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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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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