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Monday, December 4, 2023


UH football: Players to watch in 2023

Fans will get to know many new faces on the UH football team as it enters a new conference. | Courtesy of UH Athletics

UH football’s inaugural season in the Big 12 conference is underway, bringing heightened competition and expectations for head coach Dana Holgorsen’s team.

A lot has changed for the Cougars since their 8-5 final season in the American Athletic Conference. Stars have departed, experienced transfers have entered and much of Houston’s depth chart for the impending season remains a mystery.

Here’s a sneak peak of some of UH’s most promising players.


Uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position in the Third Ward was resolved at the team’s Fan Day on Saturday when head coach Dana Holgorsen declared junior Donovan Smith the “clear-cut starter.” Smith, a transfer from Texas Tech, replaced Clayton Tune as Houston’s QB1.

Sitting behind Smith in the QB room are junior Lucas Coley and sophomore Ui Ale, the latter of whom Holgorsen described as “somebody to keep an eye on” at Saturday’s Fan Day.

Running backs

Excitement for the return of running back Alton McCaskill, a star for the Cougars as a freshman in their 2021 campaign, was foiled by his transfer to Colorado earlier this year.

In spite of the loss, there is confidence among Houston coaches and running backs that the room has depth and versatility entering 2023.

One of Houston’s Big 12-seasoned transfers, junior Tony Mathis Jr., has already made an impact on the team.

“(He has brought) maturity,” running backs coach Mike Jinks said of Mathis. “He has played a lot of football. He’s a tough kid, a serious kid.”

Mathis brings experience to a relatively young Houston running back room. Two of the other standout backs for UH include sophomores Brandon Campbell and Stacy Sneed, both of whom received their first touches last season. All three will hope to make an impact on the field for the Cougars.

“The energy is good,” Campbell said of the running back room. “It’s all light in there. We’re really close, we’re a unit.”

Wide receivers

Star wideout Nathaniel Dell may still be in Houston, but he has departed the Third Ward for NRG Stadium.

The massive hole left behind by Dell has no shortage of pass-catchers vying to pick up the slack, with a combination of experienced transfers and younger faces aiming to make an impact at the position.

In the transfer category, junior Joshua Cobbs joined UH from Wyoming, while sophomore Stephon Johnson came to the team from Oklahoma State. Sophomores Matthew Golden and Samuel Brown headline the list of young returnees hoping to make the leap to the next level in 2023.

“The biggest thing about our group is they’re very coachable,” said Wide Receivers coach Daikiel Shorts. “They work extremely hard and that’s all we really care about right now.”

Tight ends

With four-year starter Christian Trahan gone, the role of starting tight end for UH is wide open.

Junior Logan Compton, Sophomore Matt Byrnes and redshirt freshman Bryan Henry lead the list of returning faces at the tight end position, while the team added senior Mike O’Laughlin via the transfer portal from West Virginia.

Tight ends and inside receivers coach Corby Meekins spoke positively of the tight end room in training camp, shying away from identifying any one or two players who would be starting at the position though praising the experience O’Laughlin brings to the position and room.

Offensive line

Offensive Line Coach Eman Naghavi entered his first season during what he described as his “dream school.” A native of Katy, he said the offensive line was significantly different from how it looked in the spring.

“We’ve brought a lot of new guys in here,” said Naghavi. “We’ve created a lot of depth, and the guys have really taken to the coaching.”

Junior Patrick Paul and senior Jack Freeman, both experienced members of the UH offense, are near-certain starters on the offensive line.

Outside Paul and Freeman, Naghavi signals towards ongoing competition for starting roles.

“A lot of the guys just got here in the beginning of June,” Neghavi said. “We’re still just trying to see these guys mesh together to see how they fit in.”

Defensive line

‘Sack Ave’ is coming to the Big 12. Or at least that’s what head coach Dana Holgorsen seems to think.

Despite several big-name patrons of Sack Ave departing the program, this year’s Houston defensive line aims to pick up where Derek Parish, Logan Hall and company have left their mark over the last several years.

Junior Nelson Ceaser is one of the returnees hoping to step into the spotlight in 2023, alongside transfers David Ugwoegbu and junior Brandon Mack.

Other names fans should watch include junior Chidozie Nwankwo, redshirt freshman Anthony Holmes Jr., and junior Nadame Tucker.


Houston’s linebacker room is led by seniors Trimarcus Cheeks and Malik Robinson, both veterans of the program and familiar names to UH fans. Cheeks enters his second year at UH while Robinson returns from a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2022 season prematurely.

Senior Hasaan Hypolite is also returning for his fourth season with the program, while junior Jamal Morris returns for his second season.

Defensive coordinator Doug Belk spoke highly of Morris during training camp.

“He has developed as a linebacker,” Belk said. “He played safety when he was at Oklahoma. He has gained 15-20 pounds since he has been here.”

Belk also singled out sophomore Treylin Payne, whom he described as one of the team’s most talented players.

Defensive backs

Returning for his third year at UH, senior defensive back Alex Hogan is poised to step into a leading role within the Houston defense after his 2022 season was cut short by a knee injury.

“I kind of took it personally,” Hogan said of his injury. “I was upset that I got hurt, so it feels good to be back and going, playing with my teammates.”

The Houston secondary is bolstered by a handful of veteran transfers including senior Malik Fleming and junior Isaiah Hamilton.

Hamilton, a Houston native and transfer from Texas Southern spoke of the competitiveness within the UH squad.

“At TSU, there’s competition there,” Hamilton said. “But when I came over here, it was like everyone wanted to compete at the same level.”

Other fresh transfers to Houston include senior Brian George and sophomore A.J. Haulcy. In terms of familiar faces, sophomore Jalen Emery senior Noah Guzman are potential impact players to round out the Houston secondary.

Special teams

In terms of kickers, Houston has three names — all new to the program.

Junior Cooper Hamilton is a transfer from Eastern New Mexico, junior Jack Martin is a transfer from Alabama and freshman Joseph Kim is entering his first season of collegiate football from Lawton High School.

Senior Gavin Gately and sophomore Jacob Garza are both likely to see action as Houston’s long snappers.

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