Mathews emerging as ‘heart and soul’ of linebacking corp

With Phillip Steward no. 42 and Everett Daniels no. 54 leaving the linebacking corp due to graduation, Derrick Mathews is expected to step into the foreground as a leader.  |  File photo/ The Daily Cougar

With Phillip Steward, No. 42, and Everett Daniels, No. 54, leaving the linebacking corp because of graduation, Derrick Mathews is expected to step into the foreground as a leader. | File photo/ The Daily Cougar

The Cougars’ defense wasn’t exactly a catalyst to success last season, but with the hiring of a new linebackers’ coach and the expectated growth of junior linebacker Derrick Mathews, they feel an improvement is on the horizon.

In their five wins from 2012, the Cougars allowed an average of 114 yards per game on the ground. But in their 7 losses, they allowed an average of 249 yards per game.

The Cougars are also replenishing talent from that unit. With the departures of Phillip Steward and Everett Daniels, senior linebackers George Bamfo, Austin Wilson and Mathews are the only players returning from last season. Among the three, Mathews was the lone starter and is somebody the Cougars are looking forward to taking that next step.

Last season, Mathews was third on the team in total tackles with 126, including six sacks. Head coach Tony Levine said he expects an improvement from the linebackers and thinks Mathews will help guide that.

“I think nationally, Derrick Mathews is going to have a break-out season,” Levine said. “Up to this point, I don’t think he’s received the recognition that he deserves, but I think that’s coming.”

Linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves agreed and said Mathews will be a special player and make contributions to the whole defense. He will fulfill the role Steward is leaving behind on and off the field.

“He should end up being the heart and soul of our team,” he said. “That’s why he’s going to be playing in the middle of our defense.”

Hargreaves is entering his first season at UH and with an impressive résumé. He’s coached a plethora of NFL standouts, including Chicago Bears linebacker D.J. Williams and New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Levine said he is pleased to have a coach of this magnitude on board.

“He’s been a great addition to our staff,” Levine said. “His résumé, along with who he’s coached and where he’s coached, gives him instant credibility. When you see him on the field, he’s just so energetic and encouraging to our players, and that’s a good sign.”

Although Hargreaves said they’ll mix up their defensive front with multiple defensive schemes — including the 2-4-5, 3-3-5, and 1-5-5 lineups — they’ll primarily lineup in the 4-3 defense.

Mathews said he embraces Hargreaves as his coach because of the experience and knowledge that he possesses.

“It’s always good to have a coach with so much history behind him and that experience. He brings a lot to the linebacker position and can teach us a lot,” Mathews said.

Hargreaves said a number of his players from whom he expects a productive season might be under the radar.

“George Bamfo has done some good things for us and has made some plays on the practice field as of late,” Hargreaves said. “Steven Taylor is a guy that’ll strike and not a lot of people know about. I guess you can call him the unknown entity of the team.”

Hargreaves also said he expects positive play from sophomore linebacker Trevon Randle, who is making the switch from defensive end to linebacker. Randle has been unable to play his last two seasons because of sitting out his redshirt season in 2011 and denied eligibility from the NCAA after transferring in 2012.

Hargreaves, who is a defensive guru and former linebacker at UConn, said having “vision” on the football field is an important attribute if a linebacker wants to excel.

“You see the big eyes I have,” Hargreaves said. “You’ve got to have great vision that allows you to see what’s going on during the course of a play. You really have to be a tough son of a gun too.”

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