coach for the Demons, and with it the first game of the year, Sumlin said that the pre-game emphasis isn't on the other team, it's on making sure that the Cougars do everything correctly. "Any first ball game you've got to be prepared. It's more about preparation for yourself. You worry about your assignments," he said. "We've got to prepare ourselves for anything. As long as we're sound in what we do, as long as we focus on the things that can help us win and mainly self-inflicted wounds, ball security, keeping penalties to a minimum, and being sound, just knowing your job, and knowing where you're supposed to be, and doing what you're coached to do, we're going to be fine, because you never know what's going to show up in a first ball game, even if you watch tape, if you have some background."
Sumlin likes the look of his defense this year. Many of the players are new, young, and untested at this level, but he feels that this team, unlike last year's has depth at every position, and that the personnel this year are ideally suited to play the system he wants to play. And he believes the strength of this defense will be the linebacking corps.
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The leader of the linebackers is senior Matt Nicholson, who despite missing several games because of a knee injury last season, still finished as one of the team's top tacklers. And Nicholson's ready to go, perhaps even more ready than his head coach. "I've got like a high about me," he said. "I'm ready to get out there. We're all tired of going against each other. We're ready to go."
As for his new teammates, Nicholson sees "young guys and guys who haven't proven themselves on this level, but" he says, "that can be a good thing. Basically we've got to keep getting better every week, and we've got to learn from the mistakes we make. We've got to execute. At the end of the day everybody's got to be where they've got to be, and if they do that we're going to be alright."
COUGAR FOOTBALL NOTES:
Coach Sumlin announced yesterday that the NCAA has cleared freshman receiver A.J. Dugat and freshmen linebacker George Bamfo to join the team. Dugat was one of the school's high-profile recruits, and Sumlin hopes to get him some action this week....Coach Sumlin's first weekly radio show will air tomorrow night at 7 p.m. on 790 KBME, and it will be at the Chili's Too on the UH campus....The Cougars announced yesterday that the Rice and Memphis games will be televised, bringing the total number of UH TV games for this season to eight, with the possibility that the Southern Mississippi and Central Florida games will also be televised....Note, the game time has been moved from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., so the heat should be only unbearable, as opposed to oppressive.