After Keenum went down during the third game of the season last year after tearing his right ACL at UCLA, the season definitely took on a different tone with true freshman David Piland taking over at QB. Piland was named the starter after a short battle between himself and the other true freshman, Terrance Broadway. Piland impressed the coaches more than Broadway during the teams off week between the Tulane and Mississippi State games, which were the teams 4th and 5th games. Piland was more of a pure drop back QB than Broadway, who seemed to pull the ball down and run at the first sight of trouble in the pocket. The true freshmen were thrown into the fray after senior Cotton Turner was also lost for the season during that UCLA game with a broken collar bone.
Looking at the aforementioned season's offensive stats, there wouldn't have appeared to be much of a drop off from Keenum to Piland in terms of team offensive production. If one were to look deeper than just the stat sheet, however, it would be obvious that the Cougars offense struggled during its biggest moments last season when games were in the balance in each of their losses. During the teams four game losing streak to end the season, Piland (who had a very nice year considering the circumstances) never could get the team over the hump and lead them to the all important sixth win, assuring a bowl game for what would have been the 6th year in a row. Piland threw 11 of his 14 interceptions during that losing streak, always seeming to lock onto a receiver at the most inopportune time of the game(usually late in the second half while trying to rally the team to victory). Of course it never helped that the sieve-like defense always put the offense in ‘play from behind' mode as the Coogs opponents all scored first and often in those seven losses. To throw in a true freshman (who was suppose to use the season as a learning yea via a redshirt), whom had very little practice time as a fourth stringer into live game action was destined to end in failure. That offensive ineptitude when it counted the most, along with the porous defense lead the Cougars to their first losing season in six years and the first of the Sumlin era.
On the first official play from scrimmage QB Case Keenum hit WR Patrick Edwards in stride on a beautiful 20 yard post pattern. A few missed tackles later and Edwards strolled into the end zone for a 65 yard TD. Although it occurred during last week's open scrimmage at Robertson Stadium, that hookup could have described any number of TD connections between Keenum and Edwards over the past few years. That is the intangible that Keenum brings to the offense, which is the intangible of supreme confidence that no matter the situation, Keenum will lead the Cougars to victory as he has in years past(I still marvel at the improbably comeback at Tulsa during the 09 season). By years end, Keenum will have(hopefully) broken all of the major NCAA division 1 records(or bowl subdivision) for total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes. Case has the three tools that Sumlin looks for in a QB; 1.) Accuracy- Case has a 68.8% accuracy rate for his career. 2.) Game managing – Case is an expert at controlling the pace of a game and making good decisions with the game on the line. 3.) Playmaking ability – When a play breaks down, Case is terrific at keeping it alive with his feet by either stepping up in the pocket or breaking containment just long enough to give his receivers time to break off their routes and coming back to the ball.
With just two weeks to go until the first game of the season, the battle for the backup QB spot between Piland and Turner appears to be dead locked. While Sumlin has said the best players will play, if I had my druthers I would like to see Piland redshirted. He can then learn to better hone his fundamentals on the scout team. Practice and repetition is the key for any young QB. It doesn't matter how strong your arm is if your feet aren't set and Piland's ‘happy feet' in the pocket last year lead to major inconsistency with his passing. QBs are able to process what they see better with more practice reps.This is how the game slows down and they are able to succeed. Also, without the pressure of playing, Piland can use the extra time in the weight room to bulk up. He's already at nearly 200 pounds, up from his reporting weight last year of 185. Aldine High's own Darron Thomas led the Oregon Ducks to the BCS National Championship game last season due in large part to redshirting his sophomore year. He, like Piland, was forced to play his true freshman year due to injuries but has said the redshirt season in 2009 helped him immensely in his maturation of a QB. With or without a redshirt for Piland, the QB position is looking nice for years to come (despite this being Case's last year) with strong armed true freshman Bram Kohlhausen and 2012 recruit Austin Grammer(out of Tuscaloosa's American Christian Academy) already committed to the Coogs.
The Cougars are as deep on offense as they have ever been. Along the offensive line four of the five positions seem to be set as two year starter Jacolby Ashworth (6'4, 300, RS Jr) returns to man the all important left tackle spot(as it protects the QBs blind side). Although currently injured, Ty Cloud (6'4, 315, RS So) seems to be the incumbent at left guard. This would be his first year starting but he does have some experience as he played in 12 games last season. At center, Chris Thompson (6'2, 285) is the man. The redshirt senior has 37 starts under his belt with most of them at right guard. He made the switch after the leading candidate, Blake Sargent, was injured during the offseason. Sargent just started practicing last week. Bryce Redman (6'2, 290 RS Fr) will be the man at right guard. Redman will also see game action for the first time as he redshirted last year. The right tackle spot remains unsettled between Ralph Oragwu (6'3, 310, RS So) and Rowdy Harper (6'6, 285, RS Fr). This will be the first year either has started. Cloud and Oragwu have been out for the past week with injuries, but should both be back soon. DeAnthony Sims (6'3, 320, Jr) and Chris Hill (6'4, 285, RS Fr) will provide depth at both tackle spots while Kevin Forsch (6'5, 301, RS So) and JC transfer Josh McNeil (6'6, 285, So) will do the same at guard. The offensive linemen are bigger and stronger than they have ever been thanks to strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson.
The receiving core is so talented it's ridiculous. Returning starters are seniors Patrick Edwards (at the X) and Tyron Carrier (H). Edwards (who has 23 career TD receptions and has amassed over 2700 receiving yards) and Keenum have been lighting it up thus far at practice. Carrier had a down year last season with "only" 480 yards as he just didn't seem to click with Piland. The special teams ace (6 career kick off returns brought back for TDs) looks to repeat his first two seasons as he had over 1000 yards receiving both years (over 2500 for his career to go along with 17 TDs receiving). E.J. Smith will probably be the third starter(Z) as the redshirt senior has shown the most consistency among the other receivers, while the forth spot(Y) is still up for grabs. Justin Johnson came along at the end of last year as an H-back type as his size (6'1, 225) could be utilized in the redzone. The depth of the receiver position is scary as youngsters Isaiah Sweeney, Marcus and Ronnie Williams (no relation), and Darian Lazard have all impressed the coaches at one point or another during summer camp. Two wildcards to look for are DeAndre Perry and Kenneth Bibbins at TE. Both are physical freaks as Perry is listed at 6'4, 220 while Bibbins goes at 6'4, 240. Their problem in receiving playing time over the others mentioned is their inconsistency. Both will make spectacular catches followed by a drop of a routine pass. It could be conceivable that the Cougars could have four 1000 yard receivers this season. Something that's never been done before in Div. 1 history.
As loaded as the receiver position is the running back spot is just as loaded, lead by senior Bryce "Brick" Beall. The bowling ball Beall has nearly 2800 career yards to go along with 32 rushing TDs. Michael Hayes is the change of pace back that can get you the long 60 yard run. The X-factor of the backs will be Charles Sims who was ineligible last season due to NCAA Clearinghouse issues. Sims was the 2009 CUSA freshman of the year and it will be exciting to see how he will be used motioning out of the backfield into the slot as a receiver as he had over 700 receiving yards and nearly had the same amount rushing(698, 9 TDs).
Philosophically it will be interesting to see how this years offense evolves compared to last year's especially since Keenum is back at QB. Evolve is the key word their as this will be the first year that co coordinators Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips have had Keenum at QB. Kingsbury played under Mike Leach (at Texas Tech from 1998 through 2002), whom branched out from the Hal Mumme Airraid coaching tree. The airraid philosophy under Mumme was to throw the ball short (on intermediate routes) to athletes who could make tacklers miss and then score. This is what the Cougars emphasized last year with Piland at QB. Dana Holgorsen (UHs offensive coordinator during the 08 and 09 seasons), whom also played and coached under Leach, emphasized more motion in the backfield as ‘eye candy' to confuse defenses then often threw deep as the receivers ran more vertical routes. With Keenum back at QB I'm expecting to see more of these vertical routes over the horizontal routes that were used with Piland at QB. Of course the O-line has to protect better in order to give Keenum time to set up his receivers downfield. We should also see more of the running game this season with their trio of talented backs. When the Cougars win their running game is very effective. This in essence helps the passing game via play action. Kingsbury has said he even looks for some ‘zone read' looks with two backs in the backfield, one often motioning (hopefully this will be Charles Sims main role). Also look for the Coogs offense to amp up the tempo as Keenum is basically another coach out on the field. Piland was too young last year to use the no huddle aspect of the offense effectively. Last year the Coogs were 45th in the nation in plays per game, averaging 74.5 per game. They were 1st in 2009 and 3rd in 2008, averaging 82.1 and 78.1 respectively. If the talent alone on the Cougars offense isn't enough to wear out opposing defenses, then their deception and no huddle components of their offense will surely have opponents gasping for air in 2011 as they look to "revive the juggernaut."