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Cougars’ overhauled offense will quicken the pace

Fiona Legesse / The Cougar

Ten points stood between the Cougars and a 10-1 regular season record in 2017.

A three-point loss to Texas Tech, a four-point loss to Memphis and a three-point loss to Tulane scarred Houston’s record, but the team has rebuilt its offense as a new, high tempo machine.

“We want to be bold. We don’t want to be emotional and foolish, but we want to be aggressive in what we are doing, and we are going to do that. Play fast, play physical and have fun with it,” said the Cougars’ new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.

Leader of men

Leading the new offense will be junior quarterback D’Eriq King, who won the starting spot last fall and held onto it during spring training.

“Quarterbacks in general have to be tough, they have to be great leaders and they have to be competitive,” said head coach Major Applewhite. “You saw (those traits) when he came in the game at USF. He’s got the respect of our team.”

Leading up to the week game against USF, King was splitting time at quarterback and wide receiver before becoming the starter.

Against USF, Houston fell behind four times and did not hold a lead until King led the team on one final drive up the field and scored by running 21 yards while dodging defenders to take the game-winning lead with 12 seconds remaining.

For the rest of the season, King did not let his inexperience at quarterback unsettle him, and he played explosively while making few errors.

In the first eight games, the other UH quarterbacks threw eight interceptions, but in the final five games, King threw just two and fumbled just once.

“I told D’Eriq when we went to Media Day together that, ‘You are in the same position that Greg Ward was coming out of his sophomore year’,” Applewhite said.

Alumni Greg Ward Jr. was the backup quarterback entering his sophomore season in 2014 and made his first career start against Memphis in week six, before starting for the remainder of his sophomore season and his final two years.

“I talk to Greg a good amount. He’s always told me to just be myself, become a better leader and work hard every day. Getting advice from him has helped me a lot,” King said.

King said having a full offseason at quarterback instead of splitting time at two positions helped him tremendously in the offseason.

“I am excited to see him continue to grow and develop. I’ve seen the look in his eyes and the effort that he has given during his offseason workouts,” Applewhite said. “What he’s done with the wide receivers and bringing those guys together, that’s the look of a starter.”

A new look

Learning a new offense is never easy, but Applewhite said the team only has a few things left to work on before the season starts, like two-minute drills, learning calls and practicing unique situations.

“The main thing is just the mechanics of how everything works: the tempo of the offense, guys getting signals, guys lining up. The way that the offense is, it’s much different than what they’ve run here in the past,” Briles said.

In his last three seasons as an offensive coordinator, each of Briles’ teams were in the top 10 for total offensive yards in the nation, and his team was No. 1 in the nation in 2015. 

The 2017 Cougars were 61st in the nation in total offense, which is far below the 13th and 42nd rankings it had in the two seasons under former Head Coach Tom Herman.

Briles said playing with a high tempo is a key goal for the Cougars. A high tempo offense will put pressure on a defense and not allow defenders to get settled, which leads to bigger plays.

“I love it. It’s a great offense. Everywhere Coach Briles has been, he’s proven the offense works, so I’m excited for it and ready to get better at it,” King said.

Briles’ tempo offense will look very different for Cougar fans compared to last year’s offense ran by Brian Johnson.

Last season, over half of Houston’s plays were passes, but Briles’ style has the quarterback make more option reads and gain yards on the ground, which King is a perfect fit for.

As offensive coordinator, over 60 percent of Briles’ plays have been runs, though many were run-pass options.

An offense that uses a lot of play action or RPOs commonly forces defenses to use a spy linebacker to just cover the quarterback, which leaves less defenders to cover receivers and tight ends.

If a spy, usually a middle linebacker, commits to the run while a receiver begins to cut inside, it can mean a big yardage gain over the middle. If he decides not to commit to the run, then the quarterback can pick up a few yards with his feet.

Ground and pound

With run plays being used so often, the Cougars will need to rely on a rotation of running backs like graduate transfer Terence Williams and junior Mulbah Car.

Car was a consistent second option last season behind Duke Catalon, who left the team in the offseason, and Williams was in a similar position last season at Baylor while dealing with injuries.

Williams is also familiar with Briles, who coached the former in Williams’ first two college seasons.

Under Briles, Williams ran for over 900 yards in 2016, which a UH running back has only done three times in the last 10 seasons.

“He has talent, ball skills, balance, toughness and he’s mean, which is what you want. He plays with an edge. We need that from an offensive standpoint,” Briles said.

Briles said the duo will rotate alongside juniors Kevrin Justice and Patrick Carr, but if a player is firing on all cylinders then they will stay in.

“You can’t really (keep a high) tempo if you’re exchanging personnel. If we run a guy off the field, then they’re going to be able to sub defensively,” Briles said.

Once the run game gets going, the play action pass will work more and options downfield open up, which is one of the things Briles is known for.

Briles’ past offenses have been unafraid to throw the ball deep, and King said he likes to play an aggressive style like Briles’ and take shots down field.

With a proven system in place, once the Cougars are firing on all cylinders, it will take more than 10 points to derail the season.

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