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Is Houston improving under Dana Holgorsen?

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It’s a simple question that unfortunately doesn’t have a simple answer.

NCAA Football: Houston at Cincinnati Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

Yes.

That one word is an easy answer to the question posed by the title, but the explanation is anything but that. Houston’s latest loss against Cincinnati sparked some frustrations this weekend, and questions about the future of the program surfaced. I’m here to address those concerns.

Houston’s had an interesting couple years under Dana Holgorsen. From the “tanking” (if you still want to call it that) in 2019 to the penalties and frustrating loss in 2020, fans have voiced their displeasure with how things are going under their new head coach. It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity when one game doesn’t go your way, but this is a team headed in the right direction.

In a world where most coaches don’t get more than three years to prove what they can do, Coogs fans need to realize Holgorsen isn’t going anywhere for a while unless something unique occurs. So he’ll need time to get his guys into the depth chart. We’ve already seen the impact some of his guys can make, and what he’s done with the players left over from the previous regime.

In his last class alone, seven of Holgorsen’s recruits are significant contributors or starters for Houston. Chidozie Nwankwo is already a stud at nose tackle, D’Anthony Jones will be one of the best pass rushers in the conference next year if he’s not already, and punter Laine Wilkins is already challenging former Houston punter Dane Roy’s numbers.

From Holgorsen’s 2019 class, 14 guys are contributors. Damarion Williams is arguably the best cornerback in the conference, and his counterpart Marcus Jones has been a tremendous addition as a cornerback and punt returner. The talent is coming to campus, but it needs time to develop and get here before we can truly make a judgement on this team. Of the 44 players on the two-deep depth chart this year, 29 of them can return next season (14 on offense and 15 on defense). The future is bright, and the kids that will be playing should spark excitement more than anything else.

Looking at the offense first, there are questions about the playcalling, which I took to Twitter to address this week.

Yes I understand it’s one play, but it’s indicative of the separation between the perception and reality. Some fans think the offensive playcalling has been lacking in recent weeks, when in fact it’s a combination of poor execution and running into talented teams. Keep in mind many of these other teams (Cincinnati and UCF specifically) are allowed to be good too.

The play above is an example of the perfect call but poor execution makes it look bad. Cincinnati’s sending pressure up the middle towards Tune with a screen called right behind it. Houston gets a two on two matchup with two of their lineman blocking for the running back against two of Cincinnati’s defenders. If Houston’s guys get hands on both of those defenders, they get a first down and more, but since they don’t it’s a snuffed out play. It’s happened multiple times this season, but it’s not poor playcalling.

Clayton Tune isn’t going to pass for 400+ yards per game, but he can make consistent and accurate throws downfield to gash a defense. Does he occasionally make the poor throw into double coverage? Yes, but so does every quarterback. His offensive line has helped tremendously this year, only allowing 12 sacks through the first five games. The offense has improved it’s total yards per game by 15. The receivers are the most explosive they’ve been in a while. Answering the title of this article isn’t a simple one, but it’s all about what you’re looking for when trying to answer it. You’ll find whatever you want to find, good or bad. On both side of the ball.

Throw it over to the defense, and there are an equal amount of frustrations, which I also addressed this week.

First of all, yes there are still things Houston must improve on defensively, because offenses continue to thrive on a weekly basis. However, there are things we’re seeing that we didn’t see in the past. First, the Coogs have a significant upgrade in their pass rush this season. Even in a shortened season, Houston’s defensive line continues to sack the quarterback or make them escape the pocket quicker than anticipated. There might be the sme struggles overall, but this unit is producing more disruptive plays than they have in the past. You’re not going to fix all of your problems in one year, but the disruption is a big step in the right direction.

Nwankwo and Jones have been great, but the best player on the defense is Payton Turner, who’s having a monster season when healthy. Donavan Mutin is a dude when healthy. Grant Stuard is an animal now that he knows his new position. JoVanni Stewart has elevate the play of the secondary. Marcus Jones is going to be a great cornerback. Thabo Mwaniki and Jayce Rogers can send a message with their physical play. These are things we weren’t discussing in depth with the previous staff, and not even close to the same number of players. Again, it’s all about what you’re looking for when assessing this team.

So, if you’ve made it this far to answer a simple question. Is Houston improving under Dana Holgorsen? Yes, of course. A two game stretch isn’t indicative of the big picture success. Losses to Cincinnati, UCF and BYU aren’t surprising. Two of those teams are New Year’s Six bowl game contenders (maybe even playoff contenders) and the other one has the best passing attack in all of college football. Houston might not be as good as those teams yet, but they’re headed in the right direction. So, if you’re looking for the positives, keep watching, because this team’s going to be fun to watch. And if you’re feeling hopeless about this team, I urge to rewatch the film and put on a different pair of glasses, You might be surprised with what you find.