It's a new day for Houston Cougars football. A new coach and a new coaching staff. A new quarterback. New receivers. New helmets. New uniforms. New logo. They're going to a new conference next season. They've got one year left in the old stadium.
But all of the newness brings questions. Questions like will the new team be any good? After all, the Cougars went 13-1 last season and were an upset loss in the C-USA title game away from playing in a BCS Bowl. And that new quarterback's replacing a legend, a legend that holds and will probably hold for a long time many of the offensive records in the UH record book.
New head coach Tony Levine, who took over from Kevin Sumlin last December after Sumlin departed for Texas A&M, says he's been talking a lot about departed players and about changes since he assumed control. Those are issues for others to worry about. As far as he's concerned, the Houston Cougars you see take the field against Texas State on September 1st will be pretty much like the Houston Cougars you saw take on Penn State at the TicketCity Bowl last January, especially when it comes to the offense.
"We're going to be up-tempo," he said Monday. "It's going to be no-huddle. It's going to be very, very similar to where, if somebody's been out of town since last December, and they come watch us play on September 1st, they wouldn't necessarily know there's been a change on the offensive side of the football."
Case Keenum is gone. So are Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes and Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards and Justin Johnson (though Johnson will be a quality control coach for the offense this season). But the Cougars do have some major players returning this season who are experienced, who have played, who have started, and who do know what they're doing.
The offensive line returns four starters, and running back Charles Sims and quarterback David Piland consider the returning guys on the offensive line to be of the upmost importance. And people should recognize the name of Charles Sims. Sims was, after all, the 2009 C-USA Freshman of the Year. And all that he did last season was average 7.5 yards a rush for a total of 821 yards and nine touchdowns while hauling in 51 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns.
Then there's Piland, the redshirt sophomore who knows a thing or two about being the starting quarterback for the Cougars, primarily because he was, in 2010, the starting quarterback for the Cougars as a freshman after Keenum and Keenum's backup, Cotton Turner, were both knocked out for the season in game three that year against UCLA. "[K]nowing at the time a limited amount of our offense and him seeing every blitz defensively known to man was tough on him," Levine said of Piland's experience in 2010. "I think he did well that year considering the circumstances, and coming in at quarterback in 2012, I think we've got an unique situation in our program in that I think most programs nationally, when you lose your quarterback to graduation, the guy who's replacing him really has no game experience, but we've got a young man who has eight games of starting experience under his belt and as well, we were able to redshirt him this past year."
Piland thinks that 2010 experience will be the key to his success this season. That season let him learn about the speed of the game, about how hard the hitting is, and about reading defenses. He shadowed Keenum last season, and he's got Keenum available on speed dial should he need anything, so now he's ready to go.
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"It's a lot more exciting when you've seen [defenses] a couple of times, and they're coming at you and you can throw it hot, throw something like -- and not think, 'Oh my goodness, this is the biggest guy I've ever seen in my face and he's about to break me in half,'" Piland said Monday. "So it's going to be really exciting to just have everything slow down, know that I'm in control, and everyone's looking at me for leadership whereas before, I'm kind of playing the backseat role."
It's a new day for the Cougars, but not really. They're running the same offense. Some of the starters are new, but they've got experience. Will the Cougars win C-USA this season? Coach Levine says that something to check back up on December. Until then, the focus is on Texas State and Louisiana State and UCLA, the rest of the team's Robertson Stadium-heavy (seven of the team's 12 games are at Robertson and one is at Reliant) schedule this season.
Things are changing for the Cougars this season. But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. And the Cougars are hoping those changes lead to a better bowl, bigger games, bigger crowds, and a deeper, continuing legacy of excellence.