Vegas trips, firetrucks and Texas football legends: The UH offensive line’s 2023 offseason.
Any team that wants to compete at the collegiate level needs to be able to adjust, both on and off the field. This year, UH football will need to be especially quick to adapt as it faces new challenges and hardened competition in the Big 12.
At the center of that equation is the offensive line, the oft-unnoticed heart of any successful team. Tasked with making a team of new and returning players, the Cougars’ O-line has faced its fair share of challenges adapting to changing circumstances.
When quarterback Donovan Smith came to UH from Texas Tech last spring, sixth-year senior center Jack Freeman IV was hesitant to befriend the man he will be sending snaps to in 2023.
“I didn’t really know how I felt about Donovan when he first got here,” Freeman said of Smith, who was recently named starting quarterback by head coach Dana Holgorsen. “I didn’t talk to him for about a month and a half.”
Freeman had spent almost the entirety of his collegiate career snapping to Clayton Tune, the team’s leader and signal-caller for the better part of five years, and was hesitant to start a new relationship with a transfer who beat the Cougars in overtime just last season. However, once the ice was broken with Smith, the pair immediately warmed up to each other.
“We’ve been best friends ever since,” Smith said after a recent practice. “(We’ve been) hanging out every day.”
Smith and members of the O-line took a trip to Smith’s hometown of Las Vegas, even taking in a UFC Fight Night and meeting the promotion’s president Dana White. It was an important chance for the unit to bond during an offseason that was fast-moving and fast-changing.
Since the end of the 2022 season in the Independence Bowl, the Cougars have experienced an unprecedented amount of turnover. 42 new scholarship players came through the squad, and the O-line was caught right in the middle of it. The veteran core of Freeman, Patrick Paul, Tyler Johnson and Tank Jenkins has navigated six new faces on the O-line, a new position coach and a new starting quarterback, all while preparing for a new conference.
“We’ve had to adjust a little bit, having the same O-line coach and quarterback for the past four years,” Paul said. “Going into the spring, we just had to kind of gel and get to know each other.”
A breath of fresh air
Their new coach, Eman Neghavi, also brought a much-needed jolt of energy to the group since being introduced as O-line coach and run game coordinator back in January.
Characterized by Holgorsen as “about as O-line as O-line gets,” Neghavi got his start at Katy High School under Texas high school football legends Mike Johnston and Gary Joseph. After several coaching stops, Neghavi coached an O-line at Tulane that boasted one of the country’s top rushing attacks, even upsetting No. 10 USC in the Cotton Bowl thanks to 305 yards on the ground and four touchdowns.
After returning to where it all began in Katy Texas, Neghavi’s energy has impressed players and fellow coaches alike.
“That’s just the way I am. I don’t like to sit back there,” Neghavi said. “I told them today that I’m in the trenches with them. So when you watch practice, I should be drenched in sweat like these guys.”
When it comes to adapting an O-line to new surroundings, a solid center is key to a smooth transition, Neghavi said.
“The older guys have kind of taken leadership of the room to help it kind of progress,” Neghavi said. “Anytime you got an experienced center, it helps your offense, especially when you have a new quarterback back there.”
Sharpening the tools
Along with building chemistry with new coaches and quarterbacks, the O-line spent the offseason building strength to get ready for the leap in athleticism coming in its new Big 12 opponents. At the head of those efforts was strength and conditioning coach Darl Bauer, who coined the Cougars’ offseason program as the “Warpath.”
“He emphasizes a lot to do with not only dumbbell or barbell strength but sheer physical strength,” said junior guard Tyler Johnson. “So during the offseason, we have a lot of competition where we just go against each other.”
Right before the start of fall camp, Bauer surprised the whole team by bringing a firetruck to campus from the Houston Fire Department.
“It was the last workout we had before fall camp,” Johnson said. “We’re gassed thinking the workout’s over. Then we see a firetruck.”
The team broke into groups of four and took turns pushing the truck to see who could move it 40 yards the fastest.
“The hardest part is the beginning; getting that traction,’ Johnson said. “You have to really look to your left and right and be like, ‘Are these guys on my left and right really going to give it their all as much as I can?”
It was a bonding activity for the entire team, but for offensive linemen like Johnson, it was a harbinger of things to come for the group in 2023. In a big new conference with big new challenges, the O-line will be leading the push for the Cougars.
“We’ve got to put the team on our back, no matter what, whether it’s a game or off the field,” Johnson said. “That’s what being an O-lineman is.”