Lackluster defensive year leaves Cougars with much to prove

Junior linebacker Derrick Mathews needs a new nickname.



As a baby-faced freshman, the veterans on the team called him “Pup;” however, Mathews was anything but a baby on the field. He started all 14 games and was selected as a freshman All-American during the Cougars’ historic 13-1 season.

Although Mathews is still clean-shaven, he is one of the veteran leaders on the team. Former linebacker Phillip Steward, a defensive leader on last season’s squad, began preparing him for the moment when he would have to step up.

“I think a lot, ‘Man, I was just a kid not too long ago,’ and now I’ve grown up to fill the shoes of the Marcus McGraws or the Phillip Steward or Sammy Browns… (Steward) always told me, ‘Big Dog, this is going to be yours,’” Mathews said. “It just came faster than I thought.”

Mathews didn’t inherit a Ferrari though — the Cougars had one of the worst defenses in Conference USA last season. They surrendered 36 points per game and were statistically the worst pass defense during conference play.

Since legendary coaches Bill Yeoman and Jack Pardee last patrolled the sidelines, UH has been known more for its Air Raid offense than its defense, a fact that is not lost on new defensive coordinator David Gibbs.

“Down through the history, Houston hasn’t played very good defense,” Gibbs said. “I think the key for us is to build on what we started in the spring. Have good two-a-day practices, start with Southern and play some decent games and build some confidence as we go.”

The Cougars also have to replace two of their best defensive players, Steward and former cornerback D.J. Hayden, to the NFL. UH returns only four starters from last season’s squad, but Gibbs said the squad’s youth may be a good thing.

“They don’t listen to when people beat them up, and when their confidence is shaken,” Gibbs said. “So they don’t remember last year. They don’t remember that they aren’t supposed to be very good on defense. That works to our advantage.”

If the Cougars want to improve their pass defense, it will begin with the defensive line. When UH got pressure on the quarterback, many times the team had to blitz an extra linebacker, which put the secondary in more one-on-one situations. The Cougars’ top three quarterback sackers were linebackers.

The Cougars gave up 36 points per game last season.  |  File photo/The Daily Cougar

The Cougars gave up 36 points per game last season. | File photo/The Daily Cougar

Their leading defensive lineman was Zeke Riser with three, and he transferred to Maryland this off-season.

The coaching staff is expecting junior defensive lineman Joey Mbu to add pressure to the middle on opposing signal callers— an element the Cougars didn’t consistently have last season. Sophomore defensive end Eric Eiland, though slightly undersized at 236 pounds, should bring pressure from the outside.

In the secondary, sophomore safety Trevon Stewart, a freshman All-American last season, along with senior cornerback Zachary McMillian are established returning starters, but senior defensive back Thomas Bates performed when Hayden was injured  last year.

Against the run, the Cougars didn’t fare much better. They were ranked No. 92 in the nation after giving up 192 yards per game.

Emblazoned on team T-shirts and wristbands is the slogan “Something 2 prove.” Stewart, the team’s leading returning tackler said the Cougars did not play up to their standards last year.

“(A) 5-7 (season record) is not what we were looking for, but you know we have been working hard since the spring. We (alongside the coaching staff) haven’t taken a day off offense and defense,” Stewart said.

 [email protected]

1 Comment

Leave a Comment