Houston’s defense was elite in every facet of the game in 2022.
The unit stifled the run to a dominant degree. Quarterbacks struggled to maintain accuracy when pitted against the secondary and the result was one of the stronger aerial defenses in the country. Sacks were prevalent. Turnovers were commonplace. Third down and red zone stops occurred at exorbitantly high rates.
As a result of the unit’s collective success, defensive coordinator Doug Belk is trending as one of the premier assistant coaches in the FBS. Belk was one of 18 coaches recognized as a semifinalist for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the top assistant annually. Belk is back, and so are many crucial members of the outstanding defense from a season ago. With such returning presence, Houston was selected as the AAC favorite at media day and pegged with a preseason AP ranking for the first time since 2015. However, the Cougar defense aims to turn the hype into nothing but background noise in preparation for another special season.
“I am trying to get our guys to get really focus on what we need to do to get better each and every day,” Belk said. “We put an ‘X’ over last year. We put an ‘X’ over the preseason polls. We put an ‘X’ over all the hype and where we’re picked to finish in the conference... Where you’re ranked doesn’t really matter in the preseason. It’s where you finish, but you can’t really finish if you don’t start well.”
Houston’s revitalized defense, nicknamed the “Third Ward Defense” has no lack of branding within. The defensive line took on the name “Sack Avenue” last season, wielding a street sign with the nickname on the sidelines to celebrate their residence in opposing backfields. The defensive backs also took on the “JackBoyz” moniker which was notably utilized as the nickname for Houston’s mid-2010s secondaries.
“When we started this last year, it was very instrumental for our team, especially defensively,” Belk said on the branding. “We had to have something to rally behind and stand on. We wanted to represent where we were at, University of Houston, but most of all the Third Ward... The first thing we need to do is have pride in your position group. Each position group having pride in their performance, individually and collectively, and then having pride as a unit — it does good things on defense.”
Houston’s Third Ward Defense is in a far better place than it was when Holgorsen first arrived, and middle linebacker Donavan Mutin doesn’t believe the improvement is correlated with changes in scheme or personnel, but rather, mentality.
“Our mentality of our defense was very different. Now we want to go out there and goose-egg whoever we play,” Mutin said. “We finished top six in total defense in the country. None of that transfers over, so I don’t really like speaking to that. We look at that top six like, ‘We were sixth? And we left all of that on the table?’ I think we’re gonna be the best in the world, the best that the school’s seen... You see where we were even with all the busts and missed hits and miscommunications and lack of effort, and we still ended up in a very elite position. We have very much more elite-ness to put on tape and show the world.”
- Scoring defense: 20.4 points per game (19th)
- Total defense: 301.5 yards per game (6th)
- Passing defense: 194.0 yards per game (19th)
- Rushing defense: 107.5 yards per game (10th)
- Turnovers gained: 23 takeaways (t-19th)
- Opponent completion rate: 55.2% (8th)
- Sacks: 3.21 per game (11th)
- First downs allowed: 210 (6th)
- Opponent 3rd down rate: 25.7% (1st)
- Opponent red zone rate: 73.5% (t-15th)
Houston’s defensive line labeled “Sack Ave.” established itself as one of the premier units in the country last year. However, a few key cogs moved off the avenue this offseason, as defensive tackle Logan Hall warranted the 33rd overall NFL Draft selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defensive end David Anenih signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans.
Still, Houston possesses enough firepower within its reloaded defensive line to remain in the conversation among the nation’s best.
“Our defensive line is reloading and retooling,” Belk said. “We’ll be strength in numbers at three technique, replacing Logan and his high competition at that position. I look at guys like D’Anthony Jones, Nelson Ceaser, and Derek Parish who will come back — who all have had a lot of production and helped us win football games in the past — and their roles will increase with the loss of David (Anenih).”
The ringleader of the new-look Sack Ave. is program veteran Derek Parish. The defensive line enjoyed a career-season with personal bests across the board — 54 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and five sacks. But based on comments from teammates, don’t expect Parish to become compliant with those numbers. Cited as one of the hardest workers and strongest players on the team, as evidenced by his 425 pound power clean, Parish is always looking to maximize his output and push his teammates in every activity, whether it’s football, weightlifting, stretching, or jiu-jitsu.
“I’m so glad I met Derek. Derek is one of the only people that we align with in how we see the game,” Mutin said. “We go on the field and we can talk to each other and literally just get energy from speaking to each other. He can fire me up, I can fire him up from words, but he lives that every day. He’s gonna go in the weight room and he’s gonna go in there to try to push his limits. He’s not in the condition of trying to make it through. He’s trying to die in the condition. He’s trying to go to the end, and when we get off the field, he’s the same person.”
Parish flew under the radar over the past few years due to the presence of high NFL Draft picks on the defensive line. As a captain, he not only holds a vocal leadership role in the unit. He is the on-field successor looking to replicate, or even exceed, the production of the star defensive linemen that preceded him.
“Logan Hall used to get off the bus first, and everybody’s looking at him. And Payton Turner, and all of those guys that he’s played with, but arguably he’s been as productive as anybody who’s been here,” Belk said of Parish. “You see him in the weight room — one of the strongest guys pound-for-pound in the country. But the way he works, the way he approaches it, he has a nonstop motor and he wants to be great.”
Outside of Parish, one of the emerging talents on the unit is Nelson Ceaser, who Belk cites as arguably the best technician on the line. Despite 2021 marking his third year on campus, he maintained status as a redshirt freshman last fall and watched his production skyrocket. He accumulated 3.5 sacks in a reserve role, pushing the gas pedal to the end of the season with a career-high five tackles in the Birmingham Bowl.
“He’s a guy that works extremely hard, who has developed his body and is even more strong mentally,” Belk said. “I think his progression has been really unbelievable to watch from where he started being a little over 200 pounds playing outside backer and defensive end, to being around 250 now. His every day battles with Derek Parish and D’Anthony and some of those other younger guys in his position have been really good for his development.”
D’Anthony Jones is another edge rusher who should see a ramp up in production after the departure of Anenih. Jones tied for the team-lead in sacks last year, taking down opposing quarterbacks six times despite operating in a reserve role. The California native is a clear proponent of wreaking havoc, as demonstrated by his four forced fumbles in 2021 — ranking top 10 in the FBS. Jones provides one of the most recognizable voices on the team, often seen parading the field bearing signs in the aftermath of victories.
“He talks a lot. Everybody’s got different auras to themselves, but you gotta give him respect. He backs it up,” Parish said. “He really brings that aura alive. He brings the competition with no animosity within the room. Like, ‘I’m gonna get more sacks. I’m gonna get more sacks.’ And it raises your game because if we’re talking about it, we gotta be about it.”
The interior of the defensive line may not feature Logan Hall anymore, but the amount of depth remains astounding. Chidozie Nwankwo demands plenty of intention in the midst of the unit. The 5’11”, 290 pound nose guard demands unbridled attention from opposing guards and centers, allowing Houston’s defensive tackles to attain unusually high sack totals.
Three defensive tackles — Atlias Bell, Sedrick Williams, and Latrell Bankston — all managed 3.5 sacks last year, and the trio combined for 15 tackles for loss. Belk saw plenty of promise in Bell last season, and he expects the senior lineman to present a dangerous degree of athleticism within the trenches.
“You look at Atlias, his athleticism is very unique,” Belk said. “He’s played behind Logan, but he’s been very productive. It seems like almost every game he was in position to make a play for us to impact the game. You look at Latrell Bankston and Sedrick Williams at that position, we have some guys who have played some ball who all have a different skillset. Maybe they don’t have the stature of Logan or one of those guys, but as far as being productive, I put them in the same category.”
The unquestionable leader of the linebacking corps is Donavan Mutin, who led all Cougars in tackles with 77. The senior let his presence be known all over the field, accumulating 6.5 tackles for loss in addition to recovering three fumbles — including a walk-off fumble recovery to defeat East Carolina in overtime. Given his level of preparation and understanding of the technicalities of the game, Belk refers to Mutin as the ‘Peyton Manning of the defense’.
“When you look at the things Donnie does from a communication standpoint, from the way he prepares to the way he identifies formations, to just his entire approach to practice and games, that’s his niche,” linebackers coach Archie McDaniel said. “Calling him Peyton Manning is exactly right. He makes sure we’re in the right spot at all times.”
Part of the ‘Peyton Manning of the defense’ nickname stems from Mutin’s impressive communication skills. Leadership is now a defining attribute of the fifth-year senior and team captain, but this wasn’t always the case. A late bloomer in the football world, Mutin had to work just as tirelessly on the field as he did in honing his communication abilities, and the results are finally paying off as a linebacker and as a leader.
“My whole life I’ve been introverted. I’m very shy. I don’t have a lot of friends. I’ve always been very quiet. Outside of football, it’s hard for me to be around people and speak to people and be interactive,” Mutin said. “I started playing football when I moved out here in seventh, eighth grade and I was on C team. I was really bad. It was my first time playing ball. As I got into high school, I would see things going on in the workout, I would see things going on in practice that I would wanted to say, but I didn’t have the confidence to stand and say it because I didn’t think my words had any value because I was the dude who just started playing ball... People gravitate to me. I make relationships, and they’re usually pretty genuine. As that happens, I would say something and it would stick and I always felt inside of me that it was something I could do.”
The veteran leader is the surefire anchor of the middle linebacker spot, but the weakside linebacker spot in Houston’s 4-2-5 defense remains more of a question. There are two viable candidates competing for the starting spot. One is Mannie Nunnery, who became a special teams icon after blocking three kicks and two punts to earn the National Special Teams Player of the Year Award. The other is Malik Robinson, who tallied 34 tackles and snagged a key fumble recovery in a comeback win over Navy as a full-time reserve.
“We play a lot of different packages and they’ll both start in different roles for our team,” Belk said. “Malik’s been very impressive. I think he’s had definitely one of the best camps so far of anybody on our defense — his growth, his leadership, and he’s been healthy throughout this camp. Mannie just brings a different element to this team with his athleticism, his physicality, and his football IQ continues to get better... We’ll find creative ways to use both of those guys.”
Houston also landed a young prospect through the transfer portal who is certain to improve the linebacking corps depth. Jamal Morris travels south from Oklahoma after registering eight tackles in two years as a Sooner. He enrolled in January and has smoothly adjusted to the unit as he prepares to make his Cougar debut this September — and he is set to rotate between MIKE, SAM, and WILL linebacker roles.
“The one thing that Jamal brings is versatility,” McDaniel said. “He can play inside. He can play outside. He plays extremely well in space. He’s a good blitzer and he’s smart. He will contribute. He will be somebody that helps us stay competitive defensively, and it will be in a few different spots. Because of how versatile he is, that makes Jamal extremely special for our defense.”
Marcus Jones and Damarion “Pepe” Williams formed one of the premier cornerback tandems in college football last year, and that was evident on NFL Draft Day, when Jones warranted a third round selection and Williams landed in the fourth round. Jones totaled five interceptions and garnered All-American status as a cornerback, while Williams broke up eight passes — including the game-winning deflection in the Birmingham Bowl.
Now is the tricky part, when Houston must adjust to life without the duo.
“The production of Marcus and Pepe is noted, and that’s the reason they are where they’re at,” Belk said. “Overall, I think our depth is still good. There’s just some guys that are unproven who have to prove themselves.”
Houston rotates its pieces in the secondary quite frequently, which led to the development of 2022 starting cornerbacks Art Green and Alex Hogan. Green picked off one pass and recovered two fumbles with ample playing time, while Hogan delivered 27 tackles, six batdowns, and two interceptions as a common fixture in the secondary.
“That’s a challenge for guys like Art and Alex, who played significant roles for us last year to increase their production and go into starting roles,” Belk said. “A lot of the talk around the building is obviously how Marcus Jones’ impact and Damarion’s impact was great as far as playing the game, but their impact in the locker room was as big as far as challenging guys and playing at a high level and practicing at a high level.”
The Cougars’ starting cornerbacks should be more prepared for their new roles after considerable playing time in 2021. But now, building supporting depth is the mission to molding a truly great defense. Junior college transfers Moses Alexander and Justice Ugo are among the candidates to thrive in the roles Green and Hogan manned last year, but Belk is also impressed with redshirt freshman Jalen Emery, who has yet to play a collegiate snap.
“Jalen Emery is a spark plug,” Belk said. “He could do a lot of different things well. He can play multiple positions. He has a skillset similar to Pepe as far as being able to move around, being physical and quick-twitch, and being very athletic.”
Houston’s 4-2-5 also requires the presence of a starting nickelback. That role is reserved for one of the high-energy members of the defense in Jayce Rogers. The former community college transfer assimilated into a starting role for 10 games last season, racking up 21 tackles in the process. After daily battles and intense trash talk sessions with All-AAC receiver Tank Dell in practice, Rogers’ skillset should only continue to flourish after constant dealings with top-notch competition.
“Every day Jayce comes with the same energy,” Dell said. “He’s the same guy every day and he brings energy and that gets me going. He’s talking trash to me, I’m talking trash to him. And it’s just fun. We love to compete. It’s what we’re out here for, to compete.”
The safeties are the veteran leaders of the secondary now. Houston retains both components of its starting safety tandem from 2021, Gervarrius Owens and Hasaan Hypolite. Owens ranked fifth on the team in tackles as a First Team All-AAC selection while Hypolite checked in at eighth among Houston defenders, combining for 96 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and three interceptions.
As the lone returning all-conference honoree in the secondary, Owens aims to use that accolade as fuel for personal improvement and for team improvement in 2022.
“It ultimately creates a different hunger in you,” Owens said. “They know I’m here. They see what I can do. Let’s see how far I can take it. It was humbling, motivating, but now as the season comes, I’m gonna put it to the side and play ball. The more success our team will have, the more success all of us individually will have, so I feel like we can take this as far as we want to.”
When Houston’s kick return or punt return lineups trotted onto the field in 2021, opposing fanbases and coaching staffs alike always had to hold their breath. The Cougars fielded a generational talent as their return specialist in Marcus Jones. The consensus All-American and Paul Hornung Award winner (nation’s most versatile player) was drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Now Houston must replace the irreplaceable. Holgorsen has already rattled off several names who he hopes could fill the shoes of the star who ran back an FBS-best four special teams touchdowns in 2021.
“There’s no Marcus. We have some guys to choose from,” Holgorsen said, addressing the kickoff return specialist vacancy. “Tank is fine. Matt Golden is very good at catching kicks. Peyton Sawyer has looked really good. He’s looked good on offense too. He’s probably our second leading receiver as far as targets and catches right now in camp. I’ve been very happy with him and he’ll good a look in the return game.”
Dell stated he will handle punt return duties. Given his agility and the ability to craft explosive plays with the ball in his hands, the star receiver should adapt smoothly into this new role.
“When I get the ball in my hands, I’m comfortable because I’ve been having the ball in my hands since I was six years old, when I first started playing football, playing running back in little league,” Dell said. “I feel like I’m a very good athlete when I get the ball in my hand in an open field. Even in tight spaces, I feel like I can make somebody miss and find separation somewhere to pick up extra yards.”
Another special teamer Houston is tasked with replacing is kicker Dalton Witherspoon. The longtime staple converted on 76.1 percent of field goal attempts in four years as a Cougar, showing off his range by draining 52 and 46-yarders in his final two contests. To replace Witherspoon, a kicking competition between former Miami (FL) transfer Bubba Baxa (who handled kickoff duties in 2020 and 2021) and Kyle Ramsey commences.
Baxa last handled a placekicking role during his Hurricane days, sinking 14-of-22 field goals and 60-of-63 extra points at his former school. Ramsey has yet to make a collegiate field goal, but stands a perfect 11-of-11 on extra points in two seasons as a Cougar.
“It’s still a battle,” Holgorsen said after a recent practice. “We’ve lined up and kicked more field goals in 10 practices than I ever have ever. They’ve done a lot of good work. They’re competing. At some point we’re gonna have to make a decision, but we’re not ready at this point.”
The punter position presents less of a battle, as Laine Wilkins returns for the third consecutive season. The Perth, Australia native generated one of the most bizarre stats in 2020 by punting 38 times without allowing a single positive return. Last year, he slightly improved his punting average and number of landings inside the 20-yard line, and he’ll look to further escalate those marks in 2022.