QB Keenum, receivers return for Cougars

HOUSTON [SPORTS BLOG: Read the latest from the Eyewitness Sports team]

About the only thing missing now is the element of surprise.

Running the same pass-happy system as Texas Tech, the Cougars averaged 563 yards and scored at least 40 points in seven of their last nine games in Kevin Sumlin's first season.

"Everybody says the second year, you're going to be better on offense," said Sumlin. "It also gives the defensive guys (on other teams) eight months to sit and watch every play that you ran last year. They'll have a better plan. They've got coaches, too."

The Cougars are still considered one of the favorites to win Conference USA after going 8-5 last season and winning a bowl game for the first time since 1980.

Quarterback Case Keenum was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 5,020 yards, second nationally to Texas Tech's Graham Harrell. Keenum is only a junior now and could be the school's second all-time passer by the end of the season.

Behind him again is Bryce Beall, who rushed for 1,247 yards in 2009, a school record for a freshman.

Keenum said the Cougars should be even more efficient this year because they've had a full offseason to master the offense. It's virtually the same scheme used by the Red Raiders because Houston's offensive coordinator is Dana Holgorsen, who worked at Texas Tech for eight seasons before joining Sumlin's staff in 2008.

Four of the top five receivers return from last year, including Tyron Carrier, who had five 100-yard receiving games and pulled in nine touchdown catches in 2008. The Cougars also added junior-college transfer James Cleveland, who was Iowa's second-leading receiver in 2007.

"I feel like I've got a really good understanding of what coach Holgorsen wants," said Keenum, who threw 44 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions last season. "Now, it's just a matter of staying on the same page with him and getting the receivers on the same page with me. I'm really excited to see what we can do."

Sumlin also nabbed two junior-college transfers -- Jarve Dean and Roy Watts -- to add depth to the offensive line. The Cougars have only two returning starters up front after losing all-conference left tackle Sebastian Vollmer and senior right tackle SirVincent Rogers.

"We've got a bunch of guys inside, but our tackles will be an issue in this offense," Sumlin said. "We've got physically talented players in there. You just have to get them to play like a nickel, instead of like five pennies."

The defensive line has only one starter back, junior defensive tackle Isaiah Thompson. All three starting linebackers return for a defense that allowed 414 yards and 31 points per game in 2008.

The Cougars play Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State in the first month of their season, a demanding schedule that will give Houston opportunities to move into the national spotlight.

"We're looking for guys who want to play in meaningful games," Sumlin said. "We'll find out who we are. I talked about maturity a lot with this team. How we handle the early part of the year is going to say a lot about what happens."

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