TULSA, OK - NOVEMBER 25: Defensive back D.J. Hayden #2 of the Houston Cougars runs after a fumble recovery in the first half against the Tulsa Hurricanes November 25, 2011 at H.A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Houston defeated Tulsa 48-16. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
D.J. Hayden leads Conference USA's deepest, most talented group of defensive backs for the Cougars in 2012.
How does a football team like Houston go from 5-7 in one season to 13-1 the next? Getting a record-breaking quarterback to return from injury doesn't hurt. But the Cougars scored over 37 points per game already in 2010. Arguably the most important difference was a defense that allowed 10 fewer points per game than the year prior. And arguably the strongest unit in that defense was the secondary. Returning a wealth of talent from last year's team, the 2012 Houston Cougar secondary could very well anchor a defense that carries the team while the new offensive skill players get on the same page.
While the Cougars will be breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball and five new positional coaches, defensive backs coach Zac Spavital returns to his post, where he has quietly done a very good job for the past four years. Spavital was a graduate assistant at Oklahoma before heading south to Houston with Kevin Sumlin, and even when Sumlin left, Spavital actually turned down a potential opportunity to coach with his brother at West Virginia to remain with the Cougars. That means that Spavital joins head coach Tony Levine as the longest-tenured members of the UH football coaching staff, both having been with the program now since 2008. That experience and relationship with Levine may be the main reason Spavital stayed, as he was calling Levine "one of the most organized, professional guys" in college football and "well deserving" of the head coaching job even before the off-season.
The Cougars return three of four starters from a secondary that was nothing short of excellent a year ago, and only got better as the year went on. The 2011 Cougars finished tied for third in the nation in interceptions (21), tied for fifth in passes defended (58), and tied for 13th in pass yards allowed per attempt (6.23). The NCAA's Pass Efficiency Defense statistic ranked the Cougars 12th in the country. Quite simply, the Cougars are returning seven of the top eight contributors from one of the best secondaries in the nation.
Leading the way will be the cornerback duo of D.J. Hayden and Zachary McMillian. Both Hayden and McMillian burst onto the scene as starters in 2011, Hayden in his first year as a junior college transfer, McMillian in his first year as a starter after spending the '10 season on special teams. Hayden was the star, leading the team with 11 passes broken up, intercepting two passes, and forcing a fumble in five straight games, en route to being named the Conference USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year. But McMillian, son of former UH and NFL star Audray McMillian, quietly went about his business, showing consistency not often seen in an underclassman. Hayden was hailed as a team leader during the Spring (and rightly so), but the play of McMillian on the other side of the field, not giving opposing quarterbacks any favorable options, will be what keeps the Cougar secondary among the nation's best.
The safety spots are a little more up in the air. Heading into Spring, most had penciled in returning starter Kent Brooks and former Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia as the logical starters. But Tony Levine, he of the empty depth chart, put the kibosh on that, giving seniors Chris Cermin (who has spent the past three years on special teams) and Jeffery Lewis (who was recruited as a defensive back, was converted to running back, and then re-converted back to defensive back) the starting reps when he felt they outplayed the incumbents.
Senior Chevy Bennett (a junior college teammate of Hayden's, who started five games a year ago before getting injured) and junior Thomas Bates (who had two huge interceptions in the comeback win over Louisiana Tech) round out a deep, talented secondary.
Of the eight players mentioned who figure to get the bulk of the reps in the secondary, there are four seniors and four juniors, so the Cougars will have to find eight new players by the 2014 season. The good news is that there are some well-regarded recruits coming up. Earl Foster out of Lamar High in Houston was part of the 2010 recruiting class that included Hayden and Bennett, but redshirted last year. Foster recorded six tackles and an interception in the Spring game. Trevon Stewart and Jarrett Irving enter the program in 2012, and are likely to redshirt with all of the upperclassmen in front of them. Foster, Stewart and Irving were all three-star rated recruits by Rivals. Incoming three-star athlete William Jackson is another candidate to play in the secondary.
We'll have to wait to see how the recruits pan out. But the talent returning in the secondary has already proven that the idea of a Houston Cougar football team being defined by its defense is no longer out of the question.
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