2022 Ultimate Houston Cougars Preview: The Ceiling, The Floor, Position Grades, MVPs and More!

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Houston enters the 2022 season more concerned with what it failed to accomplish rather than on successes such as an 11-game winning streak or a bowl win over Auburn. Head coach Dana Holgorsen set the tone in the first meeting of spring practices by showing a picture of Cincinnati, the team that beat Houston in the American Conference championship game, holding the conference title. The move served as a reminder to his experienced and talented roster. 

“Our common goal is to win a conference championship,” starting safety Gervarrius Owens said. “We’re even hungrier since we failed to reach that goal last year. No one is worried about personal accolades because we know team success is the way to raise your individual profile.” 

With Cincinnati’s roster experiencing a mass exodus after the 2021 season, Houston enters the 2022 campaign with title hopes. The Cougars want to follow the same path as Cincinnati in 2021: Go undefeated, win the conference title, and break into the College Football Playoff. Expectations are that high thanks to the return of Clayton Tune at quarterback, Nathaniel “Tank” Dell at wide receiver, a talented offensive line, and the core of a defense that wreaked havoc on opponents throughout the 2021 season. 

“The main goal is a championship,” Dell said. “We tasted defeat last year, so we want to get back there. That loss fuels us. From the moment we lost that game (to Cincinnati) the sense of urgency picked up.” 

The loss to Cincinnati was a jarring experience for a team on an 11-game winning streak that began after a Week 1 loss to Texas Tech. Owens said he couldn’t leave the field after the loss at Cincinnati in the AAC title game out of shock. The team rallied for the bowl game. While most teams treat bowl invites like glorified vacations, the Cougars arrived at the Birmingham Bowl on a mission to jumpstart the offseason.

“We weren’t treating the Auburn game like a bowl game,” Owens admitted. “We wanted to showcase how dominant we could be to set a standard for the 2022 season.” 

Houston hasn’t won the American Conference since 2015. Building the Cougars back into a conference title wasn’t an easy road for Holgorsen. Houston was 4-8 in 2019, his first season at the helm. The program limped to a 3-5 finish during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. That meant the 2021 season offered Houston its first real chance to thrive under Holgorsen, who watched his team gel in the spring of 2021.

The struggles of the first few years began to pay off when the Cougars overcame the adversity of a season-opening loss to reel off 11-straight wins and reach the conference title game. The win over Auburn was the first bowl win by Houston since 2015, snapping a four-game losing streak.

“Our expectations have increased inside this program since my first year,” said Owens, who arrived the same year as Holgorsen. “It takes time to build a culture. We gravitated towards what Coach Holgorsen and Coach [Doug] Belk were preaching, and we’re seeing it come through over the years.”

A move to the Big 12 is on the horizon. The Cougars don’t know if the move takes place in 2023 or 2024, but the program is readying for the journey behind the scenes. Houston hopes to break ground soon on a new facility. The move also helps in recruiting, and Holgorsen is already seeing the evidence at the prep level and with transfers. The Cougars added 11 players at midterm, including four-star wide receiver Matthew Golden and Oklahoma linebacker transfer Jamal Morris. The move also raised the assistant coach’s budget, allowing Houston to retain Belk as defensive coordinator.

That transition won’t impact the 2022 squad, however. Holgorsen is making sure of that. 

“The Big 12 move isn’t talked about with our current team,” he said. “When I’m in front of my current team, we talk about the American and our goals for 2022. Now, closed-door meetings, recruiting, and fundraising, we talk about the Big 12 a lot. But it does not affect the Houston Cougar football team. It wouldn’t be fair to them.” 

The Ceiling
The Cougars run the table in the AAC, charging into the College Football Playoff discussion in the same way Cincinnati did in 2021. 

The Floor
The Cougars get off to a slow start in out-of-conference play against UTSA and Texas Tech, which bleeds into a disappointing AAC campaign. 

Game of the Year
Houston at Texas Tech — September 10 

The only blemish on Houston’s 2021 regular season record was a loss to Texas Tech in Week 1. The Cougars can avenge that result, and build a resumé for the College Football Playoff, with a win at Power Five opponent Texas Tech a week after a trip to G5 darling UTSA. A 2-0 start might jumpstart an undefeated regular season.

Clayton Tune (Photo by Lloyd Hendricks)


The Cougars averaged 35.9 points per game on offense in 2021. Quarterback Clayton Tune threw for 3,544 yards and 30 touchdowns after throwing four picks in the Week 1 loss to Texas Tech. Tune’s growth is one of the main reasons that the Cougars are in the conversation as the best G5 team in the country heading into 2022. 

“I was happy with his progress through the course of last year, but I’ve been even happier with his progress through the course of this offseason,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “My experience with fifth-year seniors is that they are on a different level, and that is where he’s at.”

Tune’s list of weapons grew in the offseason. The Cougars added four-star freshman Matthew Golden from Klein Cain High School. Holgorsen admitted the Golden doesn’t pick the Cougars without the impending move to the Big 12. Golden enrolled early and might push himself into a starting role as a true freshman. 

The Cougars also added USC transfer Joseph Manjack IV and West Virginia transfer Sam Brown to go along with the returning Nathaniel Dell, who caught 90 passes for 1,329 yards and 12 scores in 2021. Houston also returns tight end Christian Trahan, who was second on the team in 2021 with 37 catches.

“I’m not the only one who can make plays at receiver, so it’ll be harder for teams to focus solely on me,” Dell said. “This offense can be as good as we want it to be. We just need to put in the work. We have electric players everywhere on the field.” 

Houston did lose star running back Alton McCaskill to a knee injury in the spring and it is unknown if he’ll be available for the 2022 season. The Cougars’ rushing attack now rests on the legs of Ta’Zhawn Henry and USC transfer Brandon Campbell. Both are Houston-area products who started their careers elsewhere. 

Left tackle Patrick Paul anchors a talented and experienced offensive line. Right tackle is the biggest question mark heading into the season. Jack Freeman impressed at center during spring practices. 

Offensive MVP: Clayton Tune 
Tune is back to lead a high-powered Houston offense, which includes star wide receiver Nathaniel Dell.

Offensive Name to Know: Stacy Sneed 
The loss of star running back Alton McCaskill creates an opportunity for Stacy Sneed. Houston’s rushing attack figures to be led by the duo of Ta’Zhawn Henry and USC transfer Brandon Campbell. Sneed adds a different dimension at 5-11 and 175 pounds. The former three-star recruit out of Mansfield Timberview was impressive during spring practices and deserves touches as a runner and receiver out of the backfield, according to head coach Dana Holgorsen.


Clayton Tune enters his senior season with high expectations after passing for 3,544 yards and 30 touchdowns. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes. 

Ta’Zhawn Henry and USC transfer Brandon Campbell, both local products, must pick up the slack created when Alton McCaskill tore his ACL during spring camp. 

Nathaniel Dell and Christian Trahan form the best wide receiver-tight end duo in the state of Texas. The Cougars need a No. 2 wide receiver to emerge. 

Left tackle Patrick Paul enters his sophomore season with all-conference honors under his belt. The Cougars’ only question mark is at right tackle.

Donavan Mutin (Photo by Jessica Payne)


Houston’s eventual move to the Big 12 allowed the Cougars to sweeten the pot for its assistants. Head coach Dana Holgorsen was able to provide raises for each member of his defensive staff, including coordinator Doug Belk. The added pool of money provided Holgorsen with the opportunity to double Belk’s salary and make him a million-dollar coordinator as the duo enters their sixth year together. 

“He’s a rising star in this profession and he’s done a great job,” Holgorsen said of Belk. “The players love Doug. He’s a future head coach and raising his salary means he can skip a few stops on the way to achieving that goal.” 

Keeping Belk also allows Houston to achieve its goals in 2022. The 2021 version of Belk’s defense was dominant. The Third Ward Defense allowed 20.4 points per game, held opponents to 3.4 yards a rush, and recorded 45 sacks. The unit did suffer losses from the 2021 season, namely defensive lineman Logan Hall and cornerback Marcus Jones, but that won’t eliminate their high expectations.

“We set a great foundation for our defense last year, and we want to build on that success with a new group of players,” starting safety Gervarrius Owens said. “Coach Belk did a great job on the recruiting trail to fill the spots created by guys off to the NFL.” 

Owens, a first-team all-conference selection last season, headlines a talented safety room that includes Hasaan Hypolite and Jayce Rogers. The Cougars must find new cornerbacks with Jones and Damarion Williams gone. Houston wants to add more depth at the position, but Holgorsen likes the potential of Alex Hogan, especially at nickel, and Art Green. 

Donavan Mutin returns to the middle linebacker spot after leading Houston in tackles in 2021 with 77. He’ll be flanked by Malik Robinson and Mannie Nunnery. The Cougars also added transfers Jamal Morris (Oklahoma) and Trimarcus Cheeks (Samford) to the mix at linebacker. 

A challenge for Houston’s defense is replacing pass rushers Hall and David Anenih. The duo combined for 11 sacks and 23 tackles for loss during the 2021 season.

Defensive MVP: Donavan Mutin
Mutin led Houston in tackles in 2021 and is expected to patrol the middle again from his linebacker position. 

Defensive Name to Know: Nelson Ceaser 
The losses of Logan Hall and David Anenih to the NFL created openings for young, talented defensive ends on the roster to emerge as potential stars. The Houston defense averaged four sacks a game in 2021. To repeat that production, the Cougars need highly recruited replacements such as Nelson Ceaser to step up. The sophomore recorded 22 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and three sacks in a reserve role during 2021.


Derek Parish returns to lead a new-look version of Save Ave. without the help of Logan Hall or David Anenih. Young prospects are ready to step up.  

Donavan Mutin returns at middle linebacker after leading the Cougars in tackles during the 2021 season. Mannie Nunnery and Oklahoma transfer Jamal Morris provide play-making ability. 

The loss of cornerback Marcus Jones stings. The Cougars do return all-conference safety Gervarrius Owens and Alex Hogan, who could emerge as a lockdown cornerback. 

Houston must find a new threat in the return game with the prolific Marcus Jones off to test the NFL waters. Laine Wilkins returns as punter.

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