Levine promises same explosive offense for Cougars
The Houston Cougars have a new coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback, and they unveiled new-look helmets and uniforms before their first practice.
Rookie coach Tony Levine says none of the changes will throw off the high-powered offense that's become the program's calling card.
''We're going to be up-tempo, it's going to be no-huddle,'' Levine said. ''If somebody's been out of town since last December, and they come watch us play on Sept. 1st, they won't necessarily know there's been a change.''
On the other hand, Levine and the Cougars have a nearly impossible act to follow.
Behind record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, the Cougars led the nation in total offense (8,387 yards) and scoring (49.29 points per game) last season. Keenum, a fifth-year senior, set Football Bowl Subdivision records for yards passing (19,217) and touchdown passes (155), and he's the only FBS quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 yards in three different seasons.
The Cougars came within one victory of crashing the Bowl Championship Series, but coach Kevin Sumlin left to lead Texas A&M and he took offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury with him. Levine has been a Houston assistant for four years, and he brought in Mike Nesbitt to orchestrate the offense.
Keenum is now taking snaps for the Houston Texans, moving sophomore David Piland into the lead role for an offense that's amassed more yards than any other team since 2006 (42,560). Three of Keenum's favorite targets - Patrick Edwards, Justin Johnson and Tyron Carrier - also have moved on, although Levine has hired Johnson as an offensive assistant.
Nesbitt joins the Cougars after a season at Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks ranked sixth in passing offense (318.8 yards per game) and 11th in scoring (35.7 points per game) last season, running the same system Houston employed.
''We really want to keep that intact,'' Nesbitt said. ''It works, but it's also about who the players are, and what they know. That's the base thing we want to do. There will be some things you add that are a little different, but for the most part, structurally, it'll be the same.''
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Piland comes into the season already initiated to the starting role. In 2010, he played eight games after Keenum tore a right knee ligament and backup Cotton Turner broke his collarbone one quarter apart against UCLA. Shaky at times, Piland still averaged 330 yards passing, threw five TD passes against Memphis and four TDs in two other games.
So coming into this season seems much easier to him, with the benefits of that experience and a full training camp to get ready for that Sept. 1 opener at home against Texas State. Piland redshirted last season, and gleaned all he could from watching Keenum.
''It's going to be really exciting just to have the whole thing slowed down,'' Piland said, ''knowing that I'm in control and everyone is looking to me for leadership. Before, it was, `All right, I'm kind of playing the backseat role.' Now you're the leader.''
The true inexperience now lies in the receiving corps. The top four on the preseason depth chart - Isaiah Sweeney, Ronnie Williams, Daniel Spencer and Dewayne Peace - have a total of 43 career catches. By comparison, Carrier alone had 96 catches last season, and Piland says the offense will create opportunities for the largely untested receivers.
''Anybody can go out there and do what we do,'' Piland said. ''It's the guys that are going to get the touches. We're going to catch and throw the ball a lot, obviously. We could have seven or eight guys go out there and catch a ball. There's no limit to the amount of players, because we have so many guys who can fill those roles.''
Houston allowed only 18 sacks last season, and four starters return on the offensive line. Also returning is running back Charles Sims, who averaged 7.5 yards on 110 carries last season. Sims also made 51 catches and averaged 107.4 all-purpose yards.
''He's a pro in the way he works and studies the game,'' Nesbitt said. ''He's got good hands, he can catch the ball. You can do a lot of different things with him.''
The Cougars' defense was a solid complement to the offense last season, ranking third in Conference USA in points allowed (22.4) and finishing plus-16 in turnover margin, mostly due to a league-high 21 interceptions. Six starters return on defense, including defensive end Eric Braswell, linebacker Phillip Steward and safety D.J. Hayden.
Houston will move to the Big East after the season. The Cougars are not only playing their last year in Conference USA, but also in dilapidated Robertson Stadium, where they're 32-6 since 2006. A new, 40,000-seat stadium will be built on the Robertson site and is scheduled to be ready for the 2014 season.