Fresh faces give Houston's defense depth

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
HOUSTON -- Kevin Sumlin expects to have at least six true freshmen in his defensive two-deep and he couldn't be more excited about his depth.

Even though the Cougars lost star defensive end Phillip Hunt and a few other key players, the second-year coach believes this year's defense will be more well-rounded than the one from his first season.

"I know it sounds crazy, but we have more depth than we had last year," Sumlin said. "Even though they're freshmen, we didn't have enough bodies particularly in our offensive line, defensive line and at linebacker. But we have them now. Even though they're freshmen, we have a lot.

"We don't have a Phillip Hunt, but we have a lot of guys who could get there."

Hunt was the best player on a defense that was one of the worst in the country last season. The Cougars, like several of their Conference USA West brethren, fell victim to the high-powered offenses in the conference, and ultimately yielded 413 yards and 31 points per game.

"All the offenses on our side of the conference are explosive, everybody can score," senior linebacker Matt Nicholson said. "At the end of the day, we've got to be able to stop the other teams in our conference. We're not playing against teams that are 3 yards and a cloud of dust. We're playing against teams that throw the ball. So, we've got to have guys that can run around and do all that stuff."

"We just have to have 11 guys playing with their hair on fire."

While playing so many freshmen -- and even some junior college players that will be in the mix -- might not seem ideal, both Sumlin and Nicholson think it could be an advantage. The players are new. They have no preconceived notions about what they can and can't do against certain offenses in the league. They're going to play with reckless abandon because they don't know any better.

And practicing against quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total offense last season, has helped.

"Our offense does the hurry-hurry and they've got guys coming out of the woodwork and they're running plays back-to-back-to-back," Nicholson said. "We're kind of out there sucking wind sometimes, but we're also getting in really good shape and we're getting prepared because we know that everyone else does that. That's how it's going to be. We get used to it now, so we don't have to in the game."

Of the six Conference USA West defenses only two finished higher than 100th nationally in total defense. Even though Houston ranked No. 100, it was relatively good in the conference at seventh.

Nicholson said the defense does have a bit of a chip on its shoulder especially with all the praise that's been heaped on the offense. But with key players gone and several fresh faces in the mix, he hopes opponents are sleeping on the Cougars defense this year.

"I feel like we're going to kind of sneak up on people," Nicholson said. "Nobody's really talking about us, and I hope that people, after they play us, will not be [talking] so much about our offense, but about how they couldn't get their offense going against us."