O-line ready to keep King safe

Cougars have al­lowed only one sack in 2018, but chal­lenge awaits

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS - By Joseph Duarte STAFF WRITER

GREENVILLE, N.C. — D’Eriq King has been sacked just once this sea­son, and he knows who is re­spon­si­ble.

“Prob­a­bly my fault more than (the of­fen­sive line),” King, the Univer­sity of Hous­ton’s ju­nior quar­ter­back, said of the de­ci­sion to hold onto the foot­ball a lit­tle too long early in the sec­ond half of the Sept. 15 game against Texas Tech.

Through five games, the Cougars’ of­fen­sive line leads the na­tion with only one sack al­lowed in 391 plays. Told his quar­ter­back took re­spon­si­bil­ity for the only blem­ish on the ledger, se­nior cen­ter Will Noble could only smile.

“He can take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the one sack, but he’s got­ten us out more than a fair share,” Noble said.

Two of UH’s strengths — pass pro­tec­tion and run block­ing — will be tested Satur­day against East Carolina (2-3 over­all, 0-2 Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence) at Dowdy-Ficklen Sta­dium.

The Pi­rates are one of the most ag­gres­sive and blitz-happy teams the Cougars will face in AAC play. They rank in the top 10 na­tion­ally in sacks (19) and tack­les for loss (51). And while UH ranks ninth in rush­ing of­fense with an av­er­age 264.8 yards, East Carolina is giv­ing up just 110.4 per game.

“I’m pleased with the stats, the num­bers speak for them­selves,” Hous­ton coach Ma­jor Ap­ple­white said of the of­fen­sive line’s strong start. “I’m pleased with the way those guys have worked to­gether as a group. They’re de­vel­op­ing

their men­tal­ity as a group day in and day out. Hav­ing that men­tal­ity as an of­fen­sive line means that you’re only as good as your last game.

“We’re not too much into the sit there, pause, take in­ven­tory on where we are and how good we are. From the of­fen­sive line stand­point, it’s about the next op­por­tu­nity and the next chal­lenge — and this is go­ing to be a hell of a chal­lenge on the road.”

The Cougars (4-1, 1-0) en­ter the game in sole pos­ses­sion of first place in the AAC West Divi­sion, thanks largely in part to one of the most pro­lific of­fenses in the na­tion. King has been re­spon­si­ble for 25 touch­downs, hav­ing been given plenty of time to sur­vey the field be­hind a vet­eran of­fen­sive line that has com­bined for 111 ca­reer starts.

Noble has made a teamhigh 37 ca­reer starts in four years at cen­ter. Left tackle Josh Jones has 28 ca­reer starts, fol­lowed by right guard Bray­lon Jones (22) and left guard Ma­son Den­ley (17). Jar­rid Wil­liams has seven ca­reer starts at right tackle.

Af­ter hav­ing to re­place the en­tire right side of the of­fen­sive line in the off­sea­son, the Cougars have an­swered any ques­tions dur­ing the open­ing month and half of sea­son. In the off­sea­son, Bray­lon Jones shifted from left guard to right guard and Wil­liams took over at right tackle. UH has used the same five-man lineup in ev­ery game.

Go­ing back fur­ther, Noble, Wil­liams and Josh Jones were on the same re­cruit­ing visit in 2014.

“We’ve known each other for so long that I can just look over at Josh and make eye contact and give him a nod and make the call,” Noble said.

Josh Jones cred­ited the ar­rival of Randy Cle­ments, UH’s run-game co­or­di­na­tor and of­fen­sive line coach, for the im­prove­ment up front.

“We have great chem­istry on the line,” he said. “We are al­ways on the same page with our blocks and pass pro­tec­tion. We just fo­cus on tech­nique, tech­nique, tech­nique.”

Ap­ple­white added the rush­ing to­tal is in­dica­tive of how “you’re dom­i­nat­ing the line of scrim­mage,” while the low sack num­bers are a re­sult of solid pro­tec­tion and King know­ing when to get rid of the ball.

The Pi­rates em­ploy three- and four-man fronts, led by de­fen­sive end Nate Har­vey, who leads the AAC with 7.5 sacks and 14 tack­les for loss. De­fen­sive tackle Alex Turner, a Jersey Vil­lage prod­uct, has three sacks and seven tack­les for loss, while de­fen­sive end Ken­dall Futrell has three sacks.

“They have some great de­fen­sive ends who are very ath­letic,” Ap­ple­white said. “Har­vey does some great things on tape. He plays with a great mo­tor, can rush the passer and can play the run. The de­fense is much im­proved.”

A year af­ter own­ing one of the worst de­fenses in the na­tion, East Carolina has gone from 115th (497.2 yards) to 29th (340.2) — the big­gest im­prove­ment in the na­tion.

Bray­lon Jones said the Pi­rates will be a chal­lenge.

“We al­ways want to keep our quar­ter­back clean and feel com­fort­able back there,” he said.

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Hous­ton quar­ter­back D'Eriq King knows that it is what’s up front that counts — his of­fen­sive line has al­lowed only one sack in 391 plays this sea­son.

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