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Once a rival, Donovan Smith is now the leader facilitating Houston’s rise to Big 12 status

When Donovan Smith transferred in from Texas Tech, he needed to win over teammates who had only known one starting quarterback.

Syndication: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal Annie Rice/Avalanche-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The laws of probability were not in favor of the situation.

The concept of homefield advantage in the rowdy college town of Lubbock, TX suddenly seemed like an obscure detail when Texas Tech was backed up on the 35-yard line, facing a do-or-die 4th and 20 in overtime. It’d been an up-and-down day for quarterback Donovan Smith, who in the final 70 seconds of regulation, tossed a costly interception but subsequently undid the damage by leading a game-tying field goal drive as the regulation clock exhausted to triple zeros.

Smith fielded the 4th down snap in an empty set with five receivers bunched on either side of the line of scrimmage. Despite possessing an impressive degree of mobility, the quarterback had been a constant victim of defensive line pressure, absorbing six sacks in a single outing. This time, he scrambled right against a 3-man rush to avoid a seventh takedown. Also veering toward the right sideline was wide receiver Jerand Bradley, who had no defender obstructing the pathway to the first down marker. Smith dumped it off to his wideout who needed a 20-yard pickup to inject new life into an all-but-finished Texas Tech squad. Bradley answered the call and picked up 21, and the Red Raiders knotted the game at 27 apiece two plays later.

Completing that improbable 4th and 20 opportunity set up Smith for glory on the ensuing overtime possession. Trailing 30-27 on the 9-yard line, Smith surveyed the field and placed his faith in his mobility. Seconds later, the quarterback was in the end zone and a field storm ensued as his heroics manufactured an unlikely stunner over a ranked Houston team.

Houston v Texas Tech
Donovan Smith rushed for a game-winning 9-yard touchdown in double overtime to defeat Houston 33-30 last September.
Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

It’s a game every Houston fan, player, and coach would like to forget. But the sheer sight of Donovan Smith often invokes memories of that September afternoon in Lubbock.

The old adage is typically structured, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” But in Smith’s case, the converse is true. Months after shattering their hearts at Jones AT&T Stadium, Smith decided to join the Houston Cougars in the transfer portal.

“We should have won and it still makes me sick and makes me want to go be by myself when I think about it,” Houston head coach Holgorsen said. “The good news is the guy that made the play is on our team now.”

When Smith first arrived on campus, it generated flashbacks of a moment his new teammates didn’t want to relive. But watching the 6’5”, 241 pound quarterback in practice quickly set aside those feelings, and now Houston players can wholly appreciate the newcomer’s skillset.

“I wish he wouldn’t have beat us in double overtime,” Houston center Jack Freeman said. “I still make fun of it. I pulled up the UH highlights versus Texas Tech the other day actually at his place. We’re watching it through, we get to that play, I immediately turn it off, and he just starts laughing.”

Nearly an entire earth’s revolution around the sun removed from that moment, Houston players like Jack Freeman are able to reflect on that day with their new quarterback. But approaching Smith off the practice field wasn’t always natural for veteran members of the roster. After spending the past four years operating under the same starting quarterback in Clayton Tune, there was a bit of an acclimation period for the Texas Tech transfer when it came to team camaraderie.

“In all honestly, I didn’t really know how I felt about Donovan when he first got here,” Freeman said. “I didn’t talk to him for about a month and a half. I didn’t say hardly any words to him. Then one day, he just said ‘what’s up’ to me, we ended up hanging out. We took a trip to Vegas. He helped us meet Dana White so that should kind of tell you something. Within the span of two months knowing him, we’re taking a trip, we’re getting the guys off the group chat finally and going to Las Vegas. That should tell you something right there.”

While the first traits most learn about the redshirt junior quarterback include his mobility and his howitzer of an arm, Smith’s affinity for building off-the-field relationships is an integral part of his identity. The quarterback understands camaraderie is the foundation to any functioning offense. This quality made him a popular player to gravitate toward at Texas Tech and it continues to show at Houston.

“He’s super genuine. He’s a really down to earth dude,” said Texas Tech quarterback Tyler Shough, who spent two seasons alongside Smith. “He likes to have fun with the guys and I think that’s one of his strengths is the relationships he build. I feel like him and I are very similar in that aspect and we prioritize relationships off the field and that’s how you become a good leader. You can’t just expect people to follow you. You have to go earn it.”

Texas Tech v Iowa State
Donovan Smith shared the Texas Tech quarterback room with Tyler Shough for two seasons. Shough is the Red Raiders’ projected 2023 starter.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

‘Genuine’ is a common word uttered when describing Smith. After spending three seasons in Lubbock, the Las Vegas native was in unfamiliar territory this offseason. He transferred to a team without an incumbent starting quarterback, looking for a new leader at the position. But holding vast experience and coming from a coaching background — his father DeAndre was Texas Tech’s running backs coach from 2019-21 and currently holds the same position for the Indianapolis Colts — Smith understood how to enter his new campus with an authentic approach.

“If you do it artificially, it doesn’t work,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said on Smith’s acclimation to becoming a team leader. “I think Donovan’s smart enough to come in and not be overbearing and come in and not force himself on other people. He’s a coach’s kid. He’s got three years experience on this level. He’s been starting quarterback. He’s been backup quarterback. He’s been team captain. He’s been second fiddle. He’s been a guy who I think his upbringing as a coach’s kid prepares you for that. So he’s mature and smart enough to come in and let it naturally happen.”

But the vacancy Smith is attempting to fulfill at Houston cannot be understated. Clayton Tune was a four-year starting quarterback at Houston and an accomplished one, as suggested by his selection by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2023 NFL Draft. Only 41 quarterbacks in FBS history have accumulated 12,000 passing yards, and Tune stood just six yards short of that threshold. He earned First Team All-AAC honors last season, ranking seventh nationally in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns.

“Tune was an exceptional quarterback, probably one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever played with, but there’s not that big of a drop-off,” Houston outside linebacker Hasaan Hypolite said. “To be honest with you, Donovan’s a little more of something I want to see. That’s a bigger guy. He can run, pass. He kind of reminds me of a Cam Newton type. You really see him stepping into everything I know he’s willing to do and ready to do. I watch him work every day. He’s a hungry kid.”

However, Smith hasn’t been handed a starting quarterback role yet. He is currently competing in a quarterback battle with incumbent backup Lucas Coley, whose collegiate in-game action is limited to three passing attempts and three rushes. Holgorsen cited the quarterback battle as “50-50” at Big 12 media days, while also recognizing Smith’s edge in the experience department. Smith started and won games against ranked Houston and Texas squads last year, and he also secured MVP honors in the 2021 Liberty Bowl for a 252-yard passing performance to edge Mississippi State.

Additionally, Smith provides valuable Big 12 experience, an attribute which was prioritized by a Houston program which upgraded membership from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12 on July 1. Having five starts against Big 12 competition is a luxury the Cougars desired in their inaugural season competing in the conference.

“He’s played a lot of ball. He’s played in 21 games. I think that’s important. The expectations are high for Donovan,” Holgorsen said. “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.”

Texas Tech v Kansas State
Donovan Smith brings 21 games of experience to Houston, including eight starts — five of which were against Big 12 competition.
Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The quarterback battle has yet to be settled, but Holgorsen reiterated at Big 12 media days that Houston is “gonna need both of them” this season. The Cougars commence the 2023 season at home against reigning CUSA champion UTSA, which remains the initial focus. But on Sept. 30, Houston pays a return visit to Texas Tech — the same venue where Smith’s heroics shattered the Cougars one year ago. And this time, instead of donning the ‘Double T’ on his helmet, Smith will showcase his talents with an interlocking ‘UH’ depicted on his uniform.

“I really appreciated the way he played, how much passion he showcased when he was playing,” Shough said of his former teammate, previewing the 2023 rematch. “Even when he was kind of banged up in certain scenarios, he was still playing with everything he had. He’s obviously a really good guy off the field and I wish him the best at Houston. They’re gonna be a very good team when they come to Lubbock.”