2018 Houston Cougars Season Preview: Linebackers
By: Jimmy Schofield
The Houston Cougars defense has had some talented linebackers over the last decade, from Marcus McGraw to Derrick Mathews to Steven Taylor to Elandon Roberts, Tyus Bowser, Matt Adams and D’Juan Hines all at least getting a cup of coffee in NFL training camps if not playing in the league today.
This year’s linebacking core hopes to keep the tradition going with an athletic if not experienced group under second year defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. Leading the way in terms of experience and leadership is Emeke Egbule (6-4, 2405, Sr.), with 95 career tackles (59 solo), but just 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks coming into his third year as a starter (but just his second as the designated outside-rush backer). Last season the Houston-Northshore product registered just two sacks as the defenses total plummeted from 39 for the 2016 season (17th nationally), with 36 during the magical 2015 season (19th) to just 23 last year (tied for 79th). While Egbule appears better covering in space rather than rushing the passer, he still started as the outside rush backer in the spring game (registering two solo tackles) with Leroy Godfrey (6-3, 240, RJr.) at the other outside spot. Austin Robinson (6-3, 240, Sr.) and Roman Brown (6-2, 230, RSr.) occupied the two inside spots.
While being named a starter for the spring game doesn’t mean anything in of itself, it does show the confidence the staff has in the aforementioned four but look for transfer senior Darrion Owens (6-3, 255) to make an impact as a thumping downhill physical presence on the inside. Up from the 240 pounds listed on the spring roster, this is what D’Onofrio had to say about the Miami transfer during the Cougars Media Day (via uhcougars.com), “I had him for two years, his second year he had an ACL injury, but as a freshman he stood out for being really smart. It’s rare that you ask a freshman to play two positions in multiple packages. By the time he was a sophomore he was our starting outside linebacker, backup inside linebacker and our rush-end on third down packages. He’s really bright. He’s a tough inside linebacker type. If you’re asking what has changed since I was there, he has probably gotten bigger, but he’s a good teammate and has fit in really well.”
Owens has played in 39 career games in Coral Gables and had 35 of his career 79 total tackles last season, capping the year with 9 against Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. With Big Ed and company handling opposing offensive lines look for him and Robinson to lead the “Third Ward Defense” in tackles. Worth noting that one lineup had Owens lining up at right end on certain third down packages as he registered one tackle in limited snaps during the spring game.
Brown led the way during the spring game with four tackles, but he’s always played well during the spring. The question has always been can he contribute during the season at his size? After seeing limited snaps (seven total tackles in nine career games), the walk-on has added a solid 15 pounds over the years and is finally listed at over 6-feet.
Robinson meanwhile, who was given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, burst on the scene last season with 33 total tackles (19 solo), 5.5 TFL and a sack in 4 starts over 12 games after registering just four total tackles in 11 games in 2016. He sat out 2015 after transferring from UTSA where he started his career as a quarterback. The Pearland-Episcopal product has the high football IQ from his days under center, along with the speed to disrupt plays inside shooting gaps or along the edge as a pass rusher and will be looked at as one of the leaders on defense. He had two solo tackles in the spring game in limited snaps.
This may be Godfrey’s time to shine after having a solid season last year, contributing on the field after seeing limited time the previous season. The redshirt junior finished second with 8.5 TFL, while adding two sacks and 33 total tackles (20 solo) as he started the final four games of the season alongside Egbule.
The second wave of young linebackers who got their feet wet last season includes David Anenih (6-3, 237, So.) and Elijah Gooden (6-1, 230, So.) outside with Jordan Milburn (6-1, 235, RJr.) inside. Anenih took the fans by surprise as he had two sacks while two of his six total tackles were for loss in limited playing time. He was used as a defensive end at Mansfield Timberview in Arlington as he showed quick-twitch ability to get to the QB, just as he did last season from the outside rush backer spot. Gooden meanwhile played in 10 games last season mainly on special teams and finished the season with four total tackles (two solo). He’s exactly the type of athlete that second year head coach Major Applewhite and staff are looking to recruit. Gooden led Boling to the 3A state title in 2016, finishing his career with over 3,600 rushing yards with 50 TD’s while registering nearly 150 total tackles, 18 sacks and 2 interceptions as a do-it all linebacker, lining up all over the field.
Time may be running out for Milburn, who really hasn’t made a mark yet as a major contributor, totaling just 5 total tackles in 23 career games (mainly on special teams). The Galveston-Ball product does have the potential however to have a breakout season, just as he did his senior season in high school, when registered 118 total tackles including 11 for loss and 7 sacks but also had 8 pass breakups and a blocked kick. He did have four total tackles, one solo, in the spring game as the linebackers were mixed and matched on the first and second teams vigorously as D’Onofrio will continue looking for the right combo into the regular season.
Two wildcards could be Derek Parish (6-2, 245, RFr.) as a classic downhill inside linebacker with Alexander Duke (6-2, 245, RFr.) the prototypical outside rush linebacker in today’s college game. Both redshirted last season and added solid weight (muscle mass). Parish was a three-year starter at Pearland and was timed at 4.5 in the 40 while also being labeled as a good open field tackler as well as being able to diagnose plays quickly (registering three solo tackles during the spring game). He was also named to the District 6A-23 First Team in 2016.
Duke, who was listed as a defensive end on last year’s roster as that’s the position he played in high school, has more a body frame to perhaps play at the outside rush linebacker spot. At 245 pounds he’s a tad light to play on the interior at end but excels in using his quickness in shooting gaps as he showed during the spring game making a tackle-for-loss. The Bellaire product could also be effect as a strong side run stopping outside linebacker spot as he totaled 31 tackles his senior year and 76 for his career along with 12 sacks.
True freshmen at linebacker this season are Donavan Mutin (6-0, 222), Zamar Kirven (6-3, 205), and Dekalen Goodson (6-2 226) along with “tweeners” Logan Hall (6-6, 241) and Willie Smith III (6-1, 245). With as deep, though inexperienced, as the linebacking core is I’d look for each of these true freshmen to redshirt, but if they show they can make plays during training camp they’ll get game snaps early in the season, especially on special teams. And remember, a new NCAA rule allows student athletes to play in up to four games and still maintain their redshirt seasons, something I’m sure Applewhite and staff will take advantage of.
Of the five aforementioned freshmen, I’m most intrigued by Hall and Smith (if no one has established themselves as an outside linebacker who can pressure the QB). Both have the perfect body type to be an outside rush linebacker as Hall can use his length to bat down balls at the line of scrimmage yet is athletic enough to lead Belton High’s various special teams coverage units while also running track. Smith meanwhile registered 162 total tackles including 39 TFL and 13.5 sacks. The Spring native also forced five turnovers and played running back as a three-year starter as he’s the type of pure athlete that (again) Applewhite and D’Onofrio are looking to recruit; a see-ball, get-ball athletic freak.
Kirven is the definition of a “play maker” on the high school level, affecting the game whether from an outside linebacker spot, wide receiver, or on special teams. One game last season he scored five touchdowns, on five total touches (two as a receiver, two on defense via fumble recovery and pick-6 and one on special teams). The Mart standout has a combined 50 TFL over the past two seasons at linebacker and averaged over 15 yards-per-reception as a receiver as he no doubt would have been higher than a 2-star ranked prospect had he not played for a 2A school in my opinion.
Goodson and Mutin are also freak athletes as Goodson is the latest of out of the John Tyler HS pipeline who registered 144 total tackles, 33 for loss and 21 sacks over the past three seasons. Mutin added over 150 total tackles, 26 for loss and 19 sacks the past two seasons via his inside linebacker spot at Klein Collins out of Spring.
The talent at linebacker that D’Onofrio and staff have at their disposal is unlimited potential wise. That’s not included Amaud Willis-Dalton (6-1, 215, RFr.) who I see more as a nickel back (I’ll get more into on next week’s article on the defensive backs). The key to the success of the defense is can the coaching staff translate this potential to results on the field? That’s the true definition of coaching. Where pressure will be coming from will be a nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators IF D’Onofrio, and second year outside linebacker’s coach Dan Carrel, can match the scheme up with the talent.
This has been a major talking point for “Coogfans” over the past year as D’Onofrio as seen as too passive, pressure wise. Over the past nine years as a DC (at Temple, Miami and his first year at Houston in 2017), his defenses have averaged just 24 sacks and 66 TFL per season, both in the bottom half of the nation. Will he have the confidence in his secondary to “let the Coogs lose” this coming campaign? Next week we’ll discuss how the secondary’s play fits into this discussion as we preview the back end of the defense.