Case Keenum grabs all the headlines for Houston, as well he should. When you throw for over 5,000 yards a season, it is hard to focus on anything else.
But no matter what Keenum does this season, Houston’s success will be predicated on how well its defense improves from a dismal performance in 2009. Keenum can throw all he wants, but if the Cougars cannot stop opponents, then winning a Conference USA title will stay out of reach.
That is a big reason why coach Kevin Sumlin has completely retooled the defense. Brian Stewart was hired in the offseason and the Cougars are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment. This will give them the ability to put their faster linebackers on the field in the hopes they can make more plays.
“We’ve gone from being a vanilla defense to one that’s multiple in looks, a team that will take some chances,” Sumlin said in a phone interview. “Change is difficult, but when you haven’t necessarily been successful in an area, change becomes a lot easier. We struggled on defense the last two years. Maybe the comfort level changes when you’re not very good at something.”
Indeed, Houston was not very good last season. The Cougars ranked No. 111 in the country in total defense, giving up an average of 451.3 yards a game; No. 115 in rushing defense (226.6 ypg) and No. 95 in scoring defense (30.07).
They gave up over 500 yards three times and over 600 yards once. The only time they held an opponent to fewer than 300 yards of total offense was in the opener -- against FCS Northwestern State.
After the season ended, Sumlin knew immediately he wanted to make the switch to the 3-4, which more defenses seem to be using in college football. “It’s no secret one of the hardest positions to recruit is defensive line,” Sumlin says. “We’re able to get linebacker types a lot easier. We’re a fast team, one of the faster teams in the country, so that enables our guys to get on the field to create problems for offenses.”
So who is going to stand out? Sumlin has high hopes for linebacker Sammy Brown, a junior college transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Both he and Phillip Steward will patrol the outside, and both have the ability to rush the passer or drop into coverage. Kelvin King is going to contribute as well.
Marcus McGraw returns inside after leading the team with 156 tackles. Matt Nicholson is back, too, though he is still working through a knee injury.
On the line, Houston lost starter Zeke Riser for the season, but there are high hopes for another junior college transfer -- Matangi Tonga, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive end.
Sumlin says his team played well in the new alignment in the spring, but there is not much time to get everything right. With such high expectations going into the season, the defense is going to have to deliver.
“I don't think there's a coach out there who wants to be somewhere where they don't expect you to win,” Sumlin said. “If you do, you’re in the wrong job. Our guys know what the expectations are. We've expected to compete for the conference championship from the first day I got here. Hopefully that conversation will continue every year.”