Houston’s biggest weakness offensively could very well be its biggest strength in 2021. An offensive line that struggled with injuries is now healthy, and made a couple upgrades to prepare for this season. Quarterback Clayton Tune will be the biggest beneficiary of improved play on the line, and the Houston offense could be more balanced if they’re able to put it all together. There’s plenty of experience, and even some depth thanks to the versatility of a couple guys.
Patrick Paul’s just getting started. He’s played just five games in his career, and a full year could produce an all-conference type season. Paul suffered a season ending injury just two games into the 2020 season, and the Coogs need him this year in a big way. At 6’7”, his natural length jumps out on tape, and he’s learning how to utilize that well. He also brings an attitude with his blocking, though that got him in trouble at times last year with some costly penalties. If he can harness that aggression a little bit, he’ll be a menace for anyone to face, and one of the best tackles in the conference.
The Louisiana Tech transfer figures to win the starting job at center after finishing first team All-Conference USA last year, and brings the kind of attitude Houston needs on the line. Russey finishes every play whether his man wants or not. Many of his pancakes are a direct result of finishing the play to the whistle, and he’s rarely (if ever) called on penalties for going over the top. Russey brings 46 starts to Houston with him, and can teach some of the younger players a thing or two about the intricacies of playing up front.
Offensive line coach Brandon Jones raved about Jenkins in the spring, going as far as to name him as the starter already at one of the guard spots. Houston now has two “Tank’s” on their team with Jenkins and Tank Dell, and that’s not a bad nickname to have multiple of, especially when one is on the offensive line. Jenkins was a former four-star and Texas A&M transfer.
Versatility is the biggest asset in Basrdwell’s game. In 2019 he stepped in at right guard to help the line with injuries, and moved to right tackle in 2020 to start six games. He’s one of a few players that gives Houston depth by being able to play multiple positions.
Freeman’s battled through some injuries, but the former two-star now finds his biggest challenge yet: winning the starting center job against Kody Russey. Houston could move him to guard, but at worse (if he loses the starting job) he provides some quality depth to a line that hasn’t had much in the last two years. Freeman’s started 12 games for Houston over the last two years, and he’ll be a veteran presence that can help elevate the play of this group.
Keenan Murphy is back with 35 games of experience at gaurd. Jordan Boatman played in all 12 games, including a start against Tulsa in 2019. He saw one game of action in 2020 and in 2018. Reuben Unije stepped in when Paul was out, and played well in the six starts to end the 2020 season. Max Banes brings a physical style of play to the line at guard, and has 23 games of experience under his belt. Nearly everyone else is an underclassmen who shouldn’t see time unless they wow in the fall or Houston struggles mightily again with injuries.
Health is the number one factor in Houston’s success on the line this year. Injuries wrecked the offense and was a big factor in why Clayton Tune found himself running for his life frequently. Interior pressure was a problem for Houston in 2020, but they quickly addressed that with the additions of Jenkins and Russey. Projected starters are as follows:
LT - Patrick Paul
LG - Max Banes
C - Kody Russey
RG - Tank Jenkins
RT - Dennis Bardwell
This group plays a huge role in determining the explosiveness of Houston’s offense. There are some great pieces in place to ensure that happens, and it’s exciting to think this group could be a strength of the offense. If they’re healthy, then the focus shifts to the play on the field. Guys like Jenkins and Russey are upgrades to the line, and there’s a ton of potential in Patrick Paul’s game. If all goes well, this will be a tough group to face on a weekly basis.