East Texas College Football Camp Series: New-Look Houston Checks Out Local Talent
KILGORE -- Tom Herman could be seen prior to the University of Houston's satellite football camp at Kilgore High School fiddling the volume knob and playing some air saxophone along with Michael Jackson's lyrics.
Fresh off a national championship game win as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State and now giving off signs his new program is a sleeping giant, the Cougars' brand new head coach definitely felt good Thursday.
"At first it was like trying to take a sip of water out of a fire hose," Herman said. "But I tell people that is slows down a millisecond every day. I've got a great staff. Great coaches and a great support staff that help every day. So it's nice to kind of focus my attention on getting our kids better and competing in the fall."
Houston seems to have found its stride under the title winner. Just last month, it landed a consensus five-star defensive tackle.
And the program was not entirely broken when Herman took control. It went 7-5 last year under Tony Levine through the regular season and went on to win the Armed Forces Bowl after the school's administration opted to fire the former coach.
No player better highlights what Houston already has in the tank than former John Tyler quarterback Greg Ward Jr. He started 12 games last season as a sophomore, passing for more than 2,000 yards and adding another 573 on the ground.
With that partially in mind, Houston visited Ward's old stomping grounds. Abilene Christian University and Division II school Northeastern State from Oklahoma also had assistant coaches aiding the primary staff.
"I think it's important any time you're new as a staff, as we are, to get around these kids and expose them to our way of coaching and really just the U of H brand," Herman said. "And it's a good way for these kids to get coached by some of the best coaches in the country and for us to evaluate some of their talents."
The Cougars enjoyed the best quarterback turnout of any college satellite camp within East Texas. They also managed to draw out some players that, for better or worse, have been selective on which camps they will attend.
In turn, Houston provided some new attractions.
Former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite serves as the team's offensive coordinator. Todd Orlando helped Utah State garner national respect on the defensive side of the ball as a coordinator.
And Herman is the guy that oversaw a three-quarterback carousel last season at Ohio State en route to the championship.
"Everybody wants to be affiliated with a winner and he went to the highest point that you go in college football," Applewhite said. "He won a national championship. People want to know that blueprint. They want to be a part of that program. They want to learn what makes that tick. That has definitely helped us in terms of moving forward."
It didn't take long for Herman to pick up on what he has off-the-field either.
"We're one of only three public institutions in the State of Texas that has Tier 1 status academically from the Carnegie Foundation," Herman said. "Our academics are lightyears ahead of where they were just 10 years ago. Our entrepreneurship program is No. 1 in the country. Hotel and restaurant management is No. 2 in the country. Pharmacy is No. 4. Kinesiology is No. 7. Our business school is top 25 in the country.
"You're going get an unbelievable degree in the most economically stable city in America. It is also the No. 1 job producing city in America. So when you graduate from the University of Houston, my mission is to expose you to all these different people, companies and organizations to where whenever the cheering stops -- whether that's your time at U of H, two years in the NFL, 15 years in the NFL -- when you come back to Houston you're going to have to turn down job offers because they're going to be thrown at you."
Greg Ward Needs To Gain Some Weight
Tom Herman is very optimistic about Greg Ward Jr.'s future as a quarterback at Houston, but the signal caller is going to have to supplement on-field development with dietician help.
The head coach is not satisfied with Ward's physical stature.
"This is kind of his home turf up here, so I'll put my dig in on him a little bit," Herman said. "Greg needs to gain some weight. 'Momma Ward, Greg needs to gain some weight!' He's 169 pounds and I think that although he is very elusive and a tremendous athlete that he's not going to be able to survive a 14-game season at that body weight. We're doing everything we can to get him beefed up and put some meat on his bones.
"But the neat thing about Greg is he's a tremendous kid, really good leader and hard worker. Then I think a lot of people discount how good of a thrower he is. He's a very, very more-than-capable thrower. I think some of his issues last year simply stem from not knowing what he was doing. He kind of dropped back, saw if one guy was open and then would take off and run. He got a lot better this spring of reading defenses and knowing where his guys were going to be."
Herman won't commit to Ward starting this season.
He's in contention with senior Utah transfer Adam Schulz for the job.
"They'll battle it out in training camp," the coach said. "Whoever has the better training camp and whoever we trust most with the team -- that can lead us to a championship -- will get the nod for our first game."
Great Day For Quarterbacks
Back in Kilgore, the quarterback position was an especially fun group to watch.
It's going to be hard for local signal callers to land a spot on Houston's roster, especially considering the opportunity to work with Tom Herman and Major Applewhite, but the players in attendance were a model of consistency.
Noah Hildebrand and Christopher Wilhelmi, juniors and the new presumptive starters at Nacogdoches and Tyler Grace, respectively, had consistently good performances. Marshall senior Justin Hart and Chapel Hill senior Konnor Hitchcock's outings also were noticeable.
If nothing else, spectators had to step back and admire what the region is producing in sheer high school talent at the position.
"The talent was a little bit better than most of the camps I've been to this summer," Hitchock said. "I think that's mainly because of this type of offense. It attracts better throwers and more quarterbacks usually want to be in an offense where you throw the ball around a lot. I think that's part of the reason there was more talent at this camp."
Hitchcock was the sixth-leading junior passer last season in Chapel Hill's multi-faceted offense. He threw for more than 2,000 yards in his team's run to the area round of the Class 4A Division I playoffs, a loss to ultimate champion Navasota.
Still, he knows what he's up against.
"I just go to as many camps as I can," Hitchcock said. "Just getting my name out there so they'll know who to watch. They will watch you. There's a lot of quarterbacks, but you make yourself stand out at the camps and they'll watch you a little more during the season."
Hitchock added he currently has interest from a Division III school.
"I'm just trying to get my name out here," he said. "And the practice aspect. Get better so I can be good during the season."
A handful of John Tyler players are hoping to follow in Greg Ward Jr.'s footsteps. Senior defensive tackle Braylon Jones already has a scholarship opportunity with the Cougars and worked out in Kilgore.
Teammate and defensive end Pierre Leonard, a Southern University scholarship holder, was another Lion who drew praise from the coaching staff. But at 5-foot-8 and 247 pounds, he knows it's going to be an uphill battle toward National Signing Day.
"Everybody knows I'm a shorter defensive lineman," Leonard said. "I'm trying to prove I can hang with the big boys and that I'm better than the big boys. The camp was great. We had great coaches not only from the University of Houston but also Abilene Christian University. These guys gave us some great techniques that we can take back to our high schools and help other players learn."
On the high school level, Leonard is in that first breath when discussing East Texas' best defensive linemen.
He recorded 91 tackles last season, including 15 for loss and six sacks, on John Tyler's Class 5A Division I state semifinalist team. He also forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, blocked a punt and accounted for 65 offensive all-purpose yards.
"Normally I do get good feedback from coaches on my technical ability and speed," Leonard said. "They told me to just keep getting better. That's what everyone should do. I'm working on getting bigger, faster and stronger. Lifting weights. I already squat 600 pounds, I bench 350 pounds. I run a 4.8 40. Whatever colleges want me to do, I'm willing to do."
John Tyler has suffered major graduation losses from last season, but there's a lot of optimism internally that the team will be in contention late yet again this year.
"I love seeing my teammates come out to a camp," Leonard said. "We all worked hard and proved to ourselves that we're a team to be reckoned with. Everyone thinks that because we lost Jeremy Wilson and Geo McCollister and some star players like Ike Warren and Jaylon Reese that we're not going to be that much this season.
"But we're aiming to let people know we're out to take state this season."
Hughes Makes Camp Debut
Bullard linebacker and receiver Mikah Hughes had a lot of schools that wanted him to come out of their summer camps.
Hughes, however, figured taking all the trips and paying the participation fees would be economically unfeasible when weighted against his college upside. He currently has offers from FCS schools Houston Baptist, Bucknell and Liberty as well as Northeastern State from the Division II sphere.
"I've seen interest pick up a little bit with bigger schools," Hughes said, "but not enough to get to the offer point."
The Houston camp was one of few that got his attention. He worked out as an outside linebacker.
"Houston came down to our school and told us they wanted a few of the Bullard players to come to the camp," Hughes said. "Then I heard that Abilene Christian University, who has had some contact with me, and NSU, who has offered me, were coming down too. I thought it would be great to come down here and let them see me and get to know them a little better."
Hughes (6-1, 197) stood out like a man among boys from the physical standpoint.
He also was one of the event's top performers against running backs in one-on-one drills.
"I think I add a really good edge aspect," Hughes said. "With my height, I'm able to set a big edge and also set the edge for a pass rush. Getting around the quarterback and making him feel unsettled. I liked the coaching I received today. When you made a good play, they were the first ones to congratulate you. As soon as you made a bad play, they were the first ones on you."
Bullard is another team to keep an eye on this season.
It returns 15 starters from a Class 4A Division II bi-district playoff appearance last season and currently has two college prospects.
"I think Bullard is going to be a lot better," Hughes said. "We have a FBS tight end (Major Tennison). He might be one of the top 10 tight ends in the nation. We have a great offensive line. We have a great middle linebacker and we've got me. Our safeties are going to impress as well. I think we're coming together as a team this year."