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Houston Cougars conclude spring football with Red & White Game

Holgorsen discusses the McCaskill injury, breakout players, Big 12 future, and more as spring football wraps up.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl - Houston v Auburn Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the first time since Nov. 16, the gates of TDECU Stadium opened its doors to Cougar faithful. Houston concluded spring football Friday night with the annual Red & White Game, previewing the 2022 team which enters the year with palpable excitement.

Last year’s Houston squad was one of three in history — along with 2011 and 2015 — to generate 12 wins in a single season. The Cougars wrapped up that successful campaign with an AAC Championship Game appearance, Birmingham Bowl victory, and an AP final ranking of No. 17. With starting quarterback Clayton Tune, star receiver Nathaniel Dell, and several components of the “Third Ward Defense” returning, including All-AAC defensive end Derek Parish, the Cougars are running it back with a similar cast of leadership.

The aforementioned players did not register snaps in Friday night’s glorified practice. Instead, onlookers were treated to a different slew of characters. One that made an evident splash was wide receiver Matthew Golden, a local 4-star receiver who signed with the Cougars in mid-December. The mid-year enrollee displayed sensational route running and a tremendous set of hands Friday, accumulating several touchdowns throughout the night.

A potential breakout season from Golden is one storyline to monitor before Houston kicks off its 2022 season in San Antonio vs. UTSA. Below are several other developments to keep tabs on as spring football concludes in H-Town.

McCaskill injury update

On Friday, April 1, starting running back Alton McCaskill tore the ACL in his left knee during practice. McCaskill rose to the top of the depth chart as a true freshman and accounted for 961 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in his first year out of high school. Now, the Cougars must prepare for the 2022 season without one of the their offensive focal points.

“Everybody responds to those things differently,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said of McCaskill’s injury. “Without a question, he’s not gonna be ready at the beginning part of the season. That’s absurd. Can he get back to the point where he can play in a couple games? That’s not my decision. That’s a medical decision. If that happens, great. If not, then we’ll be ready to get him going in the spring of next year.”

That leaves Ta’Zhawn Henry, who accumulated 513 yards and seven touchdowns as the second fiddle in 2021, as the new primary halfback. Three days after McCaskill’s injury, Houston enhanced the depth chart with a massive haul from the transfer portal. Houston-native halfback Brandon Campbell announced a homecoming from USC after earning 12 carries across three games last fall. Campbell was a coveted 4-star recruit coming out of high school, and while he didn’t participate in spring practices, he is expected to join the Cougars’ running back room over the summer.

“As a running back, we need more depth in the room, and a guy like him coming in — he can play right away,” Henry said of Campbell. “He’s good. I’ve seen his film. I like the way he runs. He’s gonna bring a lot to the team next year. He’s gonna help us win.”

Fine Tuning

The ensuing 2022 season will be Houston’s fourth consecutive trotting out Clayton Tune as the starting quarterback. Tune made noticeable improvements in his third year as the starter, amplifying his completion percentage from 59.6 in 2020 to 68.2 while improving his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 15-to-10 to 30-to-10 over the same timeframe. To make an even further leap, Tune has been training with renowned quarterback coach Jordan Palmer in California this offseason. Palmer previously polished the techniques of some of the NFL’s best signal callers, including Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow.

“He knows how to train quarterbacks better than I do,” Holgorsen said of Palmer. “You don’t have the amount of time in college to work with these guys as you want — film study and what to do with the ball — so you kind of forget about some of the little things when it comes to technique, so Jordan’s been very good.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl - Houston v Auburn
Clayton Tune won MVP of the Birmingham Bowl last December after completing 26-of-40 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Holgorsen cited Tune’s accuracy as his No. 1 area of growth this offseason. Another adjustment Tune must sharpen prior to September is his rapport with his center. After the graduation of All-AAC center Kody Russey, junior Jack Freeman will take over as the starter. Freeman previously started 12 games across 2019 and 2020, but Holgorsen notices an accelerated version of the center after serving as the backup for a season.

“We don’t feel like we need a center (from the transfer portal),” Holgorsen said. “The best thing that happened to Jack Freeman was Kody Russey. Kody taught Jack how to be a leader, how to be professional, and this is a totally different Jack Freeman. He’s put 14 practices together that have been outstanding.”

One final AACt

All signs point to the 2022 season as Houston’s final year as a member institution of the American Athletic Conference. The Cougars joined the AAC in the conference’s inaugural 2013 season and won the league title in 2015. Before joining the ranks of the Big 12 in 2023, Houston has its sights set on concluding its AAC farewell tour with a championship.

“We got something we gotta come back and get from the American before we go to the Big 12,” outside linebacker Mannie Nunnery said. “There’s obviously some more energy toward getting this program to where it needs to head to, and that’s getting a championship before leaving the American Conference.”

Although Cincinnati became the first AAC team to compete in the 8-year history of the College Football Playoff, the Bearcats lost a considerable amount of their 2021 production including nine First Team All-AAC selections. Thus, after compiling an 8-0 conference record a year ago, Houston may have the target on its back as the preseason AAC favorite.

“Going into last year, people didn’t really give us the time of day. They didn't think we were capable of what we were doing, and so this year it’s different,” Tune said. “People know what we can do. People know the players that we have, so we just have to work even harder to sustain success and not let that get to us.”

Although Houston is enjoying a run of success and slated for Big 12 status in the near future, Holgorsen believes there is plenty of work that needs to be done — on and off the field — before the program’s ceremonious departure from the conference it called home for a decade.

“We’re gonna go into the Big 12 as a ‘Power 5’ school as one of the only schools that don’t have a ‘Power 5’ facility, and that’s just facts. We gotta raise money and how you raise money is you work hard, you build excitement, you win games, and you get people to step up and support,” Holgorsen said. “Just because we’re going into the Big 12 doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. We won 12 games... that creates excitement but we gotta double down and do more.”