2012 OUTLOOK: Many assume the perfect storm of 2011 that led to a 12-0 start to the season -- a senior-laden team and a soft schedule -- will be all but impossible to even approach in 2012. But there is still talent on this roster and a swagger that may be enough in a weak C-USA to sneak back into the league title conversation. The offense has a lot of new faces -- on the field and on the sidelines in the form of a new offensive coordinator -- but the Cougars should again be one of the league and national leaders on offense.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE
RB Charles Sims is the most proven talent on the offense after his 821 yards on just 110 carries a season ago. But even if he's the most proven returning skill player, don't expect this offense to take the air out of the ball. The Cougars will still pass like crazy and QB David Piland, the redshirt sophomore who started eight games in 2010 before sitting out in 2011, is the most experienced quarterback on the roster and most likely to start not only for 2012, but likely the next three years. The receiving corps has a lot of newcomers -- some not on campus until the summer -- led by prep All-American Deontay Greenberry who had 2,165 receiving yards and 33 touchdowns as a high school senior.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE
The Cougars will transition to a 4-3 scheme this season -- a move the team hopes may finally address years of abysmal run defense thanks to inadequate play on the defensive line. There is some talent, but not much depth, on the defensive front but the defensive strength will be at linebacker as was the case in 2011. Despite losing senior Marcus McGraw, there is a star in the making in LB Derrick Mathews, if he can keep his weight up (he was a shade above 200 pounds at the start of spring drills). Mathews (106 tackles last year) and Phillip Steward (six interceptions) will lead the defense. The secondary has returning starters, but newcomers were getting plenty of reps with the starters early in spring with Levine saying nobody was guaranteed a starting spot without earning it.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS
With Levine being the Cougars' former special teams coach, expect this unit to get plenty of practice reps in spring and August drills. K Matt Hogan is arguably one of the conference's, if not the nation's, more steady kickers and P Richie Leone was a Ray Guy Award semifinalist. The kicking game will be a strength, but the team lost all-league caliber return men from last year's squad. Who will fill those voids is still undecided.
WR Deontay Greenberry -- Usually new recruits don't get this much responsibility heaped on them from Day 1, but in this offense, and considering the shocking change of heart he had at the last minute to pick the Cougars over Notre Dame, Greenberry will be watched closely from the start by Houston fans and others. California's "Mr. Football" still has a huge transition in front of him from the prep to the college game, but he will be given the opportunity to step into one of the coveted WR spots vacated by Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards, which means he'll likely have a chance to catch at least 60-70 balls as a true freshman.
DT Donald Hopkins -- There is no question the Houston defense has been the weak point in recent years and to be even more specific, it's been the defensive line where stopping the run has been an afterthought. Enter the 6-2, 285-pound Hopkins who has the potential to contribute as a true freshman and maybe even start in. He can generate pressure on the QB from the interior but his incredible 92 sacks from his position is what opens eyes. The Cougars need his run-stuffing immediately and he looks the part of a multi-year starter for the Coogs.
RB Terrence Taylor -- RB Charles Sims will be a junior and is the clear-cut star of the offense, but remember, Sims broke his way into a three-man RB rotation as a freshman along with now departed Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall and the way the Houston offense spreads the ball around, there will be plenty of opportunity for Taylor to play a key role as a true freshman. The player known as "Boda" rushed for 1,950 yards and 22 TDs as a senior.
--Redshirt freshman TE Desmond Pulliam (6-0, 245) and sophomore LB Jon Witten (6-2, 230) were both moved to DE for spring practice. "I've been at places like Louisville -- not that I'm comparing them at this point to Elvis Dumervil -- but Elvis was 5-11, 250 pounds and great quickness, so I think there's a place for that and I'm excited about those two young men getting that opportunity," coach Tony Levine told the Houston Chronicle.
--LBs Everett Daniels and Efrem Oliphant were battling for the starting MLB position in spring. Daniels, a senior, may have the edge until Oliphant, the 2012 All-Conference-USA Freshman Team performer, can prove he's healthy after missing 2011 with an injury.
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