2012 Houston Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Houston Cougar Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Unfortunately for the program, the wholesale changes taking place in Houston will not be relegated to the offense. The D is taking some hits as well, losing both of its all-conference linebackers, Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw. With that in mind, now is as good a time as any to transition back to a 4-3 alignment under first-year coordinator Jamie Bryant. The linebackers actually won't be as hamstrung as most would assume. Starters Derrick Mathews and Phillip Steward would have earned a lot more recognition in 2011 had they not shared the same locker room with Brown and McGraw. Plus, the defensive backfield could be a very pleasant surprise this fall to people who are unaware its exploits. Three starters are back from the crew that was responsible for a No. 12 national ranking in pass efficiency defense. CB D.J. Hayden was the Conference USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year in his first season out of Navarro (Tex.) College. The key for the Cougs will be to build up the new four-man front as quickly as possible. If they fail in this pursuit, the run defense will continue to get trucked on the ground by the opposition. Tackles Dominic Miller and Eric Braswell, and ends Kelvin King and Zeke Riser will bring much-needed starting experience to the front wall.
Star of the defense: Senior CB D.J. Hayden
Tackles: Derrick Mathews, 106
Sacks: Lloyd Allen, 3.5
Interceptions: Phillip Steward, 6
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Zeke Riser
Unsung star on the rise: Junior S Kent Brooks
Best pro prospect: Hayden
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hayden, 2) Senior LB Phillip Steward, 3) Sophomore LB Derrick Mathews
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, pass defense, team speed, takeaways
Weakness of the defense: D-line pressure, run defense
After previously employing a three-man front, Houston has made the switch back to a 4-3, meaning greater depth will be needed up front. Nose tackle Dominic Miller is back to assume the role he played in every game last season. In his debut out of Blinn (Tex.) College, the 6-3, 301-pounder provided a steady force in the middle of the line for the run D, chipping in with 25 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss and a half-sack.
After starting all but three games at defensive end a year ago, sophomore Eric Braswell is being shifted to defensive tackle. While only 6-2 and 250 pounds, he plays bigger than his size, and gives the Cougars someone who can shoot the gap against heavy-legged blockers. As a rookie in 2011, he led all Houston linemen with 47 tackles, including 3.5 stops for minus yards and a couple of passes defended.
Challenging Braswell for playing time will be senior Radermon Scypion , one of the top performers of the spring. Another one-time end, the 6-4, 275-pounder brings more size and girth to the inside than his competitors. Hampered by injuries a year ago, he was limited to five stops in seven games, but appears capable of so much more in his finale.
DE Zeke Riser will be looking recapture his 2009 form, when he was named to the league's all-freshman squad. The 6-4, 270-pound junior missed all of 2010 with a knee injury, and had a quiet 17 tackles as a four-game starter in 2011. The hope is that he can become the kind of strongside end that stiffens versus the run, yet can also pressure the quarterback occasionally.
One of the team's veterans on the outside will be 6-2, 256-pound senior Kelvin King , who has appeared in 38 games and started 10 during his career. A versatile and athletic defender, with experience at linebacker, he contributed 26 stops, four tackles for loss and a couple of sacks in 2011.
A similar player to King is 6-4, 240-pound senior Lloyd Allen , a second-year transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. In his debut with the Cougars, he showed plenty of potential by collecting 23 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks. More of a situational pass rusher than an every-down player, he's capable of providing a jolt of energy from the bench.
Watch Out For .... redshirt freshman Desmond Pulliam to begin making a name for himself in September. The 6-0, 245-pounder was one of the spring standouts, routinely using his get-off and leverage to zip around the edge for a sack.
Strength: Inside experience. By moving Braswell inside, the Cougars now have a pair of returning starters at the tackle positions. Plus, Scypion is a proven veteran playing well in the offseason, and sophomore Joey Mbu is a 6-3, 320-pound force who earned his first letter last season.
Weakness: Getting to the quarterback. While Houston produced a respectable number of sacks last season, most of them came from graduated LB Sammy Brown. Can the Cougars make things happen without blitzing and without Brown on the field? The ends are a marginal group that won't exactly keep opposing offensive coordinators up late at night.
Outlook: The Houston D-line looks to be no better than average up front as the season approaches. No single player stands out as a slam-dunk all-star or is the kind of player who'll live in opposing backfields. The Cougars have decent size and experience in the trenches, which will support the run D, but generating pressure will be a collaborative effort that requires help from the linebackers and the safeties.
With the move to a 4-3, Houston will have slightly less pressure on it to fill the holes left by the graduations of all-stars Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw. The promising news is that two starters do return, including 6-2, 230-pound Phillip Steward at strongside. The junior has been a fixture in the lineup for the past three seasons, making 77 stops, eight tackles for loss and a team-high six interceptions. He's athletic, plays with great range and has the coverage skills to blanket wide receivers, allowing him to be such an important factor in pass defense.
At weakside, the Cougars will once again turn to 6-0, 200-pound Derrick Mathews who enjoyed an auspicious debut with the program. The linebacker in a safety's body recorded 106 tackles, 10 stops for loss, two forced fumbles and three interceptions; all this despite learning on the fly, and essentially leaning solely on his physical gifts. With another offseason to hone his game, Mathews might be even more effective in his second year in the lineup.
The biggest question for the Cougars linebackers centers around the identity of the middle linebacker, McGraw's old stomping grounds. Senior Everett Daniels appears to have risen into the lead with a solid spring session. In his first year out of Trinity Valley (Tex.) Community College, he set the table by making 38 tackles and 3.5 stops for loss. The 6-0, 210-pounder has shown good instincts to go along with the range to make stops all over the field. Keeping Daniels from getting comfortable will be junior Austin Wilson , junior George Bamfo and senior Kris Johnston , who all bring ample experience into the season. Bamfo saw extensive action during passing situations, turning his blazing speed and exciting athleticism into 15 tackles, four stops for loss and three sacks.
Watch Out For .... the Cougars linebackers to continue to be everywhere this season. Of course McGraw and Brown will be missed, but this program has made a habit out of recruiting athletic playmakers at the second level who can quickly slide into more prominent roles.
Strength: Range. The Cougars are undersized, quick and very agile, allowing them to impact both the run and pass defense. Testament to their versatility and multi-dimensional skill set, they are as comfortable rushing the passer as they are defending one of his passes.
Weakness: Size. With agility, at times, comes a sacrifice. With Brown gone, the Houston linebackers look more like safeties than ever before 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 No. 80 ranking versus the run.
Outlook: While it'll be near impossible for Houston to match last year's production from linebacker, the current group will remain plenty effective and feisty. Steward and Mathews are all-star caliber defenders, and Daniels is set to match his teammates' ability to make plays. Not unlike the past few seasons, the Cougars will be home to a bunch of linebackers who'll make a ton of big plays in the fall.
After spending last fall rebuilding on the fly in the secondary, Houston has high hopes of remaining one of Conference USA's top pass defenses. With just about everyone back, who'd fault it? Leading the charge form cornerback will be 6-0, 190-pound senior D.J. Hayden who's coming off a terrific debut as a Cougar. In his first year removed from Navarro (Tex.) Junior College, quickly adapted to the speed of the game, making 66 tackles, eight stops for loss, two picks, five forced fumbles and a team-best 11 passes defended. The Conference USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year has lockdown potential, and the size-speed combo to really cause problems for opposing receivers.
Joining Hayden at corner will be 5-10, 175-pound junior Zach McMillian , a returning starter. Although he lacked big plays, he made 44 tackles and broke up a couple of passes while improving as the season unfolded. After adding muscle and spending plenty of time in the film room, the staff is expecting from a player who get targeted by quarterbacks not wishing to test Hayden.
The secondary has more than adequate depth at cornerback with 6-1, 190-pound senior Chevy Bennett and 5-11, 180-pound junior Thomas Bates . Bennett, who also arrived from Navarro (Tex.) Junior College, started five games before suffering an injury. He finished his Houston debut with 25 stops and enough snaps to compete for more playing time in his finale. Bates was a three-game starter in 2011, and a player who'll expect to get a promotion in 2013. He made 36 stops, three picks and seven pass breakups, impressing the staff with his breaks on throws.
Junior playmaker Kent Brooks is expected to hold down the job at free safety in 2012. He was very active as a nine-game starter last season, pacing all defensive backs with 75 stops to go along with a couple of forced fumbles. Though just 5-11 and 200 pounds, he plays the game with the fearlessness and tenacity of a much bigger player.
Battling Brooks will be 5-10, 190-pound junior Colton Valencia , a former transfer from Texas A&M. In his debut as a Cougar, he started four games, making 40 tackles. After a fast start that included 10 stops in the opener, he tailed off in production, and was very quiet down the stretch.
The unlikely favorite at strong safety is senior Chris Cermin . Although the 5-10, 190-pounder has never produced more than three tackles in a season, he played well enough in the spring to take a lead for the starting job. The hard-working, blue-collar product of San Antonio will hope to maintain his edge through the summer.
Watch Out For .... the safeties to be virtually interchangeable. The staff has coached up its defensive backs to be versatile, which means the free safeties can slide over to strong safety, and vice versa. So, if Cermin shows any trepidation about his new role, it wouldn't be a surprise if Valencia comes off the bench to put Houston's four best D-backs on the field at the same time.
Strength: Ball skills. The Cougars did a surprisingly good job of breaking on balls, and turning off-target throws into takeaways. Houston picked off 21 balls in 2011, held opponents to a 55% completion percentage and ranked No. 12 nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Weakness: Lapses. While Houston far exceeded expectations in pass defense last season, it also had its share of meltdowns. On three separate occasions, the team allowed at least three touchdown passes in a game, including in the team's upset loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship Game.
Outlook: After doing a remarkably good job in pass defense last season, Houston is determined to be ever stingier now that so many starters have returned. With Hayden conceivably being able to shut off one side of the field, opposing quarterbacks will have a difficult time finding the soft spots in this unit. Yeah, the Cougars will get burned from time to time, but the secondary will be the cornerstone of this year's D.
It'll be a mixed bag for the Houston special teams, as both specialists return, yet both return men need to be replaced. In senior Matt Hogan, the Cougars house one of the league's steadier kickers. The starter for the past three seasons, he has connected on 39-of-46 career field goal attempts, including 13-of-17 a year ago. At his best in short-range situations, including an inordinate number of extra points, he's only 2-of-7 all-time from beyond 40 yards.
Junior P Richie Leone is set to begin his third season in the regular lineup. The Ray Guy Award semifinalist and honorable mention All-Conference USA selection averaged 41.4 yards per punt, and also boomed kickoffs for an average of 63.5 yards.
Watch Out For… the identity of the new return men. The Cougars boasted a couple of gems a year ago in Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards, both of whom have graduated. The staff is surveying a handful of candidates that includes senior Isaiah Sweeney, senior Jeffery Lewis, sophomore Damian Payne and junior Dewayne Peace .
Strength: Great legs. With Hogan as the kicker and Leone as the punter, the Cougars boast one of the best sets of legs in Conference USA. Both players will contend for the postseason all-star team, which will provide the offense and defense, respectively, with a dose of underrated support.
Weakness: The coverage teams. Yeah, the Cougars improved from 2010, but still had some trouble shutting down the other team's return men. Houston ranked 55th in the country in kickoff return defense, and was 88th in stopping opposing punt returners.
Outlook: Even with a couple of areas in need of tweaking, including both ends of the return game, Houston feels as if it'll once again be in good shape on special teams. Hogan and Leone are terrific veterans, two of the best at their positions in the conference. Both specialists will play key roles for a program that's lost some of its most valuable players on both sides of the ball.
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