Houston spring game: Three things to watch

After an impressive 13-1 debut season, Tom Herman looks to take Houston even higher in 2016. The Cougars wrap up their second spring under Herman on Saturday with their annual Red and White game.

Here are three things to keep an eye on regarding the Cougars:

1. Duke Catalon: The sophomore running back has made a strong impression in the Cougars’ spring practices. He sat out last season after transferring from Texas but stood out on the scout team and has impressed the Cougars' coaching staff this spring, earning Herman’s “dude of the day” honor three times. An ESPN 300 recruit in the 2014 class, there’s no questioning his ability -- his blend of size, speed, physicality and open-field ability makes him the likely candidate to start in the backfield this season, succeeding multi-year starter Kenneth Farrow. It’s also a position of need for the Cougars, who lost every scholarship back from 2015 and are waiting for incoming recruits to arrive in the summer to add depth. Herman and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite’s offense needs a consistent, productive running game to succeed, so look for Catalon to get some touches Saturday and give spectators a taste of what to expect in the fall.

2. New pieces on defense: While the Cougars return five players who started double-digit games, some of the players they lost were leaders, multi-year starters who were very much the heart and soul of UH’s recent defenses: safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart, linebacker Elandon Roberts and cornerback William Jackson III. Replacing those types of players isn’t easy, but defensive coordinator Todd Orlando feels good about the talent he has – the experience will have to come in time. Junior linebacker Matthew Adams, who is succeeding Roberts at middle linebacker, has had an impressive spring and the Cougars are comfortable with their options at safety, led by sophomore Garrett Davis, junior Khalil Williams and junior college transfers J.J. Dallas and Terrell Williams. There is some experience at corner, led by nickel Brandon Wilson. Howard Wilson and Jeremy Winchester, the two projected starting outside corners, have at least some starting experience, albeit minimal (a combined five games), to build on. As for filling the leadership void, numerous coaches cited senior defensive end Cameron Malveaux as a player who is emerging into that role on defense.

3. Quarterbacks: The Cougars have one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country in Greg Ward Jr., and after a breakout junior season, an even stronger senior season is expected. Since coaches prefer you don’t tackle the quarterback in practices -- or spring games -- the focus Saturday won’t be on Ward’s running but on his passing, and improvement from the pocket is among the things he has worked on this spring. Candidates to become Ward's 2017 successor are also worth watching Saturday. They include: backup Kyle Postma, who led the Cougars to a 20-point comeback win over Memphis last season and is a junior this season, Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen will probably get at least a little bit of work (he must sit out this fall per NCAA transfer rules), and true freshman and early enrollee Bowman Sells should get some snaps. The Cougars get even deeper at the position this summer when ESPN 300 prospect D’Eriq King enrolls.