The Houston Cougars have enjoyed talented defensive backs at times throughout their history, with several players moving on to successful professional careers after their time on Cullen Boulevard. Part of the resurgence of the Cougars defense over the past few seasons can be attributed some to the better play at the cornerback position which could see it's best combination in recent memory when the Cougars take the field in September.
Senior cornerback D.J. Hayden had a tremendous junior year, capped off by being awarded a Conference USA second team all-conference nod as well as being named as the conference's Defensive Newcomer of the Year for 2011. The momentum from his junior campaign has carried over as he was selected by the C-USA coaches to the defensive pre-season first team in addition to being named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list for the award given annually to the nation's top defensive back.
Hayden who led the team in pass break-ups (11) and forced fumbles (5) while locking down his side of the field admits he loves the opportunities that come from such a passing oriented league like C-USA.
"I definitely like that about the league," said Hayden at Houston's media day Monday. "I like being tested and challenge so that we can make plays and help the team win."
The player attributed with controlling the field opposite of "Hayden Island" will be junior Zach McMillian who returns to the field after missing the spring workouts rehabbing a shoulder injury.
"I've been off for too long," said McMillian at Monday's media day. "I'm tired of looking at everybody else practicing and I am ready to get started and get going, I get goose bumps just thinking about it."
McMillian also acknowledged the amount of passing attacks in the league and shared his excitement for having Hayden on the field opposite himself.
"We play in a pass happy league so in order for us to be successful we have to have guys that can come out and stop the man across from them," he said of Conference USA's wide-open offenses. "With that in mind you have a guy like D.J. (Hayden)that comes out every day and busts his butt and consistently wins his battles. It is awesome to come out and work with him and practice with him and to see his leadership out there, it is just a blessing."
Like McMillian, most players are drawn to others on the field that lead by example. Hayden as a senior and arguably the best defender on the field has naturally had players look to him for leadership.
"I guess it has kind of turned out that way," said Hayden of the leadership role. "Some of the players look at me that way and it kind of just ends up that way sometimes but we have a lot of leaders on our defense. There are a lot of vocal guys out there and everybody is just kind of stepping up and leading together."
With Hayden drawing the match-up against teams best receivers and working at closing off their side of the field at times, McMillian is often the beneficiary of quarterbacks needing to look to the opposite side of the field for targets in the passing game, it is as benefit he gladly accepts.
"I most definitely welcome it," McMillian said of the likely increase in attention to his side of the field. "I want to make as many plays as often as I can because I know he (Hayden) is giving us as a team the best opportunity by drawing their best receiver and it makes me want to hold up my end as well."
With all of the added attention from a recognition standpoint, Hayden admits he has noticed it some but puts it aside and concentrates on what he can control, his play on the field.
"I feel like there may be a little more pressure on me this year, but I don't try to look into any of that stuff," he said. "I just go out and do me and work on getting better, I love competition so I look forward to it."
McMillian knows that only good can come from the increase in talent on the defensive side of the ball and knows that his fellow defensive backs are ready for the challenge.
"Personally as a unit the defensive backs feel like we want to be a group that the team can lean and depend on, so that we can consistently be winning," he said. "That starts by working hard in practice. We really want to be that part of the defense that can be depended on."
In addition to a good set of starters the Cougars also will boast there best two deep at the position in recent memory with senior Chevy Bennett and junior Thomas Bates completing a two deep that boasts plenty of experience.
The Cougars held their first practice of the fall on Monday afternoon and will have 23 more to get ready for the season opener against Texas State on Saturday September 1 at Robertson Stadium. Kick-off is scheduled for 7:00 PM.