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UH football begins spring practice ahead of Big 12 debut

Dana Holgorsen spoke about the team’s outlook Monday before spring practice. | Sean Thomas /The Cougars

With UH football’s inaugural season in the Big 12 Conference just around the corner, head coach Dana Holgorsen spoke with the media Monday to give a look at the team as it begins spring practice.

Quarterback competition

With the departure of four-year starter Clayton Tune, the Cougars have a big opening to fill at the quarterback position. Set to compete for the starting job are sophomore Lucas Coley, who transferred from Arkansas in the spring of 2022, and a new arrival from Texas Tech, junior Donovan Smith.

Holgorsen says it is too early to tell so far who will be the starter come Week 1, but what he wants most from the two signal callers is that they make the job competitive.

“We need those guys to compete, and they are,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

Coaching staff reshuffling

To go along with the question mark at quarterback is the uncertainty of who will take the helm of the Cougars’ offense. Last year’s play-caller, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson, left for the coordinator job at Miami.

However, according to Holgorsen, Dawson’s exit does not change much of anything for UH, considering his own influence on that side of the ball.

“It (Dawson’s departure) doesn’t really affect us at all,” Holgorsen said. “I’ve been involved in the offense… and I will continue to be involved in the offense.”

Filling the vacancy in coaching the quarterbacks will be long-time offensive analyst Mike Burchett, who has spent seven years under Holgorsen in both West Virginia and Houston. Also, taking charge of the run game and offensive line duties is Eman Naghavi, a Katy native who spent last season coaching the linemen at Tulane.

Holgorsen explained that he, Naghavi and Burchett will spend spring practices figuring out a system with the onus ultimately on the head coach to figuring who becomes the main play caller.

“We’re experimenting with things right now from a signaling perspective,” Holgorsen said. “At the end of the day, the buck stops with me… Between me, Burchett, and coach Naghavi, we’re going to get a system in place that’s going to be very successful.”

New year, new faces

Joining the Cougars for the spring are 17 mid-year enrollees looking to give the team a boost heading into its first Big 12 season, seven of which have Power-5 experience.

According to Holgorsen, spring practice is a valuable time to help them get up to speed in an era where new faces are the new normal.

“There’s no such thing as new guys anymore… in the world we live in with the transfer portal,” Holgorsen said. “Having 17 new ones right now is good and it’s exciting. We can coach them, and we can catch them up, and get them to figure out how things are done here.”

The wide receiver room has a couple of new faces as well. Coming in to help replace the production of 2022  national receptions leader and future NFL draftee Tank Dell, are two transfers: junior Joshua Cobbs out of Wyoming and sophomore Stephon Johnson. Also, speedy freshman Ja’Koby Banks is joining the team after graduating high school early.

“It’s hard not to be excited about that group,” Holgorsen said. “We’re excited about coaching the heck out of that group.

Other new arrivals that Holgorsen pointed out during his availability include senior defensive lineman David Ugwoegbu from Oklahoma, sophomore defensive back Adari Haulcy out of New Mexico, and sixth-year senior tight end Mike O’Laughlin, whom Holgorsen recruited at West Virginia.

Even with all the new faces, UH expects to add plenty more players for the summer when the transfer portal opens back up in April.

Injury updates

Among those returning for UH during spring practice are a few players coming back from injury.

Most notable of those recovering from injury is junior running back Alton McCaskill IV, who missed all of the 2022 season after tearing his during spring practices last year. The former American Athletic Conference rookie of the year rushed for 16 touchdowns in 2021, a school record for true freshmen.

Though McCaskill is relatively healthy, Holgorsen stated that the team is staying on the safe side and focused on getting him ready for the fall.

“We’re going to obviously be cautious with him,” Holgorsen said. “The key is to get him a hundred percent for August and get him in a good frame of mind to get him back to where he was a year ago.”

Two players will be sidelined during spring while recovering from shoulder surgeries: sophomore running back Brandon Campbell and sophomore linebacker Treylin Payne.

With the Cougars’ first conference game at home against National Champion runners-up in the TCU Horned Frogs, Holgorsen says these spring practices are the first phase of preparation for the season.

“I’m excited about the challenge that’s ahead of us in the Big 12,” Holgorsen said. “Tomorrow’s step one for 2023.”

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