Dana Holgorsen's reset for 2020

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
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Jan 14, 2014
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When Dana Holgorsen decided to tank 2019, that was one of the strongest reflections of where college football has arrived we’ve seen to date. There’s no doubt that Holgorsen wasn’t thrilled with the roster he found waiting for him and that he was frustrated that some of the best players were going to waste their senior seasons on what quickly proved to be a losing season after a 1-3 start. So the head coach asked multiple players after the fourth game to consider going to the bench and redshirting for the rest of the season in order to preserve their eligibility for a 2020 run. Some obliged, some transferred, and Houston finished 4-8.

Much of the commentary around Houston in 2020 has tried to deflect or dismiss the notion that “tanking” is what Holgorsen was up to. They note that the Cougars weren’t awarded a higher draft pick for losing and forgave his approach as necessary because of a lack of redshirts for their older players. I suspect the redshirt seniors from the 2019 team feel differently.

The truth is that it made sense for Holgorsen to cash out on 2019 and save his chips for another season. That’s the game these days. Houston is paying Holgorsen $20 million over five seasons to get results. When that sort of money is at stake then decision-makers will begin to act in increasingly cold but rational ways, just as the Philadelphia 76er’s did when they tanked for lottery picks in the NBA draft before Adam Silver intervened.

As it turned out, Houston didn’t get off scott free for this approach. Left tackle Josh Jones was a redshirt senior that couldn’t roll over eligibility, so he played up until the end of the year before shutting things down after getting a knee injury. Jones was a real talent that was drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals. The Cougars also shut down star quarterback D’Eriq King, only to see him enter the transfer portal and leave for Miami, soon after to be followed by Houston’s other big upperclassman tackle Jarrid Williams.

After all that, the Cougars will be entering 2020 with a retooled space force missing some pieces that Holgorsen was surely hoping to have in year two when Houston needs a winning record. On the bright side, he started spring practice in February and got in several practices before the lockdowns. Consequently the Cougars got a head start on developing their offense for 2020 most of college football missed.

Houston infrastructure

In previewing the Cougars it's tempting to focus mostly on offense because Holgorsen is an Air Raid man. At West Virginia Holgorsen learned the value of structuring practices in a way that allows the defense to get the tackling work and emphasis they need to win games. That approach allowed the Mountaineers to enjoy their best season under Dana in 2016 when they went 10-3 with Skyler Howard as quarterback and no receiver at 1k yards because of a terrific defense headlined by 3rd round draft pick Rasul Douglas at cornerback (eight INT in 2016).

The 2020 Cougars could be pretty solid on defense. Much like their pals up I-45 in Dallas, they have made great use of the transfer portal to boost their talent levels on that side of the football. West Virginia nickel Jovanni Stewart, who was a key piece to the 2015 Katy Tigers that were one of the greatest defenses in Texas high school football history, transferred in for this season. Troy cornerback Marcus Jones is also now eligible after sitting out in 2019 following an All-Sun Belt season in 2018 for (ironically) Holgorsen’s replacement at West Virginia Neal Brown. Those players weren’t highly regarded prospects out of high school but proved their worth in college games. Houston also boasts former 4-star safety Deontay Anderson at safety, who will be a third-year starter in 2020.

The interior of the defense is in great shape. 2019 star nickel Grant Stuard slides inside to will linebacker to make room for Stewart at nickel, the defensive tackles are a pair of seniors with production in their past, and then Anderson returns to help hold down the middle at safety. This will be year two in their 4-2-5 quarters scheme and they may be able to up the ante with more press coverage outside.

On offense the infrastructure was a sore spot in 2019 due to constant injuries and inconsistency along the offensive line. The upside is that they now have seven returning O-linemen that have started multiple games. Tight end Christian Trahan got some good work in 2019 and after King went down the Cougars moved on to rising junior quarterback Clayton Tune.

Tune is a key talent for the Holgorsen era. At 6-3, and 215 pounds he’s a different sort of player than D’Eriq King or Greg Ward, Jr. He’s still mobile and effective in the run game but his style is a little more bruising and less conducive to high volume carries. Tune is also a very strong-armed passer that has dropped some real dimes both from the pocket and on the move. His decision-making was spotty at times in 2019 and there were certainly opportunities he left on the table due to inexperience at reading defenses pre-snap, but his ability to distribute the ball in the RPO and play-action game is arguably a better fit for Holgorsen’s smashmouth spread than King’s skill set.

With the hire of offensive line coach Brandon Jones, the current Holgorsen offensive system now resembles the Lincoln Riley power-raid up in Norman and they are making an obvious attempt to be the Oklahoma of the AAC. Their run game is very heavy on GT counter, which they run from a variety of formations with pass options attached, such as this play which caught SMU several times in 2019.

Houston nub GT vs SMU.jpg

Holgorsen’s offensive designs largely revolve around using the run game, increasingly a power run game, to create opportunities to light up the scoreboard with RPO and play-action passes to receivers running behind the defense.

The Cougars have three seniors across the interior O-line back for 2020 as well as redshirt sophomore Jack Freeman who started seven games at center in 2019. With any injury luck, Houston will be in much better shape to execute the main vision of the offense. From there, it’s a matter of whether they have enough athletes in the space force to put them over the top in a tough AAC West that includes their rivals SMU coached by Sonny Dykes and Lincoln Riley’s younger brother.

Houston's space force in 2020

This wasn’t the issue on offense in 2019. Left tackle featured the aforementioned 3rd round draft pick Josh Jones while the Cougar receiving room was lead by the explosive Marquez Stevenson, who had 52 catches for 907 yards and nine touchdowns.

Stevenson is an absolute blur who regularly turned quick hitch routes and screens into long gains and could win deep balls against man coverage. The 6-0, 190 pounder is a freak athlete who is virtually impossible to handle in space. The Cougars targeted him heavily but also used him as a decoy to generate 1-on-1 matchups for other receivers or to misdirect defenders before throwing tunnel and slip screens to other skill players. Houston has a few other options around him that could step up in a major way in 2020, including water bug JUCO Nathaniel Dell.

At left tackle Houston got a head start at the end of 2019 when Jones went down and they were able to plug in his replacement Patrick Paul without burning his redshirt. The 6-7, 330 pounder is now a redshirt freshman. Paul moves well for his size and showed a nice aptitude for lead blocking on GT counter behind the reliable pulls of left guard Keenan Murphy. Houston will probably feel safer when Paul is more experienced but the talent is there.

On defense things are solid, not outstanding. Former Kansas JUCO player Damarrion Williams returns at one corner spot after finishing second on the team in tackles in 2019. Lockdown corners don’t typically finish so high on your team in tackles (he had 73) and it's not always a good sign when the corner is regularly the one bringing down the ballcarrier. As mentioned above though, the Cougars also now have Marcus Jones from Troy. Jones is a 5-9, 174 pound spark plug that was a star in the return game and has the speed to press and stick on receivers in man coverage.

The pass rush will rely on jack linebacker David Anenih, a 6-3, 237 pounder who had five sacks in 2019. He has some burst but isn’t a proven stud. On the bright side though is the fact that he’ll play next to DT Patrick Turner, a 6-6, 288 pound senior who had 3.5 sacks in 2019. If they can up their capacity for sending stunts and twists with those two then Houston may be in business up front with their edge-rush.

The AAC's schedule and upcoming season are certainly a touch tumultuous, but that doesn't necessarily work at cross purposes with Dana Holgorsen's vision for the program. A successful 2020 in Houston would mean a winning record, showing up in the big games against conference contenders, and gaining valuable experience for players like Patrick Paul and the other young athletes that Holgorsen is trying to load into the chamber.

Should they start to establish a proof of concept and normal Houston Cougar rhythm of fielding an explosive offense like they did under Art Briles and Dana Holgorsen in previous years, they'll be happy. The bigger long-term problem isn't a COVID-hampered season, but the emergence of SMU as another in-state football program that is successfully channeling Texas high school skill players into a lethal spread offense.

The SMU-Houston showdown of 2020 should be fascinating but Holgorsen was always playing the long game anyways. If they have an excuse to put off defeating the Mustangs until Shane Buechele has graduated, so much the better.
 
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