After beginning the 2020 season looking like it might be the strength of the Houston football team, the Cougars’ defense quickly crumbled.
The Cougars ended the 2020 season giving up 32 points per game and an average of 5.78 yards per play, which added up to nearly 400 yards allowed per contest.
While lack of depth due to injuries and COVID-19 issues certainly played a part in UH’s defensive struggles, the Cougars’ defense looked like two different units when comparing their first three games against their final five.
This was one of the first things UH head coach Dana Holgorsen noted during one of his media availabilities in the spring.
“I thought we started (2020) very good and I thought we were extremely physical,” Holgorsen said. “After three games of (being physical), we became pretty soft and we ended the season pretty soft.”
On top of that, lineman Payton Turner and linebacker Grant Stuard, two of the UH defense’s biggest bright spots that combined for 86 tackles and six sacks in 2020, are gone.
Despite all of the issues in 2020 and losing two of their top players, Holgorsen and the UH coaching staff are confident that the Cougars’ defense will bounce back in a major way in 2021 because of three main factors.
Linebackers – ‘our heart and soul’
To talk about a unit having a wealth of experience, look no further than the UH linebacking core.
From guys like JoVanni Stewart, who has been a Divison I football player since 2016, to Deontay Anderson, who although shifted from safety to linebacker during the latter stages of the 2020 season, has three years of being a starter under his belt, the experience and leadership at the linebacker position are abundant.
“We all work together great,” Anderson said. “I think that’s what makes us special, that’s what makes us powerful as a unit.”
But no one may be more important to the UH defense than junior linebacker Donavan Mutin, who missed the final five games of 2020 due to injury. His absence down the stretch last season really showed.
“We got worse on defense once (Mutin) got hurt after game three,” Holgorsen said. “We were not the same.”
Having Mutin back, who is 100 percent Holgorsen said, provides a huge boost for the entire defense, not only because of his veteran experience and high football IQ, but also because he is the gel that holds the linebacking core together.
The one positive takeaway from Mutin’s absence for UH was that it gave guys like redshirt freshman Mannie Nunnery and junior Malik Robinson, who Holgorsen called two of the team’s most “freakishly athletic” guys, an opportunity to gain some valuable playing time at linebacker.
Having guys like Nunnery and Robinson, who stepped up and showed many positives when called upon last year, anchoring the second unit is huge.
It will allow UH to keep its linebackers fresh by rotating guys in and out since the coaching staff does not see a major drop-off between the starters and backups at the position.
From top to bottom, the Cougars’ linebacking core is the team’s most complete unit because of all the experience and depth they have at the position.
“Linebackers are going to be where our heart and soul are,” Holgorsen said.
Having to replace such a force inside like Payton Turner was will be a big task, but the Cougars defensive line appears to be up to the challenge. Both Holgorsen and defensive line coach Brian Early have raved about how impressive the D-line has been this spring.
“Our D-line looks really good,” Holgorsen said. “They’re disruptive.”
Tre Williams and Latrell Bankston, two key transfers with plenty of Division I experience UH picked up over the offseason have been “as good as advertised,” according to Holgorsen.
Junior Derek Parish has been a wrecking ball inside, with coaches calling him “unblockable” at times.
But the player who has turned the heads of the coaching staff the most has been junior Logan Hall.
The 6-foot-6-inch defensive lineman has made a significant jump over the offseason and early spring, with Holgorsen saying Hall is playing better than any other player on the team right now.
Early echoed what Holgorsen said, calling Hall a future “Sunday player.”
“(Hall) has probably improved more than anyone else on the football team defensively,” Early said. “There are times that he completely takes over out there and has been unblockable.”
Overall, Early has loved what he has seen from his unit and believes they have enough depth to be able to constantly bring in fresh bodies, which should translate into a better performance upfront in 2021.
“We’ve got really good competitive depth, really good quality depth right now,” Early said. “I feel like I’ve got two units of starters. I feel like there is no drop-off from our level of play when we substitute.”
Strength in the secondary
Led by one of the most experienced and skilled cornerback duos in the country in Marcus Jones and Damarion “Pepe” Williams, the expectations for the UH secondary are sky-high.
While the Cougars have struggled to create turnovers under Holgorsen, having a full season of Jones and Williams, who are both healthy, together in the secondary should help the Cougars’ defense return to the turnover-creating machine they were in the years prior to Holgorsen taking over the UH football program.
“Marcus Jones and Pepe Williams are going to be a fun tandem to watch. Those guys are incredibly talented. They’ve got a lot of experience,” Holgorsen said. “They’ve got really good ball skills which will hopefully result in turnovers that haven’t existed (at UH) in two years.”
Alongside Jones and Williams, Alex Hogan, who transferred to UH from Texas Tech, along with Jayce Rodgers and Kelvin Clemmons have stood out to the coaches this spring and provide nice depth at the cornerback position.
As a unit, the cornerbacks have focused on two things over the offseason and spring which they believe can raise their play to the next level: communication and eye discipline.
“If we have (communication), I feel like it’s very hard to beat us,” Jones said. “If you got eye discipline and you got your eyes in the right spot, then most of the time you can make the plays.”
Along with the cornerbacks’ strong spring performances, safeties Thabo Mwaniki and Hasaan Hypolite have had “spectacular offseasons,” according to Holgorsen, and provide more veteran leadership and experience to further bolster the secondary.
Because of the improved play of the secondary as a whole and their ability to hold their own this spring, Holgorsen is confident that the Cougars’ defense will be able to put more consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
“Our defensive pressure has probably been the highlight of spring so far,” Holgorsen.
“Just having guys that have the ability to be able to get to the quarterback. We can pop linebackers more than we have the last couple of years because our corners are playing well.”