HOUSTON (CBS Houston) Different team, different head coach, different starting quarterback, totally new defense, and wrinkles in the offense are some of the new realities for the Houston Cougars.
Yes – they won a bowl game back in December beating Penn State 30-14 in the TicketCity Bowl with a new head football coach. But, the same football team was still in place along with most of the coaching staff.
There have been changes since that win on January 2nd. Now new Cougars Head Football Coach Tony Levine finds himself in charge of a program that began spring drills on Thursday. Whether or not Levine finally faces the reality is no longer at question.
“It’s been a whirlwind. I think I’m at the tail end of that where it’s slowed down a little for me at this point. The staff is complete. The 2012 recruiting class is over.”
“But, it’s still early mornings, late nights. We’re recruiting 2013 kids, and trying to get our current kids understanding the system. So, it’s been a lot of work and we’ve all enjoyed it. I definitely have.”
CHANGES AT MANY POSITIONS
The coaching staff has gone through a complete overhaul. Levine hired two new coordinators. He promoted linebackers coach and former Vanderbilt DC, Jamie Bryant, to defensive coordinator. Bryant has changed the scheme of the defense which we will fully explore in a future article. Mike Nesbitt is the new offensive coordinator in his first season from Stephen F. Austin.
The personnel on the field has changed as well. QB Case Keenum is gone after 6 seasons. Running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall are done. Wide receivers Tyron Carrier, Patrick Edwards, Justin Johnson, and E.J. Smith will move on to pursue professional careers. Center Chris Thompson is now a memory – a good one for the Cougars, I might add.
The Cougars will miss linebackers Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw. Defensive End David Hunter played his last snap against Penn State. Which players will now fill the shoes of the departed?
NEW COUGARS ON THE BLOCK
When Levine first accepted the head coaching position in December of 2011, I asked what specific area of his team needed to be immediately addressed.
“It’ll start along the line, especially the defensive line,” said Levine just a few days before Christmas. “We have 6 senior defensive linemen that will be playing for us in 2012. So, we’ve got some needs. We’ll be a young team and we look to fill those needs obviously in this recruiting process.”
As stated earlier, that process is over and the players are on the field. The team practiced in shorts on Thursday and Levine was enthusiastic about what he saw.
“I would say, as expected, we got a lot of young players out there and they’re very anxious to get outside. Everything was ahead of schedule as you would imagine and it went well. I was really pleased, not only with our players, but with our coaching staff. “
“I think we have a great coaching staff – very, very active – great teachers and the kids are learning. There were mistakes made. But, the thing I liked today is that they were made full speed.”
One of those kids, as referred to by the Head Coach, is quarterback David Piland who begins the spring as the leader in the club house to replace the departed Case Keenum. Piland started 8 games during his freshman season and averages 316.5 yards per game.
However, while he has more experience than any of the other Cougar quarterbacks, he knows the starting job will not automatically be awarded to him.
“You’re going to continue to have to earn it. I feel like I hold myself to a higher standard than anyone can compete with me for because of the fact I want to complete every ball.”
Just watching Thursday’s practice, Piland seemed to have an early command of the offense and ran the ball with ease. He’s much quicker than he looks and his passes were very catchable and thrown to spots on the field where most of his waiting receivers could make a play.
“There shouldn’t be a ball touch the ground here,” says Piland. “I want to get to that point by the end of spring where if a ball touches the ground everyone should look around wonder like – something had to go very wrong right there. So, it’ll get to that point just because I expect it to get there. It’ll be a good day when that happens.”
Charles Sims comes in as the favorite to start at running back. The junior led all rushers with 821 yards. He also scored 9 rushing touchdowns. Sims was effective catching the ball out of the backfield as he caught 51 passes for 575 yards and 4 touchdowns. He knows that he has a good chance to have a good season carrying the football.
“It’s a leadership role. You know you got to works towards it. Keep working – just lead. It feels good. Just have to keep working – keep on working and see how it plays out.”
The secondary remains in place with corners D.J. Hayden and Zach Macmillan firmly entrenched. Kent Brooks and Chevy Bennett will compete to remain at the safety positions. However, as Levine stated earlier, parts the defensive line will need to be filled to help out Kelvin King and Dominic Smith.
The Cougars are, once again, transitioning from the 3-4 to the 4-3. Therefore, along with adding to the defensive line, Levine will also need to add two new faces to help out senior starter Phillip Steward. George Bamfo is also battling for one of those linebacker positions. But, in the meantime, the 6’2” 220 pound Steward understands his job assignment.
“My position is really the same. I’m still playing outside. But for everybody else I know the change is probably different for them. So, the coaches are taking it slowly and we’re all coming together and we’re learning it.”
It’s easy to see that the 4-3 defense is simple for Steward to run. However, being chosen by the coaches to lead the defense in place of the departed Marcus McGraw, sort of humbled Steward.
“Yeah – the Coach is telling me to take over the leadership because Marcus did it last year. So, it’s another step I have to take. So, I’m willing to fill that role.”
Defensive Coordinator Jamie Bryant is expecting Steward to fill that role and we will hear from Bryant in our next column.