Breaking down the Houston Cougars Defense

One of the biggest storylines surrounding Houston this season has been the emergence of Greg Ward Jr. as an electric playmaker under the tutelage of Tom Herman. But while Houston’s offense has certainly carried the team to a 12-1 record, they still boast a very good defense. Todd Orlando was hired away from Utah State to be Herman’s defensive coordinator and he brought with him his 3-4 defense, which has allowed Houston to take advantage of their talent at the linebacker position.

The leader of Houston’s defense is Elandon Roberts (#44), their senior inside linebacker. He is the heart and soul of the defense and leads all players with 132 tackles. He also has 17.0 tackles for loss and 6 sacks on the season. The 6-0, 235 lb. linebacker earned First Team All-AAC honors this season. Paired with Roberts are Steven Taylor (#41) and Tyus Bowser (#81), both junior outside linebackers. Taylor has 86 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 9 sacks on the season, earning him Second Team All-AAC honors. Bowser has 48 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks on the season. Linebacker is definitely the strength of Houston’s defense and will be a major key for Jimbo Fisher when making an offensive game plan.

Perhaps the best draft prospect on Houston’s roster is senior cornerback William Jackson III (#3). Jackson is their No. 1 cornerback and has been performing well when faced with the best receiver talent in the AAC. He leads all players with three interceptions, two of which have been returned for touchdowns. He has great size at 6-2, 195 lbs. and should present a matchup issue for whomever he lines up against for Florida State.

Continuing with the defensive backs, Houston boasts an impressive senior safety duo in Trevon Stewart (#23) and Adrian McDonald (#16). Stewart was named First Team All-AAC after totaling 72 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks on the season. McDonald has 84 tackles and four interceptions as well. Much like Florida State, Houston loves to put their safeties close to the line of scrimmage and allow them to make plays in the run game. Both Stewart and McDonald are draftable prospects and players that Jimbo Fisher will have to account for when making an offensive game plan.

Houston has faced an impressive slate of quarterbacks this season. Gunner Kiel of Cincinnati threw for 523 yards and four touchdowns in a 33-30 Houston win. Paxton Lynch, widely believed to be one of the top quarterback prospects in this year’s NFL Draft, threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-34 Houston win. Finally, Heisman trophy contender Keenan Reynolds of Navy passed for 312 yards and rushed for 84 yards in Houston’s final win of the regular season.

Houston’s defense allows an average of 384 yards per game, good for 50th in the country. They also allow 5.2 yards per play, 44th in the country. A closer look at the stats tells a tale of two sides. On one hand, Houston’s rush defense is among the best in the country. They allow an average of 123.2 yards per game, ranked 20th in the country. They held the 3rd ranked Navy rushing attack (averaging 314 yards per game) to only 218 rushing yards. However, they haven’t faced a good rushing attack besides Navy. The next best rushing attack they’ve faced is Cincinnati, who boasts the 53rd ranked rush game in the country.

On the other hand, their pass defense is ranked 103rd in the country with opponents averaging 261.4 yards per game and 7.4 yards per attempt. In the past three games, opponents have averaged 8.8 yards per attempt as well.

Houston has faced some of the country’s best passing offenses. Cincinnati, behind the arm of Gunner Kiel, is ranked third in the country. Memphis and Paxton Lynch are ranked ninth overall as well. Surprisingly, Tulsa is ranked 13th in the country in passing offense with 329.8 yards per game as well.

So while it may look as if Houston’s rush defense is vastly better than their pass defense, there may be another explanation for this phenomenon. Because of Houston’s prolific offense, opponents often find themselves down early and abandon the run in order to keep up with Tom Herman’s offensive performance. This may be an explanation as to why Houston allows for so few rush yards, simply because opponents do not run on Houston as much as they throw the ball.

Regardless, Houston has a very talented defense. They have good talent at linebacker and defensive back and draftable prospects are scattered throughout. Houston won’t be the best defense that Florida State will have faced all year, but will still present a tough test for Jimbo Fisher to plan against.

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