As the Houston Cougars move up to the AAC for 2013, they have some serious issues to address on the defensive side of the ball. The Cougars gave up 36 points per game, surrendering 30-points or more eight times. In those games, Houston went just 1-7. The defense must improve next season if the Cougars have any hope of turning things around in year two for Tony Levine. Luckily, Derrick Mathews looks ready to step up as a leader for this unit.
Last season, Mathews was a force from his weakside linebacker position, recording 126 tackles. He added an impressive 17 tackles for loss and six sacks, ranking second on the team in both categories. For his efforts, Mathews was named to the all-conference team. This season, he will move inside to the middle linebacker position and has embraced his role as the anchor of the defense heading into 2013.
He has some big shoes to fill as Houston tries to replace two of their starting linebackers from last season. The toughest piece of the whole 2012 team to replace will be linebacker Phillip Steward who led the team in tackles (128), tackles for loss (19) and sacks (11). He was a disruptive force of nature from his strongside linebacker position and even added three interceptions to his stat line for good measure.
Mathews will have to try and step up his game from the middle linebacker spot to replace some of that lost production. He has the skill set to be one of the most disruptive defensive players in the conference and had an excellent teacher in 2012 playing with Steward. For Houston to find success in their inaugural run through the AAC, they will need Mathews to put those lessons to very good use.