UH working to put the RB back in running game
For 21/2 seasons the University of Houston could always lean on quarterback Greg Ward Jr. to make plays with his legs.
Need a couple of yards? All Ward had to do was take the snap, make a few spin moves and, suddenly, a busted play was good for 5, 7 or even 10 yards.
At the same time, Ward’s ability to create yardage on his own masked some of the deficiencies in UH’s run game.
“Our run game for the last two years has been our quarterback,” coach Major Applewhite said. “A lot of those rushing yards have been scrambles and, quite honestly, ad lib plays. So you walk away from it saying we ran for 275 yards and feel great, but then you realize 160 of it came from your quarterback on busted plays.”
With Ward gone, the Cougars have made it a focus this spring, which concludes at 2 p.m. Saturday with the annual Red-White Game at TDECU Stadium, to re-discover a productive and consistent run game.
“It’s been a big emphasis for us to take the weight of the run game off the quarterbacks,” Applewhite said, “because we don’t have that quarterback.”
In his final two full seasons, Ward accounted for 31 percent of the total rushing yards by the Cougars. He set a single-season school record for a quarterback with 1,108 yards in 2015 but was limited to 518 last season due to a lingering ankle injury.
Kyle Allen, the transfer from Texas A&M who sat out last season, is considered the frontrunner to start at quarterback in the Sept. 2 opener at UTSA. Allen is nowhere as mobile as Ward (few are) and instead will allow the Cougars to return to a more traditional passing game.
“With Greg it was more like one move and he takes off,” right guard Marcus Oliver said. “With Kyle he goes through his progressions. You have to solidify your blocks.”
The Cougars continue to sort through their backfield. Duke Catalon is again expected to carry a bulk of the load after rushing for 528, the fewest for any UH leading rusher since 1993. There is some concern about Catalon’s durability after he was limited to seven starts due to an ankle injury and concussion symptoms.
Dillon Birden, a walk-on, had a breakout season with six touchdowns.
After Catalon and Birden, the Cougars have held auditions this spring from a cast that includes Mulbah Car, Josh Burrell, Kevrin Justice and Colorado transfer Patrick Carr.
“It’s wide open right now,” Applewhite said. “We have to improve a lot at that position.”
Ideally, Applewhite said the Cougars find a rotation of 4 or 5 running backs for the entire season.
“We have to build depth at the position,” he said.
As a team, the Cougars averaged 147.1 yards per game last season, which ranked eighth in the 12-team American Athletic Conference and 99th among FBS schools. The 3.4 yards per carry average was UH’s lowest since 2004 (3.3).
An improvement along the offensive line - which returns all five starters - goes hand-and-hand with better production out of the backfield. UH dealt with inconsistency and injuries throughout last season.
“We didn’t really run the ball very well [last season],” Oliver said. “I took that to heart and have a chip on my shoulder. Right now the run game is looking good.”