Preview 2008 - Defense
2008 CFN Houston Preview
2008 CFN Houston
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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
Kenneth Fontenette, 69
Phillip Hunt, 10.5
Interceptions: Kenneth Fontenette, 4
of the defense:
Senior DE Phillip Hunt
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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