HOUSTON - DECEMBER 03: Linebacker Phillip Steward #42 of the Houston Cougars intercepts a pass in the fourth quarter against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Robertson Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Senior Phillip Steward leads a linebacking unit that looks like one of Conference USA's best, despite two big losses due to graduation.
This is the fifth part in SB Nation Houston's position-by-position preview of the 2012 Cougar season. Be sure to check out the Running Backs, Secondary, Offensive Line and Special Teams previews, as well.
As a team, the Houston Cougars graduated a lot of talent this off-season, but still feel like they have a lot of talent left. No position better exemplifies the "losing much, but returning much" dynamic than linebacker. Gone is steady Marcus McGraw, who led the team in tackles in each of his four years on campus. Gone is big play Sammy Brown, whose 30 tackles for loss in 2011 were the highest total put up by anybody at the FBS level since 2007, and the most by a linebacker in over a decade.
Despite the losses, the Cougars have two returning, productive starters at the linebacker position, making the unit a legitimate team strength.
The Cougar linebackers were coached a year ago by positional coach Jamie Bryant. Bryant was promoted this off-season to defensive coordinator, and remains the man in charge of the linebackers, as well. Bryant spent nine years coaching the defense at Vanderbilt prior to coming to Houston, including two years as the defensive coordinator. In his first year at Houston, he coached four standout performers in the linebacking corps. Between the experience and the recent productivity, Bryant was an easy choice to get promoted to coordinator duties.
One of Bryant's first moves as defensive coordinator was to switch the Cougars back from the 3-4 base defense to the 4-3. (The Cougars had just moved to the 3-4 two years prior.) Head coach Tony Levine has pointed out that the switch doesn't represent much of a difference in philosophy, as Brown rushed essentially every down last year anyway, making the Cougars a de facto 4-3 team already.
Still, the switch to the literal 4-3 means that, despite the graduations, Houston returns two starters for three spots in 2012.
The two returning stars are senior Phillip Steward and sophomore Derrick Mathews. Steward led all linebackers nationally a year ago with six interceptions. Not solely a cover linebacker, Steward also made 77 tackles, including eight for a loss.
Mathews was a revelation in 2011 as a true freshman. He stepped in as a starter from day one, piling up 106 tackles to go with three interceptions, the second highest marks on the team in each category. During the second quarter of Houston's 56-3 steamrolling of East Carolina, Mathews showed the Cougar faithful just how good he can be, picking up a tackle for a loss on one play, and intercepting an ECU pass on the next. At 5'11", 202 lbs, Mathews is far from the biggest linebacker on the squad, but has a football IQ beyond his years, and will continue to be one of Houston's keystone players as they head into the Big East.
Senior Everett Daniels is the favorite to earn the third starting spot in the linebacking corps after a productive Spring. Daniels played in 13 games as a reserve last year after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College. Daniels made 38 tackles in his first season with the Cougars.
The most notable of the projected back-ups is junior George Bamfo. Bamfo, in addition to his lifetime membership on the all-name team, has made 24 appearances over the past two years. In 2011, Bamfo picked up three quarterback sacks, good for third on the team.
Also providing experienced depth are senior Kris Johnston and junior Austin Wilson. Sophomores Xavier Brown and Damian Payne are a couple of names to keep an eye on, also. Both were switched to linebacker recently from other positions. (Brown from halfback, Payne from wide receiver.) Both have enough athleticism to be impact players once they master the position. Payne, despite only having just switched this fall, is already listed as a second-stringer in Levine's recently-released two-deep.
The Cougars are still waiting, as they have been much of the off-season, for word on transfer Trevon Randle. Randle was ranked as high as the sixth best outside linebacker in the country as a high school senior. He spent the 2011 season redshirting at LSU, before deciding to transfer to Houston. The Cougars are hoping that the NCAA will grant Randle's waiver to play immediately for Houston in 2012 as a redshirt freshman. Otherwise, Randle will debut in the 2013 season as a sophomore.
Houston adds a trio of scholarship athletes at the linebacker position in 2012 in Steven Taylor, Thaddeus LaGrone and Davonte Thomas. LaGrone and Thomas are Rivals 3-star recruits, while Taylor was listed as a 2-star. LaGrone, from Allen, Texas, comes in with the most hype, reportedly choosing the Cougars over scholarship offers from Baylor, Michigan State, Navy and Nevada, among others.
All three might get handed redshirts in 2012, given the upperclassman depth at the position, but with the impending graduations of guys like Steward and Daniels, they'll get their chance to shine soon enough.
Rivals lists Houston having one verbal commitment so far from a linebacker in the 2013 class, in Reggie McGee, from all the way in Olney, Maryland. McGee also has scholarship offers from Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Purdue and Virginia.
For more on the Houston Cougars and the 2012 college football season, check out SB Nation's college football page.