HOUSTON Every morning, defensive coordinator David Gibbs drives to his office at the University of Houston, cutting right through the heart of one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.
Though he does not stop, Gibbs understands it is part of being on an urban campus, especially one that borders some of the poorest, most crime-ridden areas of an otherwise thriving city. And unlike others who have tried to hide what surrounds the university particularly when it comes to the cutthroat world of recruiting Gibbs makes sure to take it all in, from the freaking Rottweilers in the street to the trashed houses to the indigent people in plain sight.
I tell parents, 'Hey, I'll take care of your son, teach him how to play football and help him get an education,' Gibbs told USA TODAY Sports. I don't defend anything. Yeah, we're in a big city. There's going to be more crime. It is what it is. I love Houston. It's right there, so I embrace it.
Gibbs has embraced it to such an extent that his unit branded itself the Third Ward D last season an ode to the neighborhood that surrounds the campus and subsequently led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 43 turnovers along with noticeable improvement almost every other statistic.
Now, with all but two significant players from that defense returning in 2014, Houston is poised to change the identity of a program that has long been known for scoring touchdowns but has never been good enough at stopping them to break into college football's upper echelon.
The kids came off last season very confident and they're even more confident now because they just know what we're doing better and they've got faith in what we're doing, which you haven't seen around here defensively in quite some time, head coach Tony Levine said. We've got to repeat that to really continue our credibility and maintain our identity, and I think we've got the ingredients.
Ever since Houston football awakened a decade ago under current Baylor coach Art Briles and continued winning under current Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, it has been impossible to shift the focus from the up-tempo offense that annually ranked among the nation's leaders and made stars out of quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum.
Though the Cougars made seven bowl games in nine seasons under Briles and Sumlin, they ranked in the nation's top-50 in total defense just once while finishing below 100 four times.
That carried over in 2012, Levine's first season as head coach, and he decided that the old Houston mentality of trying to outscore every opponent was no longer acceptable. If the Cougars wanted to break through into a top-level bowl game, it would have to be with a defense that could contribute on a weekly basis.
If you got a stop or made them punt, everybody around here thought you did a good job, said Gibbs, who came on board last season after seven years of coaching in the NFL and UFL. We were looking for an identity.
It took shape last year when Gibbs was putting together the playbook and Matt Nicholson, a former Houston linebacker who was working with the defense as a graduate assistant, came up with the slogan Third Ward D.
It immediately caught on. Not only did it embody the gritty style of play Gibbs sought, it also was something the players could immediately identify with and rally around because they, too, are well aware of what lies just beyond the edge of their campus.
We feel like we're right here in the Third Ward, so we're all trying to get one thing, said junior safety Trevon Stewart, who had six fumble recoveries and four interceptions last season. We're going to do whatever it takes. We're kind of ruthless. The (defensive backs), we call ourselves the 'Jack Boys.' Anything the QB puts in the air, we're going to rob it. We're going to take it from him.
Gibbs, the son of longtime NFL assistant Alex Gibbs, acknowledges that the Third Ward D mantra is little more than a gimmick. But in college football, where getting 19- and 20-year-olds to play with energy and buy into a system is half the battle, gimmicks sometimes work.
Though scheme and personnel obviously were important, forming an identity had an immeasurable impact on Houston finished in 20th nationally in scoring defense, 18th in red zone defense and second in interceptions.
We're at the bowl game and our entire section in the stands is chanting, 'Third Ward D, Third Ward D' and it's something our current guys have thrived off of. It's who we are, Levine said. It's something we're not ashamed of one bit.
With its entire defensive line returning, as well as standout linebacker Derrick Mathews and two ballhawking safeties in Stewart and Adrian McDonald, the Third Ward D could go national this season.
Combined with the growth of sophomore quarterback John O'Korn and return of star receiver Deontay Greenberry, Houston seemingly has the right elements to compete for an American Athletic Conference title and a berth in one of the so-called New Year's Six bowls, which will go to the highest-ranked champion outside the five power leagues.
But it will all come down to whether Houston's defensive uptick last season can be repeated.
We said we were going to play defense at Houston, and now we did it, Gibbs said. If we want to change (the perception) for real we have to practice it every day, believe it every day. We've only done it one year, and now we've got to go do it again.