2010 Houston Preview – Defense
Houston PK Matt Hogan
Houston PK Matt Hogan
Posted Jul 24, 2010

CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Houston Cougar Defense

Houston Cougars

Preview 2010 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Stop the run. That's been the missive around Houston ever since last season ended. After being gutted for 226 yards a game and 37 rushing touchdowns, changes were inevitable for the Cougars. The first order of business was to hire defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, who promptly installed a new 3-4 alignment. Essentially, Houston wants to get more speed on the field and be a little less predictable than in recent years. While there's no doubt the program has a good collection of athletes, who fly all over the field, when opponents commit to a north-south running game, it has trouble matching up. Six starters are back, led by tackling machine Marcus McGraw. One of the most important cogs, DE Matangi Tonga, is a former BYU player, who has the potential to be the run-stuffer this team craves.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Marcus McGraw, 156
Sacks: David Hunter, Marcus McGraw, 4
Interceptions: Jamal Robinson, 5

Star of the defense: Junior LB Marcus McGraw
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Matangi Tonga
Unsung star on the rise: Junior CB Jamal Robinson
Best pro prospect: McGraw
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McGraw, 2) Junior DE David Hunter, 3) Robinson
Strength of the defense: Team speed, inside linebackers, red zone D, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, softness in coverage, third down defense, getting pressure

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: With a switch to the 3-4, Houston is undergoing some changes on the first line of defense. The most noticeable has 6-2, 290-pound junior David Hunter moving from tackle, where he started all of 2009, to one of the two end spots. Though a bit blocky, he has a sudden first step and just enough quickness to be a factor in his new role. Even in the inside, he was a disruptive factor, using his strength and tenacity to make 57 stops, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, four pass breakups, and three fumble recoveries.

Houston is hoping to get an immediate boost on the outside from 6-2, 290-pound senior Matangi Tonga , a transfer from College of San Mateo (Calif.) and one-time BYU Cougar. Coveted coming out of high school and junior college, he has the toughness and physical ability to be one of the answers for Houston as it tries to solve its issues with run defense.

Holding the line at the nose will be 6-1, 287-pound sophomore Tyrone Campbell . One of the first men off the bench a year ago, he finished with a dozen tackles and one stop behind the line of scrimmage. He's strong in the lower body and plays with good leverage, but will asked to elevate the level of his play as the Cougars attempt to patch up that leaky run defense.

Projected Top Reserves: As a pure situational pass rusher on third downs, the staff could turn to 6-4, 242-pound sophomore Radermon Scypion , a key recruit from 2009 who'd picked up offers to play at Texas and Oklahoma. Quick out of the blocks and much stronger than when he arrived, he popped the seal on his career by making 12 tackles and one tackle for loss.

Filling out depth on the outside will be 6-4, 256-pound sophomore Zeke Riser , a starter in every game of his first season on campus. A high-motor player, who learned on the job a year ago, he made 36 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. While he won't frighten opposing tackles with his closing speed, he uses his hands well and will benefit from a full year in the weight room.

Watch Out For .... Tonga. Assuming he's up the challenge, this is exactly the type of player Houston needs in 2010. He's mature, experienced, and physically able to hold up at the point of attack, which few Cougar linemen were able to do a year ago.
Strength: Girth. Considering how badly these kids got pushed around in 2009, you'd think they were undersized. They're not. Regardless of the configuration, this defensive front is going to average around 275 pounds, which is about what they tip the Toledos at in the Big 12. If Tonga and Campbell can come through at the nose, Houston has few excuses for getting bullied off the ball.
Weakness: Sealing off running lanes. Sure, it's not all their fault, but the defensive line did an awful job of stopping the run last fall, ranking 115th in the nation. By yielding more than five yards a carry, the front wall did not do its job, which it's been reminded of throughout the offseason.
Outlook: Everyone knew this was going to be a sore spot in 2009, and it sure was a wire-to-wire issue. The switch to a new alignment means a need for fewer bodies, and the addition of Tonga and relocation of Hunter could help. Still, in terms of clogging lanes and consistently getting to the passer, the Cougar line will again be a liability that'll have to somehow be masked.
Rating: 5


Projected Starters: In a sea of fresh faces at linebacker, junior Marcus McGraw stands out as the undisputed leader. A reigning member of the All-Conference USA second team, he cleaned up a lot of trash for the Cougars, making a league-high 156 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and six pass breakups. A 6-0, 210-pound guided missile, with outstanding lateral range and sharp instincts, he's a big play waiting to happen.

Joining McGraw on the inside will be senior Matt Nicholson , a veteran of three letters. A starter before getting injured in the early going, he's a tough, gritty competitor, who began his Cougar career without a scholarship. In his last full season, he compiled 66 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.

At strongside, 6-2, 220-pound sophomore Phillip Steward will be looking to build on a solid debut in the lineup. Predictably out of place at times, he played in all 14 games and managed to finish fourth on the team with 89 tackles and four tackles for loss. A little rangy and in need of some additional weight, he'll benefit from filling out, provided he doesn't sacrifice any quickness.

The newcomer at weakside, JUCO transfer Sammy Brown, has the coaching staff very excited. Yeah, he lacks experience at this level, but he's going to extremely difficult to keep off the field. At 6-3 and 232 pounds he looks the part, showing the range and the penchant for being a physical presence that this defense sorely needs. Projected Top Reserves: Senior Jeremy Smith is expected to back up McGraw, providing veteran leadership to the second unit. A well-traveled transfer from Blinn (Tex.) Junior College, he made his debut with the Cougars in 2009, contributing on special teams and getting in on 19 tackles.

Challenging Nicholson for playing time will be 6-0, 227-pound junior John McIntyre , a steady letterwinner in each of the last two seasons. One of the team's better special teams players, he plays with reckless abandon, chipping in 33 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore.

Contending for the strongside opening is 5-11, 210-pound redshirt freshman George Bamfo . In some ways a carbon copy of McGraw, he's also undersized yet plays with a frenetic energy that puts him in a position to make a lot of plays. He has cornerback speed and does a good job of diagnosing, but must avoid many confrontations with opposing linemen.

A tight competition at weakside is sure to include 6-2, 256-pound sophomore Kelvin King , who's making the move this season from defensive end. Now the biggest of the linebackers, he brings some much-needed punch and meat to the second level of defense. At his best moving forward, he had 13 tackles last year, and will be used occasionally as a pass rusher.

Watch Out For .... Brown to become a very nice complement to McGraw at this level. Though recently removed from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, he's already impressed the coaching staff and has the requisite athletic ability and size to make an instant impact on defense.
Strength: Speed. If the move to a 3-4 was designed to get more playmakers on the field, McGraw, Brown, and Bamfo are capable of making the decision look shrewd. They cover a lot of space and have the hips and athleticism to support a secondary that needs all the help it can get in pass defense.
Weakness: Size. With speed, at times, comes a sacrifice. King is the exception of a unit that resembles a bunch of safeties. Sure, they're going to fly all over the field and from sideline to sideline, but they're also going to get flattened occasionally by big backs, another reason to worry about an overmatched run defense.
Outlook: While there's no doubt that Houston has upgraded its speed at linebacker, how big of an impact will it have on the defense as a whole? Last year, the group, including McGraw, made too many plays downfield and with their backs to the line of scrimmage. If the injection of athleticism is going to have an impact, these Cougars have to create more takeaways and make more plays for minus yards.
Rating: 5.5


Projected Starters: Although the secondary played better as 2009 wound down, it was probably benefiting from an opposition content to run the ball right at the Cougars. Plus, two key starters, CB Brandon Brinkley and SS Carson Blackmon, have graduated. Taking Brinkley's place as the program's best cover corner is 5-11, 185-pound junior Jamal Robinson . One of the inspirational stories of last fall, he rebounded from consecutive knee surgeries to play surprisingly well. Playing for the first time in almost four years, he chalked up 58 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a team-high five interceptions.

If teams begin to avoid Robinson's side of the field, it'll mean a lot more action for 5-11, 179-pound senior Loyce Means , the probable starter at the other corner. While he has good ball skills and has played a lot of football in Space City, earning two letters and starting nine times, this is a promotion that'll test his development. He had 11 tackles in eight games, and must avoid getting caught peaking too often this fall.

Junior Nick Saenz may play free safety, but he's like having a fifth linebacker on the field. Just 6-1 and 185 pounds, he'll lower the boom on receivers and provides plenty of support against the run. In his first full year, he was third on the team with 114 tackles, adding six pass breakups. While still raw in pass defense, he has the make-up speed to periodically offset blown coverages.

The battle at strong safety is a tight one that 5-11, 191-pound junior Roisean Haynesis counting on winning. A physical defender, with the speed of a cornerback, he's lettered in each of the last two seasons and played a ton last fall. In 14 games, he made 53 tackles and got increasingly more comfortable with his role on the defense.

Projected Top Reserves: If Haynes doesn't hold on to the strong safety job, it'll mean that 5-9, 182-pound Jeffery Lewis has knocked him off the perch. In his debut on the field, he made 19 tackles and a tackle for loss, chipping in on defense and special teams. If he's going to overcome less than ideal size, he'll do so with a good mix of speed, agility, and toughness.

Senior free safety Jacky Candy was supposed to be a key contributor in his first year out of Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College, but a season-ending knee injury changed those plans. Coveted by a number of schools for his ability to make the big play and excel in coverage, he's working toward a full recovery and a second chance to make that initial impression.

Watch Out For .... Means to play well in his only season as a full-timer. For a while last year, he was making a strong challenge to be an every-down player. Now that he's finally about to secure that role, he'll make the most of it, leveraging all of his experience and athleticism.
Strength: Defending the run. Like it or not, the defensive backs have a lot of experience lowering their pads and wrapping up in the open field. Those who can't make sure tackles need not apply for a job. Out of necessity, this is a physical unit that'll support a run D that's going to need it.
Weakness: Defending the pass. Quality passers should have few problems throwing the ball on a secondary that still allows too many long balls and is soft in coverage, allowing opponents to complete almost 63% of their passes in 2009. While the corners can be feisty, they also can be beaten more often than the staff can tolerate.
Outlook: Although Houston has done well attracting quality athletes to the secondary, the program still suffers from damaging lapses in coverage. By Conference USA standards, this is not an awful crew, but that's not exactly setting the bar high. A lot is going to depend on the play of Means, who could spend a big chunk of the year trying to survive on an island.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Sophomore Matt Hogan became an unexpected revelation in the kicking game for the Cougars, making all 12 of his field goal attempts after replacing junior Jordan Mannisto midway through the year. In a thrilling 46-45 win over Tulsa, he kicked the game-winner from 51 yards out, showing his pop and poise with one swing of the leg. Although he'll attempt far more extra points than field goals, he still has important value in this offense.

More than just pushing Hogan at placekicker, Mannisto is also slated to replace Chase Turner at punter. Although his experience at the position is limited, he shows good leg strength and is a terrific all-around athlete. He stumbled a year ago, making just 6-of-10 field goals, but has enough talent to bounce back.

Watch Out For… junior Tyron Carrier. More than just a weapon as a receiver on offense, he's also lethal as a return man. One of the fastest members of the team, if not the entire league, he exploded for four kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009, forcing the opposition to change the way it handles kickoffs.
Strength: The return game. Yeah, it was a little feast or famine at times, but when Carrier and the Cougar return men imbibed, they got fat at the other team's expense. As a team, Houston had five kickoffs for touchdowns, adding a little more juice to an already potent offense.
Weakness: Extra points. Yeah, they attempt more than any other placekicker, but eight misses as a team need to be addressed. In the Conference USA title game alone, Hogan missed three, which had an impact on the outcome of a 38-32 game.
Outlook: If Mannisto can come through as the punter, an unsung element of a troubled defense, Houston will have the ingredients of one of the league's better special teams units. Hogan laid a solid foundation as the kicker of the future, and Carrier alters the way the other team operates.
Rating: 7.5

- 2010 Houston Preview | 2010 Houston Offense
- 2010 Houston Defense | 2010 Houston Depth Chart
- Houston Previews  2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006