Football: Coogs not satisfied with 2010
By most standards, Cinco Ranch enjoyed a pretty successful season last year.
They won at least 10 games for the fourth time in the last five years and at least one playoff game for the third consecutive season.
But that's not good enough for longtime Cougars coach Don Clayton.
"Sometimes it's deceiving," Clayton said.
"We were 10-2 but felt like the two games we lost we were not as competitive as we've been in the past several years and didn't play to the standard that we've established."
Clayton's biggest disappointment stems from the fact that his team fell far short of its first final four appearance in 2009, when they lost 42-27 to Austin Westlake in the Class 5A Division I semis.
Instead, they fell 54-28 to Cypress Creek in the second round. Their only other loss was to Katy.
Now, after a mass exodus of experience, the Cougars face the difficult task of upholding a reputation, carefully crafted in the 11 years since their first varsity season, as one of the Houston area's elite.
"Probably more than any time recently, the last four or five years, we've got a number of unanswered questions," Clayton said.
Fortunately for the Cougars, they have one of the most well-respected coaches in the state to show the way, and he's newly energized after coaching in the 77th THSCA All-Star game in July.
The Cougars graduated 17 starters and 51 lettermen, including star running back K.C. Nlemchi (SMU) and offensive linemen Andy Ellis (Yale), Tyler Knowles (Nichols State) and Kevin O'Brien (Incarnate Word).
They also lost their quarterback and most of their defensive line, leaving behind a vast lack of experience in key areas.
Junior Cole Thomas, a safety last year, and senior Jack Steed, the team's standout punter, were the top candidates to inherit the reins under center in the spring, but neither distinguished himself.
Sophomore Luke Klingler since has entered the mix. All three saw time during summer 7-on-7, and the competition still is wide-open entering the season.
"It could be one of the three or it could be all three at various times," Clayton said.
"We don't know."
Clayton does know who his new lead tailback is – junior Jamel James.
Everybody knows that.
James exploded on the scene as a sophomore, racking up more than 1,200 rushing yards with 17 touchdowns while backing up Nlemchi.
What people may not know is that Clayton thinks James hasn't begun to fulfill his potential.
"We want him to really assert himself this year," Clayton said.
"He's a good-sized kid, and he has a chance to be real physical, so we want him to step up and be that kind of guy, who earns the reputation that others don't want to tackle him."
Defensively, safety Russell Cuellar and outside linebacker Ayodele Ilesanmi are the key returners. They accounted for 229 tackles and three interceptions last season, and should only improve.
With 27 starts under his belt, Cuellar's the most experienced player on the team — by far.
"We've got to count on his experience, being able to assist a lot of guys who haven't been starters, or even been on the varsity level yet," Clayton said. "He's got to help those guys grow up and step up."
To get faster on defense, Clayton moved linebackers Drew Wolan and Josh Firth to defensive end in the spring.
The Cougars are most stable on special teams, where Steed, who will punt regardless of whether or not he's the starting quarterback, and place kicker Jacob Farmen provide a steadying presence.
Both seniors will have to play well in the opener against Klein Forest, which has Matt Davis back in the lineup for the first time since a season-opening ACL injury against Cinco Ranch last year.
The Golden Eagles may very well have won that game if their Texas A&M-bound QB hadn't been hurt.
"If I was on their side I'd be saying the same thing because when he left the game, right at halftime, it was 21-21, and then it ended up 42-21," Clayton said.
"So obviously without him in there on offense they weren't the same."