2016 season preview: Houston Cougars
First-year head coach Tom Herman led the Houston Cougars to a 13-1 overall record and an AAC championship win before defeating Florida State in the Peach Bowl to finish off last season. The 2015 season was a success by virtually every measure — will they be able to build off that success and make it into the four-team playoff in 2016?
Houston’s offense saw some key players from their 2015 team depart this offseason. The Cougars will be without WR Demarcus Ayers (ninth-highest-graded WR last season), OT Alex Cooper (one of the top run blocking tackles last year) and RB Kenneth Farrow (Houston’s top RB in terms of overall grade and snap count last season) in 2016. One position that Houston’s offense doesn’t have to worry about though is at the QB spot. Heisman candidate Greg Ward Jr. is back to lead the charge and Kyle Postma proved himself a very worthy backup, filling in admirably for Ward in Weeks 11 and 12 last season.
The offensive line will be an interesting group to monitor as we approach the season. In addition to Cooper, the Cougars have lost Carter Wall, the only other offensive lineman to play in over 1,000 snaps last season besides Cooper. The unit does return five players who each saw at least 300 snaps last year, but those players combined for a -47.5 overall grade (leading the group was Colton Freeman with an overall grade of +0.3).
On the defensive side of the football – despite losing William Jackson III, Elandon Roberts and a few other solid players – the Cougars are locked and loaded. Houston’s defense is bringing back six different players who played in at least 100 snaps last season while accumulating an overall grade north of +1.0 (anything above +1.0 is considered above average), including LB Steven Taylor, who was one of only 10 returning edge defenders last season to grade over +1.0 in all three of these facets: pass rushing, pass coverage and run defense.
At +29.8 last season, Greg Ward Jr. had the eighth-best overall grade among all QBs who are returning this year and his +21.9 rushing grade was tops in the group. Ward was a Heisman candidate last season and if he can take a step forward as a passer (his +6.5 passing grade ranked 33rd last season among returning QBs) he should be right up at the top of the list once again in 2016.
Breakout player to watch
Back in 2014 as a freshman, NT Nick Thurman posted an encouraging +2.6 overall grade but in just 42 total snaps. Last season, Thurman saw his snap count jump from 42 up to 472 and his overall grade jumped up to +9.9. Thurman had above-average grades in both run defense and as a pass-rusher and his 7.2 run stop percentage ranked a very respectable 63rd among 249 qualified, returning FBS defensive tackles (and it was fifth-best among all returning AAC defensive tackles). Thurman was in on 14.4 percent of possible snaps as a freshman and that jumped up to 45.8 percent of possible snaps in his sophomore season. If he sees another bump in playing time in his junior season, he has a chance to be one of the breakout players of 2016.
Houston should once again remain towards the very top – if not the top – of the AAC. The defense is loaded with talent and when paired with a QB like Greg Ward Jr. on the opposite side of the field, that’s a formula that can win games. Whether or not this team is able to make the next step forward though (and it’s a big one) is largely going to come down onto the shoulders of their Heisman candidate signal-caller.