Much has been written about Houston's prolific offense, but as last season proved, you can't win if you can't stop the other team. Will the defense be up to the task in 2010?
Here's a statement that probably won't surprise anybody: the Houston defense wasn't very good in 2009. Sure, there were exceptions. The Cougars held a high-powered Texas Tech offense to 28 points, allowing UH to pull out a one-point win in its lowest-scoring game of the regular season. The defense also made enough key stops to make the Oklahoma State win possible, and held June Jones and SMU to just 15 points - the Mustangs' second-lowest total of the year. (TCU held them to 14.)
In defense of the defense, it's also worth mentioning that final yardage and point totals may be misleading when judging this group. Because the Houston offense is so powerful, and so incredibly fast, it puts a fair amount of stress on the D. A quick-strike offense means the defense has to play more possessions than most, and gets less time to rest in between drives.
Even taking all of that into consideration, one can look at Houston's losses, and realize that the defense wasn't up to the task. In the 58-41 loss at UTEP, Houston surrendered 305 yards on the ground (7.4 per carry) and another 276 in the air (9.2 per attempt), and did not force a single turnover.
In the UCF loss, the Cougars allowed definition-of-mediocrity Knight QB Brett Hodges to complete 21-of-25 passes, keeping every drive alive, allowing far too much time to tick off the clock.
You could argue that the Houston offense beat itself with four turnovers in the Conference championship loss to East Carolina, but the 413 yards surrendered by the defense sure didn't help. The bottom line is that Houston went undefeated in the eight contests in which it held its opponents to 35 points or fewer - and just 2-4 in the games in which it did not.
The most frustrating aspect of the Cougar defense in '09 was the vanilla style it played. Blitzing was rare - Houston finished 8th in C-USA in sack rate, and second-to-last in tackles for loss - and big plays were few and far between. When you know your offense is going to put up points, why not take a few risks? Why play into your opponents' hands by letting them slowly bleed out the clock?
These questions led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator John Skladany, and the hiring of Brian Stewart, a coach with NFL experience who promises a more aggressive defensive scheme, a scheme fans hope will produce a defense at least vaguely resembling the famed "Mad Dog" defenses of years past. Stewart also has the Cougars switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. The possibility of a 3-3-5 has also been discussed, and toyed with in scrimmages. This would give Houston a different look to show against some of the pass-happy teams in C-USA.
Let's take a look at the personnel.
Starters: David Hunter (Jr., DE), Tyrone Campbell (So., DT), Matangi Tonga (Sr., DE). Yes, Stewart figures to blitz a lot, but with the switch to just a three-man front, the pressure is on this trio to somehow improve upon Houston's shoddy rush defense of a year ago. Hunter was solid, if unspectacular as a sophomore starter in '09. Campbell appeared in every game but one as a freshman, but didn't get a lot of reps. Tonga comes in as one of the most hyped recruits of the last class, having spent two years at a junior college after getting significant work as a freshman at BYU. There's a lot of talent among this group, but not a lot of experience. Whether this group can get some pressure on the QB and stop the run (two things it largely failed to do last year) is probably the Cougars' biggest question heading into the season. Despite the loss of Zeke Riser to injury (Riser started every game as a true freshman last year, but will miss the entire season), the early results from the spring and fall scrimmages have been somewhat promising.
Backups: Especially with Riser out, depth up front is certainly a question mark. That fact was one of the major considerations in switching to the 3-4 base. Sophomores DeAnthony Sims (a high school teammate of Charles Sims who came to UH after Texas Tech pulled his offer at the last second), Radermon Scypion and Ameen Behbahani should play key roles after being forced into action as true freshman in '09. Sophomore Kelvin King played linebacker in high school and as a freshman at UH, but has been used on the line in the fall, and is even listed at DL on Houston's official site.
Starters: Sammy Brown (Jr., OLB), Marcus McGraw (Jr., ILB), Matt Nicholson (Sr., ILB), Phillip Steward (So., OLB). Even with the graduation of C.J. Cavness (143 tackles in '09) and the necessity of adding a fourth starter in the linebacking corps, this looks like a position of strength for the Cougars. Like Tonga, Brown is a junior college transfer who has drawn rave early reviews. All McGraw has done is start from day one as a true freshman, putting up 259 tackles (15.5 for loss) in two years, and been named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team, All-C-USA Second Team and Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List. Nicholson's talent cannot be questioned, but his health certainly can. He missed the final four games of the '08 season with a knee injury, then suffered another knee injury three games into last season, and missed the rest of the year. He petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, and it was granted. The silver lining to Nicholson's '09 injury was the emergence of Steward, who took over the starting spot alongside Cavness and McGraw, and ended up with 89 tackles, and a C-USA All-Freshman Team nod.
Backups: Much like the d-line, the depth isn't as impressive as the starting talent. Sophomore Kris Johnston showed some flashes last year, but also faces questions on the health of his knees. King will probably see some time here. George Bamfo (all-name team alert!) was able to utilize a redshirt a year ago, and should get some reps. John McIntyre, in addition to his duties as a surgeon in Korea, has appeared in 26 games over the past two seasons as a member of the special teams and backup linebacker. Efrem Oliphant, Jon Witten and Austin Wilson might all see time as true freshmen.
Starters: Jamal Robinson (Sr., CB), Devin Mays (Sr., CB) or Loyce Means (Sr., CB), Nick Saenz (Jr., FS), Roisean Haynes (Jr., SS). Steve Campbell has Mays and Means fighting it out for the last cornerback spot, with both seeing the field in 3-3-5 situations. Means has shown flashes of talent over the past two seasons (including his memorable three-interception performance against Tulsa in '08), but has yet to "put it all together," as they say. Mays got significant work as a special teams contributor last year after transferring from San Francisco CC, and will have a heavier influence on the secondary this year. Saenz and Robinson were two of Houston's most consistent defensive backs as first-year starters last year, and are both poised for breakout seasons. Haynes has been one of the surprises of the off-season, at least for me. I was terribly impressed with senior Jacky Candy (a JC transfer who missed last year due to injury) in the spring, and fully expected him to win the job alongside Saenz. And to be completely honest, I've never been real impressed with what I've seen from Haynes. But it is the Converse native who has been tabbed as the starter by coaches who know much more than me.
Backups: Candy and the non-starter between Mays and Means will be the primary backups. If Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia's appeal to play immediately is accepted by the NCAA, he will likely see significant action. Junior B.K. Johnson and freshman Alton Demby also figure to contribute. The coaching staff felt good enough about Houston's depth in the secondary to switch junior safety Jeffery Lewis to running back.