NCF Nation: Colton Valencia

The story for Houston is much the same as it was at this time last year: The Cougars need to get better on defense to be a contender.

Case Keenum is back to direct an offense that sputtered without him last season, so hopes are high that he can pick right up and try to break the NCAA passing record. While losing Keenum was a big reason Houston went 5-7 last season and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2006, the defense did not show much improvement.

Houston ranked No. 103 in the nation in total defense, giving up an average of 432.8 yards a game in its first season playing the 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. That was not much better than the No. 111 ranking in 2009.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipKevin Sumlin is counting on an improved defense to get his team back on track this season.
What concerned coach Kevin Sumlin the most was his third-down defense. Houston ranked No. 114 in the nation in that category, allowing opponents to convert on third down a whopping 49 percent of the time. Many of those conversions were a result of quarterback scrambles, something the Cougars had a hard time stopping last season.

During their four-game losing streak to close the season, Houston allowed opposing quarterbacks to run for more than 100 yards three times. G.J. Kinne of Tulsa gashed Houston for 190 yards. Jeffrey Godfrey at UCF had 105. Austin Davis of Southern Miss had 111 yards.

“You have to be able to get off the field on third down,” Sumlin said in a phone interview. “That’s something we recognize and something we have tried to hammer home and start working on aggressively this spring. Whether it’s short, medium or long, just get off the field and get the ball back to the offense.”

Sumlin is hoping for better results this season now that his players will be more familiar with the 3-4 defense. The defensive line remains a question mark because of new faces and depth issues.

Sumlin will have help from Zeke Riser, who should be completely healthy after getting hurt last season. Junior college transfer Dominic Smith could contribute immediately, and redshirt freshman Eric Braswell had a good spring. Kelvin King, who has been a hybrid linebacker/end, is penciled in to start at right end. David Hunter and Tyrone Campbell return.

But Sumlin also acknowledged he may have to rely on some of the true freshmen he signed, citing a lack of depth.

“Where we are in the food chain, it’s a heck of a lot easier for us to get a rotation of six defensive linemen instead of eight,” Sumlin said. “For us, the quality of our defensive linemen has been an issue so to recruit and really grow our own guys has been something we have tried to do. It’s going to start up front.”

There are also new starters in the secondary. While they don’t have much Division I starting experience, three of the projected starters have played plenty of football. Sumlin will rely on junior college transfers Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden at cornerback and Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia at safety. Sumlin joked that during the spring game, fans had their flip charts out because they could not recognize anybody in the defensive backfield.

“They grow up pretty quick around here as far as being able to defend the pass,” Sumlin said. “These guys are bigger and more athletic and they’re able to handle some things. The key for these guys is being disciplined and playing within technique and trusting the system.”

The strength of the defense will be the linebackers, with Sammy Brown, Marcus McGraw and Phillip Steward returning. Houston has the talent on defense. Now the Cougars just have to go out and stop somebody.

Spring rewind: Houston

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
10:30
AM ET
Time to check in on Houston to see where the Cougars stand following spring practice.

Questions answered: Houston lost three of its four starters in the secondary but have seemingly found replacements for its two starting cornerbacks after spring. Junior college transfers D.J. Hayden and Chevy Bennett made a quick impression after enrolling in January and are on course to start. Hayden and Bennett played on the same Navarro College team that won the national championship last season. Hayden, at 6 feet and 175 pounds, was particularly impressive and seemed to make plays every time the ball came near him. Safety Colton Valencia could also become a starter after a good spring. He transferred from Texas A&M and is eligible to play this season. There is also good depth at receiver. Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards return. Watch for redshirt freshman DeAndre Perry, Justin Johnson and outside receiver Isaiah Sweeney, who runs on the track team.

Questions unanswered: The offensive line lost three starters, including center Jordan Shoemaker, left guard Isaiah Thompson, and right tackle Roy Watts. The starters come fall are still up in the air. Center Blake Sargent hurt his shoulder late in spring practice and the school was still waiting to find out the extent of the injury. Chris Thompson was moved from guard to center to help. The big question is whether the defense will be better. There is depth at linebacker, so that helps. But there are still questions about who will start on the line. New defensive line coach Carlton Hall did a good job during the spring, focusing more on teaching. Linemen worked at tackle and end. Kelvin King, a hybrid end/linebacker, has moved to end full-time. Eric Braswell had a nice spring and could be a contributor. Depth at defensive back is also an issue.

Of note: Case Keenum did not participate in spring practice, save for the occasional throwing drill. Keenum is recovering from a torn ACL and will not be cleared to practice until June at the earliest. Cotton Turner and David Piland took the majority of the reps. Defensive back Nick Saenz (shoulder) and defensive lineman Zeke Riser (knee) also sat out spring ball. ... Running back Charles Sims is expected to be back with the team in the fall after sitting out 2010 for academic reasons.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Mike Leach's quest for a new contract spilled into the public when e-mail records between Leach's agents and Texas Tech athletic department and school officials were released Friday afternoon. And it's provided ready fodder for comments from both sides at several Texas newspapers.

Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal writes about the simmering disagreement between Leach's representatives and his employers. And e-mail records show that the chasm has widened over the last several months -- despite the Red Raiders' 11-2 record in 2008 that matched a school single-season record for victories. The Dallas Morning News' Brandon George provides an extensive timeline detailing the key dates in the dispute between the two sides.

Here are some other stories from across the Big 12 for your edification.

  • Five Texas A&M players have left the program and are no longer on the Aggies' roster, Lori Dann of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. They include defensive tackle Kellen Heard, wide receiver E.J. Shankle, tight end Harold Turnage, linebacker Aaron Buckley and running back Mike Goodson.
  • John Hoover of the Tulsa World writes about intangibles that college coaches consider when they are recruiting.
  • Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press weighs in on recruiting -- using one-time Texas A&M recruit Craig Loston and current Texas A&M signee Colton Valencia as examples for a system he thinks is flawed
  • The unprecedented financial climate has resulted in stark cuts being considered at Missouri for all sports. After generating a record $7.7 million for the Tigers Scholarship Fund after the school's breakout 2007 football season, David Briggs of the Columbia Daily Tribune writes that school is bracing for a significantly reduced amount this year.
  • Top 2010 quarterback recruit Connor Wood of Houston is considering Texas and Oklahoma and will likely make his call within two weeks. Wood could be attracted to Oklahoma because he wants to major in petroleum engineering and has been intrigued with the school's Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, the Oklahoman's Jake Trotter writes.
  • Eric Peterson of the Cedar Rapids Gazette writes why Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads seldom leaves his house without wearing a ball cap.

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