As the season progressed and that confidence grew, the “Third Ward Defense” was born, a unit that finished the season leading the nation in turnover margin at a plus-25 while finishing 20th giving up just 21.8 points per game, a 14.2 point per game improvement from 2012.
Fast forward to 2014 where defensively, 86.5 percent of its 1,048 tackles return including 98.7 percent of its 78 tackles for loss and all 31 sacks from 2013. Houston ranked third nationally among most improved scoring defenses in 2013. In giving up 21.8 points per game, Houston allowed 14.2 points less per game than 2012. The scoring defense output was the lowest in 14 years since the 1999 defense held opponents to 19 points per game. The defense led the nation with 43 forced turnovers, an NCAA best 18 fumbles recovered while intercepting 25 passes
ranking them second nationally. The 43 turnovers resulted in 141 points. On average, the Houston defense forced 5.3 three-and-outs per game, a number that led The American and was 11th nationally. On 69 of Houston opponents’ 191 drives or 36.1 percent, the Houston defense got off the field in three plays or less. UH allowed just two rushing attempts of 30 yards or more, a number that was second nationally. The defense was ninth nationally in allowing just eight plays of 40 yards or longer. And they’re just getting started.
It all starts up front where the defensive line is stacked with experience in Gibbs multiple 4-3 scheme. And I call it a 4-3 because basically the weak-side “rush backer” is a designated pass rusher who rarely drops back in coverage besides on the occasional zone blitz. Of course Gibbs scaled back a lot of blitzing last season in the mantra of “less is more” where his philosophy was basically “see ball, get ball.” With a year’s worth of experience look for Gibbs to scheme up more blitzes from different angles with more man coverage in the secondary, thanks to bigger defensive backs (which we’ll look at later). Leading the way up front is senior defensive tackle and defensive tri-captain Joey Mbu (6-foot-3 inches, 310 pounds), who partnered with fellow defensive tackle Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.) don’t have stats that stand out on paper but are stout at the point of attack and cause enough chaos up front that allow the linebackers to attack and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Backing them up is one of my favorite Cougar student-athletes, in how he’s improved over the years, is Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.). At barely six-feet tall, Farley was able to leverage his way into a defensive line leading 9 tackles-for-loss last season. In fact, 33-percent of his total tackles were for loss to go along with 3 sacks, 2 forced and 1 recovered fumble on the season. The other reserve defensive tackle is B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) who was third in the nation in blocked kicks with three. Nick Thurman (6’4, 290) is a redshirt freshman looking to add to an already loaded defensive tackle rotation.
The defensive end rotation has probably more depth as six players are looking for four spots. The two edge rushers who occupy the “rush backer” spot are Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.) and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, So.). The scary part is both have major room for improvement as neither have played defensive end until just recently, with Harris making the switch from wide receiver at Brooklyn’s (NY) ASA College before transferring to UH last season. His 21 solo (and 49 total) tackles led all defensive linemen while adding 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Meanwhile, Bowser is barely scratching the service in realizing his potential both physical and from a mental standpoint as he’s just a true sophomore who led the defensive ends with 11 “QB hurries” while adding 5.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception (when he dropped into coverage on a zone blitz), in which he has the type of athleticism to duplicate as he gets more of a feeling of where he’s supposed to be on the field instead of relying on just instinct.
When Eric Braswell (6’5, 268, Sr.) suffered a potentially season ending knee injury in spring ball, the strong side defensive end spot was presumed to fall to Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, So.) per head coach Tony Levine during AAC Media Days at the end of July. While Malveaux (12 tackles and 1 fumble recovery in 12 games) has shown potential and caught the eye of Levine and staff over the off-season in terms of his work in the weight room, a new player has emerged who’s ready to (in his own words) “dominate” the AAC. Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.) transferred from Texas A&M before the start of fall camp after missing a deadline in February to apply for graduate school, which he enrolled in at UH’s famed Bauer College of Business. He started ten games last season for the Aggies and was voted the teams defensive MVP after adding 47 tackles including 3 sacks. Chauntez Jackson (6’4, 265, So.) is an athletic freak who, like Bowser and Harris, is still in the developmental stages of his career in really learning the game. Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) rounds out the defensive end rotation after playing some safety during the spring as an experiment. As a former baseball player, Eiland has the type of speed and agility best served for the rush end spot, as witnessed by a 62-yard fumble return against SMU last season.
The linebacking core is led by “do it all” senior tri-captain Derrick Mathews (6’0, 225). The Cougars Mike (middle) linebacker leads all returning defenders nationally with 348 career tackles. He’s also amassed 39 TFL over his career. His 74 solo tackles and 7 sacks led the defense last season. He also added 2 forced and recovered fumbles, 5 passes defended and an interception returned for a TD (versus BYU). While he may not be the “rah-rah” type, he leads by example. Mathews may not even be the best linebacker on the “Third Ward D,” thanks to the play of weak side (or Will) linebacker Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220). Last spring Gibbs didn’t even mention the then junior by name as he had hardly seen him due to a heavy course load, which pushed him back to third team. He improved over the course of the off-season and into fall camp literally forcing his way into the starting lineup as by season’s end he led the defense in TFL with 13 (and 134 total) as he epitomized Gibbs simple “see ball, get ball” philosophy. At strong side (Sam) backer, Steven Taylor (6’1, 220) started the final nine games last season as a redshirt freshman and finished the season as the defenses fifth leading tackler with 89 (including 10.5 for loss), but led the linebackers with 6 passes defended and 5 passes broken up. He also intercepted a pass as he excelled in coverage against opposing slot receivers and running backs out of the backfield, and recovered 2 fumbles on the season. Of the three, Taylor’s starting spot seems the most tedious according to Levine as redshirt freshman Caleb Tucker (6’2, 230) is right on his heels through most of fall camp. Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Jr.) backs up Mathews in the middle, which basically means he’ll see little playing time this season (hopefully), with D’Juan Hines (6’2, 208, R-Fr.) making noise during fall camp as well.
While the entire front seven returns in tact (minus Braswell), the secondary was hit the hardest by graduation in terms of losing starting corner backs Thomas Bates and Zach McMillian. The bright side however, is that plenty of corners saw playing time last season to help ease the transition of losing the aforementioned two multi-year starters. The two corners most likely to start are William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.) and Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.) as they had the most extensive playing time last season backing up McMillian and Bates. In fact, when McMillian was moved to a nickel role Jackson started four games during the second half of the season. Of the returning corners, Jackson has the most passes defended with 8, and also added a “pick-6” (for 96 yards) last season at UTSA. Meanwhile, Walker intercepted two passes and defended three in 12 games. Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, So.) and Marcus Dillard (5’9, 182, Jr.) contributed little in very limited playing time last season but look to add depth at corner along with Tyler White (5’10, 185, Jr.) who redshirted after transferring from Utah. If any freshmen are to play on defense, the crop at corner might make a dent in the rotation as Khalil Williams (6’0, 195), Garrett Davis (6’1, 189) and Jeremy Winchester (6’1, 185) add the size that Bates and McMillian lacked last season allowing opposing receivers to snag jump balls.
Gibbs talking about recruiting bigger defensive backs, “Truth is last year when I came down here our entire secondary was just short. We didn’t have any length. So my goal was to go get some bigger longer guys. Now I don’t necessarily believe you have to have bigger longer guys every year at every position. If a guy can play football he can play football. I just felt we needed to flip the secondary over and get some more length and size back there and I think we’ve done that in the one year that I’ve been here. Does that mean if we go find a six-foot corner and we think he can play the same as a 5’9 corner yeah we’re going to take the 6’0 guy but I don’t think that’s the end all, be all. Everyone’s doing that because the Seahawks had all this success winning the Super Bowl and he’s there’s no question if you get a big corner who can play you take him. In the history of the NFL the bigger taller guys don’t always play corner so you’ve got to be careful with that. It’s a hot issue and cooler to say you’re getting longer and taller and all that and yes we did but we really couldn’t get any shorter, you know? If you’re good you’re good. Our two safeties are good football players but one of them is 5’8 and the other is 5’9. The great players are turnover magnets so if they produce turnovers it really doesn’t matter if they’re 5’8 or 5’9. Recruiting wise you want to go with the bigger guy but at the end of the day if he fits what you’re trying to do and fits your scheme and system then that’s the guy you need to recruit.”
The two 5’8 and 5’9 safeties Gibbs mentioned are the leaders of the “Jack Boys,” free safety (and defensive tri-captain) Trevon Stewart and strong safety Adrian McDonald. Stewart came up with the ‘Jack Boys’ name as he said any ball in the air is theirs. And not only do they preach it, they practice it as Stewart led the nation in turnovers forced with 10 (6 on fumble recoveries and 4 interceptions). He, along with Mathews, are just football savants that always place them around the ball as the junior was third on the team with 109 total tackles (third with 69 solo stops) and is a hard hitter forcing 2 fumbles. He also excelled in coverage with 11 passes defended to add to his 4 picks. McDonald, not to be out done, led the defense with 6 interceptions and was fourth on the team in both total (99) and solo (55) tackles. He also added 9 passes defended and a fumble recovery. The wildcard of the secondary could be Lee Hightower (6’2, 195). The junior had to redshirt last season after transferring from Boise State and could start at corner or nickel as he has the size to jam bigger slot receivers and the speed to cover the more diminutive receivers in man coverage. According to his bio on uhcougars.com he started 11 of 15 games at Boise State over his two seasons including the first seven at strong safety in 2012 and the final four at corner in 2011. He made 25 tackles, two TFL, one interception and four pass breakups as a freshman and posted 31 tackles, two TFL and one pass break up in 2012.
While they may not produce as many turnovers in 2014 as they did last season, the Third Ward D has the confidence and swagger to continue improving in the fundamentals of the game which in turn could lead to an epic season along Cullen Boulevard.