As the University of Houston Cougars prepare for the upcoming 2018 season there is a buzz of optimism about how good this year’s team can be. Heading into his second season as head coach at UH, Major Applewhite is anxious to build on 7-5 record and a disappointing bowl game loss in 2017.

The 2018 Cougars are loaded with talented young playmakers on both sides of the ball. Applewhite, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, will be tasked to quickly develop them.

“Obviously, you are judged by your win-loss column, and ultimately, that is what matters,” Applewhite said. “But improvement [is key]. That’s why the whole theme in terms of fall camp is development. We want to develop as a team and, at some point, we will turn our focus to our first opponent.”

The Cougars’ foundation for success is built on junior defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a two-time All-American and 2017 Outland Trophy winner. The former Westfield standout has already attracted the attention of the national media. He was named the top player in the nation by ESPN. He also will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. Despite the accolades Oliver remains focused on one thing, making the Cougars a winner.

“The city deserves it, the school deserves it,” Oliver said. “That’s definitely something that is high on my list above all any personal goals, and whatever follows, follows. We had that type of success when I was a freshman. I want that type of success again this year.”

Oliver announced this spring that this would be his final season at UH and he is entering the 2019 NFL draft. He explained why he decided to announce his intention so early.

“I did it more so for the team than me,” he said. “Eliminate distractions so we can focus on games, not on me.”

Any line that features Oliver will be a team strength. The Cougars see both their defensive and offensive lines as pluses on this year’s team.

“The experience upfront on the offensive and defensive line if you pinpointed it would be where our strength is,” Applewhite said. “We have had a lot of guys play on the offensive line that are on our roster and a lot of guys on the defensive side that have played a lot on our defensive line. That is where our experience is.”

Expect to see a marked improvement in the Cougars’ offense this season. Briles, one of college football’s great young offensive minds, has been brought in to coordinate the offense.

Former Manvel standout D’Eriq King will start the year at quarterback as opposed to being moved there from his receiver position in the middle of 2017. King is a talented dual threat signal caller who reminds everyone of former Cougar All Conference QB Greg Ward Jr.

Applewhite knew he had something special in King when he moved him to quarterback in the game against No. 17-ranked South Florida last October. The Cougars pulled off an upset win, 28-24.

“Quarterbacks in general have to be tough, they have to be great leaders and they have to be competitive,” Applewhite said. “You have to have those three characteristics no matter how fast you are or how well you can throw the ball.

“If you are tough, a leader and competitive, people can get behind you. You saw that when [King] came in the game at USF. He’s got the respect of our team. They know he is a tough competitor, and they know he is a leader.”

King will have to develop a talented, yet largely inexperienced receiver group in order for the Cougars’ passing attack to soar. Courtney Lark and Keith Corbin return from the 2017 squad. They’ll be joined by Marquez Stevenson, Ja’Kori Morgan, Jeremy Singleton, Julon Williams and Parker Eichenberger.

The Cougars are also largely unproven at running back as well. Expect Baylor transfer Terence Williams, Mulbah Car, Patrick Carr and Kevrin Justice to all compete for carries.

On the defensive side of the ball Jerard Carter, Payton Turner and Isaiah Chamber will have opportunities to make plays on the D-line playing beside Oliver, who demands a double team.

The linebacking group is strong featuring Leroy Godfrey, Emeke Egbule, Austin Robinson, Danny Anenih and Miami transfer Darrion Owens.

The secondary is loaded with big-time talent and could the best unit in the conference. Former Manvel star Deontay Anderson, an All SEC freshman team performer at safety, has transferred from Ole Miss and should make an immediate impact. Anderson will team with All Conference senior Garret Davis.

Joeal Williams, Isaiah Johnson, Alexander Myres and Notre Dame graduate transfer Nick Watkins will all contribute at cornerback.