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2021 Houston Cougars season in review: Positional Grades

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The Cougars register 12 wins, a conference championship appearance, and a bowl victory in a season to remember.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Houston at Auburn Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

2021 ushered in exactly what Houston Cougars fans spent more than half a decade waiting for.

Houston finished with a 12-2 record and fielded one of its most accomplished teams in program history. The Cougars shook off a Week 1 defeat and subsequently won 11 consecutive games while sporting an unblemished record in AAC play. They punched a ticket to the AAC Championship Game for the first time in six years before bowing out to College Football Playoff participant Cincinnati in 35-20 fashion.

After falling short at Nippert Stadium, Houston responded with another statement, just like it did after the opening loss. The Cougars outlasted Auburn, 17-13, in the Birmingham Bowl for its first postseason victory of the Dana Holgorsen era.

Now, Houston awaits for the AP Poll to assign it a number as the Cougars are a virtual lock to finish ranked for the first time since their historic 2015 campaign.


Quarterback

After Houston’s Week 1 loss to Texas Tech, the quarterback position appeared to be in question. Third-year starter Clayton Tune threw four interceptions — including three in the second half — as the Red Raiders scored 31 unanswered in the second half to upend the Cougars. Holgorsen uttered the words “Clayton’s our quarterback” in a press conference the following Monday, and that vote of confidence went a long way.

Tune responded how good, poised quarterbacks should. He threw 24 touchdowns and four interceptions the remainder of the regular season, and Houston its next 11 games to clinch its first AAC Championship Game appearance since 2015. Tune was particularly spectacular in a career performance of 412 yards and four touchdowns to defeat an undefeated SMU squad in October. He wrapped up the season with 283 yards and a pair of touchdown strikes against Auburn, and after delivering the game-winning missile to Jake Herslow, he was recognized with Birmingham Bowl MVP honors.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Houston at Auburn
Clayton Tune won Birmingham Bowl MVP honors in Houston’s first bowl victory since 2015. With 3,546 yards, Tune finished with the ninth best passing season in program history.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Tune finished the season among the top 15 in the FBS in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. Those stats don’t lie, and Houston’s spectacular run would not have been possible without Tune’s emergence into an upper echelon quarterback.

Grade: A-


Running backs

Houston’s rushing offense was not exactly one of the nation’s more superior units in 2021. The Cougars ranked 86th in the FBS with 142.4 yards per game, and the team’s rushing average of 3.9 landed at 90th.

The Houston offense was primarily contingent on establishing a passing attack. The Cougars didn’t necessarily take over games by running down opponents’ throats. However, Houston found itself a special true freshman which forced defenses to respect the backfield.

Alton McCaskill — several months after graduating from Oak Ridge High School in Conroe, TX — became an instant touchdown machine at the collegiate level. McCaskill’s breakout performance transpired in Week 2 when he generated a hat trick of touchdowns vs. Rice. That was the first of McCaskill’s three hat tricks in 2021, and he wound up leading all freshmen in touchdowns with 18. Of those 18 scores, 16 of those stemmed from the ground, and he ranks ninth among all players in the FBS in that category.

The goal line specialist also contributed three century mark performances. He attained 125 and 129 yards rushing in back-to-back wins over South Florida and Temple, and finished his first year just 39 yards short of the 1,000-yard threshold.

Outside of McCaskill, Texas Tech transfer Ta’Zhawn Henry provided solid support as a secondary back with 513 yards and seven touchdowns, and he spearheaded a second half comeback vs. Navy in the AAC opener with a pair of end zone appearances. Both Henry and McCaskill provided ample support in the receiving game with 20 catches apiece.

Houston may not have produced one of the stronger rushing offenses in the AAC, but the McCaskill and Henry duo always seemed to step up when Houston needed it the most.

Grade: B


Receivers

Heading into the season, Houston understood replacing Marquez Stevenson’s production would be no simple task. However, Nathaniel “Tank” Dell seamlessly filled that vacancy and produced the program’s best receiving season since 2011. Dell’s 1,329 receiving yards rank 12th in the FBS, his 90 receptions are tied for 13th, and his 12 receiving touchdowns are tied for seventh.

It was the fifth most receiving yards in Cougar history, and Dell continued to churn out absurd statistical performances with regularity. The 5’10”, 155 pound receiver crossed the 100-yard barrier on six occasions, and four of those performances included at least 150 receiving yards. Dell’s magnum opus of the 2021 season was his 165-yard, 3-touchdown showing against SMU’s secondary, where he consistently dominated man coverage. He capped off his memorable campaign with a season-high 10 receptions to complement 150 yards in the Birmingham Bowl. That game was a microcosm of the season — whenever Houston needed to convert critical third downs, Dell always found an opening downfield.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Houston at Auburn
Nathaniel Dell had a pair of back-to-back 160-yard receiving games against SMU and South Florida. Then, he finished the season with consecutive 150-yard performances in the AAC Championship and Birmingham Bowl.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Dell comprised of a significant portion of Houston’s passing production. He hauled in over double the amount of receptions as anyone else on the team, and his yardage was approximately 2.7 times higher than the second leading receiver. Still, the Cougars had plenty of viable options besides the First Team All-AAC selection.

The speedy Jeremy Singleton proved to operate as a stellar deep threat with 495 yards on 29 receptions. Old Dominion transfer Jake Herslow stepped up toward the end of the season to finish with 36 receptions and 480 yards. Herslow racked up his first career 100-yard game in the regular season finale and carried that momentum into the Birmingham Bowl, where he caught a 26-yard go-ahead touchdown with 3:27 remaining.

Tight end Christian Trahan ranked second on the team with 37 receptions and proved to be a reliable threat on tight end seams throughout the year. Lastly, KeSean Carter was enjoying a prolific first year in Houston with 26 receptions and 331 yards before a season-ending injury struck in mid-November.

Houston’s bevy of targets allowed this offense to rank 23rd in passing yards per game and 15th in scoring. This group was foundation of the offense and carried the team to levels previously unforeseen in the Holgorsen era.

Grade: A


Offensive line

Houston beefed up its offensive line in the preseason with a pivotal addition from the transfer portal. The Cougars added Kody Russey, who started four seasons at center for Louisiana Tech before making the trek from Ruston to Houston. Russey provided veteran leadership to the unit and was one of three seniors in the starting lineup.

The other two were left guard Keenan Murphy and right tackle Dennis Bardwell. While Bardwell manned the right side, the other edge of the offensive line was anchored by a redshirt freshman in Patrick Paul, who returned to the trenches after a season-ending injury in 2020.

Houston’s offensive line was not necessarily impermeable. Only 24 teams allowed more sacks per game than the Cougars’ average of 2.79. Problematic line play was evident in the AAC Championship Game when Cincinnati asserted its dominance to the tune of eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss. However, after weeks of bowl preparation, those issues were amended in Birmingham. Auburn only reached the quarterback once as Houston’s line stood firm in the season finale.

The interior run blocking was standard, but the Cougars always seemed to pave the best paths near the goal line. That explains Alton McCaskill’s 16 rushing touchdowns and why the Cougars scored on an impressive 89.1 percent of red zone trips.

Grade: B-


Defensive line

Welcome to Sack Ave.

The Houston defensive line became the heart and soul of this 2021 squad and they coined a phrase ingrained in Cougar culture. After every victory, this position group would wield the “Sack Ave.” street sign at midfield, and the nickname for the unit was more than justified.

Houston averaged 3.21 sacks per game, checking in at 10th in the nation. A significant portion of those sacks originated from this heralded defensive line. The Cougars’ top seven leaders in the category were all members of this group, and the top four linemen — Logan Hall, D’Anthony Jones, Derek Parish, and David Anenih — finished with 22 combined sacks.

In a Thursday night road win at Tulane in October, Houston collectively chipped in for eight sacks, signifying the program’s highest total since its iconic 2016 win over a Lamar Jackson-led Louisville team. In addition to setting up a sack-producing factory, the line made things nightmarish for opposing halfbacks, averaging 6.8 tackles for loss per game. Hall, Parish, and Anenih all reached double-digits in this statistic, and collectively, the team ranked 26th in the FBS in TFLs.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Houston
Logan Hall and Derek Parish were prevalent in opposing backfields all season with 25 combined tackles for loss and 11 collective sacks.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

If there was one unit which defined the 2021 Cougars’ success, it was the group which concocted the newest street sign in Houston, TX.

Grade: A+


Linebackers

Houston’s linebacking corps played a major role in producing a top 10 run defense for the Cougars this year. Only nine teams permitted fewer rushing yards per game than the 108.2 yielded per game by Houston.

The unquestionable leader of this effort was inside linebacker Donavan Mutin. The team captain enjoyed his strongest season yet with a team-leading 77 tackles in addition to three forced fumbles. On senior day against Memphis, Mutin suffered a devastating injury, but the leader returned two games later to guide the defense in the AAC Championship Game. In an October overtime bout with East Carolina, Mutin came up clutch by ripping out the ball on the Pirates’ second play of the extra period. A recovery by outside linebacker JoVanni Stewart sealed the crucial victory for the Cougars — their closest call in regular season AAC play.

The other prevalent member of the linebacking corps was outside backer Deontay Anderson. The senior wrapped up his college tenure with a career-best 63 tackles — including a season-high of nine in his sendoff Birmingham Bowl performance.

Malik Robinson and JoVanni Stewart, who combined for 50 tackles and two fumble recoveries, were among other notable names in the linebacking corps of the nation’s 19th ranked scoring defense.

Grade: B+


Secondary

It was very fitting that Houston’s 2021 season came down to playmaking in the secondary. On a 4th and 2 in the Birmingham Bowl, Auburn quarterback T.J. Finley fired a quick slant toward his receiver Kobe Hudson. Williams shadowed Hudson in coverage and broke up the pass to secure the signature win.

Williams played stellar football all season long for a Houston pass defense which allowed just 194.4 yards per game — 19th in the FBS. He accounted for 63 tackles (second on the team) in addition to one interception and eight pass breakups.

Manning the other corner slot was Marcus Jones, who won the Paul Hornung Award for most versatile player in the FBS. As a defensive stalwart, Jones was tied for fourth in the FBS in interceptions with five. All five of those picks were corralled within a four-game span during Houston’s push toward the AAC title game. Jones landed First Team AP All-American honors as a cornerback for his suffocating coverage. In addition to his interception tendencies, Jones created other momentum plays on defense such as his team-best 13 pass deflections and one forced fumble.

Houston also landed a First Team All-AAC selection in the secondary. Free safety Gervarrius Owens collected 52 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two interceptions in his most stellar campaign to date. Other contributors to this high-depth secondary included strong safety Hasaan Hypolite (44 tackles, one interception) and cornerback Alex Hogan (two interceptions, six pass breakups). Excellent coverage techniques by defensive coordinator Doug Belk’s secondary elevated Houston to 25th in the country in interception total. When combined with an efficient, relatively mistake-free offense, the Cougars boasted an impressive +9 turnover margin on the season (tied for 15th in FBS).

Grade: A


Special teams

Marcus Jones. Those are really the only two words needed to summarize Houston’s special teams accomplishments in 2021. The electrifying star won AAC Special Teams Player of the Year and locked up All-American honors as a return specialist for the second consecutive season.

Jones was the only player in the FBS to return multiple kickoffs and multiple punts for touchdowns this year. The senior scored all four of his special teams touchdowns in a 6-game span, and none had more impact than his game-winning kick return touchdown against an undefeated SMU team on Oct. 30. In a tie game with 30 seconds remaining, the Mustangs kicked to the All-American, and the rest was history. Jones blazed a 100-yard trail down the turf of TDECU Stadium, handing Houston a 44-37 victory with his most celebrated moment of his college career.

He checked in at third in the FBS in kick return average and fourth in punt return average, displaying the ability to excel in both facets of special teams.

NCAA Football: The American Athletic Conference Championship-Houston at Cincinnati
Marcus Jones wrapped up his collegiate career with nine special teams touchdowns — six from kick returns and three from punt returns.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

In the kicking game, Dalton Witherspoon sunk 16-of-24 attempts. The Oklahoma native saved his best for last with a season-long 52-yard field goal in the Birmingham Bowl vs. Auburn. Witherspoon enjoyed his strongest showing of the season when he drilled 3-of-3 field goals against SMU, including one from 50 yards.

Last year, punter Laine Wilkins booted it 38 times and not a single one was returned for positive yardage. That wasn’t the case in 2021, but Wilkins did a solid job at flipping the field for the Cougars. He recorded a punt of 50 yards or greater in eight of 14 games and he pinned 24 of his 59 attempts inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Wilkins was the lone Cougar named an honorable mention for the All-AAC teams.

Jones was the headliner, but overall, Houston won plenty of games with a potent special teams group in 2021.

Grade: A