Defense proving they’re better than ‘chicken salad’
On Saturday, the Cougars competed in their first intrasquad scrimmage of the spring. In similar fashion to the past three seasons, the defense dominated, allowing only two touchdowns, both on possessions started in the red zone.
In part three of the series leading up to the April 15 Red and White game, The Cougar breaks down a defense looking to replace five starters.
Much like the offense, the defense is dealing with significant changes following former head coach Tom Herman’s jolt to Austin. The defensive coordinator for the past two seasons, Todd Orlando, followed suit, ending his time as a Cougar with a disappointing performance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
In his place steps former Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. Under him the Hurricanes were consistently one of the best in the nation at forcing turnovers, something the Cougars are quite used to.
As with every coaching change however, there are differences in how the defense will scheme.
“The scheme is just a little bit different,” junior safety Garrett Davis said. “There’s a different feel as far as being able to cover a receiver or fitting up a run.”
D’Onofrio joins the Cougars after a year off from the college game. After being let go by the Hurricanes in 2015, he spent 2016 coaching the Boys and Girls Club in Miami.
D’Onofrio inherits a defense that has been one of the best in the nation at forcing turnovers and stopping the run over the past three seasons. He will have to prove that those Miami defenses were not indicative of his coaching ability as they ranked near the bottom nationally in scoring, passing, rushing and total defense, despite forcing many turnovers.
With the loss of five starters to graduation and the NFL, the defense needs someone to step up and be a leader on the field. Luckily, they have an answer in sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver.
The 19-year-old Houston native made headlines before arriving on campus, becoming the first five-star rated recruit to choose a group of five school. He followed that up with one of the best defensive seasons the Cougars have ever seen.
He was named First Team All-American by several outlets, finishing his freshman campaign second in the nation in tackles for loss and first among defensive tackles with nine pass breakups. He was at his best in the biggest games, totaling four sacks and five tackles for loss against Oklahoma and Louisville.
Now in his second season, Oliver knows he will be looked upon to lead the defense.
“A lot more is expected out of me,” Oliver said. “I’m not allowed to be a kid anymore. I’m held to high expectations because a lot of teammates look up to me and I want to show them the right things to do.”
When Herman announced he was leaving for Austin, Oliver voiced his displeasure in his former coach, tweeting — and quickly deleting — “Why you lie to us coach?” This feud continued into the start of spring practices when Herman made remarks about the quality of defenses Orlando has coached.
“I’ve seen Todd Orlando make chicken salad out of some lesser parts, so I have a lot of confidence in that staff and what they’re able to do with whatever talent that we’ve inherited,” Herman said in a March 6 press conference.
This remark angered the UH fan base, and when asked about the difference between practice this spring and last season, he said there’s a lot more coaching and less yelling.
A season after they had to replace both starting safeties, the Cougars feature a shakeup in the secondary for the second straight year following the departure of both starting corners. The duo of Brandon Wilson and Howard Wilson combined for six of the Cougars’ 7 interceptions, starting a combined 21 games.
While Brandon Wilson was out with an injury, junior Jeremy Winchester was called on to start at corner and is the remaining Cougar with the most experience. The Spring native totaled 45 tackles with one sack and eight passes defended in eight starts, seeing action in all 13 games.
After spending two seasons at receiver, junior Isiah Johnson made the transition to corner over the offseason. He has adapted well to the change, leading all defenders with five tackles in the scrimmage.
Third Ward D
For the past four seasons, the defense has adapted the moniker of the Third Ward D, embracing the community. Now under D’Onofrio, they look to continue this trend, but find their own identity in the Applewhite era.
“I think as a team we grow together and however that identifies us is how that’ll be, but I think as a defense we’re still together,” Davis said. “Whatever this year has for us, whatever identity it gives us we’ll roll with it.”
For a defense that has consistently ranked near the top of the nation in many categories recently, the expectations are high as they head into 2017. Davis knows that no matter what happens the pride they show for the community and school will shine through.
“We take pride in being the UH defense, we take pride in wearing the jersey.”