HOUSTON -- Following a 13-1 campaign that included a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl win over Florida State, no Group of 5 team will have more eyes upon it than Houston. The Cougars, who enter their second season under Tom Herman, wrapped up spring football with their annual Red-and-White game on Saturday. Here are four observations from the action at TDECU Stadium:
The defense is still loaded: The Cougars, who in 2015 were the best at turning opponents over and one of the nation’s best at stopping the run, appear poised for another strong season in those areas. Despite losing several multiyear starters who were part of the heart and soul of last year’s defense -- safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart, cornerback William Jackson III and inside linebacker Elandon Roberts all graduated -- it looks like the Cougars still have the talent to maintain their level of play despite those losses. Matthew Adams capped a strong spring with six tackles on Saturday in Roberts’ old spot, cornerbacks J.J. Dallas (11 tackles and a sack) and Howard Wilson (six tackles, one pass breakup) were solid on the back end, as were safeties Khalil Williams and Terrell Williams (safety Garrett Davis, who will compete for a starting spot, was out with a broken right foot). Helping those new pieces come along is depth and talent off the edge, led by defensive ends Cameron Malveaux and Tyus Bowser and outside linebacker Steven Taylor. That trio was part of a defensive front that held the UH running game to a meager 2.7 yards per carry rushing and consistently pressured the quarterback. Entering Year 2 under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, the Cougars look like a salty bunch.
Greg Ward Jr. continues to improve: Without live tackling of the quarterback -- and thus, live quarterback running plays -- it’s hard to see Ward’s full skill set on display, but offensive coordinator Major Applewhite wants the senior-to-be to continue to progress throwing from the pocket and Ward showed off some of that progress on Saturday. All three of his touchdown passes to Isaiah Johnson were perfectly placed; two of them hit a streaking Johnson in stride, including a rainbow of a throw from the shadow of his end zone to midfield that resulted in a 90-yard touchdown. Ward proved in 2015 that he’s a capable passer (2,828 yards, 17 touchdowns, six interceptions, 67.2 percent completion rate) but if he takes another step forward in that area, look out.
The Cougars are deep at receiver: Injuries meant receiver Chance Allen -- the Cougars’ returning statistical leader at the position -- and Ra'Shaad Samples, a transfer from Oklahoma State, had to sit out the spring game but there still appears to be sufficient talent at Ward’s disposal. The aforementioned Johnson had three scoring receptions and finished with a whopping 292 receiving yards on 15 receptions; not bad for someone who isn’t a projected starter this fall. Veteran receiver Linell Bonner (seven catches, 88 yards) had a solid showing, including breaking multiple tackles en route to his lone touchdown reception of the day. Steven Dunbar looks the part and has had a solid spring and youngster Terry Mark (five receptions, 26 yards, touchdown) showed some of his potential.
Running game remains to be seen: Houston struggled to run the football but was also without its best running back, Duke Catalon, who was held out of the spring game for precautionary reasons. Catalon likely heads into training camp as the starter and his backup could well be incoming freshman signee Mulbah Car, who won’t arrive until the summer. Blake Hirsch (17 carries, 58 yards) and Josh Burrell (14 carries, 49 yards and a touchdown) got plenty of work on Saturday, but until the Cougars are full strength at the position, it’s hard to know how effective the running game would be after losing most of their scholarship backs from the 2015 squad. One thing is certain: If the Cougars are to repeat any of their 2015 feats, a solid run game to complement Ward and his receivers is needed.