Getting Defensive

There was a time when UH was known as much for its defense as its offense...

Every few years newspapers will print a story about a dog or cat that was lost or inadvertently left behind when the family moved, possibly hundreds of miles away. And yet the pet somehow finds its way to its family's doorstep, even if they've moved halfway across the country. That's sort of what's happened with the mad dogs, the traditional name for the University of Houston's defense. They've been gone for a long time, but that's a familiar bark we're hearing in the distance on Cullen Boulevard.

There was a time when UH was known as much for its defense as its offense, which is saying something given the history of the Houston veer and the run-n-shoot; nonetheless, the 1981 defense finished third nationally in total defense. The '79 team surrendered only 11 points per game (and opponents included Florida, Texas, UCLA, and Arkansas, among other good programs), as did the '73 club. Defensive lineman Wilson Whitley won the Lombardi Trophy and was named the SWC Defensive Player of the Decade by Dave Campbell's Texas Football. Whitley, Mack Mitchell, David Hodge, Leonard Mitchell, T.J. Turner, and more were All-Americans. And then during the run-n-shoot years, UH fielded some excellent defenses. The '89 team only gave up 13 points per game despite being on the field far more than defenses on teams with more traditional offenses. Many defensive players off those run-n-shoot teams played in the NFL, including Lamar Lathon, Johnny Jackson, Glenn Montgomery, Alfred Oglesby, Craig Veasey, Glen Cadrez, Reggie Burnett, and Alton Montgomery. But then the mad dogs went missing. John Jenkins produced some prolific offenses, but paid as much attention to defense as George Gervin. Kim Helton would have liked to have had good defenses, but he never got the players. Dana Dimel continued the tradition, including an 0-11 season in which UH allowed almost 40 points per game against the likes of Army, UAB, Memphis, and Rice. Art Briles had a respectable defense or two. The '07 team actually finished first in C-USA in total defense and #46 nationally, while the '06 defense surrendered a mere 23 points per game. Still, the Cougars weren't exactly playing teams like Florida, USC, and Oregon every weekend.

Kevin Sumlin finally changed the dynamic by recruiting good athletes on the other side of the ball. No one can claim Anthony Alridge, Donnie Avery, and Jackie Battle weren't good athletes, but such players inevitably ended up on offense under Briles. Sumlin began to recruit better athletes across the board, and many played defense. The change didn't happen overnight. The '08, '09, and '10 defenses were somewhere between abysmal and god-awful. But by 2011, players like D.J. Hayden, Sammy Brown, David Hunter, Marcus McGraw, Phillip Steward, Kent Brooks, and others began to make a difference; in fact, the scoring defense average for the '08, '09, and '10 defenses is 31 points per game. The 2011 defense, almost miraculously, finished 35th nationally in scoring defense, within a half-point of Oklahoma and Texas, at 22 points a game. Who woulda thunk it?

The really good news, however, is that things should only get better. It's doubtful the Cougars will see a '79-like defense in the near future, but the roster is filling up with talented athletes on the defensive side of the ball, guys who can run and were even offered by major programs known for their stout defenses. When was the last time the Coogs got a defensive tackle with an offer from Alabama? It happened a few months ago when Donald Hopkins, the #37 player in Texas according to ESPN, signed with UH. How about a defensive end with a free ride from Arkansas? A linebacker transfer from LSU, who was only a redshirt freshman last year, rated the #8 outside linebacker in the country? Such stories are becoming as common as they used to be unheard of.

And consider that Derrick Matthews, who looks like a young David Hodge, will be playing linebacker at UH for three more years. Eric Braswell, who started as a freshman, will be at end for three more seasons. Man-mountain Joey Mbu, all 320 svelte pounds of him, will be playing nose tackle all those years. Lettermen and also recent recruits such as Hopkins, Tomme Mark, Bryan Singleton, Mbu, Keithen English, Braswell, Matthews, Trevon Randall, William Moore, Thaddeus LaGrone, Terrance Taylor, Zach McMillan, Trevon Stewart, Kent Brooks, Colton Valencia, Earl Foster, and others will all be freshmen or sophomores.

For close to a decade, Cougar fans have clamored for just a representative defense. The offenses at UH were always so prolific that a defense that could simply finish somewhere in the middle of the pack would be enough to get the team over the hump. That happened in 2011, and everyone saw the result—the first undefeated regular season in UH history. Put on your seatbelts, because it looks as if we may be seeing more of the same, possibly even better on the defensive side of the ball, in the years to come.

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