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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Football

‘Deep’ secondary led by opportunistic starting safeties


UH lost two starters at cornerback due to graduation — Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates — so junior safety Trevon Stewart (pictured) who led the nation in turnovers responsible for, is expected to be one of the leaders on the defense. |  Jimmy Moreland/The Daily Cougar

UH lost two starters at cornerback due to graduation — Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates — so junior safety Trevon Stewart (pictured) who led the nation in turnovers responsible for, is expected to be one of the leaders on the defense. | Jimmy Moreland/The Daily Cougar

Despite losing two starting cornerbacks from last season, the Cougars’ depth in the secondary has head coach Tony Levine believing this could be the best he has seen since he arrived at UH seven years ago.

The Cougars’ two starting safeties, who produced 10 interceptions and helped the defense lead the nation in turnovers, both return to the defensive backfield to lead a somewhat inexperienced group.

“I think in our defensive backfield, we have tremendous depth right now,” Levine said.

Though the Cougars return some corners that played a significant amount of time last year, last season’s starters Zach McMillan and Thomas Bates have left an empty void in which many players are hungry to fill, including junior William Jackson.

Jackson has starting experience. He topped the depth chart during UH’s 20-13 loss to Louisville, which featured Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, while McMillian was suspended for the first half.

However, Jackson still has to earn the position before the season begins. The Cougars have been competing hard against one another and working on getting to the right depth in their coverage, Jackson said.

“It’s competitive every day; we compete every day because nobody has a starting spot yet, so we’re working hard to see who the best man is,” he said.

The Cougars’ competitive fire is not only on the field, but they motivate each other off the field with some friendly trash talk from veteran leaders.

“Not only in practice, but outside of practice, we talk about who’s going to get the first interception in practice, who is going to force the first turnover,” said junior defensive back Trevon Stewart. “It’s all good because the competition is good, to boost everybody to play at the highest level they can.”

UH’s secondary is working on getting everyone on the same page, and with new starting corners, the task is easier said than done. The Cougars had good chemistry in an opportunistic starting secondary that produced 17 interceptions last season.

Stewart said he and junior safety Adrian McDonald, who nabbed six interceptions last season, will be leaders on the field.

“We have younger players, so me and Adrian McDonald have been trying to get them into the roll of things like stripping the ball and going for the ball at full speed,” Stewart said.

In the defensive backfield, UH also has senior Jaron Walker, sophomore Brandon Wilson, junior Marcus Dillard, and two transfers in Tyler White out of Utah and Lee Hightower from Boise State who are both eligible this year.  Junior Eric Eiland also moved from defensive end to safety.

“It’s been very competitive in the secondary and it’s been competitive going against the receivers during seven on seven,” Levine said. “We’re always trying to improve our coverage techniques since we play mostly man coverage which has become rare, and across the board tackling as well.”

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