At a school made famous by high-flying offenses and prolific passing attacks, John O’Korn made the grade during his freshman season at the University of Houston.
O’Korn, a late-blooming but ultimately highly touted quarterback from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, chose Houston over home-state schools Central Florida and South Florida, as well as traditional power conference programs like Wisconsin, Mississippi and Louisville, to play for second-year head coach Tony Levine.
After taking over for the concussion-plagued David Piland last season, O’Korn helped lead the Cougars to a winning season and a bowl game appearance. Houston finished 8-5 in 2013 after suffering a 41-24 loss to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Expected by most to limp near .500 for the season, the Cougars rode O’Korn’s long-range passing ability, the playmaking capabilities of superstar wide receiver Deontay Greenberry and an absurdly larcenous defense to finish 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference.
Houston lost all four regular-season games by a total of 20 points, including heart-wrenching defeats against BYU (47-46) and eventual conference champion Central Florida (19-14), in which Houston had possession of the ball in the waning moments of the game. Improved play at quarterback should help the team turn close losses into wins.
O’Korn told the Houston Chronicle’s Joseph Duarte that he’s miles ahead of where he was last year, something Cougar fans are anxious to see play out over the course of the new season:
This point last year, I didn't really know any of the plays. I had never stepped foot on the field in a college game. Just really the experience that came from last year is something that will carry me through this year and the rest of my career here.
According to Duarte, Houston’s offensive coordinator, Travis Bush, concurs.
"He doesn't walk around here like a high school kid anymore,” said Bush. “He looks like a college quarterback and acts like a college quarterback. You can see the confidence."
O’Korn wasn’t your typical true freshman quarterback. The strong-armed athlete did not come into the college game with a myriad of experience as a starting quarterback. In fact, Levine offered O’Korn a scholarship before he started a game at Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas.
Still, he managed to earn the AAC’s Rookie of the Year award. He passed for 28 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards playing on mostly talent and gumption.
O’Korn told the Orlando Sentinel’s Matt Murschel that he expected to be an improved quarterback this season in almost every way:
I really don’t think I can pick out one thing. There’s just so many different things. Going into the season, I really didn’t know a whole lot. I just went out there and played and just learned as I played. I made a lot of mistakes, but when the same situations came around, I felt like I improved and I didn’t make the same mistakes. Really, I couldn’t pick out one thing, there is so much I learned and I learn now from going back and watching the film. … I just feel like I’m getting better every day.
Houston returns 19 starters this season, and it isn’t hard to imagine O’Korn leading one of the most prolific offenses in the country. Greenberry, a talented receiver, averaged over 100 yards per game, while Daniel Spencer, Markeith Ambles and Greg Ward should provide O’Korn with other ways to move the ball down the field.
The Cougars also return their top two rushers from last season, running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow. The shifty Jackson was the Cougars' fourth leading receiver last year and Farrow averaged almost 5 yards per carry.
O’Korn told Duarte that he hopes to move the ball down the field faster and spread it around more:
I think you're going to see a lot faster, up-tempo offense where we spread the ball around more. We have so many weapons; it's just really ridiculous how many good players we have on this team and how many different things we can do. It definitely makes my job easier.
Meanwhile, Houston’s defense should help keep the Coogs in contention, even if the offense stalls at times. Houston returns 10 starters from a defense that led the nation in creating turnovers last season.
The Cougars are a dark-horse candidate to win the conference behind Cincinnati and returning champion Central Florida, according to the AAC preseason media poll. But with O’Korn a year older, the Cougars’ revved-up offense might just take them all the way to the top spot.