Sam and Dustin of the Scott & Holman Pawdcast had me on their show last Friday, and today they were nice enough to do a Q&A with us. I’m sure you’ll enjoy!
1.What makes Greg Ward such a special player?
Sam: The guy came in hyped as a great athlete from a historic powerhouse high school program in John Tyler HS, which produced Earl Campbell from the orange cow school west of here. But he was clearly less polished as a pocket passer than his former classmate John O’ Korn and took reps as a receiver and return guy in his first two seasons. Actually, going into his sophomore season Ward spent the offseason as a receiver. He won the QB job midway through 2014 because O’ Korn was terrible (good luck with that, Michigan) but was still obviously a runner first and very raw as a passer. I have watched a lot of college football and I can recall few QBs that developed as rapidly as Ward did from 2014 to last year. The guy is extremely difficult to tackle outside of the pocket, but also is a sneaky-good passer. A lot of the talk out of fall camp is that Ward has taken another step forward as a passer. If Ward can improve from a good passer (and great runner) to a great passer, then he’ll be one of the best few quarterbacks in college football. I like this team, but there’s no player on the roster I’m more effusive about currently than Greg Ward Jr.
2. Outside of Greg Ward, who are the Houston players that Sooner fans need to be aware of?
Dustin: Tom Herman has been talking up UT-Austin transfer Duke Catalon quite a bit, saying that the only better running back he’s been around is Ezekiel Elliott. Herman hasn’t been prone to exaggeration in his short time in Houston, so I think most of the Cougar faithful are expecting good things from Catalon, despite the fact that he’s spent the past two seasons not playing competitive football. UH lost top receiver Demarcus Ayers to the NFL this offseason, so all eyes will fall on top returning receiver Chance Allen (a former Oregon transfer) to step up and become Ward’s primary target. Defensively, linebacker Steven Taylor is a fourth-year starter, and has developed into Houston’s top defensive playmaker. He lived in opponents’ backfields last year, racking up 10 sacks and 18.5 TFL.
3. The Houston fan base seems to be excited for the matchup. How many Cougar fans should we expect at NRG Stadium?
Sam: I always tell people that UH football has about 25-30,000 extremely dedicated fans who’ll be at every game, regardless of day, weather, et cetera. Then there are about 15-20,000 alums who are casual fans or just casual Houston non-alums who will attend UH if the team is really good or the team is playing a marquee opponent. I think that group of dedicated fans continues to grow, but unfortunately there are still lots of fair weather fans we’re counting on to fill the stands. I do think this game checks a lot of the boxes for the casual fans so I’d expect roughly 55% of NRG to be Houston fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if that Houston number was smaller, though, to be honest.
Dustin: UH lost a generation of alumni to apathy by wandering in the C-USA wilderness and being just completely irrelevant athletically from roughly 1991-2005. The Case Keenums and Tom Hermans of the world have brought some of those alumni back, but there’s still this gap between the die-hards who remember Bill Yeoman and those who graduated in the last few years and have realized it’s cool to care about UH again. So while the Peach Bowl win and the Oklahoma game have galvanized the UH fan base like nothing we’ve seen since maybe Andre Ware’s Heisman season, with respect to Oklahoma’s enormous alumni base in Houston and relatively short travel distance from Norman, Sam’s 55% is probably about right.
4. UH is replacing a bit on defense. How talented are these young guys who are filling the voids?
Dustin: Obviously, the Coogs haven’t been bringing in classes full of super highly-touted guys like an Oklahoma, but even the much-maligned previous coaching staff did a pretty good job of consistently bringing in classes of solid second-tier, 3-star-type recruits. (The talent can’t have been too much of a problem, considering that the Coogs just won the Peach Bowl with Tony Levine’s recruits.) But anyway, there’s an inverse relationship between distance from the line of scrimmage and how much confidence I have in the guys that UH will be running out on defense. The defensive line is talented and deep, boosted by 5-star recruit Ed Oliver. The starting linebackers are a talented bunch, but with a little less depth than the line. Matthew Adams, a junior who’ll be stepping up from backup to starter this year, endeared himself to Coach Herman and the UH faithful by hitting a guy so hard in practice last year that he badly bent his own facemask. The secondary, to be quite honest, worries me. Houston brought in two JuCo transfers to help shore up a unit that lost a ton to graduation, but one (J.J. Dallas) didn’t survive fall camp, and the other (Terrell Williams) is listed behind a sophomore special teamer from last year on the depth chart. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando hasn’t sounded too worried about the talent available to him in the secondary, but whether or not that’s just coach speak will be a defining question of UH’s season.
5. Outside of being successful, in what ways has Tom Herman endeared himself to the Houston fan base?
Sam: There are few coaches in college football who are more media savvy than Tom Herman. I think a lot of coaches see talking to the fans and media as complete drudgery and treat it with barely-disguised contempt. Tom Herman for all I know feels the same way, but is smart and people-savvy enough to say interesting things and not shy away from constant media appearances to promote the team. He also does a great job (along with the entire staff) using social media to interact with fans, but more importantly recruits. As someone who covers the team from a quasi-media basis, he’s the best quote from a coach that I have ever interacted with. All the stuff Herman has done seems so obvious, yet no Houston coach (and most other college football coaches) aren’t as media-savvy and charismatic as Herman.
Dustin: I cringe to use these words, but Tom Herman might be an even better brand ambassador than he is a football coach. When he’s not getting a diamond-encrusted grill or creating an Office Space-style viral video smashing a fax machine for National Signing Day, he’s getting local celebs like JJ Watt and Paul Wall showing up to games and talking up the Coogs. Basically everything he’s done off the field has become a big story (in a good way) and thrust UH back into the national consciousness.
6. From a schematic standpoint, what should OU fans expect from Houston?
Dustin: Offensively, the Coogs like to go very fast and spread the field. That’s not to say they’ll throw the ball a ton – UH ran out of the spread quite a bit last year, and in fact almost exclusively tried to establish the running game first and work the passing game out of that. There will be plenty of handoffs to Duke Catalon, some option action with Greg Ward, and some quick hitters and screen passes, and probably not a ton of balls thrown way down field. I say that both because that was Houston’s offensive identity last year and because OU’s secondary looks more impressive than its defensive front. Defensively, UH will come out in a 3-4 and stunt early and often, and try to get the likes of Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser into the OU backfield. Houston took a lot of chances defensively last year, and placed an emphasis on creating turnovers.
Sam: If I had to describe the offense as simply as possible it’d be: run-first spread. I expect slightly more passing in 2016, but Herman has been very outspoken about the running game being an integral part of what the offense does. That’s a relief for yours truly after watching some exciting (but prone to the occasional inexplicable awful game) pass heavy Air Raid offenses in a lot of the years before Herman’s arrival. Despite being a team that generally makes it their goal to run as many plays as possible, this offense can grind out opponents when the situation calls for it. In the de facto American West division championship vs Navy, the Coogs played “keep away” beautifully versus a tough Navy team who only lost to UH and Notre Dame.
7. If you had to recommend one bar in Houston to go to the night before the game, what would it be?
Sam: As the half of this podcast that actually drinks alcohol, I am probably the one qualified to answer this question. If you’re visiting Houston for the game and are looking for a Friday night drink and maybe some grub check out Moon Tower Inn (3004 Canal Street Houston, TX 77003) which is not far from downtown in Houston’s newest yuppie/hipster neighborhood: EaDo. The place has an outstanding beer selection, along with wild game hot dogs (Pheasant, Duck, Quail and more!) and I have had a few of their burgers and they’ve all been outstanding. The only drawback is its outdoors, but it’s open late and not far from downtown. As an honorable mention, there are two excellent breweries: The 8th Wonder Brewery (2202 Dallas St Houston, TX 77003) and the Karbach Brewery (2032 Karbach St Houston, TX 77092) are worth your visit.
8. How confident are Houston fans about being invited to the Big 12? How confident are you?
Dustin: Ever since UT-Austin president Greg Fenves endorsed Houston, there’s been no convincing the UH fan base that the Coogs won’t end up in the Big 12. Because that’s the one undisputed truth about the Big 12, right? That Austin always gets its way? It really feels like too many people have put their necks out for Houston on this one for it to not happen. When Texas’s governor and lieutenant governor are both publicly stating that Big 12 expansion can’t happen if it doesn’t include the Coogs, are the four Texas schools already in the conference willing to face the political backlash that would come with returning empty handed, shrugging and saying, “Well, we tried”? I mean, it’s the dysfunctional Big 12, so anything’s possible. I will say one thing, though – the UH fan base is already pretty bitter about losing out on the Big 12 when the SWC broke up, and having the football Charlie Brown-ed out from under us again when the Big East fell apart before we could join it. So if the Big 12 ends up taking BYU and Cincinnati or something, Houston will have hands-down the angriest, most bitter, most convinced-of-a-giant-conspiracy-theory-against-itself fan base in the country. Sadly, I can’t rule this out as a possibility.