Dana Holgorsen finished 4-8 in his debut at Houston, but with 16 starters back, a run to a bowl game and winning record should be within reach. The Cougars need a big year out of quarterback Clayton Tune to reach those goals, but there's no shortage of skill talent to help the junior develop, including receiver Marquez Stevenson and running back Kyle Porter. Houston's defense gave up 34 points a game last year, but an infusion of transfers should provide a boost for the 2020 performance. With games against Washington State and BYU in non-conference play, the Cougars won't have much margin for error in league play to reach six victories.
Previewing Houston's Offense for 2020
Clayton Tune is the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback. Tune was forced into action late in 2018 when starter D’Eriq King suffered a torn ACL, and a month into last season when King used the four-game redshirt rule to sit the rest of the season; King eventually transferred to Miami (Fla.). Tune passed for 1,533 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games while battling nagging injuries and should take a big step in development after spending a year in coach Dana Holgorsen’s Air Raid system.
Shannon Dawson was promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and will have a unit that returns virtually intact, including Kyle Porter and Mulbah Car in the backfield and the top four targets in Marquez Stevenson (nearly 2,000 receiving yards the last two seasons), Jeremy Singleton, Christian Trahan, and Keith Corbin. One key addition to keep an eye on: Nathaniel Dell, a juco signee who has been clocked at 4.3 seconds in the 40.
The injury-ravaged offensive line used eight different starting combinations, and 12 players made at least one start last season. The result is an experienced right side. Braylon Jones shifts from center to right guard after missing most of the season with a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Patrick Paul will replace Josh Jones at left tackle.
Previewing Houston's Defense for 2020
Help is on the way for a defense that struggled with injuries and ranked near the bottom nationally in many major categories, including total defense (467.5 ypg), pass defense (288.4 ypg), and points allowed (34.0 ppg). The biggest change will come in the secondary with a handful of transfers who sat out last season or arrived in the offseason: JoVanni Stewart (West Virginia), Marcus Jones (Troy), Kelvin Clemmons (Minnesota), Hasaan Hypolite (Colorado), and Thabo Mwaniki (Oklahoma State).
Grant Stuard, who had a career-high 97 tackles and earned second-team All-AAC honors, moves from nickel to linebacker. That will allow Stewart and Jordan Moore to get most of the action at nickel. Linebacker could be one of the deepest positions with Stuard, Donavan Mutin, Zamar Kirven and a healthy Terrance Edgeston.
Payton Turner and David Anenih anchor the defensive line, which suffered a setback when former five-star recruit and Alabama signee Eyabi Anoma was dismissed from the team in February.
Previewing Houston's Specialists for 2020
Dalton Witherspoon came on strong at the end of last season, finishing 20-of-24 on field goals, including a school-record 14 in a row. The Australian pipeline continues with freshman punter Laine Wilkins, who replaces Ray Guy Award finalist Dane Roy. Stevenson and Marcus Jones could give the Cougars one of the most explosive return games in the AAC.
Between redshirt talk, injuries and a 4–8 record that snapped a six-year bowl streak, Holgorsen’s first season was a constant struggle. A mix of key returners and influx of talented players from Power 5 programs should help Houston climb back to respectability. Since going 13–1 and winning a New Year’s Six bowl in 2015, the Cougars are 28–22 in the last four years. “This thing is going to get really good really quick,” Holgorsen said during the offseason. “I think everybody knows that.”
National Ranking: 70
(Top photo courtesy of Houston Athletics)