Cougars’ defense takes on new philosophy

The UH defense shifting from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 marks one of the major transitions the team underwent in the offseason.

“Getting the right people in the right position is the key force moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4.  Now, we are going to have to develop some depth,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

“The defensive backs that we signed in this class are going to have the chance to compete for some starting jobs or add depth to what I think is a great group of linebackers.”

Under the command of first-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, the new defensive front consists of three linemen and four linebackers. The 3-4 philosophy relies on the speed and agility of four linebackers to survey the offense, recognize patterns in pass coverage and hit the gaps against the rush.  Pressure created by the linebackers and defensive linemen will allow safeties and cornerbacks to cover receiving sets.

“I like what Coach Stewart is doing as far as disguising coverage and not just sitting there,” Sumlin said. “We are not going to be a bend-but-don’t-break defense. We tried that, and it didn’t work too well, so let’s try something else.”

A catalyst for change

The defense showed signs of wear and tear after the team made an eye-opening 8-1 start in 2009. With the final two games of the season having declawed the Cougars’ defense, Sumlin and staff hope to have found an answer for a defense that finished 111th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

“We kind of got pushed around a little bit, not a little bit, but a lot in the games that we lost going back and looking at it,” he said.

Sumlin said the key losses were motivation for the offseason, but had nothing to do with scheduled practices leading into the 2010 season.

“Last year is last year,” he said. “What you can do is learn from your mistakes and not let them happen to you again. And I think that is all we can ask our guys to do.”

The defense managed, while the offense dominated to propel the Cougars to a season-high No. 12 ranking after beating a top-five team and a 10-4 finish that was the program’s best since 1990.

Sumlin said that one way to look at it was that the defense could not get any worse.

“We are on the right path.  I think it (the 3-4 defense) gives to our speed, our linebackers and puts more of them on the field, which is going to help us,” he said.

Listening to the players

Returning to lead the Cougars’ defense is the nation’s fifth leading tackler, Marcus McGraw, who is eager to start his junior season as middle linebacker. McGraw is only one of five returning defensive starters.

He said that this defense should surpass that of last year’s.

“I think we are a lot better,” McGraw said. “I mean we are a little bit more excited about playing a new defense. We are out here learning a little bit more, and we are trying to become a better defense overall.”

McGraw’s veteran role as middle linebacker hasn’t changed, but other players have taken on different roles.

“For me, I am still playing in the middle, so there is not much of change for me,” McGraw said. “But we do have a few guys that went from defensive end now to playing standup linebacker. So we may have a few people playing different positions.”

Another player in which the defense relies on is defensive end David Hunter and his formidable, 295-pound frame. Hunter, like McGraw, believes that this transition complements the athleticism of the defense.

“We’ve got a lot of good guys coming in, a lot of good freshman, guys that really added great pieces to the puzzle,” Hunter said.

“I think it’s been a great move for everybody on the defense, and it gives everybody a lot of versatility.”

He said that when the Cougars open their season against Texas State on Sept. 4, fans would see a different defense on the field at Robertson Stadium. The 3-4 scheme has given a different philosophy for a defensive squad that is eager to make a statement this season.

“Collectively as a unit, we are more together,” Hunter said. “We know where everybody is going to be at, everybody is a lot of closer than we were last (year), so when we get out there on the field everybody is going to see that.”

Newcomers expected to make contribution

The Cougars added much needed talent to their defensive line. The strength and agility of newcomers Matangi Tonga and Sammy Brown provide the support upfront that was absent from last year’s defense.

Tonga will spend his last year of athletic eligibility on the defensive line playing for the Cougars. Tonga came to UH from the College of San Mateo in California. The 6-2 defensive lineman will take on a significant role in the 3-4 set.

Brown arrived at UH coming from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College where he played linebacker. At 6-3 and 232 pounds, he will remain at linebacker. Brown is in his junior year in eligibility, so his value on the squad is becoming evident.

Sumlin said that his coaching staff has worked hard in recruiting caliber players, such as Brown and Tonga.

“The addition of those four linebackers and Sammy Brown probably being the guy with the most experience from the spring will really help us,” Sumlin said.

“We went out and recruited big-time defensive linemen.  I think our three starting defensive linemen are legitimate guys.”

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