How Dana Holgorsen's vision for UH paid off — and what's ahead – Houston Chronicle

Dana Holgorsen had a vision, even when others could not see it, for UH football.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Dana Holgorsen had a vision, even when others could not see it.
The reconstruction of the University of Houston football program wasn’t going to happen in one season. Maybe not even two. The bar was set four years prior to Holgorsen’s arrival with a 13-win season that included a New Year’s Six bowl victory. In college football that might as well have been an eternity ago.
The roster needed an infusion of talent. Stability was needed on the coaching staff, which for years had become a revolving door of comings and goings on Cullen Boulevard.
A few wins along the way would not hurt. That didn’t happen during back-to-back losing seasons. A season opening loss to Texas Tech — after blowing a double-digit lead — did not help to ease concerns.
What happened next, 11 consecutive wins in a nearly three-month run of perfection to the American Athletic Conference championship game, paved the way for one of the best seasons in the program’s 75-year history.
“We’re on track to do something special,” Holgorsen said after the Cougars beat Auburn 17-13 in Tuesday’s TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl to wrap up a 12-2 season. “Now we can propel it into next year.”
Holgorsen points to Cincinnati as the blueprint for where the Cougars want to go. In Year 3 in 2019 under coach Luke Fickell, Cincinnati lost to Memphis in the 2019 AAC championship game. Just like UH did against Cincinnati. To finish the season, Cincinnati beat Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl.
Just like Houston.
“They came here to Birmingham, won their bowl and are 22-1 since,” Holgorsen said of the fourth-ranked Bearcats, who this season became the first Group of Five school to qualify for the College Football Playoff and will play top-ranked Alabama in one national semifinal on Friday in Arlington. “So I expect our team to go 22-1 the next two years.”
Holgorsen quickly told the audience in his postgame news conference that he was joking. But why not aim high? After Cincinnati, UH is arguably one of the top football programs among the Group of Five. And in less than two years the Cougars will shed the G5 tag and join the Big 12, a membership that comes with a boost in revenue, visibility and, not to mention, a fair shot at the playoff.
Until 2023, the earliest UH will join its new league, this year’s 12-win season — the second most in school history behind 13-1 teams in 2011 and 2015 — will serve as a springboard into next season. Nothing resonates more in recruiting that the chance to play for championships and in a major conference. UH can offer that.
“This kind of proves where our program is at,” Holgorsen said after beating Auburn in the SEC’s backyard. “I felt we had a really good year and made a lot of strides, and we did. I think this will help with recruiting and help with a lot of things.”
Like any year, the Cougars will need to overcome the loss of at least 10 starters, among them All-America kick returner/cornerback Marcus Jones, defensive tackle Logan Hall, cornerback Damarion Williams, defensive end David Anenih, linebacker Deontay Anderson and kicker Dalton Witherspoon. Six starters must be replaced on defense, which will finish top-10 in total defense under Doug Belk. Jones and Hall are expected to be early picks in the NFL draft.
The most pressing needs this offseason — through the February signing period and transfer portal — will be on the offensive line and at wide receiver. Three starters (center Kody Russey, right tackle Dennis Bardwell and left guard Keenan Murphy) must be replaced from an offensive line that remarkably had the same starting rotation for all 14 games. Receiver could still use some depth — Brice Johnson will join the roster after transferring from Mississippi — along with another deep threat that can line up opposite Nathaniel Dell, who finished with 90 catches for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns,
Clayton Tune will return for his third full season as starter after a career year that produced 3,544 yards with 30 touchdowns and a 68.3-percent completion percentage. Holgorsen will need to shop for a quarterback this offseason with the transfers of young quarterbacks Maddox Kopp and Sofian Massoud and Tune entering his final season.
Houston quarterback Clayton Tune looks to throw a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Memphis, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
UH’s backfield is set with Alton McCaskill and TaZhawn Henry, who accounted for nearly 60 percent of the carries. In his first college season, McCaskill had 961 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns and was named the AAC’s rookie of the year. Henry had 524 yards and seven touchdowns to give the Cougars a solid 1-2 punch.
Five of the top six receivers will return, led by Dell, tight end Christian Trahan, Jeremy Singleton and KeSean Carter. Carter started eight games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Klein Cain’s Matthew Golden, one of the Cougars’ top signees in the modern recruiting era, will enroll in January and is likely to see playing time from Day 1.
On the offensive line, left tackle Patrick Paul and right guard Tank Jenkins are the only starters back. West Orange-Stark’s Demetrius Hunter, a 6-2, 300-pounder who had multiple Power Five offers, will compete for the starting center job as a true freshman, Holgorsen said.
Defensively, the Cougars must replace both cornerbacks, with Alex Hogan, Art Green and Moses Alexander, a highly rated signee from Kilgore College, expected to get first shot at the vacant jobs. “Sack Avenue,” UH’s defensive line that played at an elite level this season, will have big shoes to fill with the loss of Hall and Anenih. But defensive line is the deepest position on the roster, with Derek Parish (5.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss), D’Anthony Jones (seven sacks), Latrell Bankston, Chidozie Nwankwo, Nelson Ceaser, Sedrick Williams, Atlias Bell among those expected back.
Linebacker Donavan Mutin, a team captain and leading tackler, said recently he is leaning toward using his bonus year of eligibility and coming back next season.
Mutin said the Cougars have shown what direction the program is heading. The next challenge is continuing the momentum. It all begins in the Sept. 3, 2022, season opener at UTSA.
“Before we were trying to establish a culture, to get guys to believe in what we were doing,” Mutin said. “This year the things we were talking and preaching and working hard in the offseason for came to fruition. Young guys saw what we were talking about is true, that those things actually equal wins and actually equal you being dominant and being set apart in the country and in the conference.
“Now that guys see that and see that it is real, we are going to have a bigger platform to stand on and elevate from that because everyone understands it’s not just a culture we are trying to put in place. We’ve already put it in place. Now it’s just time to keep it going forward.”
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Joseph Duarte has been a sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle since August 1996. He currently covers college athletics, focusing on the University of Houston. Previously, he wrote about the Houston Astros from 1998-2002, Houston Texans from 2002-05 and the Texas Longhorns from 2005-09. He came to the Houston Chronicle as part of an internship through the Sports Journalism Institute in 1995.