CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ryan Mouton was shifted around in the secondary last season, but is expected to start at cornerback for the Warriors this year.
UH starting CB Ryan Mouton changes number to honor a close friend who died
Ryan Mouton worked through various aches last fall to become a key contributor in the Hawaii secondary. But none of the injuries stung as deeply as a blow suffered in December.
With the Warriors in the midst of preparations for their Sugar Bowl appearance, Mouton learned of the death of Matt Halton, a close friend and former teammate at Katy High School in Texas.
"It hurt because two or three days before we went down to the Sugar Bowl we had talked," Mouton recalled.
As a tribute to his friend, Mouton has changed his jersey number from 27 last season to 2 this spring, the number Halton wore as Katy quarterback.
"I'm thinking about him and feel like I represent him every time I go out there," he said after UH's first practice of the spring Monday morning.
Mouton was an impact newcomer for the Warriors while shifting around the secondary and is slated to hold down one of the cornerback spots this fall.
He contributed at cornerback, nickel back and safety and intercepted two passes as a junior. He returned his first pick for a touchdown against UNLV and the second sealed UH's perfect regular season in the final seconds against Washington.
The Warriors were to resume spring practice at the UH grass practice field with the second of 15 practices.
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The moment comes back to him from time to time.
"I think about it and just see that ball floating in the air," Ryan Mouton says.
With Hawaii needing to protect 6 yards to clinch a perfect regular season and the Warriors' first BCS berth, Mouton secured both. A pass into the end zone was knocked into the air and fell into his hands, ending Washington's bid for a stunning comeback.
"(Gerard Lewis) broke up the pass, and gave me an opportunity to seal the deal," Mouton recalled.
Mouton turned in several big plays in his first season at UH -- none bigger than his game-ending interception against the Huskies -- and is looking to make even more of an impact this fall.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Mouton floated around the Warriors secondary last year, contributing at cornerback, safety and nickel back, but entered spring practice this week locked in at a cornerback spot.
Although Mouton was slowed by injuries last season, the Houston product's ability and his productivity in 11 games last year drew raves from the Hawaii coaches.
"He's the most talented guy I've ever had," said associate coach Rich Miano, who is heading into his 10th season tutoring UH defensive backs. "He's probably one of the smartest guys and definitely the most confident guy."
The Warriors have had quality corners pass through the program during Miano's tenure -- Quincy LeJay, Abraham Elimimian and last year's duo of Lewis and Myron Newberry among them -- and Mouton, "has the potential to be better than all of them," Miano said.
"But potential is something that's unfulfilled until he does it. But there's no reason he's not a next-level guy."
Mouton transferred to UH from Blinn (Texas) Junior College and finished with 26 tackles and two interceptions while breaking up seven passes in his first year at UH. He scored two touchdowns, the first on an interception return against UNLV and the second on a 90-yard kickoff return against Charleston Southern.
First-year head coach Greg McMackin intends to keep Mouton even busier this fall.
"He's going to run back kickoffs, run back punts, he's going to do a little bit of everything because he's a real talent," McMackin said.
That suits Mouton just fine.
"Last year I wanted to contribute to the team wherever they needed me. I was willing to do that and I'm still willing to do that," he said.
With Lewis and Newberry holding down the corner spots last year, the coaches found ways to work the versatile Mouton in at various spots in the secondary. He made the game-saving pick against Washington while playing safety after injuries knocked Desmond Thomas, Jake Patek and Dane Porlas out of the game.
This spring, he feels back at home working on the outside, relishing the one-on-one nature of the position.
"Last year it was a lot of blitzing, whereas now it's more a corner-style technique where you get to cover a lot," Mouton said. "Hopefully they still let me get in there and do some blitzing and things like that."
Mouton suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee last season and was happy to be running without braces when the Warriors opened spring practice Monday morning, lining up at a corner spot opposite junior JoPierre Davis with the first unit.
Although neither has started a game at UH, both enter the new year having touchdown returns to their credit. Along with Mouton's 40-yard return against UNLV, Davis had a 57-yard score late in UH's win over New Mexico State.
"My first year was a learning experience, I got an opportunity to just learn the defense," Mouton said. "I'm way more confident and hopefully I'll make a lot more plays."