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OU Football: Breaking Down Houston's Dynamic Offensive Attack

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HOUSTON -

The wait is nearly over for Oklahoma football fans, as the much anticipated 2016 season will kick off Saturday morning at 11 a.m. when the No. 3 Sooners take to Houston to face the No. 15 Cougars.

Related: OU's Mark Andrews Expects Bigger Role In Sooners' Offense

Saturday's OU/Houston matchup is one of many stellar shootouts slated for college football’s opening weekend, but one could argue the battle inside of NRG Stadium will have the biggest impact on the College Football Playoff. Oklahoma is already considered a contender, while a Houston win would likely put them right in the mix of things. 

There’s a lot of hype surrounding the Sooners and their battalion of returning playmakers, but to overlook the Cougars would not only be ill-advised, but if Oklahoma shows up unprepared come Saturday, it could shake up the college football landscape as well.

Houston is an emerging football program that’s fresh off winning the American Conference along with last season’s Peach Bowl after drilling the Florida State Seminoles. Under second year coach Tom Herman, who previously served as offensive coordinator of the Buckeyes when Ohio State won the 2014 National Championship, this Cougars’ team has an incredibly bright future.

“He’s always done an excellent job, Iowa State on through all of the places he’s been,” OU head coach Bob Stoops said. “Obviously what he did at Ohio State was remarkable, it’s really something to take look at, until what he did at Houston, he may have topped it there.

“Winning a national championship as a coordinator then going 13-1 as a head coach is pretty special. He’s done a great job.”

Herman’s vibrant coaching style has the Cougars’ confidence at an all-time high, which has resulted in a lot of positives. With the program’s recent success still fresh on the minds of those throughout Texas and the Midwest, many believe Houston is a viable candidate to join the possibly expanding Big 12 Conference.

Houston reportedly made the first cut in expansion talks, but the best statement the Cougars could make in its bid to join the conference is upsetting the Big 12’s reigning champion on this type of stage.

That being said, let’s take a look at Houston’s offense, which finished No. 13 last season in total offense.

QUARTERBACK

One of the best players in the nation, Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has all the tools possible to completely fluster the Oklahoma defense.

“Offensively everything goes through number 1, Greg Ward Jr.,” Stoops said. “Great, great player. Has the ability to run the football, designed runs, great scrambler, great thrower as well.”

At just under six-feet tall, Ward is a bonafide playmaker who uses his shiftiness and speed to force defenses off balance. Last season Ward threw for 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 1,108 yards and 21 scores as well. In doing so, Ward was one of two players last season with 2,000 yards through the air and 1,000 yards on the ground.

Who was the other player, you may ask? None other than Clemson’s DeShaun Watson, who led the Tigers’ assault on the Sooners in the Orange Bowl by throwing for 187 yards while rushing for 145 more in the 20-point Clemson win. Oklahoma’s defense struggled throughout the game to contain the Heisman finalist, and will now face a similar playmaker in Ward to open the season.

Fortunately for Oklahoma, the Sooners will have the advantage of practicing everyday against scout team quarterback Kyler Murray. The Texas A&M transfer is sitting out this season due to NCAA rules, but the dynamic sophomore is providing a solid look for OU’s defense by playing the role of Ward in practice.

“Kyler’s done a great job simulating Greg Ward, no doubt,” Stoops said. “He’s quick, fast, a guy that’s played, so he’s been working hard out their last week and I’m sure he will be again this week.”

Ward is cut from the same cloth as both Watson and Ward, and has a chance to be the next Oklahoma quarterback after Baker Mayfield.

“He was very impressive last week, running around, making plays, it’s good to see the special explosiveness he has,” Stoops said.

Oklahoma’s defense can practice all they want, but containing Ward on Saturday morning will likely be the key to success. It would also be encouraging for the Sooners moving forward, seeing they’ll face another dual threat quarterback Week 3 when Ohio State comes to Norman.

RUNNING BACK

With three-year starter Kenneth Farrow gone and graduated, the Cougars’ backfield now belongs to University of Texas transfer Duke Catalon, who redshirted for the Longhorns in 2014 before sitting out last season due to NCAA rules.

At six-foot, 210 pounds, Catalon possesses a nice balance of speed and power, and has the capability to run over defenders that stand in his way. Despite not playing in a game in over 1,000 days, Coach Herman has said Catalon is the second best running back he’s coached behind only current Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

A four-star recruit out of high school, the Sooners will need to make sure they have a handle on Catalon, especially since he’s waited over two years for his moment to shine.

Backing him up at running back should be true freshman Mulbah Car, who chose to play at Houston over schools such as Iowa State, Nebraska and Texas Tech.

The Cougars averaged 235.8 rushing yards per game last season, and even though a huge chunk came courtesy of Ward, the running back position is key for Houston’s up-tempo offense.

WIDE RECEIVER

Despite the shocking departure of leading receiver Demarcus Ayers to the NFL, the Cougars still return a lot of talent at the wide receiver position.

Led by senior Chance Allen, who totaled 752 receiving yards and six scores last season, Houston has a plethora of players on the outside that Ward can look to. A transfer from Oregon, Allen will likely be the team’s number one receiver but guys like Isaiah Johnson and Steven Dunbar will have a chance to step up, especially with the injury to Oklahoma State transfer Ra’Shaad Samples.

Johnson is a guy who possesses long range speed on the outside, but has struggled to stay consistent since he’s been on campus. As for Dunbar, the junior has plenty of game experience and totaled 382 receiving yards last season to go with his three touchdowns, one of which was from 65 yards out.

Another guy to make note of is Linell Bonner, who will start in the slot after recording 25 catches for 317 yards and five scores last season. The junior isn’t quite as explosive as most slot receivers, but Bonner has solid hands and is capable of blocking at a high level on the outside.

At the tight end position, look for senior captain Tyler McCloskey to carry the load as one of the team’s vocal leaders and hardest workers. McCloskey only managed one touchdown last season, but don’t be surprised to see him take on a bigger role this year.

Oklahoma returns preseason All-Big 12 cornerback Jordan Thomas, along with safeties Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas, but the Sooners will have a new starter in Dakota Austin at the other corner position. With Houston averaging 40.4 points per game last season, OU’s secondary will have to be locked in to limit the Cougars’ pass catchers.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Center Will Noble returns as the Cougars’ most experienced lineman and the only full-time starter, but Houston has some other experienced players returning up front. Two guards, Mason Denley and Kam Eloph, return with starts under their belt, but Coach Herman announced that last year’s scout team star Mac Long would be starting Saturday at right guard.

Look for Marcus Oliver Jr. to protect Ward’s blindside at left tackle, while JUCO transfer Na’Ty Rodgers will play the other tackle position.

Oklahoma’s defensive front led by Charles Walker, Matt Dimon, Jordan Wade, Matt Romar and pass rushing linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo will have the luxury of facing a semi inexperienced Houston front, but with a playmaker like Ward operating from the quarterback spot, it may not matter whose blocking for him.

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