Case Keenum is the name most people think of when the University of Houston football team is mentioned. That's probably because Keenum, a junior, plays the glamor position of quarterback.
He was the 2008 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. He threw for 5,020 yards last season while tossing 44 touchdowns. Keenum's the one who has to make the proper reads and find the right receivers, but as much as Keenum deserves the accolades (he's on the media watch list for the 2009 Davey O'Brien Award which goes to the country's top college quarterback), he can't do it all on his own.
"All of that doesn't happen without the offensive line. When they go we go," Keenum said during the Coogs' media day. "It comes down first to the offensive line, and if they're not working together, meshing, [playing] as a team, then we can't really get anywhere without them."
The offensive line is led by senior center Carl Barnett, who is on the media watch list for the Remington Award which goes to the best college lineman. And Barnett and his teammates take tremendous pride in their ability to keep Keenum free of pressure from onrushing defenders.
"It makes us feel good," Barnett said. "It feels like we're giving him time to make plays and to be the quarterback that he is because he's a high-caliber quarterback....And up front we're really happy about that, and we're trying our best so that he can get that [Davey O'Brien Award]."
The Cougar offensive line does more than just pass block. The line is also first-rate when it comes to run blocking. Last year, freshman running back Bryce Beall became the first freshman in school history to rush for a thousand yards in season. He had six 100-yard-plus rushing games, and five straight games with at least one rushing TD. And Barnett claims that it's the ability of the Coogs to be able to both run and pass that led to their success last season.
"It's real good that we have both options [passing and running] because we can keep teams off guard," Barnett said. "We have a great quarterback, but [other teams have to] just know that we have a running back, too, that can tear up the field....The O-line, we work real hard on different schemes that will make it easy for ourselves to make plays and make holes for them."
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Then there's sophomore wide receiver Tryon Carrier who last year set freshman team records with 80 receptions and 1,026 receiving yards while catching nine TD passes from Keenum. Carrier, who is on the 2009 media watch list for the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's best receiver, reminds us that the spread offense receiver doesn't just run to a set spot and wait for the ball. Instead, they have to make reads off a various players and then make the proper reactions, all the while hoping that Keenum not only sees the same thing that they do, but that Keenum also reacts the same way that they do.
"You've got to deal with what's first," Carrier said about running a play. "So basically you're looking at the defense, trying to see what coverage they're showing. When the ball's snapped, most defenses don't show it right off the jump, they move into a certain position when the ball is snapped. My first read is the linebacker, to see where he's going. If I get around him, then I'm eyeing the safety. And then if I see the safety dropping back, or if he comes up close, then I blow past him. It's those two guys for me, the linebacker and the safety."
Carrier even jokes that he and Keenum have some kind of psychic connection: "It's crazy. We laughed about that a couple of times last year. I did a route that wasn't even what I was supposed to do, and as soon as I turned my head the ball was there," Carrier said. Then he got serious. "Both of us watch the same film, and we both talk about what we're doing in certain situations."
As for what the Cougars are expecting from this year, Keenum sums it up simply: "The whole season just kind of takes care of itself." This matches what head coach Kevin Sumlin repeated throughout media day: the only game that matters is the game being played that week. The implication being that that game-to-game focus will lead the team to the Conference USA championship and a bowl game.