ON THE FIELD

An early look: 2018 UH football preview

An early look: 2018 UH football preview
Ed Oliver is back and will be a big factor for UH. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In 2017 with first year head coach Major Applewhite at the helm, the Houston Cougars finished with a record of 7-5, which includes a tough season-ending loss to Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. Though the Cougars season did hold the same level of success experienced at the end of the Tom Herman era, fans were pleased to see UH remain competitive, and should be optimistic heading into 2018. Yes, Applewhite inherited a talented squad from Herman, but we should not overlook the fact that he led his team to a bowl game appearance in his first season as a head coach, while also doing it with an inexperienced sophomore quarterback in D’Eriq King. There seems to be a bright future for the new regime in Houston, with plenty more room to grow.

The Cougars will return in 2018 with a large collection of new faces after losing six defensive starters, and multiple key contributing playmakers on offense.

When examining the offensive side of the ball, there a few particular players who held major roles that the Cougars will have to hope they can replace. Starting in the backfield, the Cougars will return in 2018 without lead running back Duke Catalon, who finished last season with just under 700 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns. Though only a junior, Catalon left the program for personal reasons, and has left UH’s backfield with a giant hole to fill. To add to the departure of Catalon, Houston will also have to find replacements for their top two receivers in 2017, seniors Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar, who combined for a total of 1,900 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns in 2017. Each of the players provided versatile playmaking skills that the Cougars leaned on heavily. Needless to say, Coach Applewhite and the Cougars’ offense will have a serious challenge ahead of them with the loss of their three biggest offensive weapons.

Turning our attention to the defensive side of the ball, it could be argued that the Cougars will have even more work cut out for them to rebuild. Houston will have to replace six total starters in 2018 after losing multiple players from each position group, all of which were experienced seniors. Their biggest losses come in the form of senior linebackers D’juan Hines and Matthew Adams. Hines and Adams were the top two leading tacklers for the Cougars in 2017, and set the tone for Houston’s aggressive defense. Not only will UH have to worry about replacing their leading tacklers, they will also have to look to replace senior safety Terrell Williams, who was not only fourth on the team in tackles behind defensive lineman Ed Oliver, but also hauled in four interceptions.

Despite some glaring losses on each side of the ball for the Cougars, there are definite reasons to remain optimistic. Offensively, the Cougars welcome back their 2017 leader, now junior quarterback D’Eriq King. Though you cannot overlook the loss of King’s most experienced and reliable weapons, it will be easier for the Cougars to develop new talent and continue to produce offensively with King leading the huddle.

Defensively, much like on the other side of the ball, the Coogs will have to find new key players to rely on. The Cougars will at least have some sense of security in the form of junior defensive lineman Oliver, who has been a cornerstone in Houston’s defense since 2016. Houston can trust that Oliver will at least be an example for their younger and less experienced defensive starters as they learn what it takes to win on the collegiate level.

As for head coach Major Applewhite’s first recruiting class, he was able to land 11 three-star athletes. This might not sound like anything special, but for a first-year coach, Applewhite will have a collection of players with potential to build around in the near future, or in the least be able to maintain the standard of success in Houston.

In 2018, you can expect the Cougars to remain competitive once again but not all things will be pretty. Coach Applewhite will not only have to find and develop his new and inexperienced starters on both sides of the ball, but he will also have to work hard to make sure they can grasp and execute his offensive and defensive systems. Be confident in the Cougars but be patient as well. There is a lot this team will have to overcome, but I strongly believe it will be just a matter of time until Applewhite has this team back in the national spotlight.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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