2009 Houston Preview - Defense
Houston LB C.J. Cavness
Houston LB C.J. Cavness
Posted Jul 18, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Houston Cougar Defense

Houston Cougars

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Houston Preview | 2009 Houston Offense
2009 CFN Houston Defense | 2009 Houston Depth Chart
- 2008 UH Preview | 2007 UH Preview | 2006 UH Preview

What you need to know: Houston can score points in a hurry. It’ll need to this fall. The defense wasn’t very good last fall, allowing 28 points nine points, but at least it had an experienced front and veteran secondary. This year’s edition won’t be so lucky. The defensive line is basically starting over and the defensive backfield is searching for three new starters. Put those concerns together, and what have you got? A major problem stopping opposing quarterbacks, especially in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on the forward pass. The Cougars are athletic, which means they’ll need to create turnovers and make stops with some old-fashioned speed, hustle, and determination.  

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Marcus McGraw, 103
Sacks: Tyrell Graham, 1.5
Interceptions: Brando Brinkley, Loyce Means, 4

Star of the defense: Senior Brandon Brinkley
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Tyrell Graham
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Marcus McGraw
Best pro prospect: Brinkley
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Brinkley, 2) McGraw, 3) LB Matt Nicholson
Strength of the defense: Speed Up Front, Linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Line Experience, Run Defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: If the offensive line is a concern, the defensive line is an unmitigated crisis. Five seniors have departed, headed by perennial All-Conference USA sack artist Phillip Hunt. Somehow, some way, his production needs to be replaced, heaping pressure on the likes of sophomore Mohammed Usman, a letterwinner who had 10 tackles in his first year out of high school. A 6-1, 235-pound outside linebacker masquerading as a defensive end, he’s purely a speed rusher at this early stage of his career.

Even more production on the outside is expected from senior Tyrell Graham, an Arkansas transfer who earned his first letter with the Cougars a year ago. Much like Usman, he’s built like a linebacker at 6-3 and 225 pounds, using his speed and athleticism to beat tackles around the edge. He had 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2008, now needing to prove he can handle run downs as well as obvious passing downs.

The closest thing to a sure-thing on the defensive line is 6-4, 295-pound junior NT Isaiah Thompson, a 10-game starter and the team’s most reliable run-stuffer. He had a career-high 32 tackles as a sophomore, showing good lateral quickness and acceleration for his size. With so much attrition here, he’ll be counted on to be the leader of this unit.

The expectations are very high for sophomore DT David Hunter, who played in every game as a true freshman, making 16 stops and catching the attention of the staff. He moves well at 6-2 and 285 pounds, and can hold his own at the point of attack. He has the potential to be an all-star in this league. The program is keeping its fingers that he can realize it as early as this fall.

Projected Top Reserves: How big of a problem is depth going to be? There isn’t a single reserve with a letter on his resume. That’s obviously going to change this fall. Two players that the coaches really like are sophomores Michael Ray and Demarcus Lattier on the outside and inside, respectively. The 6-3, 250-pound Ray didn’t play enough as a redshirt freshman to show off his quick burst off the snap and tenacity as a pass rusher. He’s going to get that opportunity in 2009, however.

It’s time to take the wraps off Lattier, one of the program’s top recruits of 2008. Because of the depth at the position a year ago, he was allowed redshirt, spending more time getting bigger and faster. While undersized at 6-2 and 265 pounds, he moves well laterally and has the quickness to develop into an interior penetrator.

Watch Out For…: opponents to repeatedly attack this group with dives and off-tackle runs. Yeah, Conference USA is a passing league, but the Houston front is going to encourage teams to flex their muscles on the ground.
Strength: Speed. Provided they don’t get tied up in the process, everyone on this defensive line can run. The ends move like linebackers and the tackles like ends. If given the space to make plays, this group is capable of stringing out plays and making a bunch of stops behind the line.
Weakness: Size and depth. Unless a couple of players suddenly evolve into borderline stars, the Cougars are going to have a devil of a time at the point of attack. They lack experience everywhere, and without a 300-pounder to gobble up blocks, opponents might be content to simply jam the ball down their throat.
Outlook: Uh-oh. This unit could be the single biggest roadblock to a Conference USA title. The Cougars are going to lose plenty of battles in the trenches, and applications for pass rushers are still being accepted. There’s upside with the kids, like Hunter, Usman, and Lattier, but they’ve got to perform like veterans if the defense is going to survive.
Rating: 5


Projected Starters: With the problems up front, it’ll be incumbent upon the linebackers to clean up a lot of messes at the second level. The unit found an unlikely hero a year ago in then-true freshman Marcus McGraw, who had a team-high 103 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and pair of forced fumbles. A 5-11, 220-pound guided missile in run defense, he has keen instincts and goes sideline-to-sideline faster than any other Cougar. In the bowl game versus run-heavy Air Force, he gobbled up a career-best 15 stops.

Back at strongside for a second straight year is 6-1, 220-pound senior C.J. Cavness. A self-made, steady defender, he’s lettered in each of the two seasons, starting the last four games when injuries impacted the group. With a chance to make plays for the first time in his career, he had 77 tackles and four tackles for loss, posting double-digits in stops versus Tulsa and Air Force.

The key to this unit will be the health of 6-3, 225-pound senior Matt Nicholson, the man in the middle provided he can make a healthy return from a knee injury. A starter for the first nine games, he racked up 66 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss before going down. Like Cavness, he’s a tough, gritty Cougar, who began his career without the luxury of a scholarship.

Projected Top Reserves: If Nicholson is slow to get back on the field, 6-1, 255-pound senior Nick Thurston is the favorite to take over at middle linebacker. Even if Nicholson is fine, more is expected from Thurston than the 11 tackles he contributed in his first year out of junior college. A stout player with a strong base, he originally signed with Oregon State coming out of high school.

Behind McGraw at weakside, 6-0, 235-pound junior Britton Maxwell gives Houston a veteran presence on the second team. He earned a letter in 2006 and 2008, missing 2007 with a knee injury, and even logged a start against Air Force in the regular season. After making 13 tackles and chipping in on special teams, he’ll once again be a regular part of the rotation.

Watch Out For…Nicholson’s rehab. The health of his knee is the key to this unit. No, he’s not a next-level type talent, but he makes a lot of plays and has a knack for constantly being near the ball. Although Thurston is no stiff, the Cougars are better off if he’s able to contribute from the bench.                                      
Strength: Toughness. Houston is flush with dependable go-getters, who’ve had to work extra hard just to get to this point in their careers. Nothing has been handed to them, and they take that attitude out on to the field every weekend.
Weakness: Elite speed. Tough? You bet. Fast? Not quite. While McGraw’s arrival helped the unit’s overall athleticism, it’s still populated with a handful of 4.8 guys, who aren’t going to win a lot of sprints. When backs to the edge, these linebackers are in trouble if they don’t take proper angles. 
Outlook: The Cougars are steady and dependable here, but hardly spectacular. The hope is that McGraw will continue to get better in his second year, while Nicholson and Cavness provide veteran leadership and guidance to the younger players.
Rating: 5.5


Projected Starters: If Houston is to elevate beyond No. 91 nationally in pass defense, it’ll do so around 6-0, 180-pound senior CB Brandon Brinkley. A concern a few years ago, he’s steadily emerged into one of the league’s better cover corners. He has tremendous ball skills and isn’t shy about stepping up and impersonating a safety on running plays. In a season that warranted more all-league recognition, he had 74 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four picks, and 15 passes defended.

With quarterbacks likely to avoid Brinkley, 5-11, 185-pound senior Carson Blackmon better be prepared for the extra attention. He’s played a ton of football in Houston, 39 games in three years, but has earned just a single start at the end of 2008? As a junior, he had 29 tackles, while playing a key role on special teams. He’ll need to prove right away that he’s ready for this promotion, or else he’ll play with a target on his chest.

The defense is banking on 5-11, 205-pound Jacky Candy coming in and starting at free safety in his first year out of Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College. Heavily-recruited by the mid-majors, he’s solid in pass coverage and has a knack for creating big plays. He’s got two years of eligibility remaining and an edict t o contribute right away.

Sophomore Nick Saenz got an audition at strong safety at the end of his first season. This year, he goes live as the favorite to handle the job from wire-to-wire. In 13 games, he had six tackles and a pick, but more important, got a chance to adapt to the speed of the game. While only 5-11 and 185 pounds, he’ll make receivers pay for crossing over the middle.

Projected Top Reserves: The Cougars nickel back and most talented reserve is 5-10, 175-pound CB Loyce Means. Like having another regular on the roster, he’s started seven games in his first two seasons and will push Blackmon for the nod opposite Brinkley. A ball-hawk when he got on the field, he had 23 tackles and a team-best four picks for 160 yards in 2008.

Saenz’s chief competition at strong safety is likely to come from 5-11, 185-pound sophomore Roisean Haynes. The recipient of a letter in his first season on the field, he played in 13 games on defense and special teams, making 11 tackles. He’s physical with corner speed, so he can be moved around if necessary.

Watch Out For… the battle between Blackmon and Means. Blackmon is the steady veteran. Means is the feast-or-famine playmaker. Both are going to play in every game, but the pecking order isn’t likely to be determined until shortly before the start of the season.
Strength: Run defense. For better or worse, the defensive backs have a lot of experience lowering their heads and wrapping up in the open field. It’s a physical group of defenders that’ll front a run defense that’s going to need it.
Weakness: Pass defense. The Cougars simply allow too many yards through the air and are too soft in coverage. With an experienced contingency manning the flanks, they yielded 27 touchdown passes, getting worse as the season progressed. This less seasoned group isn’t likely to fare much better.
Outlook: Three starters are gone from a secondary that wilted last fall in the face of quality passing attacks. Now what? The Cougars will attempt to build around Brinkley, the closest thing to a sure-thing in a vulnerable defensive backfield. Houston will give up plenty of yards through the air in 2009, especially if a pass rush doesn’t surface.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters
: Most of the key parts return to a Cougar special teams unit that exceeded expectations a year ago. Senior Chase Turner is one of the league’s top punters, even if the offense rarely gave him a chance to show off his leg. The powerful 6-4, 229-pounder set a school-record with his 45.5-yard average, which would’ve been good for No. 4 in the country had he punted enough times to qualify. He’s improving with his directional kicks, and is a valuable weapon for the defense.

After gaining some valuable experience as a true freshman, Jordan Mannisto is ready to handle the placekicking chores on a permanent basis. He worked his way on to the field late in the year, finishing 2-of-3 on field goals and 14-of-14 on extra points. A good all-around athlete and one of 2008’s top prep recruits at the position, he could put up big numbers capping drives in this offense.   

Watch Out For…: the speed in the return game. Although sophomore Tyron Carrier can do much better than just 22.3 yards on kickoffs and 9.6 yards on punt returns, he’s got the jets to take a couple back this year if he gets a little more breathing room from his blockers.
Strength: Turner. Boy, has he rebounded from getting benched in 2007, or what? A linebacker-sized punter, he has the booming leg to be a major asset to a Houston defense that’s going to need all the help it can get this fall.
Weakness: Punt coverage. It’s about time for the Cougars and assistant Tony Levine to get this right. For the second straight season, Houston allowed more than 13 yards a punt return, a lackluster figure that consistently put the defense on its heels. The unit ranked 108th nationally, which was just slightly better than its 112th spot in 2007.
Outlook: With Turner handling punts, and Mannisto and Carrier back for a second year, this group is trending upward. If the coverage teams can make a quantum leap from a year ago, special teams could actually be a strength for the Cougars.
Rating: 6


Related Stories
2009 Houston Preview – Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 18, 2009
2009 Houston Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 18, 2009
2009 CFN Houston Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 18, 2009

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