2011 Houston Preview – Defense
Houston LB Marcus McGraw
Houston LB Marcus McGraw
Posted Jun 3, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Houston Cougar Defense

Houston Cougars

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Attack. That's the mantra of the Houston defense, which lives by it, yet also dies by it more than the coaching staff can tolerate. The Cougars made a successful switch to the 3-4 last year, employing more of their athletic linebackers. While the move worked on some levels, as the team racked up plays for minus yards, it remained vulnerable to both the pass and the run. Houston got plowed for more than 200 yards a game on the ground and was spotty when the ball was in the air. Now, it must attempt to rebuild with a defensive backfield that could have four new starters and three players with no reps at this level. The foundation will be erected on a corps of underrated linebackers that could produce three all-stars, Marcus McGraw, Sammy Brown, and Phillip Steward.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Marcus McGraw, 110
Sacks: Sammy Brown, 7.5
Interceptions: Phillip Steward, Kent Brooks, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Marcus McGraw
Player who has to step up and become a star: Juniors CBs Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Efrem Oliphant
Best pro prospect: Senior LB Sammy Brown
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McGraw, 2) Brown, 3) Senior DE David Hunter Robinson
Strength of the defense: Team speed, linebackers, backfield pressure
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, rebuilt secondary, third down defense, red zone D

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: For the second straight year, Houston will be employing a 3-4 defense, which means less pressure to fill out the two-deep with capable linemen. Last season's unit returns virtually intact, though Matangi Tonga leaves a gap at nose guard. Objective No. 1 will be to have more of an impact on the run defense, which happened too infrequently last season.

If the Cougars are going to produce an all-star defensive lineman, it'll probably be 6-2, 295-pound senior DE David Hunter, a former tackle with the size to play both spots. A disruptive player who'll get underneath his man and into the opposing backfield, he led all linemen with 51 tackles, eight stops for loss, and 2.5 sacks. Always active and rarely far from the ball, he leads by example up front.

The battle to join Hunter at defensive end is between 6-2, 256-pound junior Kelvin King and 6-4, 250-pound redshirt freshman Eric Braswell . Mostly a linebacker in 2010, King has the edge in experience, starting seven games and making 36 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, and four sacks a year ago. He's quick off the snap and gets a good lean around the edge. Braswell, however, isn't backing down. He grew up quickly in the spring, showing an ability to make plays in the backfield. The Cougars will also get veteran depth from 6-2, 282-pound junior Ameen Behbehanni , who chipped in 17 tackles, and 6-4, 270-pound sophomore Zeke Riser , a starter in 2009 who missed 2010 with a knee injury.

At the nose, Houston will lean on 6-1, 293-pound junior Tyrone Campbell , an eight-game starter in 2010. He's strong in the lower body and plays with good leverage, making 22 tackles and a pair of stops for loss. Fair or not, he'll be asked to do a lot more to plug running lanes this fall.

Watch Out For .... the health of Riser and 6-4, 255-pound junior DE Radermon Scypion . Both players have the potential to bolster depth and provide competition on the outside. First, however, they need to show that they're physically ready to handle the rigors up front.
Strength: Depth at end. The Cougar coaching staff will have few problems filling out the rotation and making sure everyone has fresh legs in 2011. With two starting jobs to fill, Houston has three players with starting experience and a half-dozen who've earned letters for the program.
Weakness: Stopping the run. Not just an issue, it might be the biggest headache the program faces this season. After ranking 114th nationally versus the run and yielding 4.7 yards a carry, the Cougars need to find a way to keep opposing backs from skating out to the second level of the D.
Outlook: While Houston has experience up front and a decent collection of talent, no one jumps out as a sure-fire next-level lineman or even a can't-miss all-star. Unfortunately for the Cougars, this is a pedestrian, blue-collar group that'll continue to struggle to stop the run and pressure the passer.
Rating: 5


State of the Unit: Houston wants as many linebackers on the field at once, and who can blame the school? The program has a nice lot of talented defenders here, including four who started at least three games in 2010 and last year's top three tacklers. Very fast and very active, they'll be asked to roam the field and make their presence felt as much as is physically possible.

Back for a final year on the inside is second team All-Conference USA tackling machine Marcus McGraw . A 6-0, 225-pound senior, he plays like a heat-seeking missile in run defense, racking up a team-high 110 stops, seven tackles for loss, and three fumble recoveries. Although he lacks prototypical size for the position, his range and instincts ensure that he's never too far from the ball.

At weakside, last season's breakout star was 6-3, 240-pound senior Sammy Brown , a revelation in his debut out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Playing with the blend of size, speed, and intensity, he did a little bit of everything for Houston, making 76 tackles, 20 stops behind the line, and 7.5 sacks. Big enough to fill running lanes, his closing speed made him a natural on the blitz.

Rounding out the outside at strongside is 6-2, 220-pound junior Phillip Steward , who lurked in the shadows of McGraw and Brown in 2010. He plays with excellent lateral quickness, tracking down ballcarriers and defending the pass like a safety. Second on the team with 84 tackles, he added nine stops for loss, two picks, and a team-high seven pass breakups.

Sophomore Efrem Oliphant may have the smallest profile of the group, but his future is very bright. Despite starting only three games as a rookie, he still finished fifth on the team with 66 tackles and made 3.5 stops for loss. On the outside, both George Bamfo and Austin Wilson earned letters on defense and special teams last year. Bamfo had one start and 12 tackles, flashing blazing speed and exciting athleticism.

Watch Out For .... Brown to begin getting the recognition he deserves. Okay, so maybe Conference USA voters got caught off guard, but not even honorable mention? The newcomer was a beast on the outside, wreaking havoc and showing that the jump from the JUCOs was merely another step in his career path.
Strength: Range. If the move to a 3-4 was designed to get more playmakers on the field, then mission accomplished. First and foremost, the Cougar linebackers are athletes, getting off the snap quickly, diagnosing, and zeroing in on the man with the ball.
Weakness: Size. With agility, at times, comes a sacrifice. Brown aside, the Houston linebackers look more like safeties coming off the bus. Yeah, they'll play with reckless abandon, but they'll also get trucked occasionally by physical backs, as evidenced by last year's dismal results against the run.
Outlook: Although they'll make mistakes and wilt at times against the run, the linebackers are the strongest unit on this defense. A collection of playmakers, they'll swarm on opposing teams, getting to the ball in a hurry, and creating chances for the offense. With McGraw, Brown, and Steward setting the tone, the Cougars are going to be an opportunistic D.
Rating: 7


State of the Unit: Uh-oh. Houston might miss the days when it was merely bad against the pass. From a maligned unit that yielded 10 touchdown passes over the final four games, nearly every starter has departed. If the Cougars have any chance of holding up in a league loaded with pass-happy attacks, they'll need multiple unproven players to play above their pay scale.

At least in the spring, the closest thing to an experienced player was 5-11, 205-pound sophomore Kent Brooks , who started one game as a true freshman, making 36 tackles and two picks. The favorite at free safety, he's a big hitter with good instincts. At strong safety, the nod could go to 5-10, 190-pound sophomore Colton Valencia , a transfer from Texas A&M. Although undersized for the position, he plays bigger than his size and with a ton of energy. Behind Valencia is 6-0, 185-pound sophomore D.J. Jones , who earned a letter by appearing in nine games and making five tackles.

There's a very good chance that the Cougars will start a pair of junior college transfers at cornerback this year. Juniors Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden played well in their first year out of Navarro (Tex.) Junior College. Both have good size, Bennett at 6-1 and 190 pounds and Hayden at 6-0 and 185 pounds, and will benefit from having played with each other in the past. Junior Jeffery Lewis brings two letters of experience, making 13 tackles a year ago. He's only 5-9 and 185 pounds, but is a good athlete, and is the rare veteran of this group.

Watch Out For .... the return of 6-1, 190-pound senior FS Nick Saenz , who's working his way back from offseason surgery. He didn't play in the spring and is listed as a backup to Brooks, but brings much-needed leadership and experience to the unit. A vicious tackler in the open field, he had 72 tackles and started all but one game in 2010.
Strength: Tackling. If you're going to play defensive back on this team, you better know how to fill the lanes, lower your shoulders, and wrap up in the open field. The Cougar safeties and cornerbacks do, giving the defense a bunch of active defenders inching up from the last line of defense.
Weakness: Proven pass defenders. Maybe Bennett and Hayden are this year's version of LB Sammy Brown, who excelled in his first year out of junior college. Or maybe they'll need a full year to adjust to a better level of competition. The fact is that the staff won't know that verdict until after the season has started.
Outlook: Hey, you never know how newcomers are going to perform until the games actually begin, but there's genuine cause for trepidation in the Cougar secondary. The pass defense has been a weak link for years, and now the defensive backfield might be breaking in four new starters, three with zero experience at this level. It'll almost certainly improve as the season progresses, but September will feature a steep learning curve.
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Special teams units rarely get the pub they deserve, but that won't stop head coach Kevin Sumlin from making his a priority once again this season. The Cougars welcome back last year's punter, placekicker, long snapper, holder, and primary return men, giving the program the ingredients of another fantastic group.

Junior Matt Hogan is back for his third year as the placekicker. Largely used on extra points in this high-powered program, he's been accurate on those rare three-point chances. At his best in close range, he was 14-of-17 a year ago, including 13-of-13 inside 40 yards. Last season's pleasant surprise was provided by P Richie Leone, who displayed excellent leg strength in his first year out of high school. He averaged 41.4 yards on punts and a healthy 64.5 yards on kickoffs. Senior Jordan Mannisto provides veteran depth for both kickers.

Watch Out For… more blocked kicks. Houston has had an incredible 16 of them since Sumlin was hired three years ago, a statistical indication of how much time goes into special teams. Whether it's punts, field goals, or extra points, the Cougars have shown a penchant for redirecting kicks.
Strength: The return game. With Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards back for one final year, Houston has access to a pair of speedsters in the return game. Each took one back for a touchdown in 2010, Carrier on a kickoff and Edwards on a punt, forcing opponents to rethink how they manage the Cougar playmakers.
Weakness: The coverage teams. It was the one area of this unit that slipped a year ago, ranking 104th on punt coverage and 83rd on kickoffs. For Sumlin & Co., those are unacceptable figures that'll need to be addressed during the offseason.
Outlook: Naturally, the passing game gets most of the attention in Houston, but the staff has quietly manufactured a perennially solid special teams unit. Both kickers are consistent, the return men are dynamic, and there are enough quality athletes to expect a turnaround from the coverage teams.
Rating: 8

- 2011 Houston Preview | 2011 Houston Offense
- 2011 Houston Defense | 2011 Houston Depth Chart
- Houston Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006