Coach:Kevin Sumlin (8-5 in one season). | Staff In 2008: 8-5 overall; 6-2 in C-USA (3rd in C-USA West). Beat Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 4. Special teams: 1. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 43rd. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 61st in 2009, 100th in '08, 89th in '07, 91st in '06.
THE SCHEME: The Cougars run a one-back, multi-receiver spread attack that features good run-pass balance.
STAR POWER: Junior QB Case Keenum for Heisman? Don't laugh. He will be one of the nation's top quarterbacks, directing a spread offense that set 22 school season marks in 2008. The Cougars' attack ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense (562.8 ypg) and passing offense (401.6 ypg) and 10th in scoring (40.6 ppg). Keenum reached stardom last season, when he earned league offensive player of the year honors by throwing for 5,020 yards and 44 TDs and leading the nation in total offense (403.2 ypg).
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Staffers expect T Roy Watts, a junior college transfer, to play a big role. Coming out of Worthing High in Houston, Watts signed with Texas before ending up at Navarro JC. For now, Watts is listed as a backup at right tackle, but his talent eventually figures to push him into a starting role.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: RB Bryce Beall is a great weapon coming off a smashing debut that saw him earn C-USA freshman of the year accolades last season after ticking off 1,247 rushing yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. The only Football Bowl Subdivision freshman who ran for more yards was Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers. Beall doubles as a good receiver out of the backfield, grabbing 34 passes for 496 yards. Now, Beall is ready to become one of the nation's top backs.
STRONGEST AREA: TE Mark Hafner will be missed, but Houston still has numerous pass-catching options. Sophomore Tyron Carrier will be the top wide receiver after an 80-catch season that included nine scoring grabs. The wealth of potential standout receivers continues with sophomore Patrick Edwards and senior Chaz Rodriguez, who are primed and ready for big seasons after catching 46 and 40 passes, respectively, in '08.
BIGGEST PROBLEM AREA: Insiders are fretting about replacing both of last season's starting tackles – Michael Bloesch and Sebastian Vollmer, who was an NFL draft pick. Senior Josh Bell, who started twice last season, and redshirt freshman Jacolby Ashworth will battle on the left side. Matt Hart heads into fall drills on the first team on the right side, but expect Watts to make a push to start at some point.
THE SCHEME: The Cougars feature a 4-3 front, but they always are willing to sacrifice size for speed in an effort to defend the myriad spread attacks in C-USA.
STAR POWER: LB Marcus McGraw (5-11/220) lacks ideal size, but he compensates with speed and quickness. He made an instant impact last fall from his spot on the weakside, earning C-USA All-Freshman honors after leading the team with 103 tackles. Expect McGraw to be one of the league's top defenders for the next three seasons.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Coach Kevin Sumlin is excited about CB Devin Mays, who could help augment a secondary that needs a boost. He runs a 4.4 40 and displayed a knack for coverage at San Francisco CC. Last season, Mays had 41 tackles, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and 10 pass breakups. He'll join a secondary that will be led by CB Brandon Brinkley, who had four picks and 15 pass breakups last season. Mays will go into fall drills down the depth chart, but he easily could play his way to the top. And JC transfer Jacky Candy enrolled early, went through spring practice and emerged from spring drills as the starter at free safety.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Look for E Tyrell Graham to enjoy a big senior send-off. He began his career at Arkansas, where he played his first two seasons before transferring home to Houston, where he sat out the 2007 season before enjoying modest success last fall. Now is his time to shine for a team that needs a pass rush with the departure of Phillip Hunt and his 14 sacks.
STRONGEST AREA: There isn't an abundance of size at linebacker, but the Cougars have some speedy athletes. Houston will have two good linebackers in McGraw and C.J. Cavness. McGraw is primed to be one of the top tacklers in C-USA. Matt Nicholson is another to watch, though he sat out spring drills recovering from a knee injury.
BIGGEST PROBLEM AREA: One of the biggest concerns is developing a pass rush on a line that lost both ends and a tackle. It is vital that an overhauled front hold its own against the run. Houston will miss Hunt, the C-USA defensive player of the year who was a difference-maker that opponents had to account for on every down.
Sumlin says Chase Turner is one of the top punters in C-USA. Jordan Mannisto came on late last season as a true freshman, hitting three field goals in the bowl victory over Air Force. Carrier is a dynamic return man; he took back a kickoff for a score last fall. There are plenty of athletes to tighten the coverage units, too. Bottom line: This area looks solid.
Sumlin has a dynamic mixture of coaching smarts with toughness and an ability to teach and relate to players. Sumlin also has built an underrated staff, led by offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. Co-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips is a cerebral sort who excels at recruiting. John Skladany is a veteran defensive coordinator who rarely is outcoached. The only change to the staff was the hiring of offensive line coach B.J. Anderson, who spent the past three years at Sam Houston State. Anderson replaces Joe Gilbert, who is now the offensive line coach at Illinois.
There are challenges – and opportunities – galore for the Cougars to grab headlines vs. major-conference foes. The schedule includes a trip to Oklahoma State, but the best chances for a notable victory will be when the Cougars play host to Texas Tech and travel to Mississippi State. The defense will be tested in Games 2, 3 and 4 – the trip to Oklahoma State, the visit from Texas Tech and a visit from UTEP, respectively. Houston's C-USA season will be made or broken in back-to-back games Oct. 31 vs. Southern Miss and Nov. 7 at Tulsa. The rest of the schedule is manageable.
Sumlin has taken what Art Briles began building and is making it better, to the point where Houston is poised to be one of the top non-"Big Six" programs in the nation. Sumlin's debut season included the victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. It was Houston's fourth bowl appearance in a row but its first bowl win in 28 years. Now, Sumlin has his sights set on winning the school's first C-USA championship since 2006. The Cougars look like the cream of the C-USA crop. Once again, the offense will carry the program's hopes. If the defense is better than average, this could be a special season along Cullen Boulevard.