Welcome to the Big 12
Fourteen uniforms decorated a stage which hovered over the iconic Dallas Cowboys’ star at the 50-yard line of AT&T Stadium. The bright lights of Jerry World illuminated the scene as players, coaches, mascots, and cheerleaders roamed around the turf in Arlington. While the scene of Big 12 Media Days was unfamiliar territory for the Houston Cougars, it felt like home.
Houston had its sights on the Big 12 for quite some time, dating back to the league’s initial expansion talks in 2016. Seven years later, the Big 12 transition is not only advantageous for Houston because of increased revenue, the lucrative TV contract, or the prestige of league membership — overall, the conference feels like a better geographical fit as well. The Cougars’ inaugural Big 12 season is complemented with a schedule which features the Lone Star State as the backdrop for 10 of the 12 regular season games.
“The best part of the move for us is the regionality of it,” athletic director Chris Pezman said. “We have Baylor, Tech, TCU — all those teams we were used to playing in the old Southwest Conference days. It’s natural. It’s what I grew up with. I played in the Southwest Conference, so that means so much to our fans and our kids.”
Still, Houston must work out the financial aspect of becoming a Big 12 member. And with a new conference comes a new spending responsibility. The Cougars’ operating budget is set to skyrocket, and the program must adapt to this new fiscal reality.
“Our revenues are growing at a 45 degree angle but our expenses are going at a 90 degree angle. We’re trying to figure out how those two intersect,” Pezman said. “It’s going to take a little bit. It’s not something we can solve overnight. For us, when we get to about year three, that’s when we start closing the gap. When I got here five years ago, our operating budget was about $50 million. As we go into this fall, it will be about $90 million. The average operating budget (of the Big 12) is about $115 million, so that’s what we’ve got to close the gap on.”
In order to maintain pace with its new colleagues, the University recently unveiled its plan to construct a $140 million football facility which is set to break ground this November for completion by fall 2025. But the increased spending has correlated with increased support. Pezman has noticed an uptick in fan support in terms of donations and ticket sales, hoping to see a rise in Cougar fandom in the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“The easiest way to quantify the response from the community — we’ve sold 7,000 new season tickets and we still have almost two months to go. This is when you start really picking up sales as we get closer to the season,” Pezman said. “The buy-in from the community and our fans — it’s what they’ve wanted for so long. The feedback we’ve gotten on our fundraising capital and our improvements breaking ground on a $140 million facility — the funding’s in place for us to go, and we wouldn’t have been able to say that in that amount of time a few years ago.”
Expectations for year one in a new home
Houston posted an 8-5 overall record in its final season in the American Athletic Conference. The Cougars are two years removed from a 12-win campaign and conference championship appearance, but this offseason featured significant turnover with 42 new roster spots. Losses include four-year starting quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Tank Dell, who led the FBS in receiving yardage and touchdowns in 2022.
In the college football world, there’s a typical, almost rehearsed-sounding response when asked about season goals. Most coaches, players, and administrative members speak confidently about winning a conference championship or qualifying for the College Football Playoff. While those remain the objectives for Houston in 2023, there is an understanding that attaining such goals might take some time during this transition period.
“Get to a bowl game — that’s it,” Pezman said. “We want to compete for a conference championship. That’s our expectation. That’s what we’ve always done, but it’s going to be a couple years. Look at Utah when they went into the Pac-12. It was five years and then they had a great football program. There’s going to be an acclimation period, so be competitive, get to a bowl game, and we’ll build from there.”
Houston earned a brief trial run of what Big 12 membership might look like last September. During the Cougars’ non-conference slate, they played at Texas Tech and hosted Kansas in consecutive weeks. They dropped a double-overtime thriller in Lubbock after having the Red Raiders on the ropes, and then fell to the Jayhawks by 18 in Houston the following game. Head coach Dana Holgorsen discussed whether that 2-game stretch is a barometer of what’s to come in the Big 12.
“I was very careful with talking too much Big 12 prior to January,” Holgorsen said. “I think we probably made a little bit too big of a deal playing Kansas after losing to Texas Tech, the way we lost to Texas Tech was just a hard way to lose, and we had another opportunity to play a Big 12 quality school in the University of Kansas who was playing lights out at the time, as good as anybody in the country I would argue when we played them. I think we pressed too much a little bit just based on, ‘This is what it’s going to be like.’ But I tried not to make that big of a deal about it. Since January, yeah, I’ve talked about it because that’s the way it’s going to be. It’s going to be like that every week.”
Fortunately for the program, Holgorsen and his staff received nearly a two-year grace period to adjust to Big 12 life after Houston was formally added in September 2021. Having 17 years of Big 12 coaching experience, including eight years as West Virginia’s head coach, Holgorsen utilized that grace period to ensure more aspects of his program were approaching Big 12 caliber.
“A lot of the bodies coming into the program look different than the bodies leaving the program,” Holgorsen said. “We did a pretty extensive test on what our team looked like compared to other Big 12 teams from a height and weight perspective. I’m not talking about talent. At the end of the day, I want talent over measurables but you need to start chipping at the measurables, and we have gotten bigger at every position.”
Houston was selected to finish 12th of 14 teams in the Big 12 Media Preseason Poll, but the poll has not been accurate at predicting the conference’s juggernauts lately. TCU crashed the College Football Playoff in 2022 after a 5-7 campaign, and Baylor caught the league off-guard in 2021 with a conference championship coming off a 2-7 season — both with first-year head coaches. Six different teams have competed in the Big 12 Championship Game in the past three years, so the 12th-place ranking didn’t seem to faze anybody in the program.
“TCU went on that run, so at the end of the day, those don’t really mean anything,” defensive end Nelson Ceaser said. “It’s something somebody put together based on last season. It’s a whole new season now.”
Replacing the dynamic Tune-Dell duo
Losing a four-year starting quarterback is never easy, but the circumstances Houston is enduring this offseason make it even tougher. Clayton Tune warranted a fourth round selection at the NFL Draft in April after essentially starting for the entirety of Holgorsen’s tenure, but the Big 12 move coincides with Holgorsen’s first offseason quarterback change in Houston.
“We lost a very seasoned quarterback in Clayton Tune,” Holgorsen said. “He’s been our guy for four years and has been a model of consistency and just a model program player. Wish him all the luck in the NFL. But that opens it up to who’s next. I was talking with Andre Ware up there about this a minute ago. The University of Houston has had really good quarterback play over the years, from Andre back in the day to David Klingler to Kevin Kolb to Case Keenum, who I coached for two years in ‘08, ‘09, and then Tune is a part of that conversation, as well.”
The fifth-year head coach discussed two candidates for Tune’s successor. Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith, who started against Houston last season, is the more experienced of the two, having 2,686 passing yards, 19 touchdown strikes, and even a bowl MVP under his belt. But to provide competition to the former Red Raider, the Cougars also return incumbent backup Lucas Coley, whose on-field action at the collegiate level is limited to three passing attempts.
“I’ve been very impressed with Donovan,” Holgorsen said. “He’s played a lot of ball. He’s played in 21 games. I think that’s important. The expectations are high for Donovan. But I felt like it was important to bring a guy in with experience, with Big 12 experience. We did that at a number of other positions, as well. But Donovan has impressed me. I think his best days are ahead of him. He’s only been playing quarterback for a couple years. He’s got the upper hand right now based on 21 games of experience, but Lucas Coley has been battling and is really competing hard, and he’s got a lot of good football ahead of him, as well.”
Despite the stark contrast in résumés and experience, Holgorsen emphasized the close nature of the quarterback competition, stating his affinity for letting quarterbacks compete over the course of an entire offseason.
“I was talking with Case Keenum the other day, and I asked him about competition,” Holgorsen said. “Back when we were here in 2008, Blake Joseph and Case Keenum were battling back and forth. I asked him the importance of when you name a starter, and he goes, ‘I wouldn’t. Just let them compete, because if they compete, it makes them better, and then it should take care of itself.’ I’m not concerned with it right now. They’ve been 50-50, and we knew they were going to be 50-50, and they’re going to continue to be 50-50 until one just makes it clear. So I think that’s going to naturally take care of itself.”
Although the talent of Dell was undeniable, replacing the nation’s leading receiver was less of a concern for Holgorsen. The Cougars still return a horde of valuable contributors at the position, including true sophomore Matthew Golden and veteran transfers Joseph Manjack IV and Sam Brown. Along with that triumvirate includes a slew of newcomers — transfers Joshua Cobbs and Stephon Johnson, as well as highly-touted recruits Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Jonah Wilson.
“That’s the one thing I’m pretty comfortable with,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have like the one guy with 1,500 yards. But we’ve got three starters returning with Matt Golden, who’s a special player; Joseph Manjack, who was a contributor in five games last year; Sam Brown made some big plays; a couple of transfers coming in that have Power Five experience, and then we recruited very well at that spot. There’s a lot of competition and a lot of very talented players that quite frankly we wouldn’t have got if it wasn’t for the Big 12. I’m excited about coaching those guys. That’s the least of my worries with receivers. I’ll spend most of my time with other things other than that.”
Establishing new property on Sack Ave.
One of Houston’s signature traditions in recent years has been wielding a large street sign with the words “Sack Ave.” emblazoned on it. “Sack Ave.” has been the moniker for the Cougars’ defensive line for the past several seasons, warranted by the unit’s ability to generate sacks at a high level. Houston ranked 11th nationally in sacks per game in 2021 and 45th in 2022 — producing NFL talent including Logan Hall and Derek Parish.
This offseason, the Cougars lose Parish (5.0 sacks, 8.5 TFLs in four games) and the metamorphic mayor of Sack Ave. in D’Anthony Jones, who led the team in sacks in consecutive seasons. Now, the Avenue will move to Big 12 country and the new mayor is expected to be defensive end Nelson Ceaser for 2023. Ceaser contributed 4.0 sacks and 11 TFLs in 2022 and is the new leadership figure in charge of sustaining the defensive line’s culture of success through the conference transition.
“I feel like that’s we do is reload here. I feel like the way (defensive line coach Brian) Early recruits, he gets whatever he wants. We’ve got some young guys ready to take that next step, so it’s all about reloading,” Ceaser said on the revamped defensive line. “But every time I go to practice, it’s crazy that I’m a veteran. I still feel like a young guy at heart. I just try to lead by example and be the best I can be every day, and hopefully, have some guys follow behind me.”
Defensive line play has been the foundation of Doug Belk’s defense in Houston for several years running. But the supporting position groups must be sturdy as well for the unit to function at its optimal level. To ensure that, former strong safety Hasaan Hypolite met with the coaches in his offseason exit interview and the conclusion was consistent throughout the room — moving to linebacker would benefit the defense as a whole.
“I was always an aggressive safety, somebody who liked to put their nose in the running game anyway. It pays off for me, lessens my mistakes — you can be aggressive at linebacker,” Hypolite said. “Me being a realist and studying myself and understanding my strengths and weaknesses as a football player, I just brought it to my coaches that I’m good at fitting the run and stuff like that. I felt I could make way more plays at linebacker than I could at safety.”
Hypolite has held captain status since 2021, but his transition to linebacker also meant Houston would lose an established starter in the secondary. But the longtime veteran looked at the pieces in a safety room refurbished by transfer talent, holding the belief that his move will open the doors for others to make a splash.
“Antonio Brooks... every day in practice, he’s making plays,” Hypolite said. “That’s my job as a team captain to do what’s best for the team and what’s best for myself as well. Be on the lookout for Antonio Brooks and AJ Haulcy, transfer from New Mexico. (Haulcy) alone had a video game performance last year — 24 tackles at strong safety and catching an interception. You don’t hear about stuff like that. That’s once in a lifetime.”
Continuity in the trenches
Throughout time, Houston’s program has been renowned for great quarterback play with names like Case Keenum, Andre Ware, David Klingler, and Clayton Tune manning the position. Glamorous skill position players like Tank Dell, Donnie Avery, and Marquez Stevenson and have taken center stage as well. But when selecting two offensive players to represent the team at their inaugural Big 12 Media Days, both hailed from the offensive line — left tackle Patrick Paul and center Jack Freeman.
“We got two guys here which should tell you about our group as a whole,” Freeman said of Houston sending two offensive linemen to represent the program in Arlington. “We’ve got a lot of older guys who have played a lot of snaps, so we’ve got a lot of experience. We’re really excited for this year because we’ve got Coach (Eman) Naghavi now — a lot of positive vibes and his energy is amazing.”
Naghavi arrives as the offensive line coach and running game coordinator after a prosperous one-year stint with Tulane, where he guided an AAC champion offensive line which produced two first team all-conference selections. Tulane’s Tyjae Spears-led rushing attack finished top 20 nationally last season operating behind Naghavi’s line, and Houston hopes to replicate similar success with the newly acquainted coach.
“He’s been on my list for a while. But the one year at Tulane really sold me,” Holgorsen said of Naghavi. “He’s exceptional with getting offensive line to play together and is one of the better ones that I’ve been around in the short period of time that I’ve been with him. He’s been a great fit. He’s as Houston as Houston gets. Grew up there, loves the city.”
Naghavi coaches the position group with the most continuity and experience on Houston’s entire roster, returning four of its five primary starters from 2022, headlined by Paul — the only two-time First Team All-AAC selection of the Cougars’ 2023 roster. But the size of opposing Big 12 defensive linemen is typically larger than what Houston faced in the AAC, so there will be an adjustment period for the veteran o-line.
“We’ve definitely learned you have to finish games, and that’s an emphasis we’ve had coming into the spring is basically to finish,” Paul said, reflecting on the Texas Tech and Kansas losses last September. “Playing Big 12 teams last year, we didn’t finish, so we’re definitely harping on that. I think the games are won in the trenches, so the o-line and d-line have to be on a different level for us to have success.”