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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Football

Previewing UH football’s season opener against UTSA


Senior quarterback Clayton Tune and the UH football program have high expectations 2022, including winning the AAC and New Year’s Six bowl. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

Senior quarterback Clayton Tune and the UH football program have high expectations 2022, including winning the AAC and New Year’s Six bowl. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

Aug. 29, 2014, the night of the inaugural game at TDECU Stadium, was supposed to be a magical Friday for UH football.

More than 40,000 fans dressed in red packed TDECU Stadium expecting a UH victory — and for good reason as the Cougars were favored to beat the Roadrunners by double-digits. 

UTSA had other plans and spoiled the opening of TDECU Stadium by steamrolling UH on its way to a 27-7 victory.

Even though he was at West Virginia at that time, UH head football coach Dana Holgorsen remembers what happened to UH on that August night eight years ago as he prepares the 24th-ranked Cougars for their season opener against UTSA on Sept. 3 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

“We need to make up for what happened here when we opened up the stadium,” Holgorsen told Cougar Pride members during a kickoff event when asked about UH’s season opener against UTSA.

A look at UTSA

The Roadrunners enter 2022 coming off their best season in program history. In the second year with Jeff Traylor at the helm, UTSA won a program-record 12 games, including winning its first 11 games of 2021, on its way to a Conference USA championship and Frisco Bowl appearance.

Expectations for UTSA in 2022 are higher than ever. The Roadrunners return many key starters from 2021 and are expected to repeat as Conference USA champions this season.

Offense

Sixth-year senior Frank Harris is once again back under center for the Roadrunners. Harris is coming off a historic 2021 season in which he set the UTSA single-season record for passing yards (3,177), completions (398), completion percentage (.661) and passing touchdowns (27). The UTSA quarterback also rushed for 566 yards and six touchdowns, both of which were good for second on the team.

Harris’ three favorite targets from last season, Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus and De’Corian Clark, are all back and will be the focal point of the Roadrunners’ offense. The trio combined to catch 204 passes for 2,601 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2021. Oscar Cardenas, UTSA’s top tight end from a year ago, is also back.

Running back is the biggest question mark for the UTSA offense with Sincere McCormick, a two-time All-American and back-to-back Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, gone.

Senior running back Brenden Brady, who finished third on the team with 308 rushing yards and four touchdowns a season ago, and Arkansas transfer Trelon Smith will likely split time as the Roadrunners’ featured backs.

I know we got great receivers but we’re committed to running the football as well,” Traylor said.

Upfront, UTSA returns four of its five offensive linemen with left tackle being the only position up for grabs. 

Defense

Unlike the offense, the UTSA defense had to replace a bunch of starters from last season.

UTSA was among the elite defenses in college football at stopping the run in 2021, ranking 14th in the country in run defense.

Starting defensive linemen Lorenzo Dantzler and Jaylon Haynes, who combined 43 tackles, including three sacks and played a huge role in the Roadrunners’ success against the run last season, are gone. Returners like Lamonte McDougle, Christian Clayton and Brandon Brown along with LSU transfer Joe Evans and North Carolina State transfer Nick Booker-Brown are expected to mix and match to fill these holes.

At defensive end, seniors Trumane Bell II, who finished second on the team with five sacks a season ago, and Brandon Matterson along with junior Asyrus Simon are back and provide the group with experience. 

Both of the Roadrunners’ starting outside linebackers, Clarence Hicks and Charles Wiley are also gone. Hicks set the UTSA single-season sack record with 10.5 in 2021. Wiley recorded 3.5 sacks. Senior Dadrian Taylor, who spent most of his previous four seasons with UTSA as a defensive back, will fill one of the open spots. The other spot will likely be shared between redshirt sophomore Jimmori Robinson and redshirt freshmen Trey Moore and Caleb Lewis, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

On the inside, both starting linebackers from last season in Jamal Ligon and Trevor Harmanson return. Ligon and Harmanson combined for 120 tackles in 2021.

While defending the run was a major strength for the UTSA defense last season, defending the pass was a different story.

UTSA was susceptible to giving up plenty of big plays through the air, ranking 121st in the nation in plays of 30 or more yards allowed.

The Roadrunners’ secondary is led by two-time first-team All-Conference USA safety Rashad Wisdom. Wisdom was picked as the conference’s preseason defensive player of the year.

Redshirt senior safeties Kelechi Nwachuku, who had 32 total tackles in 2021, and Clifford Chapman, who recorded 18 tackles last season, join Wisdom as some of the key returners at the position.

Junior Ken Robinson, who has primarily played corner for the Roadrunners, moved to safety over the offseason. UTSA also added LSU transfer Pig Cage to the group.

At cornerback, senior Corey Mayfield Jr, who recorded 37 tackles and two interceptions a season ago, returns as the leader of the group.

The Roadrunners beefed up the cornerback room by adding three transfers in Nicktroy Fortune (West Virginia), Tony Wallace (TCU) and Zah Frazier (Coffeyville Community College) in hopes of improving against the pass. 

Junior Dyman Griffin, a former receiver, has also made some noise with his progression as a cornerback over the offseason and could see the field more this season.

Key questions for UH entering the season

Which of Clayton Tune’s new weapons will step up?

Last season, the UH receiving corps was a one-trick pony for the majority of the year.

Whenever a big play was needed, UH quarterback Clayton Tune looked for Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. Dell accounted for over a third of the Cougars’ receiving yards in 2021, finishing the year with 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns on 90 receptions.

While Dell will still be Tune’s go-to guy in 2022, UH can’t afford to solely rely on the 5-foot-10-inch receiver to provide all the fireworks if they are to achieve its goal of winning the American Athletic Conference and winning a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Holgorsen and his staff addressed this issue in the offseason, bringing in tons of depth to the position through the transfer portal in Sam Brown (West Virginia), Cody Jackson (Oklahoma), Brice Johnson (Ole Miss) and Joseph Manjack (USC).

Add in a four-star freshman in Matthew Golden, who had 1,416 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Klein Cain, a healthy KeSean Carter and the team’s top tight-end from last year in Christian Trahan and depth and better production from the receivers room should not be an issue for the Cougars.

“It’s amazing what a year does for that room,” Holgorsen said. “We got some bodes to choose from … I think we’re a pretty solid two-deep right now at receiver.”

The only question is how does Holgorsen mix and match all these receivers and will one or two of them establish themselves as true second and third options for Tune?

If the Cougars get the production they expect from their receivers room, it will allow Dell to line up in the slot, where he is most effective, more often which would elevate the UH air attack to the next level.

Will a new-look UH offensive line hold up?

After having a consistent starting five upfront all of last season, the UH offensive line returns only two starters in 2022 — left tackle Patrick Paul and right guard Tank Jenkins.

Jack Freeman, who has played in 28 games in his time at UH, had an impressive spring according to the UH coaching staff and will start at center for the Cougars.

Cam’Ron Johnson, who played in 13 games at left guard for the Cougars a season ago, will likely start in that same position.

The big question is the right tackle position, which Holgorsen said he and his staff were paying close attention to during fall camp. Junior Reuben Unije, who played in eight games in his first two years at UH, is listed at the top of the depth chart at right tackle entering week one with Middle Tennessee transfer Lance Robinson behind him, but a decision on who the starter will be Week 1 is still up in the air, Holgorsen said.

“It’s still an ongoing battle at right tackle,” Holgorsen said. “Probably whoever has the better week (between Unije and Robinson) will start at right tackle and then we’ll just kind of rotate them and see who plays together.”

Whoever the starting five end up being, consistency upfront among that group is key as a different offensive line nearly every game during Holgorsen’s first two seasons at UH plagued the Cougars’ offense.

What about the secondary?

Losing the talent of Marcus Jones and Damarion William, a cornerback duo that combined for 111 tackles, 22 pass breakups and six interceptions, is a big blow to the UH secondary.

On the positive side, Art Green, Alex Hogan and Jayce Rogers, who primarily plays nickelback, have plenty of experience playing cornerback at the collegiate level.

The challenge is finding depth at the position as the Cougars like to mix and match packages, rotating a bunch of guys in.

Defensively, we’re still working on the whole corner thing right now,” Holgorsen said. We got Art Green and Alex Hogan, … but we need the next corner and the next corner to step up in order for us to play like we want to play.

Moses Alexander, Justice Ugo and Abdul-Lateef Audu, three high-ranked JUCO transfers, redshirt freshmen Jalen Emery and Mark Wilson along with redshirt sophomore Demarcus Griffin-Taylor are guys that could provide cornerback depth for UH.

The question is can the group maintain or even exceed the level of play of Jones and Williams that helped elevate Doug Belk’s defense to an elite level in 2021 or will pass defense become an issue for the Cougars in 2022?

The answer should be evident early on as the Cougars open up facing an elite trio of UTSA receivers.

Can the Cougars get production from their special teams?

Last season, Jones took the country by storm by doing things no one has ever seen in the return game.

Lead the country in average yards per kickoff return and top three in kick return touchdowns. Check

First in college football in punt return touchdowns and top four in average yards per punt return. Check.

Walk-off winning kickoff return to knock off No. 19 SMU. Check

Win the 2021 Paul Hornung Award, which is given to college football’s most versatile player. Check.

Jones’ production on special teams was game-changing and UH likely doesn’t win 12 games without it.

Holgorsen said there is no replacing Jones because he is at an entirely different level as a returner than anyone else he has ever coached.

(Jones) is a special football player,” he said. You can’t replace a guy like that.

The good news for UH is it has a couple of athletes who are extremely dangerous in space in Dell, who will handle punt returns, and Golden, who will serve as the Cougars’ primary kick returner.

Dell and Golden won’t be expected to replicate Jones’ production but they will need to not turn the ball over and gain net positive yards to set the UH offense up with the best field position possible.

Taking a couple to the house wouldn’t hurt either as breaking one loose here and there could be the difference between a Cougars’ win or loss.

How does UH match up with UTSA?

UH is the better team on paper and should win the game, but season openers have not been friendly to Holgorsen, who has gone 1-2 in openers during his first three seasons at UH.

UTSA’s trio of receivers will immediately test the UH secondary and could make for a long afternoon for the Cougars if they don’t bring their A-game.

The battle in the trenches between the veteran UTSA offensive line and Sack Avenue, the UH defensive line that was among the nation’s sack leaders in 2021 and believes they will be even better this year, will be one of the deciding factors of who wins.

Offensively, expect UH to test the UTSA secondary early and often to see if the Roadrunners’ pass defense has truly improved. Dell and company could have a field day if the UTSA secondary displays similar issues to last season.

Holgorsen said he wants his offense to keep its run-first philosophy so expect a heavy dose of Ta’Zhawn Henry on the ground early on to open up things through the air for the Cougars.

How to watch

Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 3 and will be televised on CBS Sports Network. It can also be heard via radio on KPRC 950 AM.

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