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After a disappointing 2004 season that was wrecked by injuries and ineligible players before it even started, Houston coach Art Briles couldn't wait to get a fresh start in '05.
And that's exactly what Briles and the Cougars are getting, a fresh start. Not only do they get the blank slate that comes with a new season, but they're getting a new-look conference in which to play.
The Cougars are eagerly eyeing the new Conference USA, which will play a two-division format and for the first time will feature a conference championship game. The regional rivalries -- adding Rice and SMU -- should help at the gate, where the Cougars desperately need a boost.
Even though they were hit hard by injuries in the spring, the Cougars have the talent and a manageable schedule that could -- and should -- lead to their second bowl berth in three years.
If the line can come through, the Cougars should have no problem moving the ball since they return almost every key skill-position player from last season.
It all starts with junior quarterback Kevin Kolb, whose production plunged last season (2,766 yards, 11 touchdowns) after a spectacular freshman year, more because of the line's inability to protect him than anything else.
A stacked backfield features senior Anthony Evans, who is ready for a strong senior season after enduring a nagging calf injury last season; junior Jackie Battle; sophomore Harold Taylor, who has star potential; and Ryan Gilbert. About the only problem is keeping everyone happy.
The Cougars are also set at wide receiver. Senior Vincent Marshall returns after racking up over 1,000 receiving yards last season; sophomore Donnie Avery adds jitterbug quickness out of the slot; and sophomore Ricky Wilson has the blazing speed that will keep teams from doubling Marshall. Also returning is senior tight end Blade Bassler, who slides over to the Big Slot position in multiple sets. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, junior college signee Jeron Harvey has the size that Kolb can exploit in red-zone situations.
The names up front -- SirVincent Rogers, Roy Swan, Byron Alfred and Sterling Doty -- read like a list of 18th-century English poets. Unfortunately, they too often blocked like poets last season, giving up 44 sacks.
The Cougars are switching to a 3-4 defense that will emphasize speed and athleticism, and the players are excited about the change. Junior Marquay Love will anchor the middle, with speedy Kade Lane at one end and massive Gerard Richard (6-3, 300) at the other. Quality depth is an issue here.
The linebacking crew took a hit when Lance Everson blew out a knee in spring drills, but Wade Koehl and Brendan Pahulu return. Briles is hoping redshirt freshman Cody Lubojasky, who impressed in the spring, can fill in for Everson, and everyone is excited about the potential of junior college transfer Da'Vell Lauder.
The defensive backfield needs work, losing Stanford Routt to the NFL and Will Gulley to injury. Gulley is hoping to return in the fall. Roshawn Pope, who is knocking off the rust after sitting out last year (grades), will take Routt's place at one corner, with senior Willie Gaston at the other. Sophomore Rocky Schwartz, a rising star, is at strong safety.
The Cougars stunk last season. Dustin Bell, who made any field goal attempt over 30 yards an adventure, is gone, and Justin Laird will get first crack at replacing him. Laird averaged only 39.8 yards per punt, and the Cougars' lousy coverage resulted in a 31.7-yard net, 101st in the nation. But with Pope and Wilson back, they should at least be adequate on returns.
After landing a bowl berth in '03 (Hawaii Bowl), the Cougars fell flat on their faces last season. Briles and athletic director Dave Maggard talk about the "malaise" that has settled over the program, with all the losing over the last few years, so getting the players to forget about last season is job No. 1.
The Cougars are primed to make a run in the new Conference USA. They have the talent in key positions and a schedule that has them playing Oregon, Southern Miss and Memphis in town.