The COVID-19 shutdown separated Dana Holgorsen from his beloved whiteboard and the player magnets he would move up and down the depth chart like Don Corleone, the cinematic Godfather, shuffled the politicians he kept like nickels and dimes in his pocket.
Holgorsen had only laptop and paper at his disposal this spring as he puttered in the kitchen and took long walks around Hermann Park while contemplating an exceedingly fluid University of Houston roster that includes 25 holdovers, 31 players who redshirted during last year’s tumultuous 4-8 campaign and 27 new signees.
He also hopes to add four transfers — a running back, receiver and a lineman on each side of the ball — before the Cougars resume practice for this most uncertain of seasons.
As he prepared lunch in late April, Holgorsen acknowledged that with players scattered, there’s only so much one can do with Zoom meetings and home practice assignments to shape a roster that had just eight spring practice sessions before the shutdown.
“I think some teams are overdoing the Zoom meetings,” he said. “You can have virtual team meetings and make kids watch video and talk ball, but I don’t know how you hold their attention. We just try to make sure they’re eating healthy and that their family is OK.”
Holgorsen began last season dissatisfied with the Cougars’ schedule, which started with four games in 18 days and included two more short weeks, and, with the composition of UH’s roster, owing to what he said was the failure of past coaches to judiciously apportion redshirts.
The redshirt issue is now managed, albeit after a controversial period in which quarterback D’Eriq King redshirted (and left after the season for Miami), as the losses mounted. King was joined by running back Mulbah Car and lineman Braylon Jones in sitting out after they hit the four-game redshirt limit, but both return.
The schedule is better, too. UH faces tough trips to Washington State, Memphis, BYU, Navy and Cincinnati, but there are no short weeks.
“We’re not screwed from the get-go this time,” he said. “I guess all my calls to the commissioner and the league office and the powers that be at UH were heard. Distance is an issue for some games, but we have a favorable home schedule.”
Holgorsen also anticipates a post-COVID-19 world in which players who left Houston for far-flung locations might not return once their respective schools reopen. He thinks UH’s general student population will increase, and he thinks the Cougars’ recruiting prospects will improve.
“There are a lot of kids here (during the spring) who don’t know if they want to go back,” he said. “I think that will happen a lot around the country, and with the regular students. Some will see that it is financially beneficial for them to stay here.
“This city is going to survive, and we will get past this. But it will change things.”
The Cougars return 10 starters on offense, losing only NFL Draft pick Josh Jones at tackle, and 10 of 11 on defense, albeit with nickel back Grant Stuard moving to linebacker to make way for JoVanni Stewart, a graduate transfer from Katy who played for Holgorsen at West Virginia.
“This is a completely different deal,” the coach said. “We only graduated 12, and two of them started plus our punter. We have capable bodies, and that creates competition.
“Guys are fighting for positions and scholarships, and my message to the team through this pandemic is that when we come back, we’re going to know what they’ve been doing and that a lot of positions are up for grabs.”
One that isn’t up for grabs, barring the unexpected, is quarterback, where Clayton Tune took over for King last year and started seven games.
Holgorsen was not without critics in the wake of King’s redshirt decision and departure, and he acknowledged that coaches walk a fine line in dealing with quarterbacks.
“The quarterback position is a delicate one,” he said. “You’ve got to treat them differently. I managed things last season as best I could. He (King) was distraught, and (his departure) was the best thing for him and the team. It happens at every school.”
When the season starts, it will be Tune’s team, and he welcomes back a well-staffed group of receivers led by Marquez Stevenson. Lineman Payton Turner and Stuard are sure things on defense.
Another sure thing, Holgorsen said, is that every freshman will redshirt if all goes to plan.
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