When Houston hired head coach Dana Holgorsen on New Year’s Day in 2019, an era of results became the expectation. Those results finally came to fruition in 2021 as the Cougars finished ranked No. 17 in a season loaded with accomplishments the program hadn’t seen since 2015. They qualified for their first conference championship appearance in six years and concluded the campaign with a long-awaited bowl win — besting Auburn 17-13 in the Birmingham Bowl.
“Last year gave us a lot of confidence in what we can do and how we can play and win as a team, and I think that energy’s even higher this year,” quarterback Clayton Tune said. “We’re just scratching the surface, so I think there’s a heightened sense of energy and focus for this year.”
While the Cougars’ defense imposed its will with dominant numbers across the board, Houston also established an identity as an offensive juggernaut during its 12-2 season. The Cougars ranked 15th in points per game behind a stellar passing attack featuring Tune and wide receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. With the same ringleaders back in the mix for 2022, the expectations for this offense are presented without any ceiling.
“The one goal me and everybody on this team should have is to win a conference championship — get back there and win,” Dell said. “Another goal is New Year’s Six bowl game. I want to go play in a big bowl game versus a big school and go out there and win.”
- Scoring offense: 35.9 points per game (15th)
- Total offense: 414.9 yards per game (59th)
- Passing offense: 271.4 yards per game (23rd)
- Rushing offense: 143.4 yards per game (86th)
- Turnovers committed: 14 turnovers lost (t-33rd)
- Completion rate: 67.0% (14th)
- Sacks allowed: 2.79 per game (105th)
- First downs: 313 (t-23rd)
- 3rd down conversion rate: 42.1% (47th)
- Red zone scoring rate: 89.1% (t-25th)
- Time of possession: 33 minutes per game (6th)
Holgorsen stated before last season that the most notable progression in a quarterback is from year two to year three as a starter. That statement couldn’t hold more true for Clayton Tune, who prepares to enter his senior season.
From 2020 to 2021, Tune witnessed his completion rate spike from 59.6 to 68.3 percent, his yards per attempt balloon from 7.2 to 8.4, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio refine from 15-to-10 to 30-to-10. Tune capped off his breakout season by taking home MVP honors of the Birmingham Bowl after delivering a game-winning touchdown pass over the heads of the Auburn defenders and into the hands of Jake Herslow.
After a season of progress and personal-bests, Tune flew out to California this spring to work with renowned quarterback coach Jordan Palmer with the intention of one-upping his game before one final run with Houston.
“It’s been a huge emphasis of mine every offseason to get better in one or two areas,” Tune said. “This offseason, I’ve worked a lot on my base when I’m throwing — just creating more power with my base and being more accurate. I’m fully confident in my accuracy so that’s giving me confidence to fit tighter throws into tighter windows.”
Not everything in 2021 went smoothly for Tune. The quarterback launched the season with a four-interception outing in a loss to Texas Tech. After Holgorsen and teammates gave him a vote of confidence heading into Week 2, Tune unleashed the best version of himself yet, only tossing six more picks across the Cougars’ final 13 games, all while persevering through a lower body injury. His magnum opus was a 412-yard, four touchdown performance in a thrilling victory against an undefeated SMU squad — the night he seemingly ascended into status as one of college football’s elite quarterbacks.
“I’ve been so impressed with his maturation from the time that we’ve gotten here,” defensive coordinator Doug Belk Said. “But most importantly, I look at last year from the start of the season where we started — the Texas Tech game — and how mentally tough he was to come back and battle and have an awesome year and lead our team. Now he’s on a whole other level. He’s got total command of the offense. He’s the unsung leader over there... Ultimately, Clayton Tune makes us go.”
Another benefit of having a fourth-year starting quarterback is maximized rapport with the receivers. The chemistry Tune shares with his most trusty receiver Tank Dell allowed Houston to field one of the most lethal passing attacks in 2021. With another year of practices shared together, that telepathic connection should only become more impactful.
“We’ve got like the same brain. He knows what I’m about to do before I do it,” Dell said. “I know what he wants me to do before I even do it. Let’s say I’m doing an option route. I know when he wants me to break or how he wants me to break, or if he wants me to break inside or outside, I can feel it. It’s just repetition. The chemistry there is great because it’s like a feel thing, and once you get it clicking, it’s unstoppable.”
Tune’s backup is unchanged from last year as Ike Ogbogu continues to operate in the second-string role. Ogbogu was called upon to lead Houston to victory over FCS program Grambling State in Week 3 last season following a first quarter injury to Tune, and the backup finished that evening with 196 passing yards and two touchdowns on a 14-of-22 showing.
Devastating news struck the Houston locker room in early April. Starting halfback Alton McCaskill suffered an ACL injury, putting his 2022 season in jeopardy after a productive true freshman campaign. In his first year out of high school, McCaskill registered 961 rushing yards and ranked 10th in the FBS with 16 rushing scores. He also served a vital presence in the receiving game with 16 receptions, two of which cashed in for touchdowns.
Now, Houston aims to mold senior Ta’Zhawn Henry, the secondary running back from 2021, into the primary option to bolster the rushing attack.
“Losing Alton was big but I didn’t feel like we took a step back or anything,” Dell said. “Ta’Zhawn’s an every down back to me. He’s quick, he’s twitchy. He can catch out of the backfield, run in between the lines, make you miss in the open field, and like you saw in the USF game — 97-yard run to the crib — when it’s time to run and get going, he’s gonna go.”
Henry, in his first season since transferring from Texas Tech, accumulated 524 yards and seven touchdowns out of the backfield, ranking second on the team in both categories. At 5’7”, Henry provided a different, lower gravity frame than McCaskill, but still displayed a unique mix of speed in power, as exhibited in his 130-yard performance against South Florida in November.
“Ta’Zhawn’s a really great, explosive, talented player, so I’m really excited for him,” Tune said. “The opportunity he has ahead of him is really exciting and I know he’s gonna do well with it. He’s gonna get a lot of carries, make a lot of plays, and catch a lot of balls out of the backfield which is appealing to me. I’m excited for him and he’s grown a lot.”
Henry strives to be more than just a running back, so now as the new No. 1 option, he spent the offseason adding to his repertoire to become more of a complete player.
“Pass protection, pass pickup — I just want get in that feeling more,” Henry said, citing his main area of improvement this offseason. “I’m a smaller back so most people think I’m trying to take their knees. I’m trying to really just fit in and fill in the holes and be square.”
In a favorable coincidence, around the same time McCaskill suffered the ACL injury in early April, the Cougars restocked the running back room with a highly-coveted transfer. Houston native Brandon Campbell returned home after one season at USC, and the former four-star recruit is certain to make his presence felt in the running back room this fall.
“He brings everything to the table,” Henry said of Campbell. “When I’m in, he’s telling me things I need to do right. When he’s in, I’m trying to coach him up. Basically, we’re working good with each other. He’s come in, he knows the plays, he’s pushing me to be the best player I can be, and he’s pushing me to being the best player I can be.”
Supporting depth includes a trio of incumbent halfbacks who surprisingly combined for zero rushing attempts in 2021. Stacy Sneed (known in the running back room as “Sneed for Speed”) has not taken a single snap in two years at Houston but has been touted as one of the emerging talents in fall camp. Also, Kelan Walker remains on the roster after taking 40 handoffs from 2018 to 2020. Rounding out the main running back rotation is James Fullbright III, who ran the ball four times for 38 yards and a touchdown in 2020.
“Stacy Sneed has looked really good. It’s time for him to play,” Holgorsen said. “He’s been here two years and hasn’t seen a snap yet for a variety of reasons, but he’s looked really good. Brandon Campbell has looked solid. Kelan (Walker) has stayed healthy which is good. Then Fully is Fully — he’s Mr. Reliable.”
Wide receivers and tight ends
When listing college football’s elite wide receiver talent in 2022, Tank Dell is a name that’s difficult to gloss over. Dell ranked 12th nationally in receiving yards with 1,329, 13th in receptions with 90, and eighth in touchdown grabs with 12. He only presents a 5’10”, 165 pound frame, but his play becomes larger than life at times. Dell’s speed and tremendous catch radius are on full display on a weekly basis, and the All-AAC weapon compiled four 150+ yard performances in the final seven weeks last season, including one in the Birmingham Bowl win over Auburn.
Dell made clear his lofty goals of bringing an AAC title and a New Year’s Six bowl win to the city of Houston. And from an individual standpoint, his sights are set on even better aspirations than the impressive numbers he concocted in 2021.
“Individual goals for myself that I’ve got to set out: I want to have over 100 catches,” Dell said. “I want to have a lot of yards. I want to have 15+ touchdowns. I’m just striving every day to get better and to attack my goals every day.”
After a tremendous season alternating between boundary and slot positions, Dell looks primed to become more of a presence in the slot this year, where he believes he possesses his optimal degree of dominance.
“From the slot position, you’ve gotta play fast and play smart,” Dell said. “As an outside receiver, you can have a move already in your head to how you want to attack your defender. From the outside, you have to make your move on the run because you never know how the nickels, linebackers, or safeties are playing. I feel like I’m a very smart football player and I’m very twitchy and quick, so I can make great moves on the run.”
Outside of Dell, Houston’s wide receiving corps takes on a rather youthful form. The Cougars lost their second and third leading receivers in Jeremy Singleton (transfer portal) and Jake Herslow (graduation), so they restocked the room with a new crop of talent. One of those standout talents is true freshman Matthew Golden, an early enrollee who turned plenty of heads with impressive playmaking in spring ball.
A slew of transfers join Golden in Houston’s vast array of newcomers. Sam Brown, heralded for his height and strength, relocates from West Virginia after registering 10 receptions and 108 yards as a Mountaineer. Joseph Manjack returns to his hometown after logging seven catches in one season at USC, and he comes with the ability to thrive as a wideout or slot receiver. Cody Jackson is also one of the new faces in the room after corralling five receptions at Oklahoma last fall.
“We have six wideouts — seven wideouts that are repping and six of them are freshmen,” Holgorsen said. “That’s a little misleading. Sam Brown just turned 20. He’s got some playing experience. Manjack has played. Cody Jackson has played. Most of them have four years of eligibility... but they’re older. That’s the one thing that’s kind of exciting about this team is that we’re a veteran team. We’ve got a lot of good who have played a lot of snaps.”
The incumbents certain to make an impact alongside Dell include Peyton Sawyer and KeSean Carter. Sawyer serves a seasoned staple on the roster, first seeing on-field action as early as 2018 — prior to Holgorsen’s arrival. After four receptions in 2021, his gameday reps are expected to skyrocket this year. Carter earns a likely starting role after missing the tail end of last year with an injury. In his first season as a Cougar, the former Texas Tech recruit excelled with a career-high 331 receiving yards despite just nine games of action.
“KeSean is a guy that has real, real juice,” Belk said. “He is highly, highly competitive. He plays receiver like he plays safety. He’s physical, he’s tough, and he loves the grind. It’s fun to go against those guys every day. You see the competition, the trash talk, and obviously (cornerback) Jayce (Rogers) and Tank lead the way with that as far as the competition between those positions, but KeSean is the ultimate competitor.”
Houston also possesses one of the stronger tight ends in the conference on its roster. Christian Trahan ranked second on the team by hauling in 37 receptions, converting those touches into 398 yards and two touchdowns. Only two AAC tight ends caught more passes than Trahan did a year ago, and he’ll be one of the focal points of a passing attack which ranked 23rd in 2021.
Houston was well-rounded in almost every facet last year, but if there was one area to point to for improvement, the offensive line is the first position group to come to mind. The Cougars’ line paved way for running backs to produce 143.4 yards per game, signifying the nation’s 86th best rushing attack. But pass protection was the facet that certainly needs to be addressed. Only 25 teams yielded more sacks to opposing defenses than the Cougars’ front last year.
To add to the challenge, Houston must replace 60 percent of its starters on the offensive line as center Kody Russey, left guard Keenan Murphy, and right tackle Dennis Bardwell all departed from the program.
The new center replacing Russey is actually the old center, which should result in a seamless transition. Jack Freeman started with the ball in his hands on the majority of snaps in 2019 and 2020, but he sat behind Russey (who transferred in from Louisiana Tech) in 2021. After a year learning behind a Second Team All-AAC center, Freeman is now more prepared than ever for anchoring the middle of the trenches.
“He’s been working throughout the whole offseason, working on his craft and he’s doing a great job at center,” left tackle Patrick Paul said. “I’m excited to play with him this season and see what he does.”
Paul, one of the two returning starters, initially cracked the starting lineup for the final three games in 2019, but a season-ending injury held him out of the majority of the following year. Paul returned healthy last season to start all 14 games at left tackle, securing a First Team All-AAC spot in his first full-time starting gig.
“In that one year, you observe a lot — how to stay healthy throughout the season, taking leadership from guys like Kody Russey and learning from him each game on how to be a leader and consistent in your craft,” Paul said. “As soon as you get in that position, you have to be on your stuff every game and every play. There’s no reps off.”
Houston’s offensive line faces the daily challenge in fall camp of pitting itself against one of the nation’s most potent defensive lines. The Cougars ranked 11th in sacks per game and engineered a top 10 run defense last year, demonstrating the prowess contained within the front four. Facing that defensive line on a routine basis prepares the offensive line to consistently sharpen its iron against high-caliber talent.
“The d-line that we have here, and that we’ve had since I have come in as a freshman is the best I’ve seen,” Paul said. “Whenever you first come here, going against guys like Payton Turner, Logan Hall, and David Anenih every day, it’s gonna make you better, so that’s been a blessing for me when I’ve been here to go against high talented guys every day, every week, every rep.”
Completing the projected starting lineup is right guard Tank Jenkins, left guard Cam’Ron Johnson, and right tackle Reuben Unije. Jenkins joins Paul as the other returning starter from 2021 after spearheading the front five in all 14 contests. Johnson made frequent appearances as a reserve guard, and his ample playing time should bode well in his first season as a starter. Finally, Unije is apt to return to the unit after starting the final six games at left tackle in 2020 — although Paul’s presence likely shifts him to right tackle.
In addition to the five aforementioned linemen — all members of the 2021 roster — Texas transfer Tyler Johnson could serve as recurring force on the line, as he enters campus with one career start at right guard in the 2020 Alamo Bowl.
More turnover has been felt in the offensive line than Houston’s other position groups, so it’s been commonplace for the skill position veterans to charge up the younger linemen in order to prepare them to dominate on every snap.
“The o-line, I’ve been trying to get together and hang out with them more,” Henry said. “During practice we’re always talking. Before we always go in the huddle, we hype each other up. The offense starts with the o-linemen... so we try to keep them guys up, keep them hyped.”