Take II: Houston ready for jump to new league

    Houston will move from Conference USA to American Athletic Conference this year    
Houston will move from Conference USA to American Athletic Conference this year. (USATSI)

HOUSTON -- On one of the walls inside the University of Houston offensive staff room is a large montage featuring some of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football history. There is Case Keenum, the No. 1 guy all time; Andre Ware, a Heisman Trophy winner; and Kevin Kolb.

This is the proud heritage of UH football. But as the Cougars move this fall into the former Big East Conference -- the newly renamed American Athletic Conference -- UH is trying to move past a turbulent year. The program that won 13 games and a New Year's Day bowl the season before missed Keenum and four starting receivers as inexperience sunk the 2012 season. UH dropped to 5-7.

On top of that, the year took a nightmarish twist when the team's best defensive player, cornerback D.J. Hayden, went from breaking down the team at the start of one practice to having open-heart surgery a few hours later. Hayden has made a miraculous recovery and might even become a first-round draft pick in two weeks.

The Cougars are also encouraged by the direction the young team has made this offseason thanks to a bunch of new assistants.

"I don't make excuses for last year," second-year head coach Tony Levine said. "A lot of learning went on in our program with me at the top of that list.

"I understand that everybody makes mistakes, and you should never make the same mistake twice. We've corrected some of them, and we're in the process of correcting the others."

One of those things that Levine addressed was finding a new offensive coordinator. He hired Doug Meacham, who came from Oklahoma State, where he was the passing game coordinator and inside receivers coach the past eight seasons.

Levine tried to hire Meacham a year earlier, but the timing just wasn't right for the former OSU lineman. Landing an offensive coordinator who could run the kind of Air-Raid system that UH used to spark its rise under Levine's predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, proved to be quite a challenge. Other OC candidates whom Levine pursued when he took over at UH were Clarence McKinney (the new Texas A&M OC), WVU's Shannon Dawson, Jake Spavital (now at A&M) and Seth Littrell. But like Meacham, each passed on the Houston job.

Levine ultimately hired Mike Nesbitt, although the former FCS assistant didn't last long. The Cougars got blasted by Texas State 30-13 in the opener and, after one game, Levine was convinced he'd gone in the wrong direction. Nesbitt was let go, and Travis Bush took over the OC role, but the Cougars still sputtered for much of the season. David Piland, the new starting quarterback, was banged around, and the timing with an entirely new batch of receivers was lacking. Worse still, Charles Sims, the best offensive player in the conference, was plagued by injuries.

"When I got here, I said I really don't care what happened last year," said Meacham. "This is a new season."

Meacham developed his offensive philosophy from his days coaching at Georgia Military College and learned from Hal Mumme, who at the time was at Valdosta State. Meacham is encouraged by what he's seen this spring. In former five-star recruit Deontay Greenberry, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound wideout, he thinks he has a difference-maker. "He has a tremendous amount of range," Meacham said. "Like Justin Blackmon, he plays really big."

Meacham already knew plenty about Sims, a versatile back who figures to be the best running back in the conference this fall. "I knew when he was a true freshman, he beat our ass at Oklahoma State," he said. "Guys are going to have to game plan for him."

In all, UH returns guys who accounted for 82 percent of their total offense in 2012. Plus, UH just signed another former five-star WR, Markeith Ambles, who will arrive in the summer from junior college. In addition, with Meacham running the offense, all of the misdirection, the motion and myriad of personal groupings are back to being a part of the Cougars attack. "I see the creativity and the outside-the-box thinking is back," said Levine.

The question that most UH fans have is whether they can have a QB capable of living up to the Cougar tradition this fall. Meacham is looking for consistency from the position and specifically says he's watching where his quarterback's eyes are based on the coverage they're facing: "I want a guy that sees it based on rotation, guys that 'get it' and can handle all the checks."

That guy appears to be Piland, who is healthy again and having a great spring, according to the coaches. The Cougars have charted everything from 7-on-7 and "team" periods of practice, and Meacham estimates Piland only threw one interception through the first eight or nine practices, a span covering some 200 passes.

In hopes of shoring up what was a dreadful defense that ranked No. 107 in the nation, Levine hired veteran assistant David Gibbs as his new defensive coordinator to simplify things. The 44-year-old Gibbs last coached in the NFL, working with the Houston Texans secondary, but he has plenty of experience running a defense. In his one season as the defensive coordinator at Auburn in 2005, the Tigers finished sixth in the nation in defense and led the SEC in sacks with 39. Gibbs also triggered a big improvement in the Minnesota defense in the late '90s, when he was the nation's youngest DC in Division I-A.

Expectations around UH are back up again even though the Cougars have moved into a tougher league, but perhaps that could go in their favor. In Conference USA, the spread, no-huddle attack is the norm. In what was the Big East, where it's been more grind-it-out football and lots of 13-10, 10-7 kind of games, the Cougars could be something of a curveball.

"The biggest challenge for us is adding the depth to our program that'll have to compete against [the more physical styles of] the Louisvilles, Rutgers and the USFs," said Levine. "But [being in the former Big East] has helped in recruiting, and it's going to get our program more recognition nationally. We've have more higher-profile games, and we'll have the ability to play in a BCS bowl game this season. And I do really like where this program is headed."

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