In order for the Cougars to compete for a Conference-USA title, the defense has to have a great impact, and there are challenges ahead.
The Cougars are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme. Former linebacker coach Jamie Bryant will take over as defensive coordinator for Bryan Stewart, who departed for Maryland.
Bryant is looking to turnover a new leaf and trot out a competitive defense on opening day.
“(I’m) not interested in last year,” Bryant said. “All I’m interested in is how good of a defense we can be this year and worry about what’s ahead of us.”
Linebackers were the strength of the defense last year. Unfortunately, two key parts of the line backing corps are no longer eligible. Gone are Marcus McGraw, who led the team in tackles with 141, and Sammy Brown, who led the nation in tackles for loss.
In steps a new crop, headlined by returning senior starter Phillip Steward, who led the nation in interceptions as a linebacker last year. Steward will be flanked with Derrick Mathews and fellow senior, Everett Daniels.
Daniels will attempt to fill the heavy cleats of McGraw, starting as middle linebacker.
“Quite frankly, out of the three linebackers this spring, Everett has played the best,” Tony Levine said at media day. “I’m looking forward to seeing what he does this year.”
Steward, who had six interceptions last season, says he pushes the secondary to get better.
“I like to challenge them; saying I’ll have more picks than you this game so we can go out there and compete,” Steward said.
With a push from Steward and some real talent, the secondary should be a strength of this defense. The Cougars are in a good position at corner with Thorpe Award Watch List recipient D.J. Hayden and Zachary McMillian manning receivers on the outside.
Chris Cermin and Jeffery Lewis will start at the safety positions.
The defensive line is chocked full of veterans who will rotate along that four-man front. Line coach Carlton Hall likes to keep his team fresh.
Dominic Miller, on the inside, is a name to watch. The Blinn College transfer had 25 tackles from the nose guard position last season.
Radermon Scypion “had as good a spring as anyone in our program,” Levine said. Scypion and Joey Mbu will split time from the tackle position.
From the defensive end positions, Zeke Riser and Eric Braswell will supply pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
Efrem Oliphant, Jon Witten and Desmond Pulliam converted to defensive ends since less line backers are needed to run the 4-3.
Bryant says he knows that it takes a team effort to field a great defense.
“We better have 11 guys that are the strength of this defense and hopefully 22,” Bryant said.
The Cougars will look to continue improving on last season’s fifth place C-USA finish in total defense (380.29 yards per game) and seventh place finish in rushing defense (171.57 yards).