Applewhite brings innovative changes to coaching staff
The Tom Herman era of Houston football is over, and it’s Major Applewhite’s turn to take the reins.
As head coach, Applewhite has implemented some changes to the coaching staff’s structure that may be unfamiliar to Cougar fans. Earlier in January, Applewhite finished hiring his staff. His completed staff, however, looks different from last year’s staff under Herman and from most other schools’ programs.
They believe this new format will improve the Cougars next season.
“The main thing going through this was to make sure we had it right,” Applewhite said in a news conference.
The biggest change in Applewhite’s coaching structure is the lack of a dedicated special teams coordinator. Applewhite’s plan for special teams is to have one coach from offense and one from defense collaborate to handle the return game and the cover game. Applewhite himself is familiar with special teams, having experience with the kickoff return and punt unit as a graduate assistant at the University of Texas. He will also be a part of special teams.
Applewhite’s decision to not have a dedicated special teams coach doesn’t mean he thinks it’s unimportant. He stressed its importance and how a single play can flip a game in an instant, but the new Cougar coach isn’t at the point where he can announce which two coaches will be in charge of special teams.
On the offensive side of the ball, Applewhite gave some of his coaches multiple titles that he thinks are essential for running an offense. Darren Hiller is the offensive line coach and run game coordinator. Last year, the Cougars did not have a coach with the run game coordinator title.
“I’ve always found it funny that all offensive line coaches don’t have run game coordinator attached to their name,” Applewhite said.
Applewhite said he believes the offensive line coach is the run game coordinator by default because the run game has to go through the line.
“From the offensive line perspective, I don’t think I’ve changed in my thinking what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis,” Hiller said. “Everywhere I’ve ever been as an offensive line coach, I felt like I am a coordinator in the fact the running game has to go through the offensive line.”
Hiller isn’t coaching the running backs, however. Kenith Pope, one of the only returning coaches from Herman’s staff, is the running backs coach.
“It’s a title,” Applewhite said. “You don’t get lost in stuff like that.”
Applewhite hired Brian Johnson in December as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Applewhite emphasized the importance that these two responsibilities are connected.
“I believe offensively, you have to call the game from that position,” Applewhite said. “The guy who’s coaching the quarterbacks needs to call the plays.”
Last season, Applewhite was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Compared to other collegiate teams around the country, the Cougars differ greatly.
In the American Athletic Conference, having the offensive coordinator be the quarterbacks coach as well isn’t the most popular. Only five teams other than the Cougars do this. Including Houston, 50 percent of teams in the AAC have these two titles attached.
The offensive line coach also having the title of run game coordinator is very unpopular in the AAC. Only the Naval Academy and University of Southern Florida do so.
Navy ranked first in the AAC last season in rushing yards with 4342 yards, and USF was in second with 3709. Navy had 742 attempts, and USF had 570. Houston ranked eighth with 1912 yards and 561 attempts.
In Houston’s first loss of the season in 2016, the Navy Midshipmen ran all over the Cougar defense. Navy totaled 306 rushing yards with five separate players having five or more carries. They averaged 4.9 yards per carry. The Midshipman who led the team with 32 carries, 115 yards and one touchdown was their quarterback.
In that same game, Houston put up only 125 rushing yards total with senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. being the leading rusher. Ward Jr. had 17 carries for 94 yards and one touchdown. Junior running back Dillon Birden carried the ball 13 times for 51 yards.
The coaches that Applewhite has hired are excited for the new coaching structure.
“(Applewhite’s) plan to put the staff together, how he assembled that and his thought process on that, I thought was excellent,” said defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio.
With the new coaching staff established under Applewhite, the Cougars look to innovate and improve the program.