UH youth faces first test of season
Big challenges await the Cougars this season, but the smaller ones cannot be ignored.
UH enters 2009 with heavy expectations and a daunting non-conference schedule, featuring Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Despite the excitement surrounding these contests, the Cougars are focused on opening the season with a strong performance against a veteran Northwestern State squad.
The Demons, who hail from the Southland Conference, went 7-5 in 2008 and return 22 seniors. Saturday’s matchup at Robertson Stadium will offer UH an opportunity to gauge how its youth matches up against experience.
‘We have to be prepared for anything. It will be an interesting challenge for us in a number of ways,’ head coach Kevin Sumlin said. ‘They have nine defensive starters and seven offensive starters back, which is different from our situation.’
Unlike the Demons, the Cougars will start five underclassmen on offense and four on defense. Sumlin appears to have confidence in his freshmen and sophomores, because UH’s upperclassmen have provided plenty of guidance.
‘We have a really good infusion of young players and new talent on this team,’ Sumlin said. ‘We don’t have a lot of seniors on this team, but the older guys have embraced the new guys and have really taken them in.’
One of UH’s senior leaders is linebacker Matt Nicholson, who missed the final four games of last season because of a torn ACL. He hopes the younger players will respond to his direction by maturing quickly and learning to play like seniors.
‘I try and just show by example the best I can,’ Nicholson said. ‘We have a lot of young guys, and they have to get ready to play. They have to grow up fast.’
Sumlin believes the inexperience can be positive, forcing players to fill leadership roles.
He also said that more youth provides additional depth and a wider variety of options.
‘We have some new faces and a lot more depth than we had last year. This will allow us to be a little more multiple in what we do,’ Sumlin said. ‘We were pretty vanilla last year because we didn’t have a lot of depth.’
The Cougars are also young on offense, but the offensive line still has its anchor, center Carl Barnett. The senior’s biggest challenge could be leading a blocking unit that features two new starters, including freshman left tackle Jacolby Ashworth.
‘(I have to) be more vocal on the field,’ Barnett said. ‘I have to be that guy who knows everything. Everybody else around me is younger, so everybody looks to me for answers.’
While many fans and analysts are worried about the Cougars’ youth, Northwestern State’s biggest concern could be adjusting to a new system. First-year head coach Bradley Dale Peveto stepped into the spotlight at Northwestern State after spending the last four seasons as a defensive assistant at LSU.
Peveto, who served as UH’s co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach from 1999-2002, will return to a familiar place Saturday. Sumlin said that although he is happy for Peveto, he will not allow UH to take anything for granted.
‘People change every year. There’s new wrinkles,’ Sumlin said. ‘We just have to be prepared.’
Players on both teams have expressed their desire to begin the season, but few are more excited than wide receiver Tyron Carrier.
‘It feels like we’ve been hitting each other forever,’ Carrier said. ‘I’m kind of tired of running the offensive plays against the defense. They’ve seen it so much that they don’t have any other choice but to know it now. I can’t wait to go out there and play this week.’
UH has sold more season tickets than any other season this decade, which should provide a different type of home-field advantage from previous seasons. This increased interest bodes well for Carrier and his teammates, who enjoy playing in front of a large crowd of supporters.
‘Hopefully we can start selling out the place every game. That’s what we want,’ Carrier said. ‘We play better when we have a big crowd out there. It gives you a confidence (level) that can’t be broken.’