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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Commentary

Cougars’ roster built to weather losses next season


Behind the efforts of defensive tackle Ed Oliver and other returning juniors for the 2018 season, there’s reason to believe the Cougars could once again be crowned AAC Champions a year from now. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

“Good, but not good enough” was the theme of the Cougars’ 2017 regular season, which saw the team finish second place in the American Athletic Conference West Division, two games behind the No. 17-ranked Memphis Tigers.

Despite struggling at times, there are more positives than negatives to be drawn from the up-and-down season. The Cougars’ 7-4 record could’ve been even better if not for slip-ups against seemingly inferior opponents and a second-half collapse against the Tigers that saw a 24-7 third-quarter lead disappear in just over 18 minutes.

Even so, consider that following the 2016 season, Houston lost not only its head coach, but also the winning-est senior class in program history. Talent and experience were lost on both sides of the ball, and this proved to be a bigger factor than many had anticipated coming into the season.

When the season concludes next month, the Cougars will once again suffer significant senior losses, but the talented junior class could help minimize the effects of their absence.

Possible finale for Oliver

Sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver will headline the junior class’s contributors next season as he enters what might be his last season in a Cougars’ uniform. Oliver is a physical anomaly who in just two years has already earned every opportunity to be taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

It’s common to see juniors who are assumed top picks to turn it down a notch, sometimes unintentionally given that an injury could derail a bright NFL career. Luckily, even if Oliver is going only half-speed, he’s probably still more effective than a large percentage of other players at his position.

In 24 games over the last two seasons, Oliver has recorded a remarkable 37.5 tackles for loss including 10.5 sacks — both outstanding marks for a defensive tackle. Additionally, the sophomore has deflected 12 passes, blocked a kick, forced five fumbles and recovered two.

Basically, if a big play is being made, Oliver is somehow involved in it.

Another offseason under his belt will further mold the 19-year-old into a nightmare for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks.

Jack of all trades, master of one

The Cougars’ season was essentially a tripartite with each part highlighted by a different quarterback: Kyle Allen, Kyle Postma and D’Eriq King.

Before taking over at QB following the benching of both Allen and Postma, King was a utility athlete — although listed formally as a wide receiver — who could find the end zone via the pass, run, catch or return.

At receiver, King caught 29 passes and grabbed two touchdowns before making the switch.

King was recruited as one of the nation’s top dual-threat QBs and finally got his shot under center at the college level against South Florida, when he eventually toppled the nation’s No. 18 team at the time. King hasn’t looked back since then, completing roughly 70 percent of his passes, accounting for 12 TDs and effectively proving his value at QB.

Assuming the starting job is King’s until a change is warranted, it appears Houston has found a great QB — the cornerstone of success on the gridiron. Look for King to become a staple of UH football for the better part of the next two years.

Filling holes at receiver

Depth at wide receiver is something the Cougars don’t have right now. By next season, the Cougars will be without their top four receivers.

Seniors Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar — who combined for more than 140 receptions, 1,700-plus yards and seven TDs — will play their final game for the Cougars next month. Houston’s third-best receiver in 2017 by numbers is the now the starting quarterback.

John Leday, a senior receiver and return man, will also exit the college ranks before the 2018 season begins. Leday has returned all but seven of the kickoffs and has contributed more than 100 yards receiving and a TD reception.

Sophomores Courtney Lark and Keith Corbin can help minimize the impact of these holes.

Lark has struggled to find his role amid the bevvy of upperclassmen in his first two seasons, but 2018 presents a golden opportunity for the Houston native. Even with a reduced role this season, Lark has nine catches and leads the team with an average of 23 yards per catch.

Corbin has yet to find his niche within the offense and has caught just 16 passes in his career. A third year in Major Applewhite’s offensive system, however, could provide a familiarity that will serve him well next season.

Regardless, the Cougars’ coaching staff will have its work cut out trying to replace the openings at wideout, but the Lark and Corbin can at least provide the framework.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that next year could be the Cougars’ year to win the conference and return to a New Year’s Six Bowl. For now, enjoy the flashes of future greatness on the Houston roster.

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