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New Era of Houston Football Begins with Fritz, Smith

New Era of Houston Football
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The Houston Cougars began a new chapter for their athletic programs as they joined the Big 12 Conference last July. This year, another new era of Houston football begins with coach Willie Fritz taking the helm.

Fritz takes over for Dana Holgorsen, who spent five years leading the Cougars but went 4-8 in the team's debut season in its new conference.

Fritz's Homecoming

The job change is a homecoming of sorts for Fritz. He spent a large chunk of his career in coaching positions throughout Texas, including stints in the high school ranks and at Sam Houston State and Blinn Junior College. He also has family living in the Houston area, which was a significant factor in his decision.

"I was not actively looking for a job or anything, but another part of it was my two daughters were already living in Houston," he told ESPN during a televised interview at Big 12 Media Days on Wednesday. "...It just was a win-win for my wife and I. I'm just really proud to be the head coach here."

New Era of Houston Football
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Fritz also grew up in Big 12 country in Shawnee Mission, Kans., just outside of Kansas City, about 118 miles from fellow Big 12 foe Kansas State and about 38 miles from the University of Kansas. The 64-year-old will get one trip home this season as Houston travels to Kansas on Oct. 19.

"It'll be fun," Fritz said of returning to his home state. "I don't know how many people have requested tickets for when we go up there and play. I'm sure that'll be a busy weekend for my wife—doling out all the tickets."

There's also a little sense of destiny that's not lost on the coach.

"I went to Shawnee Mission Northwest [High School], who were nicknamed the Cougars," he added, "so I guess it was meant to be."

Returning Experience

The Houston football team has a severe shortage of players returning from last year's team, including just one offensive lineman and two defensive players. Despite all the turnover, Fritz eyes a quick turnaround for the program.

"We need to get it going quickly," he explained. "I told our guys we don't have three years to build culture. We've got to do it now. They've got to trust me. I've got to trust them."

However, there is one player in particular who Fritz will rely on immensely: senior quarterback Donovan Smith.

New Era of Houston Football
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"Unbelievable leader. Big, tall guy. Great speed, great movement," Fritz told College Football Dawgs of Smith. "A true dual-threat quarterback. His father is a running backs coach for the Colts. Just a born and bred football player."

Emergence of Donovan Smith

Smith is entering his second year as the Cougars' starting quarterback and was their most exciting player last season.

New Era of Houston Football
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While he was a three-star prospect out of high school, coaches always thought Smith had a high ceiling. He spent three years at Texas Tech and was part of the Red Raiders' constant quarterback shuffle, largely due to injuries. He transferred to Houston before last season, where he seems to have finally found a home as a starter.

He threw for 2,801 yards and 22 touchdowns while adding a mobile element not often seen from Hosuton signal-callers that made him even more dangerous to opposing defenses. Smith came up big in some games with high stakes, most notably keeping Houston in the game against playoff-bound Texas with a season-best 378 passing yards and 3 touchdown passes.

His raw skill was apparent, and the new staff will try to help him maximize his potential.

Offensive Firepower

With the lack of returning players on both sides of the ball, Fritz had to turn to the transfer portal to shape his roster in a hurry. He likes what he's added, particularly on offense.

"When I got to Houston, they only had six guys that were committed—high school kids," he told ESPN. "So I had to jump in the portal, and we're very fortunate that we got a bunch of guys that are going to be able to start for us or play a lot on the offensive line, receivers. A good running back we have is Parker Jenkins. I think he's going to be one of the top running backs in the Big 12. We've got some weapons on the offensive side of the ball."

Houston Football Advantages

While the portal was the main recruiting outlet this offseason, don't expect Houston to ignore the high school talent in its own backyard. After all, Texas has the best high school football in the entire country.

"It's just such a fertile recruiting ground, and I didn't have that at Tulane," Fritz explained to ESPN. "...That's what I think allows Houston to build itself into a powerhouse."

Fritz has even worked that mentality into shaping his coaching staff.

"I've got eight guys on the staff who coached high school football in the state of Texas, myself included," he added. " I think that's important. When you go around to these different high schools, it's a cult. They do not think they play football any place else in the country, and I wanted guys with that kind of experience."

Will Fritz's approach translate to success in the Big 12? Only time will tell. Just don't tell him that.


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