Preview 2007 - Defense
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need to know:
Defensive coordinator Alan Weddell’s goal is to bring pressure
from every angle and invent ways to get as much speed as
possible on the field. With that in mind, he’ll be installing
some elements of a 4-2-5 package in 2007 to periodically get an
athletic rover into the mix. The personnel is deep and
reliable, especially with a front seven that includes dynamic
junior end Phillip Hunt and a couple of all-league linebackers
in junior Cody Lubojasky and senior Trent Allen. If senior
safety Rocky Schwartz is all the way back from knee surgery and
the corners hold up, the pieces are in place for this to be
Conference USA’s stingiest defense.
Trent Allen, 95
Phillip Hunt, 8
Interceptions: Ernest Miller, 2
Star of the
Junior DE Phillip Hunt
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior CB
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DT Ell Ash
Best pro prospect: Hunt
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hunt 2) Senior LB Trent
Allen 3) Junior LB Cody Lubojasky
Strength of the defense: The front seven
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense
With the exception of nose tackle Marquay Love, the two-deep at
defensive line returns intact for the Cougars. The undisputed
leader of the threesome is junior end Phillip Hunt, a
burgeoning star after collecting 58 tackles, 12 tackles for loss
and eight sacks in a breakout, all-league season. More than
just a 6-2, 250-pound blur off the edge, his technique is sharp
and his motor is non-stop.
Inside, junior Ell Ash has tackle size to go along with
the agility and quickness of an end. The 6-5, 293-pound
Tennessee transfer has a season of experience behind him and a
limitless upside to work toward over the next two years. As a
reserve last year, he had 21 tackles and was second on the team
with three sacks.
After splitting the season as starters in 2006, juniors Cody
Pree and Tate Stewart could be going Dutch again this
year. The pair is basically No. 1 and No. 1A at nose tackle,
respectively, giving the interior some much-needed depth and
experience. Pree was the more productive of the two last
season, but still endured a decline from 2005, when he debuted
as a freshman with 42 tackles, six sacks and four tackles for
Projected Top Reserves: Assuming he remains 1A,
Stewart is the type of player every coach likes to have on the
roster. Unselfish, relentless and hard-working, he’ll do
whatever it takes to help the program succeed.
The most gifted reserve end is sophomore Brian West, a
well-sized Auburn transfer that’s ready for action after sitting
out last season. More of a tackle than a true rush end at 6-4
and 265 pounds, he’s expected to use that size to be an asset on
the outside in run defense.
Watch Out For… Ash to begin turning the heads of
scouts this season. After laying the foundation for success in
2006, he’ll be too big and too fast as a first-year starter for
most Conference USA linemen to contain.
Strength: Depth. Hunt is a pass-rushing beast,
Ash and West are SEC-caliber players and Pree and Stewart are
interchangeable parts at the nose with significant starting
Weakness: Getting quarterback pressure from
someone not named Hunt. The Cougar end had more than a third of
the team’s sacks in 2006, meaning he’ll see a ton of double
teams in 2007, unless someone else steps up.
Outlook: The Cougars boast of solid collection of
juniors that are growing up together within the system. They’ll
be improved in 2007, but even better if everyone is back in
Projected Starters: Four of last year’s top 11
tacklers were linebackers with more eligibility remaining. The
leaders of a quality group are inside linebackers Cody
Lubojasky and Trent Allen, both of whom had at least
90 tackles in last year’s conference championship season.
From his weakside position, Allen had 95 stops on his way to a
spot on the All-Conference USA squad. While not the speediest
of the Cougars, the senior has great instincts for the position,
and at 245 pounds, is strong enough to fight through blocks and
Like Allen, Lubojasky is not a speed guy, but has a great nose
for the ball, collecting 164 tackles in his first two seasons on
campus. Even more important, he’s also exhibited a knack for
making plays behind the line, making the junior unique to the
team’s other linebackers.
On the outside, the Cougars will turn to senior Brendan
Pahulu and junior James Francis. Pahulu has played a
ton of football for Houston, bagging 194 tackles and 24 tackles
for loss as a three-year starter. The unit’s best combination
of size, speed and athleticism, he could be used as a rush end
when the defense shifts to a four-man front. Francis has a
loose grip on the starting job after sitting out the spring
recovering from shoulder surgery.
Oklahoma State transfer Stephen James was projected to be
the starter, but was lost for the season when he tore his ACL.
Francis moves like a safety at 6-1 and 215 pounds, but has
mainly been a special teams player so far.
Projected Top Reserves: Francis is going to get
pushed hard this summer by sophomore Broderick Bean who’s
still learning, but turned a few heads this spring with his
speed and tenacity. The tools are there for him to be the kind
of pass defending playmaker that the defense can really use.
The top reserve at both inside spots is junior Rodney Rideau,
a two-time letterwinner with 24 games of experience and 118
stops to his credit. He moves very quickly to the ball and
represents an important part of the rotation at linebacker.
Watch Out For… more plays for negative yards out
of this group. The Cougars want to attack in 2007 and have the
right combination of inside experience and outside quickness to
make life miserable for opposing backfields.
Strength: Experience. Houston welcomes back three
players, Allen, Lubojasky and Pahulu, with eight letters between
them and a seasoned reserve in Rideau, who can seamlessly slide
into the lineup, if necessary.
Weakness: Inside speed. Yeah, Allen and Lubojasky
have been perennial stalwarts on this defense, but they’re still
a step slow, making both vulnerable when forced to cover quicker
tight ends, or worse, someone looping out of the backfield.
Outlook: A solid group of sure tacklers, the
linebackers will be the heart and soul of the Houston defense
for the second straight year.
Projected Starters: The departures of Willie
Gaston and Will Gulley leave the Cougars a little more
vulnerable. Helping address the problem will be junior corner
Kenneth Fontenette, who blossomed into an all-league type
pass defender in 2006. Second on the team with 13 passes
defended, he can also come up and stick like a safety, as
evidenced by his two-season total of 148 tackles.
There’s far less certainty at the opposite corner, where junior
Quinte Williams will be taking Gaston’s place. A quality
athlete at 5-11 and 170 pounds, he needs to be prepared for
opposing passers that will be looking to avoid Fontenette’s
Technically, junior Ernest Miller and senior Rocky
Schwartz are battling for the job at strong safety, but both
are going to play a lot this season, especially when a rover is
needed in the 4-2-5. Schwartz might even freelance at outside
linebacker periodically. He missed most of last year with a
knee injury, denying the defense of one of its physical and
inspirational leaders. A genuine headhunter that plays fast and
fearless, he led the Cougars with 114 tackles in 2005.
The frontrunner at free safety is senior Joseph Gonzales,
a career backup with 33 games of experience and a
surgically-repaired shoulder that’s on the mend. He’s played
well in place of Gulley and Schwartz in recent years, needing
now to show that he’s the man from day one of summer drills.
Projected Top Reserves: Senior Kellan Yancy
is the team’s most experienced corner, but he’ll be extremely
vulnerable to kids, such as sophomore Carson Blackmon and
redshirt Teric Williams, that have greater upside. If
Yancy can’t improve his speed and man-to-man coverage, he’ll be
relegated to no more than a special teams body.
Behind Gonzales at free safety is sophomore Brandon Brinkley,
a member of last year’s Conference USA All-Freshman team. Still
only 175 pounds, he’s the future at free safety once he spends a
little more time in the weight room.
Watch Out For… Schwartz’s impact on the defense.
The Cougars certainly survived after he went down last
September, but his presence was missed in the secondary. If
Schwartz can regain his 2005 form, the ripple effect will be
felt in every unit of the defense.
Strength: The safeties. At strong safety, the
Cougars have two players worthy of post-season honors and a new
starter at free safety that’s no stranger to live action. On
the second unit, Brinkley has the makeup of a future star.
Weakness: Creating turnovers. The defensive backs
got their hands on plenty of passes last year, but too few were
converted into picks. This season, Houston is eyeing more
turnovers after picking off just a dozen passes in 2006.
Outlook: While the Cougar secondary is solid
against the run, it still needs to tighten up in pass coverage.
Fontenette has lockdown potential, but Williams is a question
mark that could get exposed against the league’s better passers.
Projected Starters: After two seasons on the job,
junior Ben Bell has emerged as one of the most reliable
placekickers in Conference USA. Coming off a sterling, 14-of-18
year on field goals, he’s now connected on almost 75% of his
kicks since becoming the starter in 2006. Where Bell struggles,
however, is with his distance. He doesn’t have the leg to
handle kickoffs, has a career long field goal of just 42 yards
and is only 1-of-3 lifetime beyond the 40.
Garrett LeFevre was supposed to take over as the punter in 2007,
but he left the program, putting an already dicey situation in
even worse shape. Redshirt freshman Tommy Skinner has to
come through because there’s no safety net after him. A 6-4,
215-pound walk-on with the Cougars, he has a strong leg and a
chance to be a special teams hero if he can help the program’s
failing punt team.
Seniors Anthony Alridge and Donnie Avery are back
to handle kickoffs in 2007 after helping Houston to No. 3 in
Conference USA. If used enough, Alridge has the blinding speed
in the open field to be a special teams this season. The
situation with punt returns, however, is an entirely different
story. A couple of redshirt freshmen, Teric Williams and
Randall Antoine, are being counted on to ignite a unit
that averaged just 7.6 yards a return last year.
Projected Top Reserves: Redshirt freshman
Jonathan Gibson will be the backup to Bell and can punt or
kickoff in an emergency as well. A walk-on with the program, it
won’t be a good sign if No. 83 is spending lots of time on the
field this year.
Watch Out For… Skinner’s development as the team’s
only real option at punter. The buzz around the program is that
the redshirt freshman has a big leg, but until he sees live
action, he’s a potential liability for a unit that really needs
a steady performer.
Strength: Bell’s short game. From inside 40
yards, the Cougar kicker has been nearly automatic. Beyond 40,
he still has something to prove in the second half of his
Weakness: Net punting. In all facets of the
punting game last year, Houston was a mess, getting little
production from the returners and finishing a dismal 114th
nationally in net punting. With an inexperienced rookie
handling punts this season, an about face is improbable.
Outlook: Although Cougar fans might be holding
their breath on punts of any kind, the kicking game is in good
hands. With a new quarterback this season, Bell is likely to be
trading in a few PATs for more field goal attempts in 2007.