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.
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.