Key returning starters: QB Greg Ward Jr., WR Steven Dunbar, WR Chance Allen
Houston led the AAC in scoring last season (40.4 ppg), a trend that can only continue if coach Tom Herman can gel a patchwork offensive line. Don’t mistake four experienced starters for quality ones, as the biggest question looming over the Cougars will be whether they can keep wispy quarterback Ward Jr. (185 pounds) upright and healthy.
Key returning starters: DT B.J. Singleton, OLB Steven Taylor, DE Cameron Malveaux
The Cougars will be vulnerable in the pass-happy AAC after losing four veteran secondary staples who combined for 145 career starts, including first-round corner William Jackson III. Five experienced front-seven starters—led by 304-pound senior Singleton—will help replicate a marauding crew that vaporized Florida State stalwart tailback Dalvin Cook (33 yards on 18 carries) in Houston’s 38-24 Peach Bowl romp.
Leader in rushing: Texas transfer Duke Catalon should emerge enough to ease the load of Ward, who led the Cougars with 1,108 yards last year.
Leader in receiving: Allen. The senior snared 56 balls for 752 yards last season and will be Ward’s No. 1 target in 2016.
Leader in tackles: Taylor. The linebacker thrives in DC Todd Orlando’s blitz-happy scheme and should top his AAC-best 10 sacks from 2015.
Leader in interceptions: Howard Wilson, a sophomore cornerback known for his ball skills, had three interceptions and three pass breakups as a true freshman in 2014 before tearing his ACL in UH’s third game in 2015.
Opposing coach's take
“UConn dealt Houston its only loss last year by playing smashmouth football. That’s the game plan to beat the Cougars. They didn’t have quarterback Greg Ward Jr. for most of that game, which didn’t help, but UConn still limited their possessions and pushed them around.
Ward is a dynamic runner; his acceleration and change of direction are among the best in college football. The strategy against them is to make him beat you by throwing it, gang-tackle him and do what you can to slow their tempo. Ward isn’t very thick, but he can take a hit.
Defensively, the Cougars led the nation in takeaways , and they’re a quintessential feast-or-famine team. Even Navy threw for more than 300 yards against them because they gamble and blitz so much. You have to take advantage with big plays. Last year they left their corners out on islands a lot, which made them susceptible to double moves. They run a ton of exotic blitzes, so you have to be ready for a safety or corner coming on third down.
Corner William Jackson led the nation with 23 pass deflections last year. He was so good, it allowed them to ignore his side of the field and concentrate on stopping what you did best. If they wanted to stop the run, they played five defensive linemen. They played with so much swagger on defense. Will they be able to maintain that without Jackson [first round, Bengals] and leading tackler Elandon Roberts [sixth round, Patriots]?”
Houston had an electric scout team in 2015. Catalon, a 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore thumper at running back, bullied and bruised his teammates in practice. And Oklahoma State transfer Ra’Shaad Samples, a 5'11" junior jitterbug, looked so promising as a slot receiver that he may have influenced starter Demarcus Ayers’s decision to leave early for the NFL. (Ayers went in the seventh round.) If they can deliver in real games, the Cougars will be even tougher.
+21:The Cougars’ turnover margin in ’15, second best in the country.
8th:Rank against the run last season (108.9 yards per game). Seniors B.J. Singleton (tackle) and Cameron Malveaux (end) return to anchor the line.
6:Touchdowns scored in ’15 by then junior corner Brandon Wilson—two on offense, two on defense and two on special teams.
15.5:Combined sacks as juniors last year for outside linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, who are both on the Butkus Award watch list.
vs. Oklahoma (at NRG Stadium in Houston)
at Texas State