In the spring of 2019, even the most optimistic look at the Cougar secondary would have conceded the position group was in serious trouble for the upcoming season.
The Cougars graduated the 4 cornerbacks who saw the most action that season: Isaiah Johnson, Alexander Myres, Nick Watkins and Joeal Williams. For those of us that watched Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman set program records and SMU's Ben Hicks briefly look like a starting caliber D1 quarterback against the UH secondary, it certainly didn’t look like a veteran group.
Simply guessing at the two-deep for the Cougar secondary last spring was akin to throwing darts blindfolded without having ever attempted to throw a dart before.
Before all the assistant positions were even filled on the staff, they pulled off an 11th hour recruiting coup getting SMU commit and junior college All-American Damarion Williams to flip to UH and join the program for the spring semester. For additional immediate reinforcements, the staff also brought in UCLA grad transfer Collin Samuel who had a handful of career starts for the Bruins, Williams’ fellow JC All-American Gervarrius Owens from NE Oklahoma A&M and one-time 4-star recruit Jordan Moore from Texas A&M.
With more of an eye towards the long-term, the staff also brought in sit-out transfers Thabo Mwaniki (Oklahoma State), Marcus Jones (Troy), Kelvin Clemmons (Minnesota/Hutchinson CC) and Hassan Hypolite (Colorado).
The staff didn’t have to publicly express their dissatisfaction with the previous staff’s recruiting, but bringing in 8 new secondary players in one offseason says it loud and clear.
By the end of the 2019 season, the Coogs only ended up having 1 of the 5 secondary positions manned by a player with significant prior D1 experience (Deontay Anderson). Sprewell ended up missing most of the season and redshirting while being spelled admirably by D1 neophytes Owens and redshirt freshman Garrison Vaughn. Samuel, who the staff certainly expected to play opposite of Williams, ended up missing 2019 with an injury.
Williams got dealt a brutal hand getting his first D1 reps at cornerback against the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Gabe Davis, Damonte Coxie and others. But Williams also showed flashes of brilliance, forcing a game changing turnover in a win over Tulsa and holding Davis and Lamb well under their 2019 season averages.
The spot opposite of Williams at corner however was a revolving door. Ka’Darian Smith showed quickly why he hadn’t broken the 2-deep much in his first 3 years, was shelved after 4 games and eventually was indefinitely suspended. Shaun Lewis did about as well as you can expect from a former walk-on getting his first serious action and Owens tried his darndest, but mostly looked like a safety playing cornerback (which… he was).
Looking forward, you now have as many as 9 players at cornerback who are either returning contributors or junior/senior transfers who were brought in with the expectation that they would play immediately.
I expect Damarion Williams will start at one of those spots if he’s healthy and from there you have as many as 8 players competing to start opposite of him.
Marcus Jones seems like the favorite after a sterling 2 years at Troy where he became the program’s 2nd ever All-American since moving up to Division 1-FBS. If you want to nitpick, most of his big accomplishments are as a return man but 83 tackles and 4 combined INTs on a couple Troy defenses (as an underclassman) are impressive.
Kelvin Clemmons was judged good enough to play for the best Minnesota team in decades before he decided he liked his chances better to play at Houston. Jayce Rogers was 1st team all-conference in the ultra-competitive Mississippi JC league and someone this staff got the commitment of as a high schooler before taking a 2-year JC detour. Recent commitment Art Green played opposite of Clemmons at Hutchinson CC and was a top 60 national JC recruit.
Not to mention returners Shaun Lewis and DJ Small, plus Colin Samuel and Javian Smith who both missed all of the 2019 season due to injury.
That’s up to 8 players competing for 1 spot and certainly the level of competition you want to see from the team’s weakest position group in 2019.
The situation at safety was a little less dire as Deontay Anderson and Gleson Sprewell both returned with a good amount of starting experience. Grant Stuard also came in with a good amount of experience as a reserve and special teams ball hawk.
Anderson looked like a much more sure tackler and veteran leader in what was still admittedly a poor pass defense. Sprewell also started his first 4 games before missing the remainder of the season with an injury and redshirting. This had the aforementioned upside of allowing underclassmen Owens and Vaughn to get lots of Division 1 reps.
Now, all 3 return along with the now-eligible Thabo Mwaniki. For some quick background, Mwaniki was the only Oklahoma State true freshman to start a game in 2017 and was the team’s newcomer of the year that season.
Stuard showed a knack for big hits and played with an unusually high motor at the Nickel position and now moves to linebacker, leaving one-time 4 star Jordan Moore and West Virginia grad transfer JoVanni Stewart to battle it out at Nickel.
I don’t write this to make any guarantee that this influx of talent leads to a return to the vintage ball-hawking, turnover forcing ‘Jack Boyz’ Cougar secondary groups of 2013-16. A number of the guys I’ve mentioned are new to Division 1 football and as much as I like the background of UH’s defensive staff, whether they can turn this talent into an effective defense still isn’t a certainty.
What’s not up for debate is that the Herman and Applewhite staffs failed miserably at bringing in Division 1 caliber defensive backs and in the space of about 16 months the Holgorsen staff has dramatically improved the depth and talent.
If you didn’t believe it a few minutes ago when you started reading this piece, I hope you do now.