Going into last season, it looked like the Cougars would be above average in the defensive backfield. Garrett Davis had started at safety for two seasons. Alexander Myres started 10 games in 2017 at corner while Isaiah Johnson had made 5 starts and had shown a lot of upside. Add the P5 transfers – Deontay Anderson from Ole Miss and Nick Watkins from Notre Dame – and you figured that you had a solid group of DBs.
But it didn’t take long to find out there were some big issues. On opening day, the defense gave up 292 passing yards and 3 TDs through the air to Rice. Three passing TDs were the most of the season for the 2-11 Owls. After giving up a hollow 381 yards through the air to Arizona (season-high), the pass defense imploded against Texas Tech. In his first career start, true freshman Alan Bowman torched the Cougar defense for 605 yards and 5 TDs (both Tech highs for the season). Worse yet, Garrett Davis was lost for the season with a broken foot.
Things improved the rest of the season but only because teams realized they could run at-will against the Mark D’Onofrio defense. Still, UH finished #123 in the country in passing yards allowed and was around the bottom of almost all defensive statistical categories. The bend-bend-bend-but-don’t-break defense was broken.
2018 Defensive Rankings
(Out of 129)
|1st Down Defense||128|
|Rush TDs Allowed||128|
|Passing Yards Allowed||123|
|Red Zone Defense||123|
|Offensive TDs Allowed||122|
|3rd Down Defense||120|
The 2018 defense was catastrophic but what was coming was even worse: significant roster issues in 2019. Of the 13 players expected to return in 2019, only 3 had started a game last year. Anderson started them all while Gleson Sprewell started 9 and Grant Stuard had one start. That trio made 183 tackles last season. The rest of the returning DBs?
24 tackles. Combined.
All three that have started games played safety last year meaning there were no returning starts at cornerback. While safety needed help, the corner position (as well as nickel – which was unused in D’Onofrio’s defense), had to be built from scratch. The defensive backfield needed a substantial talent infusion of both players and coaches.
The new defensive staff – Joe Cauthen, Doug Belk, Brian Early, Zac Etheridge, and Blake Gideon – bring a lot of experience and teaching chops. They’ve also recruited for 2019 like crazy: after deciding to keep five of the 7 players signed by Major Applewhite last December, the staff added 5 more defensive players in the February signing period.
Then the real work began: adding frontline, ready-to-play talent via the transfer portal.
After landing two solid corners via the portal, Coach Zac Etheridge thought he had his starters locked in. JUCO All-American Damarion Williams is set to go at one of the corner spots. Williams comes across as a no-nonsense player on the field but he’s also a quick-twitch guy and has a natural instinct in anticipating throws. He’s also likely to be the guy being sent when corner blitz is the call.
Williams has benefitted from UH’s nutrition and strength programs, adding about 10 lbs so far. I expect him to become a more complete player as he gets more reps, coaching, and film work.
Colin Samuel would have likely won the job at the other cornerback position but a knee issue is delaying his debut. Joseph Duarte reported this week that a “handful of players” are working to get the starting spot – it appears the job is one of the last up for grabs. I think several guys could win this job and will be a spot to watch early in the OU game.
The depth at safety has been improved significantly. In the spring, UH added four-star A&M transfer Jordan Moore then received a gift when he was ruled immediately eligible this summer.
Gervarrius Owens, Sprewell, and Anderson at the other safety spot and all will significant playing time. Owens was also a JUCO All-American last year – he’s a physical DB with some speed. Owens grew up in Southmoore, Oklahoma, less than 10 miles from the OU campus, and will be amped up to play in front of friends and family.
“It’s gonna be real special getting to go back home, you know,” Owens told GoCoogs in June. “It’s going to be real special and I’m gonna definitely try to put on a show.”
Those safeties have the benefit of playing under a highly-respected coach in Doug Belk. For his part, Dana Holgorsen raves about Belk.
“(He) spent 3 years at Alabama with Coach Saban and learned a lot,” Dana said. “The knowledge that he brings, the recruiting capacity that he brings, just the overall (ability).
“There’s some guys you can just tell are going to be head coaches, and he’s one of those guys that’s gonna be a head coach.”
The Cougars will be in a three-safety look pretty often. I expect Grant Stuard to get the start in Norman in the nickel but, depending on the package, you’ll also see Owens, Moore, and Amaud Willis Daulton at nickel.
“The thing about that position, we ask that guy to do so many different things especially with all of our sub packages,” Coach Blake Gideon recently said about the spot he coaches.
When Colin Samuel gets healthy, you could see four transfer DBs on the field in the same series. After this staff recruited to correct the roster mistakes left by Major and Co., I am much more bullish on this unit than I was eight months ago.
Note: The first version of this story did not credit Heath Trabue for taking the featured image. We apologize for the error.
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Towns is a former UH athlete, having played baseball for the Cougars in the mid-90’s. He is most famous for walking 9 LSU batters in just 3 innings vs. LSU. He also fired a 2-hit complete game shutout of SFA.