Clayton Tune used adversity to become state's top signal caller

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A crash never stopped Houston quarterback Clayton Tune from redemption. He’s the son of a Motocross racer. Adversity comes with the territory, so when a four-interception performance against Texas Tech in the 2021 season opener cost the Cougars a 1-0 start, Tune never doubted himself. 

Houston jumped out to a 21-7 halftime lead over Texas Tech in that game with Tune throwing for two touchdowns and running for one in the first half. A pick-six thrown by Tune in the third quarter allowed the Red Raiders to tie the game at 21, and for Tune to learn a valuable lesson about hype and ball security. Houston never scored in the second half as Texas Tech, a future Big 12 foe, won 35-21. 

“We had a lot of hype within our team going into the year because we knew how good we could be, and I kind of bought into that,” Tune said of the performance. “It helped me learn how to handle adversity and stay strong through mistakes. Everybody was starting to have doubts and I couldn’t let myself buy into that.”

Interceptions were a problem for Tune heading into the 2021 season. In the previous two seasons, he’d thrown for a combined 26 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He threw nine interceptions in seven starts in 2019 and 10 interceptions during the eight-game pandemic-shortened season of 2020. So, to start 2021 with four interceptions, even if only two of them were his fault, wasn’t a crowd pleaser. Fans had doubts. So did some inside the athletic building. But not his teammates, and not offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. 

“I saw his parents the next week and you could tell emotionally it was wearing on them and I told them ‘Look, Tune is our guy’”, Dawson recalls. “From then on, he never put our team in jeopardy the rest of the year. That game was a teaching point, and that particular pick-six was monumental in him learning how to manage the game and know when the right and wrong times are to take that chance.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Tune led the Cougars on an 11-game winning streak following the letdown loss to Texas Tech. The Cougars reached the AAC championship game for the first time since Tom Herman was the head coach and beat Auburn in a bowl game to cap a 12-game season and set up the program for high expectations in 2022 with Tune at the helm. He threw four interceptions in game one. He’d only throw five more the rest of the season, which spanned 13 more games. 

He now enters 2022 with the seventh-most passing yards in program history with 7,926. He’s also fifth all-time in career passing touchdowns with. 64 and eighth in career completions with 622. His completion percentage was 50 percent as a true freshman in 2018. That’s risen every year since, culminating in a 68 percent completion percentage in 2021. Tune’s development sets the Cougars up for 2022, and it makes Dawson’s job as a play caller much easier. He admits that a good quarterback is the key to his offense’s success. 

“I’m not sitting there trying to call perfect plays for Tune anymore,” Dawson said. “The first two years, I’m trying to put him in the perfect situation where things are easy. Now, I call plays and he makes it work, and that’s where you want to be.”

A dream fulfilled 

Growing up, Tune’s dream was to play high school football at Celina like his older brother Nathan, who quarterbacked the Bobcats to a 2005 state championship before a career at North Texas. Clayton wanted to follow in those footsteps. His first memories of playing football involve his older brother. Clayton, who is more than 10 years younger than Nathan, served as the front-yard wide receiver.

“Celina was literally the plot of Friday Night Lights, at least it felt that way to me when I was young,” Tune said. “All I wanted to do was play for the Celina Bobcats and go win a state title.”

It didn’t take long for Tune to emerge as a quarterback once he entered Pee-Wee football. His talents were evident, so Nathan and the rest of the family decided to invest in Clayton’s football future. Nathan was an assistant coach at Celina and then in Denton after his stint as a player at North Texas. Clayton tagged along, waking up at 5 a.m. to attend two-a-days and watch the older kids practice. He was also a ball boy on Friday nights. Nathan even found some opportunities for the young Clayton to throw to some of the older guys who weren’t getting enough reps. When Clayton entered the seventh grade, Nathan was his offensive coordinator. 

“We knew he was talented early,” Nathan said. “Got together as a family and decided to help him be as good as possible.”

The plan was to play quarterback at Denton Ryan. Tune was to compete with Spencer Sanders as a freshman, but he broke both of his wrists playing basketball a few weeks before the season began. Sanders wound up winning the job with Tune sidelined for half of the season, so the family moved him to Carrolton Hebron prior to his sophomore season. 

Earning a scholarship to play football in college requires game time in high school. Clayton did exactly that, throwing for 6,686 yards and 66 touchdowns in his three-year career at Hebron. He also rushed for 20 touchdowns. A three-star recruit, Clayton received interest for numerous schools before choosing Houston over programs such as Kansas, Mississippi, and FAU. 

“In high school, Houston was doing big things with Herman as the coach and I knew it had a history of producing quarterbacks,” Clayton said. “It was an easy drive down 45 from Dallas and there was a lot of hype around the program.” 

Tune arrived on campus in 2018 to play for Major Applewhite, who took over for Herman during Tune’s high school career. He played in five games, starting the final two for an injured D’Eriq King. His first college start was against Memphis. Tune completed 18 of 43 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns to one interception. He’d earn the respect of teammates with a gutsy performance in a bowl loss to Army when he threw the ball 32 times and ran it 19 more.

“Exciting to get in there as a true freshman, but it also caught me off guard because you can get as many reps as possible in practice, but you’re never prepared to play college football that early in your career,” Tune admitted. “Everyone is bigger, faster, and stronger. It was valuable for me. It helped my development.” 

A new lease on life

The arrival of Holgorsen changed the course of Tune’s career. Applewhite was let go after the 2018 season and the Cougars shocked the college football world by enticing Holgorsen to leave a Big 12 program (West Virginia) for a G5 school. Tune was back home in Dallas for winter break when Holgorsen was hired. He wanted to be in attendance for his new coach’s press conference, so the family loaded up in the car and drove four hours to Houston. Tune and about 15 to 20 current players watched as their new coach swaggered his way through the press conference. 

“I could tell he was confident in the program and his plans for our team,” Tune said of his first impressions of Holgorsen. “He’s got that funny, out-going charisma to him. I noticed that right away and I wanted to play for him.” 

It didn’t take long for the coaching staff to understand what it had in Tune. King was still on campus as the entrenched starter, but that didn’t stop Tune from competing hard for the job. At the same time, Dawson saw a selfless leader who knew how to play his role. Tune didn’t pout when King remained the starter to begin the 2019 season. He continued to prepare as if he’d eventually start while simultaneously helping King perform at the highest level. Tune was able to watch and learn. 

“The pressure wasn’t on him early on,” Dawson said. “His talent was obvious. He’s a pure passer. He can throw the football as well as anyone we’ve ever had, so it was obvious that we were going to have a really good player when he started playing.” 

That changed after the fourth game of the season when King opted out to save a year of eligibility. That forced Tune into the fire. He’d start the final seven games of the season as the Cougars struggled to a 4-8 record. Tune threw for 1,533 yards and 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions. 

He’d remain the starter in 2020. And like the Texas Tech game in 2021, it was a loss that propelled Tune’s career to the next step. The Cougars faced a 14th-ranked BYU program led by future NFL draft pick Zach Wilson during Week 2 of that season. It was only Tune’s 11th start in his career, but Dawson still challenged him to play as good, if not better, than Wilson. Tune did just that. 

“I challenged Tune by saying ‘if you want to be that guy, you have to out play this guy’ and he did in that game,” Dawson said. “He was unbelievable that day. We got beat in the fourth quarter, but that showed me that he could play on that stage against a high-quality football team. I knew he’d answer a challenge.”

Tune completed 21 of his 31 passes for 310 yards and two scores with zero interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown, showing off that athleticism his brother noticed when Clayton was running routes for him in the front yard over a decade earlier. Wilson proved why the New York Jets would take him so early in the 2021 NFL Draft by throwing for 400 yards and four scores, but Tune was right there with the best in college football. 

“The new offense Holgorsen brought in was much more extensive,” Tune said. “It took about half a season of playing to get it down, but once I did it was freeing. Now, I can go play football like I did when I was a kid.” 

Expectations are at an all-time high in Houston, as is the excitement. Many, including the 2022 Dave Campbell’s Texas Football summer magazine, pick the Cougars to win the AAC. Tune was named the best quarterback in the state. A move to the Big 12 happens in 2023, and while Tune won’t be the quarterback anymore after this season, he does take pride in the fact that he’s helped Houston prepare for that jump in competition by raising the standards inside the locker room. Once a true freshman thrust into game action in 2018, Tune is now the elder statesman and one of the only holdovers from when head coach Dana Holgorsen inherited the program in 2019. 

“I take a lot of ownership in being part of turning the program around,” Tune said. “We talk a little bit about it being our last year in the AAC and we want to use this year to propel the program into the Big 12.”

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