Sumlin’s well-laid foundation bears fruit
One could argue the Cougars took a step forward in their first season under head coach Kevin Sumlin by capturing their first bowl victory in 28 years.
But even with that bowl win, the Cougars at best took only a small step forward.
Their offense was a bit more explosive than in 2007, but the defense remained a painful sight. The offensive line struggled to provide consistent pass protection and the secondary was frequently tested and burned. And there was the puzzling matter of the Cougars getting off to slow starts and needing miraculous second-half comebacks to win big games.
Despite all these negatives, there were plenty of positives.
The Cougar offense proved it could turn on the jets when it had to. The defense played well down the stretch, limiting opponents to an average of 5.3 points in the fourth quarters.
The Cougars found themselves a special freshman offensive trio in running back Bryce Beall and wideouts Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards. They also know they have their starting quarterback for the next two years in sophomore Case Keenum (5,020 passing yards, 44 touchdowns this season).
The Cougars were good enough to win at least eight games for the third consecutive season. They were good enough to contend for the Conference USA West Division title down to the last regular season game, a disappointing 56-42 loss to Rice.
But that’s where it stops with this group. The program won’t get any better unless significant improvements are made on both sides of the ball.
Time to hit the recruiting trail
The latter task falls to Sumlin, who just completed his first season as a head coach, and his staff. They must upgrade an offensive line that’s losing three starters, a defensive line that’s losing all four of its starters – including C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Phillip Hunt – and a secondary that is losing both starting safeties. Plus, the Cougars could always use more depth in other positions.
The recruiting season hasn’t ended yet, but the 2009 class looks markedly better than last year’s group. This is partly because Sumlin and Co. are not burdened by a transition period this season.
Last year, Sumlin had to deal with several commitments reneging in the wake of former head coach Art Briles’ departure. Sumlin held on to the recruits he could, added a few of his own and ended up with a class that wasn’t too shabby considering the circumstances.
Sumlin and his assistants haven’t wasted any time this year.
They have already landed two talented junior college linemen who can step in right away in Roy Watts (6-6, 335 pounds) and Jarve Dean (6-3, 330). Ty Cloud (Flower Mound Marcus High School), Keenan Flax (Cypress Ridge), Kevin Forsch (Klein Oak) and Ralph Oragwu (Fort Bend Marshall) will add much needed depth.
Incoming junior college defensive back Jacky Candy (6-0, 200) can also make an immediate impact in the secondary. Dayton’s A.J. Dugat, who has also verbally committed to the Cougars, is an electrifying athlete who represents an intriguing prospect at safety.
And the list goes on, including promising additions to the defensive line. Make no mistake; this class looks to be one of the best this program has seen in ages.
2009 looks promising
The Cougars were far from major players in recruiting during Briles’ tenure, but Sumlin and his assistants have made huge strides in this area.
If the Cougars are to become the nationally-recognized program that athletic director Dave Maggard envisions, it starts with recruiting. And that’s only half the battle.
It also involves coaching, but Sumlin took care of that too. He surrounded himself with top-notch coordinators and assistants, individuals who are efficient at both coaching and recruiting.
The results might not always have been indicative of this during the season, but there were occasional glimpses of what Sumlin hopes to achieve with this program. He didn’t always have all the players needed for his system, but he did what he could with what he had.
Fans shouldn’t have to worry about the future of the team, because the players UH needs are on the way. With a little luck and perseverance, the Cougars could be on their way too.