Five Fall Camp Questions - Defense

When thinking of the Houston Cougars football team over the years, one usually thinks offensive firepower. Under coordinator David Gibbs over the past two seasons, that hasn’t been the case however.

In his first season as DC in 2013, Gibbs led a Cougar defense that was the third most improved scoring defense in all of college football. The Cougars ranked 20th nationally in allowing 21.8 points per game in 2013 after allowing 36 points per game in 2012. The 2013 Houston defense led the nation with 43 turnovers forced to help lead the Cougars to a nation's best +25 turnover margin. The improvement continued in 2014 as the Cougars finished the regular-season ranked 19th nationally in total defense (334.6 yards-per-game), 11th in scoring defense (19.5 points-per-game) and ninth in turnovers gained (30). The Cougars also had success stopping the run as his unit ranked 31st nationally in rush defense, allowing just 136.3 yards per game. Unfortunately for Coogfans, Gibbs took his swagger to Lubbock to become Texas Tech’s new defensive coordinator, despite head coach Tom Herman trying to keep him. Enter Todd Orlando.

1.) Will the 2015 defense have the same swagger, and more importantly the same production as the defensive units of the past two seasons under Gibbs?

That’s a tough question considering all the talent that’s graduated from the front-7, but Orlando brings the credentials needed to give him instant credibility. As defensive coordinator at Utah State the past two seasons, Orlando’s units ranked 12th nationally in scoring defense in 2014 (19.7 points per game) and seventh nationally in 2013 (17.1 points per game). His attacking defense was fourth nationally with 49 sacks on the year and second nationally with 114 tackles for loss as Utah State advanced to back-to-to-back bowl games during Orlando’s stay in Logan, Utah. In his two-year span with USU, Orlando’s defense ranked eighth nationally with 59 turnovers, ranking 10th nationally in 2014 with 30 turnovers including 19 interceptions, a number that ranked eighth-best nationally. In previous stops at Florida International and Connecticut, his first seasons have always produced, with FIU holding opponents to only 19.46 points-per-game (14th nationally) during the 2011 season and 19 ppg at UConn (also 14th) for the 2006 season. He also brings the instant credibility of having played at the highest level of college football himself, as he was a three-year letter winner at inside linebacker at Wisconsin from 1990-94, which will also help the defense “buy in” towards his system immediately.

From Orlando himself via uhcougars.com upon his hiring in January, “We’re going to be multiple. We’re going to attack offenses. We’ve watched a lot of tape, all of that last year and two years ago to see what they can do and who they are and we’ll see how they work into the system.” Coach Herman on Orlando’s aggressive scheme at Media Day, “You are going to see a lot our pass rush, especially on third down, coming from all over the place. Coach Orlando had one blitz where he had the water boy and Doc (Mike) O’Shea blitzing the quarterback so he’ll send them all. It’s both confusion and disruption. On first downs you’ll probably see the pass rush coming from one of the outside backers; maybe Tyus Bowser or DeJuan Hines and then hopefully those inside guys because we switched to a 3-4. That’s why in the NFL everybody plays a 3-4, but on third down they play a four down front, because they want pass rushers on the edges of people. It’s a lot harder to generate a pass rush on a first or second down, but much more stout against the run. On definitive passing downs you will see a lot of exotic blitzes to generate that pass rush, and then on first or second down if it is a pass we just have to transition our inside guys and our outside linebacker into the pass rush mode.”

2.) Who replaces Joey Mbu and the rest of the defensive line?

Mbu, a 2-year team captain, started the last 34 games over the past three seasons and is currently trying to become an Atlanta Falcon as a rookie free agent (Note: Living in Gainesville, Georgia, I was able to secure a sit down interview with Mbu after practice just a few days ago for a player profile piece so look out for that article later this month). In Gibbs 4-3 scheme, Mbu along with his fellow linemen, played mainly in a 1-gap role meaning he was responsible for just his gap. With the switch to the 3-4, the down linemen will probably switch to a 2-gap responsibility, meaning they’ll be responsible for both gaps, which occupies multiple offensive linemen allowing the linebackers behind them penetrate the line for a tackle-for-loss or sack. Along with Mbu, the line was hit the hardest with starters Gavin Stansbury, Trevor Harris and Eric Eiland along with key reserve Jeremiah Farley all graduating. Who replaces the combined 22.5 tackles-for-loss and 9 sacks along the line? Let’s start with Tomme Mark (6-foot-2 inches, 285 pounds, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, Jr.) and Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.) will battle it out at the all-important nose guard spot. While the trio may not have had flashy stats last season, by design as Gibbs scheme was to highlight his active group of linebackers, they more than held their own in the trenches. Mark has started 15 games over his first three seasons at a defensive tackle spot, while Singleton started 11 games last season, totaling 22 tackles (3 for loss) and a sack on the season. Thurman meanwhile registered 7 tackles in 5 games as a true freshman last season adding to the depth along the line and has said to be one of the most improved players during spring ball.

Other defensive linemen who may start or add to the depth of the line include; Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.), Chauntez Jackson (6’4, 265, Jr.) and Melvin Holland (6’1, 295, Sr.). Malveaux has the “lean” body for an attacking interior defensive lineman as he entered his true freshman season at around 215 pounds, with 27 total tackles in 25 games as a reserve. Jackson meanwhile started his career as a tight end two seasons ago before moving to defensive end, who was ranked as the 70th best player nationally at end by ESPN and was originally a Tennessee commitment. Jackson appeared in 12 games last season on special teams while seeing action in 10 as a reserve during the 2013 season. Hopefully defensive line coach Oscar Giles can unleash the off-the-chart athleticism Jackson possesses. Holland, out of Ft. Bend Elkins is a walk-on junior college transfer out of Navarro who may finally get his chance to shine as he’s another lineman who improved under Giles tutelage during spring ball with his quick, explosive “violent” hands. Redshirt freshmen who may make an impact along the line include Jerard Carter (6’2, 265) and Zach Vaughan (6’4, 245) along with true freshman Kameron Eloph (6’4, 285). Orlando on the competition up front, “I’m really, really anxious to watch some of the guys up front, and watch them pass rush and do some things naturally on their own. When we key in on what they can do really well then we will create some packages for them. “

3.) Who steps up at linebacker?

With the losses of Derrick Mathews (lost in the middle of last season due to a knee injury) and Efrem Oliphant, 438 tackles (270 of which belonged to Oliphant), 241 solo, 37.5 for loss, 14.5 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries and 3 interceptions over the past 2 seasons must be replaced. Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, Jr.) is the returning leading tackler (76 tackles, 35 solo including 9 for loss and 4.5 sacks) and the leader of the group at the strong side outside spot. The two inside spots will most likely be occupied by veteran Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Sr.) and youngster Mathew Adams (6’0, 208, So.). Roberts contributed 26 tackles in 12 games but filled in nicely for Mathews last year after the senior tackling machine was lost for the season after only 6 games while Adams added 40 in 13 games including 3 starts. Adams also added 4.5 tackles-for-loss, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles as he really showed an intuitive knack for where the ball was going.

Orlando on his linebacking core overall, “That’s a little bit of a concern right now. It’s a development of young guys. We lost some very talented guys last year and guys that not only were productive, but they were a big part, a big voice in terms of the leadership of this defense. So, there are some guys that will cause some matchup problems that we have. I won’t get into specifics with it, but we might have to create some different looks and different things.” The mismatch Orlando is probably talking about is that of rush-outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, Jr.). Though he’s only had 7.5 sacks total during his first two seasons along Cullen Boulevard, Bowser continues showing the athleticism and quick first step needed to become a monster pass rusher.

Coach Herman on competition at the linebacker spot, “If I’m a veteran linebacker, if I’m Elandon Roberts, Steven Taylor or Matt Adams, I am looking over my shoulder every second because the young linebackers that we signed will have a chance to play and play early.” A few of those true freshman linebackers to keep an eye on include Camden Ross (who already has size at 6’2, 241), Emeke Egbule (6’3, 215), Jordan Milburn (6’2, 215), and Leroy Godfrey (6’3, 225). Egbule was a pure athlete at a recent UH recruiting pipeline, Galena Park’s own North Shore high as he played tight end and basketball. Meanwhile, Milburn had 118 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, eight pass breakups and two blocked kicks his senior year at Galveston Ball High while Godfrey was a 3-year starter at Elkins High and had 8 sacks last season and was rated as the 24thh best linebacker in the state of Texas by Scout. The position is so deep in pure athletes that true freshman D.J. Jenkins (6’2, 245) has been moved to the defensive line even though he was rated the 5th rated middle linebacker in the state of Texas by Scout. Others competing for spots include DeJuan Hines (6’2, 208, RSo.) and former fullback Luke Stice (6’0, 235, Sr.) inside and Ja’Von Shelley (6’1, 210, RFr) and Nomluis Fruge (6’0, 202, RSo.) outside. The linebacker core will have to come together quickly if the defense wants to see success as a whole as Orlando admitted at Media Day, “If we don’t play well at linebacker then we will not be a good defense this season because by running this scheme and package they can’t (not play well). There will be a lot of pressure on these guys and they know it.”

4.) Is the secondary as loaded as it seems?

Short answer, yes. And it isn’t lost on Orlando, “It’s a great situation. Normally if you are inexperienced in the back end then it’s really scary. Our kids are great. We’ve got returning starters, and when you think about the amount of football that they’ve played and just they’re overall presence, they’ve been through it, and nothing fazes those guys. They’re great teammates and we expect them to be great leaders for us this year and to use some of that to help out some of these guys that played last year but are not 60 or70 play guys. They play 15 or 20 plays, so there’s a big difference on that. These guys are battle destined and we expect big things out of them.” Cornerback is led by William Jackson (6’1, 185, Sr.). Some (SI.com) have Jackson rated as high as a 1st round pick in next season’s NFL draft is he has another as fabulous a season as he did last year when the shut-down corner had 12 passed defended, 10 broken up, 2 interceptions and a forced and recovered fumble. Opposite Jackson will probably be Lee Hightower (6’2, 195, Sr.). The former Boise St. transfer was just starting to come into his own last season when he was lost for the season with a knee injury totaling 4 passes defended, 3 broken up and adding an interception. Hightower’s physical presence would be missed if not able to start the season, however if he isn’t then Howard Wilson (6’1, 176, So.) will be raring to go, just as he was last season as a true freshman when he was thrown into the fire taking over Hightower. As a true freshman, Wilson showed no fear of getting burned deep and wasn’t afraid to throw his body into a pile as his 27 total tackles (which ranked him 6th on the defense) would attest. He also added 6 passes defended, 3 broken up and 3 interceptions. Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, Jr.) and Tyler White (5’10, 185, Sr.) add depth in nickel and dime packages as Wilson started 8 games last season with Jeremy Winchester (6’0, 185) being a youngster to keep an eye on after being redshirted last season. Orlando knows his corners will be under pressure to perform especially with his blitz heavy scheme as they’ll be ‘thrown on an island’ early and often in man coverage, “There’s not to many pressures you can create where you play a guy over the top, so the more people you commit to either a rush or to the front the more it pushes guys into 1-on-1 coverage on the outside. We’re expecting big things from these guys. William (Jackson) has to play extremely well. Brandon (Wilson) and a couple other guys are making some strides on that. Anyone who knows what I’m about and what we’ve been about knows there’s going to be some pressure on those guys and if they can hold up in terms of the things that we do then we’ll be in really good shape. It’s going to be a tremendous battle with the kids in camp and it’s largely a position sometimes where you’ve got to go out and do your deal. That’s why they pay those guys 10, 11 million dollars in the NFL because that’s exactly what they do. I’m expecting some really good things just from the experience standpoint alone.

Of course it’s easier to throw your corners on an island when you can rely on an experienced and explosive pair of safeties in Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Sr.). What makes the pair so special is there football IQ and nose for the football as McDonald led the team in forced turnovers last season with 8 (5 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries) after Stewart led the team (and nation) the season before with 10 (6 fumble recoveries and 4 interceptions). McDonald was even voted the best “defensive back in the state of Texas” by Dave Campbell’s Football over the summer.

5.) What does Herman expect from a defensive unit that has held opponents to under 22 points per game the past two seasons and was generally the strength of the team?

“I expect them (the defense) to be really good,” the head coach said laughing when asked the question by Coogfans own Alfred Matthews. “We don’t place a whole lot of weight into statistical goals. We look at statistics to see where we can improve, but to say that I expect this many points per game, no, I expect us to play at a championship caliber level. I expect our backups to get better and contribute. That is something that I made a point with to the defensive staff and the defensive players after spring ball. Our starting 11 were great, and a few other guys, but there were some areas where the backups, you’d be afraid to put them in the game, and we can’t have that going into the season so those guys will have to develop.”

Herman on his new defensive coordinator and why he hired him, “It’s been well documented: he is the highest paid non-autonomous five coordinator in the country, and he earns every penny of it. He came to us with an outstanding resume, a reputation not just as an X’s & O’s guy, but as a teacher and a man that dives into his players lives and gets to know them as people, mentors them and makes men out of boys.”


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