A favorable schedule and an experienced two-deep should allow Houston to have its best season under coach Dana Holgorsen. The Cougars are 7-13 over the last two years but catch a break in scheduling by missing both Cincinnati and UCF in conference play this year. Quarterback Clayton Tune seems poised for a breakout, while a defense returning nine starters should show improvement under coordinator Doug Belk.
Previewing Houston's Offense for 2021
Is this the year quarterback Clayton Tune gets a fully uninterrupted season? After playing parts of the previous two seasons, Tune admits to never being able to get into a rhythm because of eight cancellations due to COVID-19 last season. Tune still managed to pass for 2,048 yards, but he will need to improve on the 10 interceptions he threw in the abbreviated eight-game schedule.
Finding targets for Tune is a top priority as the Cougars sort through a receiving corps that lost Marquez Stevenson (NFL Draft) and Keith Corbin (transfer portal). Nathaniel Dell led the team with 29 catches for 428 yards last season, but Houston will need more production from a group that includes Jeremy Singleton and Bryson Smith. KeSean Carter, the second-leading receiver at Texas Tech, arrived in the offseason. Tight end Christian Trahan, 6'3" and 245 pounds, has NFL potential and will see an expanded role, and Minnesota transfer Seth Green, a part-time Wildcat QB for the Gophers, is an intriguing pickup.
The backfield returns Mulbah Car and Chandler Smith, a pair of sixth-year running backs. Ta'Zhawn Henry arrives as a transfer from Texas Tech.
The offensive line added transfer center Kody Russey, a four-year starter at Louisiana Tech. Tackles Patrick Paul and Dennis Bardwell return from injuries, and Tank Jenkins, a 6'3", 350-pound transfer from Texas A&M, is expected to start at right guard.
Previewing Houston's Defense for 2021
The linebacker position will get a boost with the return of middle linebacker Donavan Mutin. Holgorsen says that the defense had a noticeable drop-off when Mutin, a team captain, suffered an injury that limited him to three games. Deontay Anderson, who is up to 6'2" and 230 pounds, moves from safety to linebacker and joins a talented group that includes JoVanni Stewart, Malik Robinson, Mannie Nunnery and Jordan Carmouche.
Houston was active on the transfer market and added Latrell Bankston (Iowa State), who should see extensive playing time on the defensive line. David Anenih and Derek Parish, who combined for eight sacks, provide pass-rush options off the edge. Chidozie Nwankwo, a six-game starter as a true freshman, was suspended from the team in February amid assault allegations.
Houston features one of the top cornerback tandems in the AAC with Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams. Williams had seven pass breakups in 2020, while Jones usually drew the opponent's best receiver.
Previewing Houston's Specialists for 2021
Punter Laine Wilkins, the latest in a pipeline of Australian imports, did not allow a positive punt return in 38 attempts, helping Houston rank second nationally with a minus-1.25 per-return average. Dalton Witherspoon is 28-of-34 on field-goal attempts the past two seasons. All-America return man Marcus Jones set the AAC single-season record for punt return yards (337) and led the nation with a 19.8-yard average.
Holgorsen says it's time for the football program to "carry its weight," coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 2001-02. Depth has improved, but questions remain, most notably at wide receiver and running back. The schedule is favorable enough with seven games in Houston that anywhere from eight to 10 wins should be the expectation.
National Ranking: 61
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(Clayton Tune photo courtesy of Houston Athletics)