This is the seventh part in SB Nation Houston's position-by-position preview of the 2012 Cougar season. Be sure to check out the Wide Receivers, Linebackers, Running Backs, Secondary, Offensive Line and Special Teams previews, as well.
As we've previously mentioned, it's easy to forget that the 2010 Cougars actually had a pretty good offense. (It's easy to forget everything about the 2010 season, actually.) The emergence of a solid defense was as important in 2011 as Case Keenum breaking all of his records. And no defensive unit was worse in 2010 - or made a bigger jump in 2011 - than the defensive line. Last year, the Cougar D-line went from allowing 4.8 yards per carry to just 4.2. With some help from linebacker Sammy Brown, the Cougar defense went from recording 20 quarterback sacks to 31. Just as importantly, quarterback hurries nearly doubled, from 22 to 43.
With an offense that, by even the most optimistic standards, figures to take a step back from 49.3 points per game it put up last year, it's important that the Cougars don't take any steps back on defense. So can the Cougar defensive front be even better in 2012?
As you probably know by now, the Cougars are switching defensive schemes from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 base in 2012. With an extra player to coach, the Cougars are going from one defensive line coach to two, with Ricky Logo coaching the tackles, and Carlton Hall coaching the defensive ends. Hall was the sole defensive line coach last year, after holding the same position for four years with Harvard. Joining him is Logo, who has previously coached the defensive lines of Troy, Vanderbilt (where he worked with current Cougar defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant) and Furman.
The hiring of two positional coaches on the defensive line indicates that Houston is focusing on a unit where they have struggled for many years. In fact, no Cougar defensive lineman has been drafted in the NFL since (gulp) 1990.
Switching from a 3-man to a 4-man front requires depth up at the position, and the Cougars have that. Gone is David Hunter, one of the most important players on the '11 D-line, but every other significant contributor is back. In fact, all eight members of the fall 2-deep have at least 12 games of college experience under their belts.
Starting in the middle at the tackle position, the two listed starters are seniors Dominic Miller and Radermon Scypion. Miller was a junior college transfer who started 13 of 14 games in his first year with the program last year. Miller finished the season with 25 tackles and three QB hurries. Scypion has struggled to stay healthy in his first three years on campus, but has the talent to be a contributor if he can finally put the injuries behind him.
An intriguing back-up to keep an eye on is sophomore Joey Mbu. Mbu didn't put up big numbers last year, but showed enough talent that the coaches chose not to use a redshirt on him in his first year on campus. Mbu figures to be the heir apparent at the defensive tackle position next year, and with his size (listed at 6'2", 310) he could be ready to make a difference already in 2012.
At the end position, senior Lloyd Allen is listed as a starter after playing linebacker in 2011. He lacks ideal size at 6'3", 235, but has already shown a nose for the quarterback, with 3.5 sacks as a reserve last year. Expected to start on the other end is junior Zeke Riser. Riser was a contributor on the line as a true freshman in 2009, starting all 14 games and making the conference all-freshman team, before missing the '10 season and taking a redshirt due to an ACL tear. Riser returned a year ago, playing in all 14 games, but starting just four. If Zeke Riser is back to full health, he could be one of the top defensive linemen in Conference USA.
Curiously, sophomore Eric Braswell finds himself listed as a backup in the fall two-deep. Braswell was one of the top performers on the line as a freshman in 2011, leading the unit with 47 tackles. If he can work his way back to a starting position, and if he continues his production, Braswell has the kind of size (6'5", 268) that makes him projectable to break Houston's drought of defensive linemen playing on Sundays.
Three-year letterman Kelvin King fills out the last position on the two-deep. Other experienced D-linemen include sophomores Efrem Oliphant and Jeremiah Farley. Converted linebacker Jon Witten has yet to appear in a game in his first two years on campus, but he had an impressive Spring, and could end up seeing the field.
With the switch to the 4-3 defense necessitating a steady stream of recruits to fill out the position, the Cougars signed four defensive linemen in the 2012 class. Unfortunately only three remain with the program, as Donald Hopkins ending up leaving the team earlier this month. The three freshman with the program are tackle Tomme Mark (a 3-star recruit from Lufkin), end Bryan Singleton (a 3-star recruit from Destrehan, Louisiana) and Cameron Malveaux (a 2-star from Hamshire). Mark and Singleton come into the program with pretty good size, already, at 6"2", 260 and 6'4", 250, respectively. At 6'6", 215, Malveaux will need to add some bulk before he sees the field, but could make for an intriguing prospect down the road.
The Cougars currently list two verbal commitments on the defensive line in the 2013 class, in Michael Jolivet of Navarro Junior College and Zelt Minor of Lamar High in Houston. Both are listed as 3-star recruits by Rivals.