We've already previewed the Houston Cougars coaching staff and offense here. The defense is led by coordinator Brian Stewart, who employs an aggressive 3-4 scheme. The defense is undersized, and relies on quickness and penetration.
Some of you might remember Stewart from the Dallas Cowboys. He was the defensive coordinator who had his play calling duties removed before being fired by Wade Phillips in what was a last ditch effort on Phillips' behalf to save his job. Despite the split, Stewart had been essentially hand picked by Phillips to run the Cowboys defense after coaching under Phillips in San Diego.
The Cougar defensive line was young last season, and should be improved simply from a year of seasoning and strength training. They two starting lineman from last season; nose tackle Tyrone Campbell, a 6'1 293 lbs. JR, and left end David Hunter, a 6'2 295 lbs. SR. Kelvin King, a 6'2 256 lbs. JR. looks to start at the right end, as he makes the transition from linebacker to defensive lineman. Of the three, Hunter is generally regarded as the most talented. It is interesting to see a lineman as light as King start in the 3-4 scheme, but he was specifically mentioned by Coach Sumlin as someone who makes their defensive front more athletic.
Depth is a concern for the defensive line, but the Cougars do return former starter Zeke Riser at defensive end. The 6'4 270 lbs. SO missed the 2010 season with a knee injury after starting as a freshmen in 2009.
The stength of the Cougar defense returns four linebackers who started games last year. Overall, it's a small, quick unit with an impressive number of tackles for loss. Second team All-Conference USA MLB Marcus McGraw, a 6'0 225 lbs. senior leads the unit, and he teams with 2010 part time starter Efreem Oliphant, a 6'2 215 lbs. sophomore, on the inside. McGraw led the team with 110 tackles, including seven tackles for loss, but Oliphant racked up 66 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in only three starts.
The two starting outside linebackers, Sammy Brown, a 6'3 240 lbs. SR, and Phillip Steward, a 6'2 220 lbs. JR are both very skilled. Brown's blend of size and speed make him a natural blitzer, and he led the team with 20 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Steward, on the other hand, excels in pass coverage and led the team with 7 pass breakups and also had 9 tackles for loss.
The excellent starting four gives way to a fairly inexperienced set of back-ups. George Bamfo, a 5'11 210 lbs. SO, and Austin Wilson, a 6'2 210 lbs. SO both had minimal playing time last year and will back-up the OLB positions. Kris Johnson, a 6'0 218 lbs. JR, will back-up on the inside after playing in 9 games last year. The final spot is backed up by RS FR Jon Witten, who is listed at 6'2 222 lbs. after coming to Houston at only 195 lbs.
Houston starts a completely new secondary. In fact, the starting spot with experience is free safety, where Houston returns SO Kent Brooks, who started one game last year as a true freshmen. At 5'11 205 lbs., he is undersized but has a reputation of being a big hitter. His back-up, Nick Saenz, is returning for his senior season after off-season surgery. He should be ready for the opener. He is also undersized at 6'1 190 lbs, but he's a tackling machine who plays more like a linebacker. Given the inexperience in the secondary, Saenz's experience and leadership will be a valuable asset if he plays. Jack Candy also returns after the NCAA granted him a 6th year of eligibility over the summer.
The strong safety spot is manned by another sophomore, D.J. Jones, and Colton Valencia, a transfer from Texas A&M. Jones played in 9 games last year and made 3 tackles. The two are essentially the same size; Jones stands 6'1 190 lbs. while Valencia is listed at 5'10 190 lbs. Saenz may also play some SS, in which case D.J. Jones would move over to back-up FS.
At cornerback, Houston will likely start two junior college transfers. Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden transferred as teammates from Navarro JC in Texas, and both bring good size. Hayden is listed at 6'0 185 lbs. and Bennett is listed at 6'1 185 lbs. Jeffrey Lewis, a 5'9 185 lbs. JR will man the nickle spot after playing in 12 games as a sophomore. Lewis has split time at running back, safety, and corner, so he's not exactly an experienced cornerback, but he does have two years experience. He reminds me of Jamie Graham in that he just plays football, no matter where you put him. Thomas Bates is the other back-up corner, and is listed at 5'11 175 lbs. He also played in 12 games last year as a FR, but he's fairly small for the D1 ranks.
Houston returns JR kicker Matt Hogan and SO punter Richie Leone. Both have performed well, despite the fact that they are not used much. Hogan was 14-17 on field goal attempts last year, including 13-13 inside the 40. Leone averaged 41.4 yards per punt.
The Cougar return game is solid with dynamic Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards returning kicks and punts. They both had returns for scores last year. On the other hand, Houston ranked 104th on punt coverage and 83rd on kick coverage. They did not give up any return scores, but their return average against were very high.
That wraps up the Houston Cougar preview. Fire away with any additional comments and information!