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Houston Cougars Preview: Can Willie Fritz Succeed in Year 1?

Willie Fritz
© Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Houston Cougars had a tough outing in their first year of the Big 12 Conference, going 4-8 overall with a paltry 2-7 conference record. This led to the firing of coach Dana Holgorsen and the hiring of former Tulane Green Wave coach and back-to-back American Athletic Conference champion Willie Fritz in December 2023.

Fritz holds a 208-116 record in his college coaching career, going 97-47 with Tulane. It marks him as the winningest coach in the program's history. Fritz faces a new challenge, though. It's one that he's never really had to face in his coaching career. That would be rebuilding and maintaining a Power Four school.

Thankfully, this won't be from the ground up. Houston has veteran experience returning in 59 percent of its offensive production and 63 percent of their defensive production. Houston also brings in 28 transfers via the portal (No. 33 ranked in the nation) and 17 class of 2024 recruits. This adds up to the No. 52 overall class in the nation via Let's take a deeper dive into what exactly coach Fritz will be working with in his first year on the job.

Cougar Offense: The Big 'If' of the O-Line

The Cougar offense may surprise a few folks if they can rebuild their offensive line, which lost four out of five starters this past year. As of now, the starting group is fairly interchangeable. They include returners David Ndukwe, Cayden Bowie, Demetrius Hunter, Tank Jenkins and Shamar Hobdy-Lee. But they will be battling it out with newcomers Jake Wiley, Dakota White, Sam Secrest and Cedric Melton. The only solidified starter is Tank Jenkins, who is an incumbent starter. The rest of the positions are up for grabs.

What does remain, though, is the consistency at quarterback. Veteran Donovan Smith returns as the team's signal-caller, who led the team in overall offensive production last year. He was the team's leading rusher (428 yards, 6 touchdowns) and leading passer (2,801 yards, 22 touchdowns). Smith even caught a pass for a score off of a 28-yard trick play.

Smith will have a fairly experienced receiving corps with the underrated duo Joseph Manjack IV and Stephon Johnson back. This also includes the addition of an experienced transfer in former Michigan State Spartan tight end Maliq Carr. True freshman receiver Jayshon Rigdle should also make a positive impact, making the 247Sports Top 100 Impact True Freshmen list.

Smith will be the guy to lean on once again for offensive production coming into this year. He might actually find himself among the best Big 12 quarterbacks this season if he isn't running for his life constantly. Also, can he get the ball to these playmakers he has experience and trust with? Fritz has had great success developing quarterbacks into their best, with Smith potentially being the next one.

Smith should have some help in the backfield this season. Parker Jenkins and Stacy Sneed are coming into their own as a tandem running back group. The two combined for 746 yards and 4 touchdowns last year in what was their first meaningful playtime. If a serviceable offensive line can be put together, then this is a backfield that could surprise folks with the Smith-Jenkins-Sneed trio.

The big question, though, is if the Cougars can replace the offensive line. While they have the pieces to do so, Fritz and second-year offensive line coach Eman Naghavi will have their work cut out for them. They will be trying to put together a unit with enough chemistry and talent to give this offense time to work. This is a major hurdle for Houston, but it certainly isn't their only one to overcome for a breakout season.

Cougar Defense: Will the Transfers Do Enough?

The Cougar defense was bad last season—really bad. The 2023 secondary allowed 255.3 yards per game, putting them No. 114 in the FBS. The run defense wasn't much better, allowing 168.6 yards per game, No. 98 in the FBS. Overall, the total defense for Houston ranked out to No. 112 in the FBS, allowing 423.9 yards per game.

Something needed to be done. So far, Fritz and the Houston coaching staff have been hard at work. They are trying to find the solution in the transfer portal and in high school recruiting. Six new defensive backs have been added along with seven starting-caliber transfers along the front seven. Returning linebacker Jamal Morris and safety AJ Haulcy will be the leaders of this inexperienced, transfer-heavy group. The big question is where all these transfers will fit in and how big of an impact they will make.

Starting with the transfers in the secondary, former Auburn Tiger cornerback JD Rhym will bring Southeastern Conference-level experience to a secondary in major need of it. The four-star transfer racked up 20 total tackles, 1 pass deflection and 1 interception in two years with the Tigers. His reach, ball skills and quick feet are skills to note. He will hopefully develop into a great boundary corner for the Cougars.

Former West Virginia Mountaineer safety Hershey McLaurin is another name to look out for in the Cougar secondary. The incoming senior had 44 total tackles, half a sack and 3 pass deflections last year. He was fairly productive for the Mountaineers as a rotational defensive back. AJ Haulcy should pair well with the tackle-hungry safety with an eye for the ball playing alongside him.

For the front seven, it seems like rotational units will be the name of the game for the Cougar pass rush. Three names to note here, though, are linebacker Kendre Gant, EDGE Gabe Peterson and defensive lineman Keith Cooper Jr. All three excelled in the pass rush last year with the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, New Mexico State Aggies and Tulane, respectively. While that is at the Group of 5 level, looking at the numbers it's easy to see why they were getting Power Four offers when they entered the portal.

Keith Cooper Jr.
© Matthew Hinton/USA TODAY SPORTS

Gant racked up 64 tackles, 6 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in 2023. Peterson amassed 55 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Cooper was the productive man in the middle for Fritz last year, amassing 32 total tackles and 5 sacks.

Names like former Central Michigan Chippewa Quindario Lee (3 sacks, 28 total tackles) also stick out. Also, fellow ULM transfer Michael Batton was the leading linebacker for the Warhawks, totaling a whopping 80 tackles in 2023. Overall, it seems like the Cougar front seven has a lot of underrated talent with a ton of potential. It's just a matter of putting it all together into a force to be reckoned with. This could be a very dangerous group when all is said and done.

Cougars Rebuilding

There are a lot of "ifs" when it comes to Houston football this season. Should those "ifs" get resolved, Houston can certainly have a better season than what preseason polls are predicting. It will be tough, though, with a first-year Power Four coach, a lot of new faces and a stacked conference in front of them.

Houston currently has an ESPN Football Power Index of -2.7, ranking them No. 78 in the FBS. They also have the second toughest schedule in the Big 12 behind Arizona State. Fritz and company certainly have an uphill battle. But given Fritz's success at Tulane, as well as a solid transfer class, a donor base that has bought in, and a younger roster, they are giving themselves every opportunity to at least sniff success. It may be a couple of years, but Houston will get back to conference contention should they continue to build at the rate they are building.

This year, expectations aren't high, so testing what works and what doesn't work will be the name of the game. If things go better than anticipated, then it will be a nice surprise. If not, then Fritz can easily go back to the drawing board and improve without seeing recruitment and development slip too hard. Houston likely won't shock anyone.

To answer the titular question, "success" will likely be defined by whether Fritz can get this team over its projected win total of four. This is something that could end up being a tall task in a very competitive conference. With Fritz at the helm, though, there is some semblance of excitement in the air and hope that progress can be achieved in the second year of being in the Big 12.

Catch more Houston and Big 12 football news here at College Football Dawgs.


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