An Early Look at the 3rd Ward Defense

Winston Churchill once said "The farther backward you can look, the further forward you will see." With that we take a look back at spring ball and how the University of Houston's defensive unit performed and give a glimpse into what to look for as summer practices approach as defensive coordinator David Gibbs was gracious enough for an interview to assess his unit.

Coach Gibbs, entering his second season as the Cougars defensive coordinator, is a no-nonsense "football lifer" who's a self-proclaimed ‘old school fundamentals/technique' football coach. Sure he'll give you your typical amount of "coach speak," but unlike other coaches he actually owns up to it as he assessed how spring ball went for his unit, "I think spring ball went well but I'm sure every coach in America thinks spring ball went well for them and this time of the year everybody, at all levels, thinks that they're better than they actually are as a football team and as a unit. Our guys competed and went out every day and worked hard. It's tough going against each other because no matter what drill you're doing, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. Just going against one another every day I think we've gotten better. You'll find out the problem with college football is there's no pre-season games so when you line up to play that opener you're going to get an awakening one way or another. We open against UTSA (University of Texas-San Antonio) and I think they have something like 44 seniors this year (37 according to their website). Coach Coker's done a great job with those guys and we'll have our hands full for the opener. Overall we have a lot of players back from last year and we have a veteran team whereas a year ago we were so young."

That young defense last season allowed opponents to average only 21.8 points per game (ranking them 20th in the nation), an improvement of over 14 points (or TWO touchdowns) as they allowed 36 points per game in 2012 which ranked them 110th. While the unit won't be confused with the famed "Mad Dog" defense of the 1970's, the 21.8 points per game is the lowest allowed for a Cougars defense since the 1999 unit allowed just over 19 points per game and only the third time they've allowed opponents to score under 30 points per game since that 99 squad, or three out of the past fourteen seasons. How did a team that allowed opponents to race up and down the field to the tune of 415 yards per game of total offense (80th) to average only 21.8 points per game? Simply stated, turnovers, as the Coogs led the nation in turnover margin with a PLUS-25 (43 gained versus 18 lost). Coach Gibbs on expectations regarding turnover margin and if his unit can perform that same type of feat again this season, "I think when you lead the nation in turnover margin your players have bought in on your philosophy but I'm sure every coach in America at every level preaches turnovers but our kids were able to get it done. Can they do it year in and year out? Well we'll find out. The law of averages says you're not going to get that many again (FIRST nationally in fumbles gained with 18), so we've got to work that much harder to make sure we're taking the ball away because our opponents are preparing to obviously not turn the ball over since they know that you're that type of defense. There is no magical answer for getting turnovers. Your players have to do it and there's a lot of good coaches out there and they all preach the same thing but at the end of the day you've got to go get them because it covers up for a lot of other things as we all know. If we don't get close to the same amount of turnovers this year as we did last year we still have to keep opponents from scoring points, bottom line."

Perception versus Reality

When asked about the "bend but don't break" style his defense played in which opposing offenses moved the ball pretty freely between the 20's, Gibbs got really passionate as he delved into a perception versus reality slant, "The truth is we play a lot of plays on defense because we're an up-tempo offense. We go fast on offense which means you have more plays on defense so yards per play, along with points per game obviously, is what pretty much sums up our defense to me. If you're out there for 83 plays per game, which I think we were this year and I think we were 30-something in the country in yards per play, well to me we didn't give up a lot of yards."

The reality Coach Gibbs talked about was the 5.23 yards per play his unit allowed last season, ranking them 34th nationally. Opponents ran 1,034 total plays, or 79.5 plays per game. Ok so he was off by 3 plays but we'll cut him some slack. Out of the 33 teams in front of them, only three teams allowed opponents to run more offensive plays (Oregon, Oklahoma State and Marshall). The perception comes from UH opponents passing for 266.8 yards per game, which ranked them 110th while also allowing opponents to rush for 149 yards per game, ranking them 44th. Reality wins out over perception in my opinion. Of course Coach Gibbs favors opponents favoring this perception for strategic purposes, though opposing coaches know the Coogs defense is the real deal through film study, "I want the perception to be that we stink on defense. I'd like to go into every game with the opponent thinking we're not very good and then after the game scratching their head wondering how we beat them. I have no problems with that." 

The Second Time Around

When I spoke to Coach Gibbs last spring he emphasized just learning his players and coaching basic fundamentals over X's and O's. This spring was slightly different according to the second year DC, "Any time you're in year two where you've already put your package in, you've already created your terminology and your players already know the language that you're speaking obviously you're obviously already a step ahead of where you were coming into year one. Now at the same time you have to make sure your players are getting better and I'm an old-school, fundamentals/technique football coach. My dad's been an offensive line coach forever (indeed, as Alex Gibbs has spent the past 30 years as an NFL O-line coach and was a consultant for the Denver Broncos last season) and I firmly believe the game's about blocking and tackling. I will never get away from that because you can overcome a lot of talent issues if you have players who play with great fundamentals, who play with great technique. Our staff does a great job at coaching them up but I'm not the guy who says we do that better than everybody else. I really believe there's a lot of great football coaches out there but at the end of the day we've got to get them to play good so we have to stress good fundamentals and technique like we did a year ago. But to answer your question, yes – we've been able to add to the package because our defensive players understand the scheme and what we're trying to do. They understand when I call a certain defense I'm calling it to stop this, this and this and they understand the pros and cons and why I'm making the call."

Building the Defense from the Inside Out

Now let's get down to the nitty-gritty and discuss each level of the defense starting with the defensive line. The line returns all nine players who saw action last season led by starters (from strong side to weak), Cameron Malveaux (6'foot-6 inches, 275 pounds, So.), Joey Mbu (6'3, 312, Sr.), Tomme Mark (6'3, 288, Jr.) and "rush" end Trevor Harris (6'5, 233, Sr.). Eric Braswell (6'5, 268, Sr.) started most of last year at the run stopping strong side defensive end spot but tore an ACL over spring ball and is out indefinitely (the team doesn't give out injury updates per head coach Tony Levine). The second unit, which rotated in regularly, includes Tyus Bowser (6'3, 226, So.) at the "rush" end spot, Jeremiah Farley (6', 283, Sr.) and B.J. Singleton (6'4, 285, So.) at tackle. Rush end Eric Eiland (6'2, 236, Jr.) was moved to safety over the spring and it remains to be seen if he'll end back up along the line come summer practices. Harris's explosion off the line, along with better technique as the season progressed (remember he actually played wide receiver in Brooklyn's ASA JC), allowed him to lead the line with 21 solo tackles (49 total) while placing second with 8.5 tackles-for-loss along with 3.5 sacks. The most improved player to me was Farley as he did a great job in using his fundamentals as a shorter lineman to leverage his way into many of his line leading 9 tackles-for-loss (including 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles) as he was usually able to get underneath opposing offensive linemen bulling his way into opponents backfields, blowing many-a plays up. Bowser, much like Harris, is still learning to play the position as he was a jack of all trades at Tyler High School and still led the line with 4.5 sacks, most coming off of pure athleticism. Once his fundamentals/technique catches up with his athleticism, opposing offensive tackles best be on guard. One player to be on watch for this season is Malveaux (12 total tackles and 1 fumble recovery), per Coach Levine during a American Athletic Conference Spring teleconference a few weeks ago, "Malveaux did a great job for us last year and he's another young man that came to us in that he was small for his position (211 pounds) and thanks to our strength and conditioning staff and team nutritionist he's at 275 pounds today. Unfortunately we couldn't get him any taller so he's still 6'6 (have to love Levine's dry humor). With Braswell suffering a knee injury and the year he had last year we're excited about him and I anticipate him being the starter at the defensive end position."

The leader of the line, according to Gibbs is Mbu (29 tackles, including 3.5 for loss), "He's no doubt in my mind as good a player as we have. I think he's an NFL defensive lineman. He's got great work ethic; he works his rear end off. When we put this defense together we built it from the inside out. He's our nose guard, he can be our 2-gap nose, and he can play the shade. He can do anything we ask him to do. He'll be a senior and he's our leader up front. His teammates respect him and I would be surprised if he didn't have a great year."

The aforementioned nine linemen will receive most of the playing time but if any injuries occur other linemen are on the roster who can step up, including Chauntez Jackson (6'4, 264, So.), who converted from playing tight end who's yet another athletic freak but needs to let the fundamentals catch up to his athleticism. Nick Thurman (6'3, 285, RFr.) has the size to make a contribution inside if need be and conspicuous by his absence to a lot of Coogfans is Trevon Randle (6'2, 218, Jr.) as the former 4-star recruit coming out of League City's Clear Springs high school in 2011. When asked about the former LSU transfer Gibbs said, "The truth about Trevon was he was just moved to rush linebacker and he hasn't played a snap of college football yet and until he does I'm not even going to speak his name.  I think right now he's fourth on my depth chart unless Coach Hargreaves moved him up. He had a good spring; he made some plays because Tyus Bowser didn't practice because he was playing basketball. Eric Eiland moved to safety in the spring so Trevon moved up and play a lot of snaps. I'm not saying he can't physically play the position but until he shows up day in and day out he's not a factor for me, but that's not saying he can't be there at the end. We also have Trevor Harris who's out starting rush backer and he had a good year last year coming from JC. Our defensive line, and I said this last year, was surprisingly to me the most talented group we had and I think we rotated nine guys up front and we'll do that again this year to keep them fresh."

As far as the linebacking core is concerned, the defense is in fine hands as all three starters return from last season led by Mike, or middle linebacker, Derrick Mathews (6'0, 214, Sr.), who will be a 4-year starter come this season. Mathews is flanked by Will (weak side) backer Efrem Oliphant (6'1, 230, Sr.) and Sam (strong side) backer Steven Taylor (6'1, 214, So.). In three seasons Mathews has 348 total tackles, with over half of them solo, including 39 tackles-for-loss, 14 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and 4 interceptions. Basically wherever the football is, he is as Coach Gibbs praised him, "He's a tackling machine. He moved from the Will to the Mike last season because I believe in being strong down the middle."

Oliphant was definitely the surprise of the unit last season as he rose from third on the depth chart going into summer practices to leading the team with both 134 total tackles and 13 TFL. Gibbs on his rise from out of nowhere, "I really didn't know a lot about him last year until he played. I knew he could run; I knew he could hit; I knew he was smart. He just missed most of spring practice last year and I think he took something like 18 hours last spring and hardly practiced. I just didn't know if he was any good but he just kept getting better and better every day and obviously he had a good season and I look for him to have a good senior year too.

Taylor played well for seeing his first playing time last season as he racked up 89 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, 3 sacks and led the linebacking core with 5 pass breakups but surprisingly Gibbs had the following to say, "He had a good year. He's still a young pup and has a long way to go. We'd love to have some competition to either beat him out or make him work harder to keep his job. We've recruited well there and had a couple of guys who moved positions and we're trying to put a little pressure on him with those guys."

 Those guys being D'Juan Hines (6'2, 213, RFr.) who moved from the secondary last season, along with Caleb Tucker (6'2, 223, RFr.) and Elandon Roberts (6'1, 223, Jr.) who played well but sparingly behind Mathews.

The secondary is the unit that will see the most change as last season's two starting corners (Thomas Bates and Zach McMillian) both graduated. They'll probably be replaced by two of the three of William Jackson (6'1, 175, Jr.), Turon Walker (5'11, 190, Sr.) and the wildcard, Lee Hightower (6'2, 192, Jr.). Former Utah transfer Tyler White (5'10, 181, Jr.), JC transfer Marcus Dillard (5'10, 174, Jr.) and Brandon Wilson (5'11, 195, So.) will also compete for a starting spot and for the nickel spot as well. Jackson leads the returners with 7 pass breakups while Walker had 2 interceptions last season. Both starting safeties return with Trevon Stewart (5'9, 192, Jr.) at free safety and Adrian McDonald (5'10, 191, Jr.) alongside at strong safety. Stewart is the definition of a ball hawk as he led the nation with 10 combined turnovers (6 fumble recoveries and 4 interceptions) and was third on the team with 109 total tackles while all McDonald added was a team leading 6 interceptions with 99 tackles to boot.

Gibbs summing up his secondary, "Our two safeties are back, Trevon and A-Mac. We have a transfer who was with us all of last year in Lee Hightower who can play safety or corner. He's a big long athletic kid who gives us some versatility as far as our sub packages go. Trevon was our nickel last year as we moved him inside to cover slot receivers so we'll see how that goes. Thomas Bates is a corner we lose and Zach McMillian played corner but moved to safety in our nickel package so we ended up playing a whole bunch of guys at corner. Turon Walker ended up playing a lot. William Jackson played a lot and had a good year and I think he has a good chance to become special. We've also got some young guys, like Brandon Williams, who we think have a chance to be really good players, but obviously they have to go do it. All that, combined with the five or six defensive backs we recruited this year, tells me that our secondary, which is my baby, will be fine this year. Coach Spavital does a fine job coaching those guys each year. When I look out there, even though our passing yards allowed is high, that's ok because it is what it is. We have our scheme.  We play the game a certain way and if you pass for a lot of yards sooner or later you're going to give us the football."

This was certainly the case last season as the secondary accounted for 20 of the 25 interceptions last season, which by the way was second nationally to only the National champion Florida State Seminoles. As Coach Gibbs spoke of earlier, even though the law of averages says the defense won't produce as many turnovers as they did last season, chances are his defensive unit will once again be amongst the nation's leaders in turnover margin as much as his staff preaches and emphasizes it. When a ball hits the ground there's a 50/50 chance that either team will recover it. What isn't left to chance is the amount of work Gibbs has his unit put in on the field and in the film room, inevitably leading his players being placed in the right place at the right time, which to me is what coaching is all about – putting your players in the best spot to make a play. Fundamentals can be the difference between a defensive back intercepting a pass and taking it to the house (via reading his keys or knowing when a certain pass is coming which takes film room study), or having a receiver catch a pass in front of him and racing down the sideline for a score (via shoddy footwork by the DB which is all about fundamentals). All in all I look for the defense to improve in its second season under Coach Gibbs in his 4-3/3-4 hybrid scheme as the current defense has the right formula of both talent and coaching. Keep logged into this summer for all the latest news and info on your Houston Cougars as the season fast approaches.

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