2018 Houston Cougars Football Spring primer: Defense
By: Jimmy Schofield
With the University of Houston men’s basketball team having its most successful season in decades, the football team looks towards its own version of “March Madness” as they take to the practice fields for 15 spring practices starting Monday March 5 with the annual Red-White game to be played on Saturday April 7 at TDECU Stadium. What needs to improve under second year head coach Major Applewhite to better his first-year mark of 7-5, capped with a loss to Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl? We’ll try to answer that by analyzing the depth chart, position battles and coaching changes that will shape this 2018 squad. This article will break down the defense as Wednesday’s looked at the offensive side of the ball.
Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio returns for his second season looking to improve in certain areas such as pass defense. Last season the “Third Ward Defense” allowed 274 yards-per-game to rank 120th nationally. That’s out of 130 FBS teams. New assistants were brought in to help the secondary in Lamar Morgan and Paul Williams to coach safeties and cornerbacks respectively. Morgan brings playing experience to the position as he started 40 games over his four seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette from 2003-07. The Copperas Cove native coached the past two seasons at Louisiana Tech and Western Carolina before that. He began his career as a Graduate Assistant at Vanderbilt during the 2012 and 13 seasons. Williams meanwhile is very familiar with D’Onofrio as he’s spent 10 years coaching on his staffs at Temple (2006-10) and Miami (11-15) and is a 21-year coaching veteran. Hopefully the duo can teach better technique and the unit can play more man coverage this season, as the huge cushions they gave wide receivers were so large that receivers were often untouched until they caught the ball deep down the field. But that’s all about teaching fundamentals and molding your system to the talent on-hand.
The biggest help for a secondary is a pass rush so we’ll start with the defensive line. And of course, when talking about the line you start with Ed Oliver (6-foot-3, 290 pounds, Jr.). All “Big” Ed has done in his two seasons on Cullen Boulevard is accumulate 139 total tackles (94 solo) along with 39.5 tackles-for-loss, 10.5 sacks, an incredible 12 passes defended, forced 5 fumbles, won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman for the 2017 season while being named to just about every “first team” known to man. So, enjoy him for what’s to surely be his final season donning a UH uniform before he’s a top-5 pick in the 2019 NFL draft.
Taking up double and sometimes triple teams at the nose, Big Ed allows his fellow front-7 teammates to shoot the interior gaps for short yardage stops on run downs as the Coogs allowed 147 yards rushing-per-game last season (45th) after consecutive seasons of top-10 rankings in rushing yards allowed (108 in 2015 followed by 100 in 2016). While a lot of talent has graduated from those run stopping dominating seasons, plenty still exists. Jerard Carter (6-2, 285, RSr.), who will line up next to Oliver at either end spot, played in just the final four games last season after suffering a foot injury during spring ball. Carter will also spell Oliver when he needs a breather. Carter, like Oliver, is strong at the point of attack and can disengage from blocks quickly to force chaos at the line of scrimmage. For his career the Houston Dekaney product has 55 total tackles (36 solo), 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks and fumble recoveries while starting 11 times in 29 career games.
The other defensive end spot is up in the air, but the opportunity is there for a number of under and upper classmen to make their mark including Isaiah Chambers (6-4, 261, RSo.), Payton Turner (6-5, 240, So.), Aymiel Fleming (6-3, 290, Jr.), Zach Vaughn (6-4, 265, RSr.), Blake Young (5-11, 275, RJr.), Alexander Duke (6-2, 235, RFr.),Noah Jones (6-3, 260, RFr.) and newcomer Taj Brown (6-3, 256, Fr.).
The most intriguing could be Isaiah Chambers, who sat out last season after transferring from TCU. The Aldine-McArthur product had an amazing junior season for the Generals in 2014 in which he amassed 36 of his 68 total tackles for loss with 21 sacks. He redshirted his true freshman season in 2016 meaning he hasn’t played a down of football since his senior season in high school (2015). While the former 4-star recruit hasn’t added a lot of bulk since his HS days, his specialty is his speed off the snap of the ball. Placing him next to Oliver will be an offensive coordinator’s nightmare. He can also line up as a “5 tech” end on passing downs and a “3 tech” on early run downs lining up next to Oliver. The possibilities are limitless where D’Onofrio could line up Oliver, Carter and Chambers.
Payton Turner “turned” some heads early last season by playing well in reserve at end at such a small size, using his speed and quick hands to intercept a pass against Rice. The Houston-Westside High product totaled 14 total tackles (10 solo) on the season including 2 for loss and a sack. Aymiel Fleming also played well early on, but conditioning problems led to seeing decreased playing time as the season progressed, totaling 13 total tackles (8 solo), including a TFL, a sack and a pass defended in 19 career games over his first two seasons. He can also back up Ed at the nose spot on the few occasions Oliver sits. Zach Vaughn has also seen limited snaps in 33 games over his last three seasons, barely registering double digit tackles but has extensive playing time on various special teams’ units and provides depth. Blake Young meanwhile transferred from Cerritos College in Los Angeles, Calif before last season began and registered a tackle after totaling 23 the previous season for Cerritos in 2016. At 5-11 he has the leverage along with the strength to out leverage opposing offensive linemen to get into the opponent’s backfield. The question is does he have the motor to play down after down to crack the top five or six on the depth chart as that’s how many down linemen usually played last season.
Speaking of cracking the rotation, that’s what redshirt freshmen Alexander Duke, Noah Jones and true freshman Taj Brown will try to do starting with spring practice. Duke has more a body frame to perhaps play at the outside rush linebacker spot, a position we’ll get into in a bit. At just 235 pounds he’s a tad light to play on the interior at end, but he could excel at a strong side run stopping outside linebacker spot as the Houston-Bellaire product totaled 31 tackles his senior year and 76 for his career along with 12 sacks. Jones on the other hand totaled 138 tackles for his HS career at Lancaster and was ranked as the nation’s 42nd ranked defensive end by 247sports. Brown, who’s already nearing 260 pounds and has barely begun the winter and spring off-season conditioning program, played inside linebacker at Donaldsonville High in Louisiana, but will begin his career at defensive end as he already has the strength to hold his own in the trenches.
The linebacking core has taken the biggest hit over the past two seasons, losing a plethora of talent to the NFL, but have five lettermen returning who played extensively last season. Replacing Tyus Bowser at the outside rush backer spot proved problematic last season as Emeke Egbule (6-2, 245, Sr.) registered just TWO sacks as the team’s total plummeted from 39 for the 2016 season (17th nationally), to 36 during the magical 2015 season (19th) to just 23 in 2017 (tied for 79th). As a third-year starter this coming season, Egbule appears better covering in space rather than rushing the passer as the former Houston-Northshore product has 95 career tackles (59 solo) but just 7.5 for loss and 3 sacks. Perhaps he would better be suited at one of the two vacant inside linebacker spots and let Austin Robinson (6-3, 235, Sr.) and David Anenih (6-2, 228, So.) use their speed off the edge to rush the passer?
Robinson, who was just 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 4 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 along with the speed to disrupt plays along the edge and will be a welcome addition to a linebacking core losing so much experience. Anenih took the fans by surprise as he added 2 sacks and 2 TFL of his 6 total tackles in limited playing time.
Other ‘backers who will contend for playing time outside are Leroy Godfrey (6-2, 235, RJr.) and Elijah Gooden (6-0, 215, So.). Godfrey had a solid season finishing second on the D with 8.5 TFL (2 sacks) and had 33 total tackles (20 solo) as he started the final four games of the season alongside Egbule. Gooden played in 10 games last season mainly on special teams and finished the season with 4 total tackles (2 solo). He led Boling to the 3A state title in 2016 as he finished his career with over 3,600 rushing yards, 50 TD’s while registering nearly 150 total tackles, 18 sacks and 2 interceptions as a linebacker.
The top two leading tacklers and starting inside linebackers graduated in Matt Adams and D’Juan Hines. With such little experience returning, Darrion Owens (6-3, 240) decided to transfer from Miami and will be eligible immediately as a grad transfer. While he’s not guaranteed to start, having played for D’Onofrio at “the U” won’t hurt his chances. 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.
Other contenders inside are Jordan Milburn (6-0, 228, RJr.), Derek Parrish (6-2, 240, RFr.) and Roman Brown (5-11, 222, RSr.). Milburn really hasn’t made a mark yet playing time wise totaling just 5 total tackles in 23 career games, mainly on special teams, but the Galveston-Ball product has the potential to have a breakout season as he did his senior season in high school where he registered 118 total tackles including 11 for loss and 7 sacks but also had 8 pass breakups and a blocked kick. Parrish meanwhile is a classic downhill middle linebacker in the mold of a Mike Singletary at an already stout 240 pounds out of Pearland. Brown isn’t on scholarship and though he’s made plays on the practice fields each of the past few springs he just doesn’t have the size or speed to get on the field during the season, totaling just 7 total tackles in 9 career games.
Over the past few seasons the defense has been playing out of a base 3-3-5 alignment with a nickel back on the field a good 70-percent of their snaps. The secondary lost two safeties last year to graduation in strong safety Terrell Williams and nickel Khalil Williams. Free safety and defensive captain Garrett Davis (6-0, 205, RSr.) does return however to stabilize the safety position. But who replaces the Williams’s (no relation)?
First off, Davis brings back 123 total career tackles (87 solo). In moving to free from strong safety last season he had less tackles than in 2016 (51 to 65), TFL (2 to 7) and sacks (0 to 3) but he did intercept 4 passes last year as the last line of defense in which he returned for 94 yards. Going into his third year as a starter, Davis needs to improve on communicating better in getting his younger secondary teammates lined up correctly as miscommunications, whether it be if they were in man or zone or which teammates passed off which offensive players from level to level as the secondary as a whole was burned one too many times last year. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the lack of a pass rush as was mentioned earlier.
Backing Davis up, or making his own play to start at strong safety or the nickel could be Colin Wilder (5-10, 195, Jr.). A four-year starter at Katy High in which he amazingly started in 64 straight games (including the 2015 Texas Class 6A Division II state championship), Wilder injured a knee after just two games and has 11 career tackles in 15 games.
Two newcomers that could make an instant impact at the strong safety spot are Deontay Anderson (6-1, 220, RFr.) and Gleson Spreewell (6-2, 180, So.). Anderson is a former 4-star recruit from Manvel who was ranked as the top safety by 247 for the 2016 singing class. He played his true freshman season as Ole Miss where he registered 32 total tackles, including 1.5 for loss and an interception in playing every game with one start. He transferred after the NCAA placed the Rebels on probation for recruiting violations (none that were related to him) and is seeking a waiver to play this season after redshirting last year. If given the waiver the defense would have three former 4-star or higher athletes playing (including Oliver and Chambers).
Spreewell is a transfer from Mesa Community College where he had 75 tackles last year with 6 pass breakups, 2 interceptions (including a “pick-6”) and 2 fumble recoveries (including a “scoop-and-score”). Spreewell’s ball-hawking ways began at Centennial High out of Surprise, Az where he totaled 18 pass breakups, 7 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries in his final two seasons.
Speaking of ballhawks, that’s exactly what three youngsters have been, well during their high school careers anyway. Both Grant Stuard (5-11, 198, So.) and Amaud Willis-Dalton (5-11, 200, RFr.) will contend for the nickel back spot along with veteran Darius Gilbert (6-2, 195, RJr.) while true freshman Garrison Vaughn (6-1, 194) enrolled early to contend at the safety spot he fits in the best at which will be determined starting with spring practices. Stuard played in 7 games last year before an injury forced him to miss the end of the season as he had 2 tackles after registering 154 total tackles including 7.5 sacks in his prep career at Oak Ridge. The Conroe native has speed for days as he qualified for the 2015 AAU Junior Olympic Championships as a member of the Wings Track Club.
Willis-Dalton redshirted last year but defines the term “play-maker” as he had an amazing 248 total career tackles, including 33 for loss, 28 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries and 5 pass breakups as he played sideline-to-sideline at Cypress Ranch High. Time is running out for Gilbert who has just 4 total tackles in 11 career games over the past two seasons after starting for three years at North Webster High in Springhill, Louisiana where he had 66 tackles, 3 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries his senior season. Vaughn finished his career as a three-year starter at Belton High with 279 total tackles, 13 interceptions (including 2 pick-6’s, 3 forced fumbles and also ran track as he’s also a proven dynamic athlete.
Now to probably the most criticized position on the defense; cornerback. Four players primarily rotated at the two corner spots; Isaiah Johnson (6-3, 195, RSr.), Jeremy Winchester (5-11, 203, RSr), Alexander Myres (5-10, 192, Sr.) and Joeal Williams (5-10, 190, Sr.). All had their good moments. All had their bad moments as well. Johnson has the prototypical size for a corner but is a converted wide receiver who practiced and played the position for the first time last season, finishing with 45 total tackles (34 solo), 7 passes defended and 2 interceptions. He showed confidence in that he would get beat one play and get right back up to make a play the next. Winchester has the most experience with 19 starts over in 38 career games but seemed to regress a bit last season going down in every pass defense stat from 2016 including less tackles 45 to 44 total and 33 to 30 solo stops this past season. He also went from 8 passes defensed in 2016 to 5 this past season while intercepting a pass in each of the past two years. If the unit improves he’ll be a big reason why as he needs to step up both on and off the field. Myres is a former walk-on who had 42 total tackles, 27 solo last season along with 6 pass breakups, 2.5 TFL, and an interception and fumble recovery each. Williams was used as the designated blitzer off the slot as he has 4 TFL and sacks each over the past two seasons.
Three other corners who could break into the rotation with productive spring and summer practices are Ka’Darian Smith (5-11, 180, Jr.), Javian Smith (6-2, 188, RSo.), no relation, and D.J. Small (5-9, 170, So.). Ka’Darian has just 7 total tackles in his first two seasons in 15 games while Javian has the size needed for the position but didn’t play last season due to injury after seeing limited playing time in 2016. Small was also injured last season after playing just one game but impressed the coaching staff enough to see the field at just 5-9.
In all the defense had 15 interceptions last season (tied for 23rd) with players who accounted for 8 of them returning so there’s still plenty of talent to work with for the new secondary coaches. Can D’Onofrio tie all three levels together to improve a defense that allowed 422 yards-per-game (89th) and average 23.8 points-per-game (42nd)? Time will tell, and that time starts with spring practice.