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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Football

‘Time to carry our weight’: UH football expects turnaround in 2021


Junior wide receiver Bryson Smith runs with the ball in the open field during a 2021 UH football spring practice. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Junior wide receiver Bryson Smith runs with the ball in the open field during a 2021 UH football spring practice. | Courtesy of UH athletics

From pee wee football to Friday night under the lights, football is indoctrinated into almost every Texan at a young age— and there is no place where football is more prominent than Houston.

Houston has not only established itself as the football capital of Texas, but has become the biggest hotspot for elite football players in the entire United States.

In 2020, Houston produced more hometown NFL players, 24, than any city in the U.S. and that number is growing as seven Houstonians were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft and several more signed with various franchises as undrafted free agents.

Despite all this talent brewing in the UH football program’s backyard, the Cougars have failed to put a product on the field in recent years that fans and the city can get excited about and truly rally around.

After being nationally relevant in the mid-2010s which was highlighted by beating No. 9 Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl, a double-digit 2016 season-opening victory over No. 3 Oklahoma and absolutely demolishing Lamar Jackson and No. 3 Louisville, the UH football program has fallen out of the eyesight of college football fans everywhere— especially within its own city.

Since Dana Holgorsen took over the program in 2019, the Cougars have gone 7-13, being outscored by a total of 182 points in the losses.

As a result, the amount of hype and excitement surrounding the program has taken a major dip in recent years and it is evident on gamedays as the empty seats in TDECU Stadium often outnumber the seats with actual fans sitting in them.

Everyone within the UH football program knows that the team’s performance has been unacceptable, especially with the success the University’s other athletic programs are having.

The men’s basketball program has cemented itself as the winningest NCAA Division 1 program since the 2015-2016 season including a 2021 Final Four appearance. The women’s swimming and diving team has dominated the American Athletic Conference, winning five straight conference championships. The track and field team produces some of the sport’s best athletes in the country and is consistently in contention for a national title.

While these and other UH athletic programs have produced conference titles, various individual accolades and postseason appearances, what has the football program contributed?

Absolutely nothing and Holgorsen is the first one to admit it.

“What everybody else in the athletic department has been able to accomplish is awesome,” Holgorsen told the media. “We feed off that. We talk about that. We really haven’t done anything since 2015 and that’s talked about a lot within our walls. That’s our motivation to be able to get football to the point to where we have the amount of success (other sports at UH) are having.”

The 2021 season is the perfect opportunity, the team believes, to turn things around and build off of the success of UH’s other athletic programs.

“With swim running tables and basketball making it to the Final Four, I think it’s our time to get a conference championship, go to a nice bowl game, win a nice bowl game and really put on for the conference and our university,” junior defensive lineman Derek Parish said. “It’s definitely our time to carry our weight.”

Getting the program back to where it was in 2015, began in the spring as the Cougars were able to complete their full spring practice schedule after having spring ball cut short in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holgorsen and his coaching staff were extremely pleased with how spring ball went, taking away many positives and things to build on as the 2021 season gets closer.

Many of the Cougars’ upperclassmen, having gone through spring ball before, have an extremely bright outlook on the upcoming season because of how much development had been made in the spring.

“(Having a full spring) has been really beneficial for us,” senior defensive lineman David Anenih said. “Last year our spring got cut in half so this year getting to go through spring ball and have everybody develop has been really beneficial.”

After going through a completely unpredictable 2020 where one game was canceled after another and entire position groups were wiped out for a period of time due to COVID-19 outbreaks, the Cougars should have much more consistency in their schedule which will allow them to establish rhythms and routines, something they desperately missed over the past year and a half.

While the UH football program will not have to face the unprecedented challenges from COVID-19 that made even fielding a team difficult throughout 2020, the Cougars have their fair share of roadblocks ahead of them, particularly carrying over what they do on the practice field into Saturday’s in front of thousands of people on a consistent basis.

It’s the players’ responsibility to go out and execute and the team has taken this challenge head-on, eager to show people why the hype within the UH program after spring practices is legit.

“(2021) is the year we take off,” junior starting quarterback Clayton Tune said. “It’s go time for sure. There’s no more sitting around and waiting.” 

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