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March 25, 2010

Offense figures to carry Houston once again

Houston made a big splash early last season, beating Big 12 teams Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in September.

Alas, the Cougars followed up the win over the Red Raiders by getting trounced by UTEP, a game in which Houston's biggest flaw - a bad defense - came to the fore.

Houston again will be an offensive machine this season, and it's conceivable that senior quarterback Case Keenum becomes the first player in FCS history to throw for 6,000 yards in one season. Too bad for Keenum he can't throw against Houston's defense.

But there is reason to believe the defense will be better this season. Still, expect a lot of shootouts for the Cougars, who must make some defensive strides this spring.

Here's a look at the Cougars as they prepare for spring practice.

Could Case Keenum become the first player in FCS history to throw for 6,000 yards in one season?
Coach: Kevin Sumlin
Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-3 in Conference USA. Lost 47-20 to Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl
Spring dates: March 27-April 24
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (9): WR Tyron Carrier, WR James Cleveland, T Jarve Dean, WR Patrick Edwards, QB Case Keenum, G Jordan Shoemaker (moving to C), RB Charles Sims, G Chris Thompson, T Roy Watts.
Defense (7): T David Hunter (moving to DE), LB Marcus McGraw, E Zeke Riser, CB Jamal Robinson, FS Nick Saenz, LB Phillip Steward, T Isaiah Thompson (moving to OL).
Special teams (1): K Matt Hogan.
Positions of strength

Houston led the nation in total offense, passing offense and scoring offense last season, and all the key guys are back. The passing attack should be lethal with Keenum and a deep corps of receivers, though Cleveland will miss spring practice because of a shoulder injury. The line has four starters back, but Shoemaker is moving to center because of the graduation of Carl Barnett. The rushing attack isn't that important, but Sims and Bryce Beall each have 1,000-yard potential if the Cougars run it more often this season. This is a loaded offense.

Help is needed

Notice that no defensive positions were mentioned in the previous category. That's because the defense was pitiful last season, ranking 111th overall and 95th in points per game. The Cougars are moving to a 3-4 set under new coordinator Brian Stewart, who spent last season as a defensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles. For the two seasons before that, Stewart was the coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. The run defense was especially abysmal last season. Houston returns both starting tackles, but Hunter is moving to end and Thompson to the offensive line. Playmakers must emerge at linebacker and in the secondary, which needs two new starters.

Three guys to watch

DE David Hunter: Hunter had a solid sophomore season playing inside, and his move to end in the 3-4 should allow him to flash his big-play ability more often. He's a squatty guy (6 feet 2/290) with good first-step quickness. He had four sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles last season. Playing off the edge should help him become more productive.

CB Loyce Means: Means, a senior, should take over for Brandon Brinkley at corner. The Cougars' pass defense wasn't good last season, but Brinkley was the Cougars' best player in the secondary and he will be missed. It's up to Means - who has started nine games in the past three seasons - to make sure Brinkley isn't missed that much.

C Jordan Shoemaker: Shoemaker, a senior, started the past two seasons at guard, but is moving to center this spring. As long as he can snap in the shotgun, he should be fine.

The pressure is on

LB Sammy Brown and DT Matangi Tonga: These are the only junior college transfers signed by Houston this year, and both already are enrolled in school. But neither is listed atop the depth chart entering spring practice, which - given the Cougars' problems on defense last season - is somewhat puzzling. Tonga, who began his career at BYU, is a senior and can't redshirt. If he doesn't have a good spring, he frankly could be considered a wasted scholarship. With Houston's move to the 3-4, there are two linebacker spots open. If Brown can't win one of them

The buzz

Houston won 10 games behind a powerful offense, but the season ended on down note. The Cougars lost to East Carolina in the Conference USA championship game, then were routed by Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. Houston gave up 45 points per game in its four losses, and Stewart is hoping a move to the 3-4 makes the Cougars tougher against the run. The new offensive coordinator is Jason Phillips, who was promoted from receivers coach when Dana Holgorsen left to become coordinator at Oklahoma State. Phillips has an easy job - just keep the offense humming along - compared to Stewart's. The defensive strides made this spring will tell if Houston can be a legit top-25 team this fall.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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