this could be their year as the team enters its final season of play in Conference USA. What the defense lacks in a true game changing superstar (not counting Thorpe watch list recipient D.J. Hayden), they more than make up for in numbers across the board, even with the losses of key seniors on all three levels of the defense. Four year starters David Hunter (defensive end), Marcus McGraw (strong side Mike linebacker) and safety Nick Saenz along with two year starter and defensive force along the edge – Sammy Brown are all currently trying to make NFL rosters. Hunter is playing for the Texans, McGraw for the Arizona Cardinals, Saenz for the Buffalo Bills and Brown for the St. Louis Rams. That last statement in itself should tell how much talent and leadership the defense has lost.
Coach Levine said during his introductory press conference (back in December), “Defensively, we are going to be aggressive. You are going to see all 11 guys sprint to the ball carrier, see us stop the run, especially the quarterback run. We've had a tremendous season with sacking the quarterback. I believe in not only sacking the quarterback but also hitting the quarterback. I want him to be looking at the rush and not his receivers.” Jamie Bryant was promoted from linebackers coach to the defensive coordinators position after Brian Stewart left for the same role with Maryland. On his transition from position coach to coordinator, “I’ve done it before (at Vanderbilt for the 2009 and 10 seasons) so it’s no big deal to me.”
Coach Levine preaches physical toughness and accountability so Bryant will be the perfect coordinator in that aspect, as defensive end Zeke Riser said, “Coach Bryant is all business. He’s about production and accountability. He has plenty of experience with a no-nonsense attitude. We plan on bringing more pressure, especially on the QB, than we ever have before. We needed a guy like Coach Bryant. We have plenty of experience on the defensive side of the ball now and he is going to put us in the position to make plenty of plays.” The defense improved nearly ten points per game last season from the previous three seasons as they were 35th nationally (in surrendering a tad over 22 points per game as compared to the 2010 season in which they allowed 32 points which ranked them 96th). They allowed 380 total yards (which was also an improvement of over 50 yards per game from the previous three years on average). While Stewart’s aggressive game calling from his base 3-4 alignment will be sorely missed along Cullen Boulevard, the aggressive approach will remain the same, “I’ve always been a guy that we’re going to bring somebody from somewhere most of the time (in terms of pressuring the QB), so we’re going to put our foot on the gas and we’re not going to change that a whole lot. How we do that may change a little bit,” said the old-school style coach Bryant.
Coach Levine on his philosophy behind the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense, “I think that it’s critical that you win football games not only with turnovers, but by controlling the line of scrimmage (both offensively and defensively). I think you can do that better with four down linemen.” Changing fronts is semantics to Coach Bryant, “Coach Levine and I talked about it when he got the job and then hired me as defensive coordinator. We really didn’t talk a lot about whether or not we were going to play a 3-4 or a 4-3. I’ve always been a four man front guy with three man principles mixed in as well.” Not a lot changes are needed technique wise or as far as fundamentals are concerned as Bryant mentions, “We were a gap control defense last year in a 3-4 and that’s what we’re going to be this year.” With that, let’s take a look at each position:
A good coordinator adapts his defense to his personnel, and that’s exactly what Coach Bryant has done with his defense. With the depth along the defensive line (not to mention two of the best linebackers UH fans have ever had the honor of watching graduating in the aforementioned McGraw and Brown), the scheme change made sense. Returning at end from last season include Kelvin King (Sr), Zeke Riser (Jr) and Lloyd Allen (Sr), and judging by their weight loss, Bryant plans on using his ends as speed rushers (much in the same way Brown was used from his outside linebacker spot). King and Riser are both down to a listed weight of 255 pounds (Riser played at 280 last season versus Penn State) and Allen is down to 235 from his listed 2011 weight of 245. King has ten starts (over the past two seasons) in 38 career games and along with Riser is the veteran of the crew. He also has six career sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. King might be behind both Riser and Allen as Coach Bryant stated that he came into camp “dinged up, but the last week or so he’s starting to get his fundamentals down and he’s getting better and better each day.” Riser started in only four games last season as he was still recuperating from a knee injury that had him miss the entire 2010 season. He started all 14 games as a true freshman in 09 however, amassing 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss among his season total of 36. He could be that strongside end who is stout against the run. Bryant is high on Riser as he said he’s had a “really good camp.” Allen’s 3.5 sacks last season was second only to Brown’s 13.5 and could be the speed rusher much like Brown was as he matures into a more well rounded end just as Brown did last year. Both have similar body types and also went to the same junior college (Mississippi Gulf Community College). Bryant on Allen’s progress through camp thus far, “Lloyd’s gotten a little bit better every day.”
Two wildcards could be converted linebackers in Jon Witten and Desmond Pulliam. Witten, a redshirt sophomore, didn’t play much last season due to injuries along with the loaded depth at line backer but really impressed the staff during spring ball before, again, injuring his knee. Witten (who stands at 6-feet-2 has gained ten pounds and is up to 236 pounds) said he’s 100% and ready to make his mark. Bryant on his progress thus far, “Jon’s gotten a ton of reps so far and we’re going to see where we’re at by the end of the week.” Like Witten, Pulliam (a redshirt sophomore who was listed at tight end last season) has a ton of potential as he has been compared to Denver Bronco Elvis Dumervil on more than one occasion by Coach Levine, “I've been at places like Louisville, and not that I'm comparing them at this point to Elvis Dumervil, but Elvis was 5-11, 250 pounds and great quickness, so I think there's a place for that and I'm excited about those two young men getting that opportunity.” Levine also mentioned how both have long arms, great balance, a low center of gravity and a great ‘quick twitch,’ meaning they are both able to get off the line and into their opposing linemen very quickly. According to Bryant, Pulliam “got banged up a little last week but he should be full go by practice today (Monday) and he’s had a good camp besides being out for those few days.”
I asked Coach Bryant about the weight loss of several of the front four and if the staff was emphasizing speed over size along the line. Without getting into specifics, he simply said, “yes.” Luckily for me (and you), new defensive tackles Coach Ricky Logo expounded further, “I think people get a misconception when talking about speed over size. We want our kids to be bigger (physically), but we certainly don’t want them to lose their mobility athletically up front. We want the best of both worlds. There’s a fine line when talking about speed over size.”
At tackle, look for Dominic Miller to continue to pick up from where he left off last season from his nosetackle spot. The senior started 13 games last season and finished with 25 total tackles, including 2.5 for loss. While that may not sound like much, stats are misleading for the inside interior linemen in a 3-4. Their main responsibility was to tie up opposing offensive linemen, which allowed the linebackers penetration which led to either major pressure on the QB would lead to a running back tackle for loss. In this season’s 4-3 front, the two inside tackles should produce better stats as their job (according to Coach Logo) is to “use their mobility to create their own chaos up front while also protecting their linebackers.” Basically, instead of tying up offensive linemen, the inside tackles will also be asked to penetrate their gaps in order to collapse the pocket, making the QB uncomfortable and causing him to rush his throws. With this change, the staff decided to move Eric Braswell from end to a tackle spot next to Miller. As Logo states, “we felt as a staff he could help us better inside. He also feels more comfortable in a confined space as a tackle, rather than as an end with open space.” Coach Bryant said that Braswell will be used at both end and tackle, “depending on the situation and what we need out of our front four at that particular time.” As a redshirt freshman last season, Braswell led all Cougars linemen in tackles with 47 and earned a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman team. He’s listed at 268 pounds, up from 250 last season as an end. Backing up Miller and Braswell will be Joey Mbu and Radermon Scypion. Mbu has lost over 30 pounds from last season and is now a tad under 310 pounds according to Logo, “his mobility has gotten better because of the weight loss. He’s seeing the benefits from it (weight loss) as even though he’s lighter, he’s still able to hold his gap.” As far as Scypion is concerned, “I’ve put a lot of pressure on him and he’s stepped up to the challenge as far as maturing and understanding technique. I’m expecting good things from him this season,” said the first year defensive tackles coach. Scypion has had an injury plagued career but in moving him to tackle the staff hopes to take advantage of his natural strength inside. Ameen Behbahani also provides depth at the tackle spot and has played in 34 games over his first three seasons with many being on special teams. One true freshman to keep an eye on is Tomme Mark as he was mentioned as one of the few freshmen who have really made an impression, “Tomme’s had a pretty good camp,” according to Bryant. With all of the depth along the line (unless injuries occur), I would look for the Lufkin native to redshirt in order to mature mentally and physically (as he’s “only” listed at 6-3, 265 pounds).
The linebackers were the heart of last season’s defense as Brown had season totals of 13.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss (which led the nation). McGraw once again led the defense in total tackles with 141 (and a career total of 510, which is tops in Coogs history). Phillip Steward (whom was voted as a team captain for the 2012 squad by fellow team mates) intercepted six passes last season from his Strong side (or Sam) line backer spot, leading all backers in NCAA play. Derrick Mathews was a freshman sensation as he amassed 106 total tackles on the season from the Weak side spot (which was second on the team to McGraw), including 10 tackles for loss while also forcing two fumbles. Manning the middle at the Mike spot will be Everett Daniels. The senior from Trinity Valley CC totaled 38 tackles last season in a limited role and according to Bryant is “having a great camp.” Backing them up will be Austin Wilson, George Bamfo and Damian Payne (who is switching from wide receiver after playing defensive back last season). Of the three, Bamfo could make a push for playing time as he was third on the team with three sacks last season. When asked about transfer Trevon Randle and whether or not he would be ruled eligible to play this season, Bryant laughed and said, “You guys will probably know before we do.”
One thing is certain about this season’s linebacking core; although they lost their two most productive players and team leaders, the unit will still be the nerve center of the defense again, as the middle backer relays the calls to the rest of the defense. According to Coach Logo - how they (the linebackers) read their pre-snap keys will determine how the defense plays certain offensive formations. Daniels as the mike line backer will be responsible for relaying all of the defensive calls from the sideline to his team mates.
This could possibly be the most talented secondary the Cougars have had in recent years, and are led by ‘shut down’ corner (and preseason Thorpe Award watch list nominee) D.J. Hayden. After transferring to UH from Navarro Junior College, he managed to make play after play earning him the Conference USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2011. On the season Hayden had 66 total tackles (including 8 tackles for loss), forced five fumbles (while recovering two of them), one sack, defended 11 passes and intercepted two of them. His football IQ is off the charts as he’s quickly able to read a play, defeat his blocker and make the tackle all within seconds. His play reading and run stopping ability will allow Bryant to use him very aggressively this season. At 6 feet, 190 pounds Hayden has all the intangibles to become an NFL draft pick with another quality season. The scary part is that the best is yet to come, according to Bryant, “I think D.J. can improve a lot. He knows that and I know that. He’s had to change a lot of things since he got here but he’s worked extremely hard and he’s a lot better player today than he was even two weeks ago.”
At the other corner spot will be Zach McMillian. Backing him up will be Thomas Bates. How McMillian and Bates improve from last year could determine how successful the defense is, as they will be picked on often as no offensive coordinator will take a chance on throwing to Hayden’s side of the field too often. McMillian started 13 games last season and was second on the team with seven passes broken up. Bates played in all 14 games and started three, and was tied for second on the team with three interceptions. Look for teams to continue picking on both despite any technique improvement, as it’s simply physics. A lack of height can often hurt a corner (especially concerning jump balls or fades) and both are listed at only 5-10. If neither McMillian nor Bates can get the job done one freshman to watch will be Trevon Stewart. While only being listed at 5-foot-8 himself, the true freshman has been making plays all over the field during summer camp as it has been reported that he has intercepted at least one pass in 11 of the first 12 practices. Even Bryant, who usually keeps his praising of players close to the vest (especially freshman) said, “For a young guy he’s had a tremendous camp so far. I would venture to say that people will see him on the field this year.” Stewart has what the young folks call “swag” but it seems to be helping him on the field as he told me before summer camp began, “I think if I come with the right mindset and work hard on the field and in the film room then I should get playing time. I plan on coming in and playing big. I know it's not going to be handed to me, I have to work for it.”
In Bryant’s scheme, both the strong and free safety positions are interchangeable. Chris Cermin will begin the season as strong safety while Kent Brooks will play at free safety. Cermin, a former walk-on, really impressed the staff over spring ball and hasn’t let go of the job yet, which was surprising considering he only played in 13 games over his first three seasons. Cermin is a hard hitter who has a knack for being around the ball. Brooks finished last season with 75 tackles (good for fifth behind the four mentioned starting linebackers). He’s known as a ferocious hitter and should be hitting his stride as he enters his junior year after playing in 24 games (with 10 starts) over the previous two seasons. Backing them up will be Earl Foster (at strong) and Chevy Bennett (at free) with Jeffrey Lewis and Colton Valencia also contributing. All (except for Foster) saw plenty of game action last season. Look for the secondary to be as aggressive (if not more so) than last season under corner backs coach Zac Spavital, who is beginning his fifth season. Last season the Cougars ranked third nationally with 21 interceptions. Second year graduate assistant and former defensive captain, Matt Nicholson will usually coach the safeties when the team breaks into individual position drills during practice.
The depth on all three levels of the defense is there and the potential for this defense to be great is present. As Coach Logo told me in summing up this defense, “As far as defensive goals, we want to create a minimum of three turnovers (they were fourth last season in turnover margin) and sack the QB at least three times per game. We want to be aggressive and make our presence felt by getting to the QB. It’s a complicated defense to play in but once the kids start understanding the scheme, they’ll see how successful we can be.”