Preview 2009 - Defense
2009 CFN Houston Preview
2009 CFN Houston
2009 Houston Depth
2008 UH Preview
2007 UH Preview
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,
of the defense:
Senior Brandon Brinkley
Marcus McGraw, 103
Interceptions: Brando Brinkley, Loyce Means, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.