Let's have a look at the good, the bad, and the future of the Cougar defensive line in 2010.
Position Coach: None. Jim Jeffcoat was recently relieved on this position after three years.
Key Figures In 2010: Tyrone Campbell (Sophomore, 22 tackles, 2 tackles for loss), David Hunter (Junior, 51 tkl, 8 tfl, 2.5 sacks), Kelvin King (Sophomore, 36 tkl, 5.5 tfl, 4 sck), Matangi Tonga (Senior, 26 tkl, 5.5 tfl, 1.5 sck)
How It Went Down: The pre-season hype at this position was whether or not the Cougars could lure Jackson Jeffcoat, the son of their defensive line coach, to Houston. It would have been the biggest recruit in a couple of decades for the Cougars, but it didn't happen. The Coogs did get a commitment from Tonga, a junior college transfer with just one year of eligibility left, who was getting a lot of recruiting love from the Pac-10.
There were a number of losses from a defensive front that already wasn't consistently productive the year before. Tyrell Graham graduated, taking his team-leading 7 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss with him. Zeke Riser, who was forced into action as a true freshman in 2009, was lost for the year with an injury. Senior, and two-year contributor Isaiah Thompson, switched to the offensive line.
The other key off-season change was a switch in defensive coordinators, from John Skladany to, and a switch in schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
The result was a mixed bag, and the improvement was marginal, if it was there at all.
Despite Stewart's promise of blitzes and aggressive play-calling, the Cougars actually generated four fewer quarterback sacks than the year before. Admittedly, this was in two fewer games. And overall tackles for a loss did increase by 13.
The run defense allowed three tenths of a yard less per rush, but giving up 4.8 yards per carry still won't win you any awards. One could counter that much of the damage Houston opponents did on the ground came via quarterback scrambles and zone read options, and more responsibility might lay on the shoulders of the linebackers than the defensive line. However, against good opponents, the guys in the trenches just looked over-matched, and didn't consistently get enough of a push.
The Future: As with the graduation of Graham a year ago, the defensive line loses one of its lone bright spots with the graduation of Tonga. However, there is some reason for optimism. Hunter has had two productive years, and has another year of eligibility left. Campbell, King, Riser, Radermon Scypion, DeAnthony Sims and Ameen Behbahani comprise a group of underclassmen who have already seen more of the field than they should have due to lack of depth, but could end up being better players for it in the years to come. Eric Braswell and Rodney Williams both had some decent offers out of high school, and were able to take redshirts this year.
Another aspect that has Cougar fans looking forward to the future of this group is the size and talent of the verbal commitments in the 2011 class. Rivals lists four D-linemen in the class, all three-star prospects, most having been recruited by Big 12 schools, and three of the four weighing in at 295+, something only two current Cougar defensive linemen can claim. Especially look for junior college transfer Dominic Smith to have an immediate impact.
The long-term future of this position looks solid. The immediate future is a little murkier. Will experience equal improvement? Will fresh blood in the coaching ranks vitalize the players? These will be some of the most important questions facing the entire Houston Cougar team in 2011.