2008 Houston Preview - Defense
Houston DE Phillip Hunt
Houston DE Phillip Hunt
Posted Apr 23, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Houston Cougar Defense

Houston Cougars

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Houston Preview | 2008 Houston Offense
2008 CFN Houston Defense | 2008 Houston Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Houston Preview | 2006 CFN Houston Preview 

What you need to know: After leading Conference USA in total defense, Houston expects to be even stingier this season under first-year coordinator John Skladany. And why not? The Cougars return eight starters, and the transition to the 4-3 couldn’t come at a more ideal time. While the defense is a little shorthanded at linebacker, it’s brimming with talent and experience along the defensive line. The best of the group is explosive end Phillip Hunt, who led the league with 10.5 sacks and requires more than one blocker. All-conference CB Kenneth Fontenette needs more help from a secondary that got torched by every decent passing game it faced.     

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Kenneth Fontenette, 69
Sacks: Phillip Hunt, 10.5
Interceptions: Kenneth Fontenette, 4

Star of the defense: Senior DE Phillip Hunt
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Brandon Brinkley
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Tyrell Graham
Best pro prospect: Hunt
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hunt 2) Senior FS Kenneth Fontenette 3) Senior DT Ell Ash
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Linebacker, pass efficiency defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
: The hands-down catalyst of the defensive line is 6-2, 260-pound senior Phillip Hunt, the reigning Conference USA sack leader. A relentless rush end with 4.7 speed, he fought off constant double teams to make 55 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks. Under the watchful eye of new assistant Jim Jeffcoat, he’s on target to graduate as the most prolific pass rusher in school history.  

Senior Tate Stewart is a returning starter looking for his fourth consecutive letter. A tackle earlier in his career, he’s trimmed down considerably to 6-3 and 250 pounds, adding the quickness needed to be one of the Cougar ends. A tireless worker with a great motor, he posted a career-high 39 tackles a year ago, adding 4.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

The favorites to start on the inside are 6-2, 310-pound senior NT Cody Pree and 6-5, 275-pound senior tackle Ell Ash. Pree is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and is hoping to be ready for the start of the season. A fourth-year starter with the strength to bull rush opposing linemen off their base, he needs to be in the lineup for the Cougars to thrive against the run. Battling through nagging injuries a year ago, he had 32 tackles and four tackles for loss.

If Ash can put it all together in his final season, he has a chance to continue his career in the NFL. Originally a Tennessee Volunteer, he has the size to play inside and the quickness and agility to rush the passer like an end. That combination of skills helped him amass 42 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a sack, numbers he’s capable of surpassing this fall.    

Projected Top Reserves: In the event Pree isn’t healthy enough to go in September, 6-4, 295-pound sophomore Isaiah Thompson will fill the void at nose tackle. Although he has upside as a run stuffer, he also has just four games of experience, making him a better fit as a reserve and an understudy until Pree is gone.

Now that the fullback position is extinct in Houston, 6-2, 270-pound senior Jake Ebner is trying to reinvent himself at defensive tackle. A tough and physical player, he has already settled in behind Ash and is positioned to earn his fourth letter as a member of the line rotation.

The top backup at end is 6-2, 260-pound senior Billy Hartford, a former walk-on who’s played in 26 career games and had a career-high 15 tackles a year ago. A high energy, want-to type defender, he’s yet to show he can provide instant pressure coming off the bench.

Watch Out For… Stewart. In many ways, he’s the key to the success of the pass rush, needing to make opponents suffer for doubling Hunt. If he can make the most of constant one-on-one situations, the entire defense is going to benefit.         
Strength: Veteran talent. Barring any setbacks, the opening day lineup will consist of four seniors, three of whom have the potential for all-league honors and pro careers. It’s no wonder the Cougars are switching to a 4-3 base.           
Weakness: Tackle depth. As it stands now, the backups on the inside will be a sophomore with four games of experience and a senior best known for his work as a fullback. Ash and Pree better remain healthy, or else the run defense will be in big trouble.               
Outlook: Pree needs to get healthy and Stewart needs to get pressure, but the parts are in place for Houston to challenge East Carolina for Conference USA’s nastiest front four. Hunt is the type of defensive lightning rod who’ll deflect attention and help everyone around play better.                       
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: The loss of two starters and the shift back to a 4-3 means the linebackers will have a very different look in 2008. The one familiar face is 6-3, 230-pound senior Cody Lubojasky, a veteran of 39 consecutive starts and a steady defender in the middle. While he has questionable straight-line speed, he compensates with good instincts and a knack for taking the right angles. He’ll be looking to rebound from a modest season of just 59 tackles and a couple of tackles for loss. 

The starter at strongside will be 6-3, 225-pound junior Matt Nicholson, one of the program’s best walk-ons in recent years. A special teams star his first two seasons, he was an important part of the second unit as a sophomore, making 36 tackles and four tackles for loss. He solidified the job with a strong spring and figures prominently into the defensive plans this fall.

While he’ll have work to do in the summer, 6-3, 225-pound junior Tyrell Graham has the most upside among the weakside linebackers. A high-profile transfer from Arkansas, he also has the best combination of size and speed of the players competing for time on the two-deep. Although he won’t be handed the job, it’s only a matter of time before he rises to the top of the pecking order.     

Projected Top Reserves: Like Nicholson, junior C.J. Cavness is a gritty, try-hard defender who began his Cougar career without a scholarship. He has gradually risen up the depth chart, making 28 stops and appearing in all 13 games on defense last season.

Providing depth and bucking for a starting assignment are a pair of JUCO transfers, juniors Nick Thurston and A.J. Johnson. At 6-1 and 255 pounds, Thurston is a stout linebacker, who originally signed with Oregon State coming out of high school. He plays with a hot motor on the inside and has solid cover skills.

Johnson is challenging for the wide-open job at weakside, flashing good instincts and lateral quickness for a 6-0, 250-pounder. He enjoyed a terrific stay at the College of the Sequoias, and is ready to contribute in his first season at Houston.

Watch Out For…true freshmen Jarvis Smith and Anthony Lewis, two of the gems of the last recruiting class. Both players have the talent and the clear path to immediate playing time and even a starting job in their rookie seasons.                                      
Strength: Motors. The Cougars are loaded with gritty defenders who’ll work to fight through blockers and have worked even harder to reach this stage of their careers. They may not be future pros, but they won’t be out worked by any of this year’s opponents.
Weakness: Speed. Tough? Yes. Fast? Uh-uh. With a few exceptions, Houston is home to a bunch of 4.8 guys who’ll get exposed when they can’t get the right angle on a quick back who gets to the second level.                                         
Outlook: In order to elevate beyond mediocrity, Houston needs some of the newcomers to made immediate impacts. Lubojasky is a steady performer, but it’ll be up to Graham, the junior-college transfers, and the rookies to light a spark under this group.                                   
Rating: 5


Projected Starters: All four starters return to a secondary that led Conference USA in pass defense a year ago. At the head of the class is 6-0, 180-pound senior FS Kenneth Fontenette, a fourth-year starter and a member of the All-Conference USA Second Team. One of the best tacklers on the team, he also defends the pass with the skills of a former corner. In another workmanlike season, he had 69 tackles, 10 passes defended, and a team-high four picks as a junior.

Joining Fontenette is 6-0, 195-pound senior SS Ernest Miller, a steady veteran beginning his third season as a full-timer. An instinctive athlete with a keen nose for the ball, he had his best season with the Cougars, making 63 stops, six tackles for loss, two sacks, and a program-best 11 pass breakups.

Holding down the spots at cornerback will again be 5-11, 175-pound junior Brandon Brinkley and 5-11, 165-pound senior Quinte Williams, a couple of part-time starters from a year ago. Brinkley plays bigger than his size, showing good wrap-up tackling skills in the open field. A starter in each of the last eight games, he produced 29 tackles and a dozen passes defended.

Williams has a ton of experience in the Houston secondary, but with just four starts and 23 tackles last season, he also has a lot to prove in his final year. A solid all-around athlete, he’s yet show he can be the lockdown cornerback this defense sorely needs.   

Projected Top Reserves: Making a push for more playing time will be 5-10, 170-pound sophomore Loyce Means, the top cornerback off the bench. In his first year out of high school, he appeared in eight games, starting three, making 13 stops, and breaking up three passes. If he doesn’t win a job this September, he’ll be in the lineup the following fall.

Senior Stephen James is healthy again after missing all of last season with a knee injury. A transfer from Oklahoma State who hasn’t played a down since 2005, he’s a 5-9, 215-pound headhunter with the punch of a linebacker. Miller’s backup at strong safety, he’ll come off the sidelines and intimidate any receivers that cross his path. 

Watch Out For… Means. If Brinkley or Williams shows even a hint of an opening, Means is good enough to take advantage and slide into the starting lineup. Considering he was only a true freshman, he appeared ready for an expanded role a year ago.    
Strength: The safeties.  Fontenette and Miller give Houston two of the most complete safeties in Conference USA. Add in James, and the Cougars go three-deep with hard-hitting defensive backs who’ll hold their own in pass defense.                    
Weakness: Red zone defense. While the Cougars didn’t allow a ton of yards through the air, they did yield a whopping 28 touchdown passes compared to just 14 interceptions. The break-but-don’t-bend secondary needs to tighten up when opponents get close to the goal line.  
Outlook: The talent and experience is in place for this veteran defensive backfield to start making more big plays and key stops against quality opponents. During the regular season, the Cougars had two picks and allowed 11 touchdown passes to bowl teams, a trend that needs to change in 2008.                   
Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: PK T.J. Lawrence is gone, but that’s not all bad considering how inconsistent he was a year ago. The Cougars do return junior Ben Bell, who sat out all of 2007 recovering from autoimmune hepatitis. Although his range is limited, he’s spot on inside 40 yards, going 22-of-27 in his first two years as a starter.

Bell is getting challenged by sophomore Jonathan Gibson, a left-footed walk-on with no experience at this level. The list of contenders will swell to three when freshman Jordan Mannisto, one of California’s top prep kickers, arrives in the summer.

The situation at punter is far less confusing. Linebacker-sized junior Chase Turner returns after debuting with a hefty average of 42.7 yards and an honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition. He has a huge leg and is on a trajectory to get even better with a year of experience. If anything goes awry with Turner, Houston can lean on sophomore Tommy Skinner, who punted six times a year ago and handle some kickoffs.

Both Donnie Avery and Teric Williams must be replaced as return specialists. Sophomore Chaz Rodriguez and redshirt freshman Patrick Edwards are in line to share the load on kickoffs and punts.  

Watch Out For… Mannisto. If he can show accuracy and a little more jolt in his leg than Bell, the kicking job is there for the taking for the true freshman.      
Strength: Turner. He answered the call when Houston needed a punter in 2007, finishing second in Conference USA with nearly a 43-yard average. Once he improves his hang time, he has a shot to be the league’s best punter.              
Weakness: Punt coverage. The Cougars have had one of the nation’s worst punt coverage teams, two years running. Last season, they were 112th in the country, yielding more than 14 yards a return and squandering Turner’s development as a punter.             
Outlook: Chief among coach Tony Levine’s summer priorities will be to get the best kicker on the field for the opener. Bell has the edge, but has yet to lock down the job, creating a tight competition. Even though there’s no easy way to replace Avery, the Cougars like what Rodriguez brings to the return game.                      
Rating: 5.5