|Sophomore David Piland is one of several promising young QBs competing for the starting job. (US Presswire)|
HOUSTON -- Sometimes we never really know what pops into our heads, prompting us to Google some of the stuff we end up looking up. Maybe it was a commercial or some byproduct of channel surfing or God-knows-what else.
Not long after Tony Levine was named Houston's new coach, he was laying in bed at around midnight when he flipped open his laptop. Levine scrolled over to the NCAA's official website and pulled up the FCS statistical leaders. Levine noticed the success Stephen F. Austin had in 2011. SFA was sixth nationally in passing, ninth in total offense and 10th in scoring. Levine was intrigued.
He surfed over to SFA's official football page, clicked onto their coaching staff and read up on the Lumberjacks offensive coordinator, Mike Nesbitt. Turned out, Nesbitt got the Lumberjacks to produce those numbers despite having had to replace a two-time All-American QB who had won the Walter Payton Award the previous season.
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The next morning Levine got a call on his cell from a number with a 936 area code. It was, of all people, Nesbitt, who had no idea the first-time head coach was thinking about him. Levine set up an interview with the New Mexico native in San Antonio during the annual American Football Coaches convention a few days later.
Nesbitt was actually one of 10 offensive coordinator candidates Levine would meet with while he was holed up in his hotel room for three days straight, doing interviews from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Levine, who not only had been UH's special teams coordinator but also the Cougars inside receivers coach, knew the style of offense he wanted to run: the scheme the Cougars had employed during the Kevin Sumlin regime, when UH had led the nation in scoring in two of the past three seasons.
"My dad always used to say that cliche, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" says Levine, a former Minnesota wide receiver, who has coached under Sumlin, Bobby Petrino, John Fox and Tommy Tuberville. "We've had a lot of success running this form of the 'Air-Raid' spread. I wanted to have the continuity. We've recruited for it and the personnel we have here now fits this offense. And, we don't have a bunch of 6-4, 275-pound tight ends walking around campus."
Finding the right man to call the scheme was the challenge. It's worth noting here that staffing is perhaps the biggest key in determining how successful a first-time head coach is in college football. Levine's predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, made his shrewdest move by hiring Dana Holgorsen, who at the time had been Mike Leach's right-hand man at Texas Tech but was not the Red Raiders play-caller, to run the Cougars offense. That turned out fantastic for the Cougars. Just like it did when Sumlin made Kliff Kingsbury, a relatively inexperienced coach, UH's new play-caller after Holgorsen moved on to Oklahoma State. Kingsbury proved to be a whiz at game-planning as the Cougars averaged almost a touchdown more in 2011 than they did in 2009 when they'd also led the nation in scoring.
Of the 10 coaches Levine interviewed in San Antonio, eight were in the Air-Raid spread family and the other two were from relatives of it. The more Levine listened to Nesbitt break down the system, the more convinced he was that he found his guy. While still in San Antonio, Levine called him back for a second interview, where he had Nesbitt break down more of his cut-ups. Levine was sold.
"I think he's a rising star in this profession," Levine says. "He has great work ethic, really knows this system because of how much he studied what Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Dana Holgorsen have done, and he also has deep roots in the state of Texas."
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When word got out that Levine was hiring Nesbitt, it surprised some in the coaching world, just because a lot of folks were unfamiliar with his name. The 41-year-old does have a curious background. He is probably the only offensive coordinator in major college football who once was an NFL punter. (He spent some time with the Saints and the Vikings.)
Nesbitt said he's wanted to coach since he was in junior high. In the NFL, the specialists have time during practice to observe the other parts of the team. Nesbitt, who was a wide receiver and outside linebacker in high school as well as a punter, watched a lot of pass skeleton work during the week, he says. "I also watched how the coaches were coaching and teaching," Nesbitt says. "You can really learn a lot by watching how they get guys to play for them."
His first coaching job was in high school, back home in New Mexico, where he inherited an undersized O-line with a good quarterback, so relying on the passing game seemed his best option. That offseason Nesbitt attended the American Football Quarterly coaches clinic in Dallas. Mumme, the head coach at Kentucky at the time, was one of the speakers. After Mumme's session, Nesbitt asked the coach if he had a few minutes to answer more questions. Mumme ended up spending the next morning going over his scripts and daily practice schedules with Nesbitt.
"For a head coach in the SEC to spend that kind of time with a high school coach from New Mexico was really amazing," he said. "I asked if I could get some of his cut-ups -- and most places don't like to give those out -- and we had 'em in a week."
Over the past decade, Nesbitt ascended the coaching ranks -- from small high school to small college position coach to coordinator, going from Western New Mexico to Howard Payne University to Blinn College, where he helped led the team to the 2006 junior college national title. Then, he went to West Texas A&M, where he produced the nation's No. 2 offense in Division II before moving up to FCS Stephen F. Austin. The offense, he says, has evolved quite a bit in different ways over the years, but "it's still all about getting guys out in space."
Nesbitt is also far from the only new face on the Houston offensive staff. Levine had to overhaul the entire group. Most of the assistants, Kingsbury included, followed Sumlin over to Texas A&M, although O-line coach Lee Hays did work as an assistant offensive line coach for the Cougars in 2010. The terminology, however, will be the same as it was before for the Cougars.
"We wanted to keep the learning curve for the players low," Nesbitt says. Besides, most of the stuff is pretty similar to what he called it at SFA: "They might've called it 'Blue,' where we called it 'Flex' or what they called '617,' we called '97.'"
At Houston, Nesbitt also has the task of running an offense that needs to replace Case Keenum, the most prolific QB in NCAA history. Keenum threw for almost 20,000 yards in college, while accounting for 178 touchdowns. In addition, the Cougars also have to replace all four of their receivers.
They do return David Piland, who was forced into the starting lineup in 2010 as a true freshman after both Keenum and his backup suffered season-ending injuries. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound sophomore, who played at the same Texas prep powerhouse (Southlake Carroll) that produced Chase Daniel and Greg McElroy, went on to lead Conference USA in passing and had a 24-14 TD-INT ratio in what he described as a "complete crash course" introduction to major college football. "You just don't really know what you're looking for as a freshman," says Piland.
In 2011, Piland had the benefit of reviewing his own experiences from trying to operate at warp speed while studying how Keenum, a sixth-year senior, handled things. That afforded Piland a unique perspective for a young understudy: "I really could watch and learn from him," he says. "You could see how Case does such a great job of feeling pressure and how he'd make his checks getting us into the right play." In the film room, Keenum became another teacher to Piland, pointing out keys and soft spots in certain defenses, telling the young QB, "You should always take this," referencing specific options in the UH offense.
Asked about his relationship with Levine, the outgoing Texan starts beaming. He talks about the day he arrived as a freshman on the UH campus, which now seems like such a long time ago.
"He was the coach who was there for me on the first day I moved in," Piland recalls. "He helped keep me sane. He is gonna do some great things here. The players have so much respect for him because of how he presents himself. If he says 'pick it up,' Everybody wants to do it for him."
Piland, though, is no lock to get the starting QB job. Houston has a few other promising young QBs in Crawford Jones and Bram Kohlhausen. Before UH kicked off spring practice, Levine unveiled the team's depth chart. Coaches like to say how theirs is written in pencil or in sand, or it'll be littered with "OR"s to make their case how wide open the competition is. Levine just had 44 blank lines for the Cougars' two-deep.
One of the players who is a smart bet to fill one of those lines is Charles Sims, a dynamic all-around weapon, who made first-team All-Conference USA last season, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. The receiving corps should get a boost when five-star recruit Deontay Greenberry arrives. The explosive 6-foot-3, 187-pounder from Fresno, Calif., who had been a long-time commit to Notre Dame, only to opt for Houston on Signing Day, is the most heralded recruit in school history. It will be fascinating to see how all of the new parts come together. At the very least, it certainly won't be boring.