Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2019 season and beyond.
Who: Joe Cauthen, Houston
Title: Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach
Previous stop: Arkansas State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach (2014-18)
Why he’s important: Let’s just go ahead and put the cart way, way in front of the horse, shall we? Houston opens the year at Oklahoma on Labor Day Sunday, in front of a primetime, network audience on ABC. If there’s ever a time to get the Sooners, it may be in the opening game, when Lincoln Riley and company work in a new quarterback and four new starting offensive linemen and the OU defense plays under Alex Grinch’s new scheme against live bullets for the first time.
If you’ll pardon my double negative, it’s not as if there isn’t historical precedence of Oklahoma dropping its opener to a Group of 5 standout. In 2005, a year after losing the national title game in Miami and seeing its Heisman-finalist quarterback and a bunch of its offensive line move on, Oklahoma lost its opener at home to TCU. In 2009, a year after losing the national title game in Miami and seeing its Heisman-winning quarterback and much of its offensive line move on, Oklahoma lost its opener to BYU. In 2019, Oklahoma moves on after losing a national semifinal in Miami, its Heisman-winning quarterback left for the NFL and four of its offensive linemen moved on.
Admit it, you can close your eyes and picture lightning bug Houston quarterback D’Eriq King scampering into the end zone to give the Cougars a 21-7 early second quarter lead, leading the ABC broadcast crew and the entire viewing public to collectively ask themselves, “Okay, can the Houston defense hang on to this?”
Even setting that game aside, Dana Holgorsen and the Houston offense should be fine… and fine should be a dramatic understatement. In addition to King, the Coogs’ top two running backs and top three wideouts are all back. Look at how this team performed when King was fully healthy:
That’s an offense that averaged 47.8 points per game, returns all of its relevant skill talent and adds Holgorsen’s fresh set of eyes.
And then there was the defense. Even avoiding the 70-14 debacle of an Armed Forces Bowl, Houston allowed five of its last six regular season opponents to score 36 points or more. For the year, Houston was 90th in yards per play and 119th in scoring.
This, of course, is where Cauthen comes in.
A Texas native who played at Stephen F. Austin and coordinated defenses for Texas A&M-Commerce from 1999-06, leaving to coordinate Valdosta State to a Division II national championship in 2007.
“Watching Arkansas State, those guys played with an edge,” Holgorsen said, who had no previous history with Cauthen prior to hiring him. “Those guys play with a high motor and play their tail off. I can see why.”
“We want to play an attacking style defense,” Cauthen said. “One that is very disciplined. One that will get after the football, get after the quarterback.”
The tape bears that out. Arkansas State was one of 14 teams in 2018 to register at least 100 tackles for loss and at least 35 sacks.
The scheme and personnel is still a work in progress. Cauthen has played a 4-down alignment his entire career and now has a roster recruited to play 3-down.
“We don’t actually know what it’s going to look like, but we kind of have a picture in our mind what it’s going to be like,” Cauthen said. “We still don’t know where we are, what our identity is yet. I would say we are young. We have some guys that have played a little bit, not much. I do like the fact the guys are excited and want to be coached.”
His A-State unit was perfectly average on a down-to-down basis last year — 5.57 yards per play, tied for 56th nationally — and not dominant. But that’s okay. Houston doesn’t need to dominate; middle of the road would represent a massive improvement.
But if Cauthen can field an average defense this fall, look out. Houston may or may not have the horses to run with Oklahoma for 60 minutes, but a serious challenge to UCF’s run of two straight AAC championships and two straight New Year’s Six bowls? You won’t have to close your eyes to picture that.