Also in attendance are seven of last season's eight top receivers, senior sub Fullback Terry Vitrano, who has gained nearly 1,000 career yards, and Running Backs Darryl McGlasker (five TDs) and Len Copeland.
Despite the loss of four major starters, the defense should be at least as good as last year's—and last year's was very good. Up front the standout is 6'5", 265-pound Tackle Larry Gillard; he is buttressed by two solid ends, Ray Peyton (6'3", 225) and Bobby Molden (6'6", 225). As a group, the linebackers are inexperienced; the best of the bunch is Mike Lawrence, who has had a series of injuries. Says Tyler: "Mike gets up slow, his socks are always falling down and he looks terrible, but he makes the big play and inspires everyone." Behind this inspiration is a veteran defensive back-field led by Cornerback Henry Davidson and converted Linebacker Gerald Jackson at strong safety.
Inspiring the upper classmen to make an all-out effort is a crop of freshmen labeled the best ever recruited at State—and last year the Bulldogs lettered 10 freshmen. "From what I've seen," says Tyler, "another 10 or 12 of our freshmen will play a lot." Then he grinned.
Over in Tuscaloosa, Ala. no one is grinning about the Bulldogs this year. They're no longer a joke, son.
Last year Houston was eligible to compete for the Southwest Conference title for the first time and not only wound up in the Cotton Bowl but also defeated Maryland, the No. 4 team in the nation. Can the Cougars do it again? It won't take long to find out. Houston opens against UCLA and Penn State. "Last year we blindsided some people," says Coach Bill Yeoman. "We can't do that this year." But if the Cougars don't make it back to the Cotton Bowl, you can still write them down for one bowl or other. They landed what may be the best freshman crop in the conference to go with 14 returning starters.
Houston's 414-yard per-game offense could be even better this season. Junior Quarterback Danny Davis, a quick, clever operator who can run and throw equally well, was first to show confidence early last season by wearing a T shirt that said 1976 SWC CHAMPS. Recruited out of Dallas, Davis wavered between Houston and the University of Texas until he got a suspicion Texas might try to make a defensive back out of him. The most highly desired schoolboy quarterback in Texas this past year was Darrell Shepard of Odessa. He too signed with Houston. So did half a dozen large linemen, including 230-pound Tight End Dave Taveirne from Austin. The famed Houston veer offense—different from the wishbone in that it has two running backs rather than three, but an extra receiver—shows no sign of slowing. Speed in fact is the Cougars' primary asset, both offensively and defensively.
One of the people Davis—or Shepard, if it comes to that—will be giving the ball to is Alois Blackwell, who gained 939 yards last year and had five 100-yards-plus games. "From mid season on, he was the best back in the league," says Backfield Coach Elmer Redd. Blackwell ripped for 149 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
The Cougars are worried about replacing Kicker Lennard Coplin, who hit nine of 15 field goals, and they hope that Split End Don Bass, who averaged 23 yards per catch in 1976, recovers from off-season knee surgery. Most of all, they worry about replacing All-America Defensive Tackle Wilson Whitley, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, and the entire left side of the defensive line. Another of those highly rated freshmen, 6'5", 245-pound Hosea Taylor, could be the cat to shore up the line. Behind it there already is plenty of strength with Robert Oglesby and All-Conference Cornerback Anthony Francis, who led the nation by snagging 10 interceptions a year ago as a junior.
Last season Houston's dazzlingly quick defenders gave up a mere 95 points in the Southwest Conference, a performance not likely to be matched this year.