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2023 Houston Cougars Football Season Preview

How do the Cougars shape up in year one of transitioning from the AAC to the Big 12?

NCAA Football: Houston at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a new era of Houston Cougars football. On July 1, the Cougars officially moved their affiliation from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12, and the University’s athletics department had nearly two years to prepare for the transition.

Houston enters its new home equipped with a coach well acquainted to the conference. Head Dana Holgorsen enters his fifth year on campus, leveraging his previous experience in the Big 12 as an 8-year head coach at West Virginia and a longtime assistant at Texas Tech to help the team get acclimated to its new reality.

After uncharacteristic losing seasons in 2019 and 2020 for the program, the Cougars have become accustomed to winning under Holgorsen, posting a 20-7 record across the past two years — complete with a conference championship appearance, a No. 17 AP Poll finish, and two bowl victories in the timespan. But this year presents Holgorsen’s greatest challenge yet. After faring 0-3 against Big 12 competition across 2021 and 2022, the Cougars must be ready to navigate a Big 12 schedule on a weekly basis.

Fresh off an 8-5 season, the team was picked 12th of 14 teams in the preseason media poll. Houston entered the 2022 season with a ranking next to its name, but with differing expectations this year, Holgorsen and Co. aim to shock the league in their debut season.


Houston v Texas Tech
Donovan Smith started at quarterback for Texas Tech against Houston last September. Now, he’ll line up on the same side as the Cougars.
Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Houston’s Big 12 entrance coincides with the departure of a program great. Clayton Tune became the third 10,000-yard quarterback in Cougar history last fall and ranked as college football’s third-leading active passer until he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. Tune’s excellence was the foundation of Houston’s 17th ranked scoring offense. He posted 4,074 passing yards and 40 touchdowns while also leading the team in rushing at 544 yards. Tune remaining healthy also prevented the Cougars from breaking in a backup, as the All-AAC quarterback was responsible for 496 of the team’s 499 passing attempts in 2022.

With virtually zero experience in the incumbent quarterback room, the Cougars turned to the transfer portal to find Tune’s successor. Houston landed a familiar name in Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith, whose clutch playmaking led a miraculous double-overtime victory over the Cougars last September. Smith enters the program with 21 games of experience and eight starts, and he presents an intriguing résumé. The former Red Raider posted four 300-yard passing performances in those eight starts and even claimed MVP honors when eviscerating Mississippi State 34-7 in the 2021 Liberty Bowl.

Smith was recently named Houston’s Week 1 starter for the 2023 season, but the 6’5”, 241 pound quarterback found himself entrenched in a position battle with Lucas Coley all offseason. Holgorsen and offensive assistant coaches dubbed the battle as “50-50” through the early portion of August, but last week, Houston settled on the more experienced gunslinger as the Week 1 starter.

Coley’s in-game experience is limited to three passing attempts — all in garbage time of blowout finishes. But given the close nature of the QB competition, Coley could see his first major exposure to collegiate gameplay in the near future. The only other quarterback with collegiate experience on the roster is JUCO transfer Ui Ale, who posted 1,335 yards and 12 touchdowns at Golden West College in California last year.

Running back

West Virginia v Texas Tech
Tony Mathis Jr. transferred into the program after leading West Virginia in rushing yards in 2022.
Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Of all the offensive skill positions, running back comes with the most continuity for the Cougars. While Houston lost its 2021 leading rusher Alton McCaskill (missed the entirety of 2022 with torn ACL) to Colorado in the transfer portal and Ta’Zhawn Henry to graduation, the Cougars still retain the two running backs who accumulated the most yardage for the program last year.

Brandon Campbell led all Houston tailbacks in carries with 90 after transferring from USC. Campbell produced 435 rushing yards and four touchdowns, while amassing 90 yards as a receiver. He participated in 10 games last season but saw his usage spike in the early going, seeing over 75 percent of touches in his first five contests, as his November was marred by injury.

The Cougars’ top running back in terms of yardage was Stacy Sneed, who broke out toward the end of the season. Sneed contributed 501 yards on a 6.6 average, tying Tune for the team-high in rushing touchdowns with five. The now-sophomore back posted a career-best 143 yards last November against Temple and also shined as a short-yardage receiving option with 22 receptions and 143 yards.

While Campbell and Sneed are expected to split carries again, a new face will be introduced into the running back rotation, and he should be a frequented option. Former West Virginia running back Tony Mathis Jr., who led the Mountaineers in rushing attempts and yards in 2022, transferred to Houston in mid-May. Mathis presents 11 starts and 943 career rushing yards to the running back mix — ranking first among all Cougars in both categories.

Houston likely allocates nearly all carries to the Mathis, Campbell, and Sneed trio, given the three remain healthy, but other running backs that are waiting to emerge on the depth chart include senior Kelan Walker and true freshmen Re’Shaun Sanford and Parker Jenkins.

Wide receiver

Tulsa v Houston
Matthew Golden enters his true sophomore season after logging seven touchdown receptions and two 100-yard performances in 2022.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

It cannot be understated how vital Tank Dell was to Houston’s offense. Dell, a third round pick to the Houston Texans, took college football by storm last year with 1,398 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns — ranking supreme in the FBS in both categories. His 109 receptions checked in at second in the country behind Purdue’s Charlie Jones. Despite a 5’10”, 165 pound frame, Dell had the uncanny ability to create massive separation against any defender in a variety of routes, and Houston will miss his route-running dominance and his irreplaceable playmaking ability.

But even without Dell, Houston’s 2023 receiving corps remains one of its strongest units based on sheer depth. The Cougars lost No. 2 receiver KeSean Carter as well, but the offense retains plenty of incumbent talent including Matthew Golden, Sam Brown, and Joseph Manjack IV. A former 4-star recruit who produced 584 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, Golden is the prime candidate to emerge into the No. 1 receiver role this year, especially after stellar outings last November.

Brown netted 471 receiving yards and four touchdowns, while Manjack added 158. However, Manjack missed the final eight games of the regular season due to a hand injury. But upon returning for the Independence Bowl against Louisiana, Manjack didn’t seem to miss a beat, tying his season-high with four receptions in the 23-16 victory. Even longtime Cougar and special team staple Peyton Sawyer stepped up from time-to-time with 104 receiving yards, and he’s back for his sixth-year with the program, dating back to the tail-end of the Major Applewhite era.

While the returning talent is impressive enough, the Cougars spiced up the pot by acquiring an impressive transfer portal haul featuring some Cowboys — Oklahoma State wide receiver Stephon Johnson and Wyoming receiver Joshua Cobbs. Johnson was a budding talent at Oklahoma State, tallying 293 receiving yards as a freshman — notably going for six catches and 90 yards against Texas. Meanwhile Cobbs operated as Wyoming’s No. 1 receiver with 35 receptions and 407 yards as the premier aerial target of a run-heavy offense.

But wait, there’s more! Houston signed its highest-ranked recruiting class in seven years and landed a pair of four-star standouts at receiver. Mikal Harrison-Pilot (regarded as a top 10 receiver in the 2023 class by 247Sports) and Jonah Wilson are both highly-touted prospects joining the program, hoping to attain significant playing time as true freshmen like Golden did last fall.

Tight end

West Virginia v Virginia Tech
Mike O’Laughlin is another Big 12 transfer joining Houston this season, coming from West Virginia along with Tony Mathis Jr.
Photo by Ryan Hunt/Getty Images

Only one tight end received significant utilization the last four years at Houston, and that was the always-consistent Christian Trahan. But Trahan, who recorded four consecutive seasons featuring 22+ receptions and 230+ receiving yards, is no longer with the program, causing the Cougars to look elsewhere for blocking needs and for the occasional tight end seam.

Trahan’s departure creates a void, which could be satisfied in multiple ways. Matt Byrnes is a potential recipient of the starting tight end duties for 2023. Byrnes corralled four receptions for 50 yards and a touchdown last season, appearing in all 13 games with significant special teams duties on kick coverage and the extra point. He recorded his first reception and first touchdown last October versus Navy and concluded the season with a 13-yard reception in the Independence Bowl.

Additionally, Holgorsen consulted his former program for another offensive transfer. Just like Tony Mathis Jr. and Sam Brown, tight end Mike O’Laughlin relocated his college residence from West Virginia to Houston. O’Laughlin earned ample experience with the Mountaineers, checking into 31 games with a multitude of starts. He brings a résumé of 37 receptions and 292 yards from his old Big 12 stomping grounds to the conference’s newcomer.

Logan Compton is likely to assume the No. 3 position on the depth chart after logging 26 snaps at tight end last year. The former Baylor commit awaits his first collegiate reception, and while Houston doesn’t involve two tight ends in the offense often, Compton should certainly witness a spike in playing time.

Offensive line

Patrick Paul seeks his third consecutive first team all-conference selection, but this time, for the Big 12.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Perhaps the most crucial difference in AAC and Big 12 personnel lies within the trenches. At Big 12 media days, Holgorsen stated Houston conducted a study on the measurables of other Big 12 programs and how the Cougars stacked up against them. The conclusion: there is room for growth from a height and weight perspective, and Houston is zoned in on making strides in that department.

The Cougars bring back a slew of players with starting experience with their most significant departure being All-AAC left guard Cam’Ron Johnson who transferred to Missouri.

With the majority of guys running it back, the offensive line is spearheaded by two-time First Team All-AAC selection Patrick Paul. The 6’7”, 315 pound force — and highly-touted NFL Draft prospect — is set to man the starting left tackle spot for the fourth straight year.

Houston also sends out veteran leadership in the form of team captain Jack Freeman, who possesses three years of starting center experience, reclaiming the No. 1 spot in 2022 after a one-year hiatus as a reserve.

Tank Jenkins will line up beside Freeman at one guard slot after starting all 14 matchups at right guard for the No. 17 team in the country in 2021. Jenkins reverted to a bench role last year after September, but the 6’3”, 320 pound senior should crack the main five once again. The other guard is Tyler Johnson, who recorded 10 starts at right guard in 2022 after transferring from Texas. Johnson is one of the strongpoints on the Cougar offense and also possesses left guard experience. In all likelihood, one of Johnson or Jenkins moves to that position to claim the starting role. Lastly, Reuben Unije occupies the right tackle spot after making seven appearances and two starts in 2022 — replacing Lance Robinson on that edge of the line.

The Cougars loaded up on additional line depth through the transfer portal, landing Shamar Hobdy-Lee (FIU), Max Banes (Akron), and Peyton Dunn (ULM). Hobdy-Lee manned the starting left tackle position for 11 games in 2022, Banes earned eight left guard starts at Akron, and Dunn was an 11-game starter at left guard for the Warhawks — and all three experienced transfers could enter the rotation in 2023.

Defensive line

NCAA Football: Houston at East Carolina
Nelson Ceaser is Houston’s returning leader in sacks and tackles for loss, keeping the Sack Ave. tradition alive.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

You know a unit has a reputation when it has its own nickname. Houston’s defensive line is an NFL Draft machine, producing first round pick Payton Turner, second round pick Logan Hall, and seventh round pick Derek Parish during Holgorsen’s tenure. After applying copious amounts of quarterback pressure over the last several years, the unit became known as “Sack Ave,” and the avenue opens up shop for another season under defensive line coach Brian Early.

Houston ranked 11th in sacks in 2021 and 45th in 2022, although the unit was on a tremendous pace before Parish (5.0 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in four weeks) suffered a season-ending bicep injury in Week 4. Not only do the Cougars lose Parish, but D’Anthony Jones — the “mayor” and vocal leader of Sack Ave. — graduated from the program as well after leading the defense in sacks for consecutive seasons.

Sustaining the Sack Ave. legacy is defensive end Nelson Ceaser, who invaded backfields with notable success in 2022 with 10.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks — operating as Houston’s returning leader in both categories. Ceaser hopes to ramp up his production as the team’s new top defensive end, and he’ll be supported by a polished transfer from Oklahoma in David Ugwoegbu. Ugwoegbu played outside linebacker for the Sooners and ranked second on the team in tackles last year with 109. He contributed 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks, and his pass rushing capabilities should be greater highlighted by moving to the defensive line.

Clogging the middle in fifth-year defensive coordinator Doug Belk’s 4-2-5 defense is Chidozie Nwankwo, who saw a midseason surge as one of the most valuable defenders on the depth chart. The 5’11”, 295 pound nose guard often required multiple linemen to block, and he freed up pass rush lanes while tallying 36 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in 2022. Lining up next to Nwankwo should be senior Sedrick Williams, a 6-game starter and one of five Cougars to manage 7.0+ tackles for loss last season.

Williams, Ceaser, Nwankwo, and Ugwoebu tout the numbers 0, 9, 10, and 12, respectively, so key reserves sporting jersey numbers in the unit include a pair of defensive ends who were redshirted with under four appearances in 2022 — Zykeius Strong and Nadame Caldwell — as well as defensive tackle Jamaree Caldwell, a 6’1”, 325 pound senior who registered 286 snaps in his first season of FBS football.


Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser
Hasaan Hypolite enters his third season as a team captain for the Cougars, but this time, he’ll represent the defense as a linebacker instead of strong safety.
Mickey Welsh / Advertiser / USA TODAY NETWORK

Linebacker is another position where Houston must replace a stellar senior talent from 2022. Middle linebacker Donavan Mutin racked up 85 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss as the Cougars’ leading tackler. And while the Cougars didn’t see many major contributors transfer this offseason, one portal departure was outside linebacker Mannie Nunnery, who committed to Florida after 46 tackles and seven starts in his final season at Houston.

The headliner of the new-look linebacking corps is Hasaan Hypolite who converted from strong safety this offseason. Hypolite enters his third season as a team captain and decided to move positions in his offseason exit interview, citing his aggressiveness was best suited for linebacker. The fifth-year senior brings career numbers of 107 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss into the new position, and given his experience at safety, he should bolster coverage capabilities of the linebacking corps.

Malik Robinson is another name looking to break out after a short-lived 2022 campaign where he suffered a season-ending pectoral injury two games in. But in that diminutive sample size, the outside linebacker was certainly finding a rhythm with 15 tackles across those contests. With Nunnery transferring, the starting WILL linebacker spot should be tailor-made for Robinson, who has three starts in three seasons as a Cougar.

Other veteran names the Cougars trot out include Jamal Morris and Trimarcus Cheeks. Morris produced 42 tackles (tied for sixth on the team) as a 3-game starter at WILL linebacker in his first season after transferring from Oklahoma, while Cheeks added 35 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss with five starts in 2022.

Defensive back

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Alex Hogan recorded 10 pass breakups in six games before suffering a season-ending injury in October.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one position group the Cougars seek improvement at in 2023, it’s the defensive back room. After fielding a nationally-stellar aerial defense in 2021, the unit took a drastic step backward in 2022 when losing cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams to the NFL Draft.

Houston ranked 10th-to-last in the FBS by allowing 279 passing yards per game, and those struggles were on full display during a 77-63 loss to SMU where Mustangs quarterback Tanner Mordecai posted 379 passing yards and nine touchdown strikes on the defense. The Cougars yielded 2.5 passing touchdowns per game (among the four highest in the country) and watched several winnable games (namely Texas Tech and Tulane) slip away due to late-game lapses.

This year’s defensive back room loses seventh round draft pick Gervarrius Owens from the free safety spot, but the Cougars heavily restocked its secondary with talent from the transfer portal. One of these transfers is New Mexico free safety A.J. Haulcy, who lit up the stat sheet with 87 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three tackles for loss as a true freshman in 2022. The former Lobo pieced together a historic game by notching 24 tackles in a single-outing — the most tackles by an individual since September 2018.

Additionally, in late June, the team received a commitment from Latrell McCutchin who started two games on last year’s 11-3 USC squad, with a previous stop at Oklahoma in 2021. McCutchin is an ideal fit for the nickelback role previously occupied by Jayce Rogers for the first half of last season, and the ex-Trojan flaunts career numbers of 31 tackles and three forced fumbles heading into his first season in Houston.

Cornerbacks Isaiah Hamilton and Brian George are also among the newcomers brought into the revamped unit this offseason. Hamilton arrives from FCS program Texas Southern, where he earned First Team All-SWAC honors with five interceptions last season — coming from the same conference where Tank Dell initiated his college career. George, a former 4-star recruit, moved in-state from Texas A&M. He started eight games from 2020-22, including the Aggies’ 2020 Orange Bowl victory over North Carolina.

The transfer talent is extensive, but in terms of incumbent veterans, the most established starter is Alex Hogan. Prior to a season-ending injury in Week 6, Hogan was Houston’s most disruptive defensive back. Despite playing less than half the season, he still wound up leading the Cougars in pass breakups with 10. Now gifted with a full slate of health, Hogan aims to improve the metrics of the pass defense in season one of Big 12 membership.

Jalen Emery slid into a starting cornerback spot when Hogan went down in October and concluded the season with 22 tackles and seven pass deflections. While Hogan likely occupies one cornerback spot, the other should involve a position battle between Emery and Hamilton, and possibly others. Malik Fleming could be in the mix too, coming from East Carolina as a Second Team All-AAC cornerback. Fleming provides vast experience with 105 stops, six interceptions, and 17 pass breakups as a 3-year starter for the Pirates.

One other new face in the starting lineup could be strong safety Antonio Brooks, a promotion which coincides with Hypolite’s move to linebacker. The senior strong safety earned one start and racked up 11 solo tackles last season before missing the final six games with an injury.

Special teams

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Texas Kickoff - Texas Tech v Houston
Laine Wilkins enters his fourth season as Houston’s punter.
Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

All three kickers on Houston’s roster were elsewhere in 2022, aiming to fill the vacancy left behind by Bubba Baxa.

The Cougars signed former Troy and Alabama specialist Jack Martin, who converted one field goal for the Crimson Tide in 2021 and handled the Trojans’ punting and kickoff duties in 2020. Houston also added Division II transfer Cooper Hamilton, who sunk 9-of-13 field goals at Eastern New Mexico last year. Lastly, Joseph Kim enters as a true freshman from Lawton, OK.

The punting game features less competition as Laine Wilkins retains his role for the fourth consecutive season. Wilkins saw career-highs across the board last year, increasing his punting average to 43.7, his net punting average to 40.5, and booting one ball 67 yards for a new personal best. Wilkins is renowned for his impressive hangtime (he punted 38 times in 2020 without allowing a punt return for positive yardage) and appears on the preseason Ray Guy Award Watchlist.

Houston loses its featured kick returner and punt returner from last year, as those duties were primarily handled by Jayce Rogers and Tank Dell, respectively. These are quite big shoes to fill as both speedsters showcased impressive numbers and each recorded a special teams touchdown. Peyton Sawyer should appear on special teams, as he fielded 13 kickoffs and and two punts in 2022 — ranking second on the team in attempts in both departments. Matthew Golden could increase his role on special teams as well after taking five kick returns for 116 yards as a true freshman.

The possibilities are endless given the Cougars’ logjam of speed at wide receiver and cornerback, so Jalen Emery and some of the wide receiver and defensive back transfers could contribute to this facet of the game as well.


2023 AAC Schedule - Houston-2.csv

Week Date Opponent 2022 Result
Week Date Opponent 2022 Result
1 Sat, Sep. 2 vs. UTSA W, 37-35
2 Sat, Sep. 9 @ Rice W, 34-27
3 Sat, Sep. 16 vs. TCU N/A
4 Sat, Sep. 23 vs. Sam Houston N/A
5 Sat, Sep. 30 @ Texas Tech L, 33-30
6 Sat, Oct. 7 BYE N/A
7 Thu, Oct. 12 vs. West Virginia N/A
8 Sat, Oct. 21 vs. Texas N/A
9 Sat, Oct. 28 @ Kansas State N/A
10 Sat, Nov. 4 @ Baylor N/A
11 Sat, Nov. 11 vs. Cincinnati N/A
12 Sat, Nov. 18 vs. Oklahoma State N/A
13 Sat, Nov. 25 @ UCF N/A
14 Sat, Dec. 2 Big 12 Championship

Perhaps the schedule release was the first moment when Cougar faithful felt like Big 12 status truly arrived. Houston begins to familiarize itself with a new cast of opponents and rivals, exchanging its frequent East Coast trips out in favor of traversing the American plains region.

For non-conference play, Houston is granted the luxury of remaining homebound. The Cougars remain completely within the confines of their city, opening with UTSA at home, driving 15 minutes to Rice for a Week 2 bout, and concluding the 3-game slate at TDECU Stadium against FBS newcomer Sam Houston.

The most difficult non-conference matchup will be the second leg of a home-and-home with UTSA. Last season at the Alamodome, Houston required a 14-point fourth quarter comeback to force overtime, and a winner wasn’t settled until three overtime periods in an instant classic. The Roadrunners remain loaded at star talent including quarterback Frank Harris, so the Cougars’ first game with a Big 12 logo adorning the uniforms will certainly be a challenge, even with homefield advantage on their side.

Sandwiched in between the Rice and Sam Houston games is the Cougars’ first-ever conference game in their new home. Reigning national championship game participant TCU treks down I-45 to battle the Cougars in Houston, in a difficult matchup which could produce an all-time atmosphere at TDECU Stadium.

The Cougars wrap up the month of September in a grudge match with Texas Tech, which could blossom into a heated rivalry in the future. The Red Raiders defeated Houston each of the last two seasons via impressive comebacks, and this year’s matchup transpires in Lubbock for the second-straight season.

Following a bye week, Houston sees a nationally televised Thursday night bout with Holgorsen’s former program in West Virginia. Nine days later, the Cougars host Big 12 lame duck Texas in the teams’ first meeting in 21 years.

Houston only leaves the Lone Star State twice all year, and the first time exiting state borders is Oct. 28 for a matchup at Kansas State. The Cougars finish with a 4-game stretch of Baylor, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, and UCF — wrapping up the regular season in Orlando against the fellow AAC call-up.

Should the Cougars own one of the top two records in the Big 12 during their inaugural year, they’ll punch a ticket to the conference championship game in Arlington, TX on Dec. 2.