The Cougars fell a long way last season under first-year coach Tony Levine, who was promoted from receivers coach when Kevin Sumlin left for Texas A&M. A Houston team in the mix for a BCS bid until the final week of the 2011 season finished 5-7 in 2012 and suffered a huge loss in momentum. Houston changed conferences in the offseason, leaving Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference.
On paper, the Cougars look to be one of the weakest teams in the AAC, with questions at quarterback, running back and in the front seven defensively. They had a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft in cornerback D.J. Hayden and lost their best offensive player in the offseason when running back Charles Sims transferred to West Virginia for his final season of eligibility. The best NFL prospect for the 2014 draft is punter Richie Leone. But sophomore wide receiver Deontay Greenberry could end up being a big-timer -- a really big big-timer.
Top senior prospects
P Richie Leone: He is one of the best punters in the nation. Leone averaged 45.5 yards per punt last season and owns a 43-yard career average. More than 25 percent of his career punts have traveled at least 50 yards -- a third of them did so last season -- and he has dropped 31 percent of his 146 career attempts inside the 20. He also has handled kickoffs in each of his three seasons, and 35 percent of his 71 kickoffs were touchbacks last season. How good has Houston been on offense the past few seasons? Leone has 19 more kickoffs than punts.
CB Zach McMillian: McMillian (5-foot-10, 178 pounds) will be a three-year starter, and tied for the C-USA lead with five interceptions last season. McMillian has good speed. He is willing in run support but needs to add bulk. Houston's defensive scheme doesn't call for much press coverage, so that is a concern. His dad, Audray, played for eight seasons in the NFL.
OG Ty Cloud: Cloud (6-4, 314) has started every game the past two seasons and is a tough, physical player. Despite Houston's pass-heavy offense, Cloud's pass-protection skills have been inconsistent. He will be playing this fall as a graduate student -- he received a marketing degree in May.
WR Deontay Greenberry: Greenberry (6-3, 198) was a consensus national top-50 recruit in the 2012 signing class and he unexpectedly spurned Notre Dame, signing with the Cougars. Greenberry, from Fresno, Calif., began to live up to the hype -- and his immense potential -- last fall, leading all Conference USA freshmen with 47 receptions (good for 569 yards and three TDs). Greenberry has good size, speed and hands, and also is becoming better at using his size to overpower smaller corners. In short, he has the speed to be a legit deep threat and the size to be tough in the red zone.
FS Trevon Stewart: Stewart was ultra-productive as a true freshman last season, leading all freshmen nationally with 126 tackles. He lacks ideal size for a safety (5-9, 192) but doesn't appear to have the speed necessary to play corner, which was his high school position. Regardless, he has good instincts, is good in run support and had one interception and seven pass breakups last season.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 19 vs. BYU: BYU's front three on defense (the Cougars run a 3-4 set) is iffy, so Cloud and his linemates need a big performance. Greenberry will be going against a secondary that has good safeties. Will he be able to get deep?
Nov. 16 at Louisville: Louisville has the best talent in the league, and that includes the secondary, which could make things difficult for Greenberry. The Cards also have a high-powered passing attack, which means McMillian and Stewart will be on the spot against QB Teddy Bridgewater.
Nov. 23 vs. Cincinnati: The Bearcats also have a strong secondary, which could mean a tough two-week stretch for Greenberry. Cincy has an undersized front four, which means Cloud could have a good day.