2024 DCTF Magazine Preview: Houston Preview

Photos by Lloyd Hendricks

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Willie Fritz has climbed nearly every mountain during his 30-plus years as a collegiate head coach. He won a pair of JUCO national championships at Blinn in the 90s, took Sam Houston to two FCS championship games in the 2010s, and conquered the G5 ranks with Tulane in 2022 when the Green Wave won the AAC and knocked off USC in a New Year’s Six bowl. 

He only has one peak left to summit – the Power Four. So, when the Houston Cougars came calling after firing Dana Holgorsen, Fritz was all ears. 

“I’ve done it at every other level. I want to do it at this level, too,” Fritz said about taking on the Big 12 with Houston. “The only other place I haven’t done it is Division III. I’ve enjoyed each and every level, but I wanted to do it at the highest level in collegiate football.” 

The city of Houston was also a draw due to his experience coaching at nearby Sam Houston and Blinn College. His love of Space City is rooted in the two things that matter most to Fritz – family and football. He says that a day doesn’t go by without chatting to two or three former players, some of whom now coach high school football in Houston. Fritz also says that some family vacations were to Houston, where his daughter already lives. 

“I gotta find a new place for us to go on vacation,” Fritz jokes. “This job was the perfect fit for me. It was a good job for me in an area of the country I’m really familiar with.” 

The Fritz hire was a deviation from the norm for the Cougars. Their head coaching hires during the 21st Century – Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin, Tom Herman, Major Applewhite, Holgorsen to name a few – were all former or current play-callers on the offensive side of the ball. Fritz isn’t a play-caller or devoted to a particular scheme. He’s a program builder. One who wins at every stop.   

And that’s exactly what is needed in the Third Ward. Sustained success has been a fleeting commodity for the Coogs. The 12-win season of 2021 was sandwiched between three wins in 2020 and four wins in 2023. A 10-win season in 2006 was followed by a pair of eight-win campaigns. The Cougars won five games in 2010 and in 2012 – both after 10-win seasons the year before. Even the 13-win year under Herman couldn’t be duplicated the following year when the Cougars dropped to nine wins. 

Fritz is adamant that there isn’t a secret recipe to his success. He loves building a roster and showing up to work early in the morning. He loves the smell of the grass and the sound of taping ankles. At Blinn, he mowed the field and produced the media guides. He now has a huge staff willing to help with those chores, but his passion for football never wavered. And that love might be the key ingredient to winning. 

“If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it anymore,” Fritz said. “I’m obsessed with it. I don’t really have any hobbies. I enjoy hanging out with my family and doing football. It is a labor of love.” 

And while success feels guaranteed for any program run by Fritz, the wins don’t necessarily come right away. His first team at Central Missouri won five games, while his initial squad at Sam Houston managed six victories. At Tulane, he won four games in Year 1 and five in Year 2. The Cougars managed four wins in their first season as members of the Big 12. Fritz was hired to place the program at the top of the standings annually, which would propel the team into the College Football Playoff.

But don’t expect Fritz to declare long-term expectations. His experience tells him to worry only about today. 

“Our goal is to be consistent,” Fritz explained. “To bring it every day – on the good ones and the bad. To improve. To sacrifice. To play through the whistle. We want to win every game we play, and that starts with a consistent approach.” 



Texas native Kevin Barbay (Nederland) was hired to revamp a Houston offense that ranked 90th in the FBS last season with 23.7 points per game. The former offensive coordinator at places such as Mississippi State and Appalachian State engineers a multiple offense that leans on balance and tempo with simple concepts out of a variety of looks. Cougar fans will also get a taste of RPO. 

“We used the spring to figure out what our personnel can and can’t do,” Barbay said in April. “We put the stuff we can’t do on the shelf and used those extra reps fine-tuning the stuff we can do.” 

Donovan Smith is the expected starter again at quarterback for the Cougars. The former Texas Tech transfer threw for 22 touchdowns and ran for six more in 2023. Louisiana transfer Zeon Chriss is the primary backup.  

The wide receiver room took a massive hit in the Transfer Portal with Matthew Golden, Sam Brown, and Joshua Cobbs amongst the skill position players to leave. Joseph Manjack IV returns after leading the team last season with six touchdown catches. Michigan transfer Maliq Carr bolsters the tight end room. 

Houston’s top four rushers – Parker Jenkins, Smith, Stacy Sneed, and Tony Mathis Jr. – return and should enjoy the run-based attack preferred by Barbay. The offensive line is a question mark with only one returner – Tank Jenkins. The interior of the line feels settled with Peyton Dunn and Jenkins at guard and Demetrius Hunter at center. David Ndukwe and Shamar Hobdy-Lee took most of the first team reps at tackle in the spring. 

“The offensive line is the key,” head coach Willie Fritz said in the spring. “We have a mixture of portal players and guys who’ve played some real snaps here at Houston. That group must come together quickly.” 

MVP – WR Joseph Manjack – The transfers of Matthew Golden and Sam Brown means that Manjack must lead the receiving room. He’s more than capable.

Position Group Ratings

QB: B-



OL: C+ 

Breakout Candidates

RB Stacy Sneed - The Arlington native’s big play ability as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield provide versatility the Cougars want to exploit in the new-look offense. 

WR Mekhi Mews – A Georgia transfer with chops as a return specialist and a slot receiver. Mews, a junior, could easily work his way into the starting lineup and was a standout in spring practices. 

TE Jayden York - The Texas Tech transfer earned high praise for his play at tight end in the spring. He’ll team up with Maliq Carr and Matt Byrnes to form a solid trio. 

OT Dakota White - A La Tech transfer who started 30 times at tackle for the Bulldogs, including 26 times at left tackle. He only allowed two sacks in 399 opportunities last season. 

Keep An Eye On

Barbay says he used RPO (run-pass options) to protect the run. The goal for the Cougars in an RPO is to run the football, but the pass option allows the offense to protect themselves against a crowded front. Houston didn’t run a ton of RPO with Holgorsen in charge of the offense, but expected starter Donovan Smith does have experience with the concept from his early years at Texas Tech. Smith’s ability to read defenses combined with his own running skills give the Cougars multiple options of attack with the RPO and other creative ways to run the football. 

Projected Starters 

QB: Donovan Smith   Sr.

RB: Parker Jenkins       Soph.

WR: Stephon Johnson Jr. 

WR: Joseph Manjack IV            Sr.

WR: Jonah Wilson Fr. 

TE: Maliq Carr                  Sr.

LT: David Ndukwe        Jr.

LG: Peyton Dunn           Sr.

C: Demetrius Hunter                   Soph.

RG: Tank Jenkins           Sr.

RT: Shamar Hobdy-Lee             Sr.



Defensive coordinator Shiel Wood followed head coach Willie Fritz from Tulane to Houston in the offseason and is now in charge of a Cougars defensive unit that underperformed in Year 1 as a Big 12 program. Houston allowed 31.5 points per game in 2023, which was 108th in the FBS. Wood’s defense at Tulane in 2023 ranked 24th nationally while only allowing 20.5 points per game. 

“We’re an attacking style defense that tries to win the lines of scrimmage and put pressure on an opponent by being good against the run and putting pressure on the quarterback,” Wood said. “We want to be aggressive in coverage and flexible enough to take advantage of our personnel.” 

The Cougars will base out of a 3-4 scheme, but Wood’s defense is multiple and uses 4-3 personnel. Tulane transfer Keith Cooper arrived with Wood and Fritz and figures to become a Day 1 starter for the Third Ward Defense. He’ll be supported in the interior of the defensive line by transfer Xavier Stillman and the returning AJ Holmes. The edge rusher in Wood’s scheme is referred to as the “Dog” position, and that’s a three-man battle between Nadame Tucker, Brandon Mack, and Torren Coppage-El. 

Linebacker was a concern for Fritz as spring began, but the play of Jamal Morris, Michael Batton, Kendre Gant, and Corey Platt Jr. alleviated much of the concern over depth. Gant, Batton, and Platt are transfers. Morris is a former safety who transitioned to linebacker under the last staff and was third in tackles in 2023. 

A.J. Haulcy is back at safety after leading the Cougars in tackles last season. The cornerback position lost starter Isaiah Hamilton after spring practices. USC transfer Latrell McCutchin and Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Wilson are the favorites to start at cornerback. 

MVP – DB A.J. Haulcy - A sure-fired tackler who led the team in that category in 2023.

Position Group Ratings

DL: C+ 

LB: C+



Breakout Candidates

CB Latrell McCutchin – Wood described the former Austin LBJ star as a “Sunday player” during our stop at Houston in the spring. The former Oklahoma and USC transfer did not play in 2023. 

LB Michael Batton - The Louisiana-Monroe transfer played in 24 games over the last two seasons and led his team in 2023 with 80 tackles. Batton was a prep QB at Katy Seven Lakes. 

DT – Everitt Rogers – A 300-pound transfer from Tulsa who played in 32 games in four seasons before transferring to Houston. The Killeen native should get plenty of snaps in the middle of the Coogs defense. 

DB Hershey McLaurin – A contender alongside Juwon Gaston to start at nickel, McLaurin spent the last two seasons at West Virginia where he built a reputation as a run-stuffing safety. 

Keep An Eye On

Houston must replace its top three sack-getters on Sack Avenue from 2023 with Nelson Ceaser (9.5), Jamaree Caldwell (6.5), and David Ugwoegbu (3) no longer on campus. When the Houston defense was dominant under former coordinator Doug Belk it was because the Cougars got pressure on the quarterback. The production slipped to 25 total sacks in 2023. Tulane, however, racked up 35 sacks a year ago despite no player accounting for more than 7.5. Wood’s scheme appears to lead to more pressure even without individual pass rush stars. Houston had three players last year with at least three sacks. Tulane had six.  

Projected Starters 

DE: Keith Cooper          Sr.

NT: Xavier Stillman      Jr.

DT: AJ Holmes                 Soph.

Edge: Nadame Tucker               Sr.  

LB: Jamal Morris            Sr.

LB: Kendre Grant          Jr.

NB: Juwon Gatson       Sr.

CB: Jeremiah Wilson Jr. 

CB: Latrell McCutchin               Jr.

FS: A.J. Haulcy                Jr.

SS: Teagan Wilk             Jr.



Houston quarterback Donovan Smith knows how to win over a locker room and learn a new offense. He arrived at Wolfforth Frenship High School from Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman prior to his senior season when his dad, DeAndre, became the running backs coach at Texas Tech. Smith, who was a wide receiver at Bishop Gorman, led Frenship to the playoffs while throwing for 3,123 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, and adding 489 yards and 13 scores on the ground.

Smith began his career as a Red Raider, playing in 21 games for two different head coaches over three seasons from 2020-22. He led Texas Tech with 1,621 yards of total offense in 2022 with wins over Texas and Houston. In that double-overtime victory over the Cougars, Smith passed for 350 yards and scored two touchdowns. So, when he showed up in the Third Ward as a transfer quarterback ahead of the 2023 season, it was only natural that good-natured trash talking occurred. 

“It was always in fun. I’d point out the final score any time someone pointed out my three interceptions,” Smith said with a laugh and his signature smile. “The transition was great. I picked up the offense and my teammates made sure to tell me that they were glad I was on their side now.” 

Smith battled through an inconsistent season as the first-year starter for the Cougars in 2023 – they’re first in the Big 12… and they’re last with Dana Holgorsen. He was at Texas Tech when the Red Raiders transitioned from Matt Wells to Joey McGuire. He’s now leading the way while the Cougars move from Holgorsen to Willie Fritz. Offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay is the fourth play-caller for Smith as a collegiate. Go back to his high school days and he’s had six different offensive coordinators over the last seven seasons. 

“My father prepared me for what this sport is and how quickly things change,” Smith said. “You control what you can and try to block out the rest. We’re excited for a new start.” 

Smith was sidelined from throwing in the spring as he recovered from an injury, but that didn’t stop him from completing mental reps every practice alongside his teammates. The new staff noticed. 

“I’d describe him as a leader,” Barbay said. “You can already tell the guys rally around him. We can't wait to see him at full-go in the fall.” 



Ceiling – 8-4 

A 10-win season feels like a stretch even if all the coin flips land Houston’s way in Year 1 of the Willie Fritz era. Flirting with a double-digit win season while keeping Big 12 hopes alive into October feels like the best-case scenario for the Cougars in transition. 

Floor – 2-10 

There is no guarantee that it doesn’t get worse before it gets better for Houston under Fritz. Questions along the offensive and defensive line are hard to answer in one offseason. The Big 12 doesn’t have many easy games and non-conference wins over UNLV and Rice aren’t guarantees. 



Two of Houston’s three non-conference games are at home this season with UNLV in Week 1 and Rice in Week 3. A trip to Oklahoma to face the SEC’s Sooners is the marquee matchup for the Cougars outside of the Big 12. The nine-game conference schedule includes five road games with trips to TCU, Cincinnati, Kansas, Arizona, and BYU. The conference home games are against Iowa State, Utah, Kansas State, and Baylor. A five-game stretch beginning on Oct. 5 at TCU and concluding Nov. 16 at Arizona with games against Kansas, Utah, and Kansas State in between likely determines the success or failure of 2024. 



DATE                      OPPONENT     RESULT

Sept. 2                  UTSA    W, 17-14

Sept. 9                  at Rice                   L, 43-31 (2OT)

Sept. 16               TCU       L, 36-13

Sept. 23               Sam Houston W, 38-7

Sept. 30               at Texas Tech  L, 49-28

Oct. 12                 West Virginia   W, 41-39              

Oct. 21                 Texas    L, 31-24

Oct. 28                 at Kansas State              L, 41-0

Nov. 4                    at Baylor              W, 25-24 (OT)

Nov. 11                 Cincinnati          L, 24-14

Nov. 18                 Oklahoma State             L, 43-30

Nov. 25                 at UCF                   L, 27-13

Record: 4-8 (2-7)



DATE                      OPPONENT     RESULT

Aug. 31                 UNLV                      W

Sept. 7                  at Oklahoma   L

Sept. 14               Rice                         W

Sept. 21               at Cincinnati   W

Sept. 28               Iowa State         L

Oct. 5                     at TCU                   L

Oct. 19                 at Kansas           L

Oct. 26                 Utah                        L

Nov. 2                    Kansas State   L

Nov. 16                 at Arizona           L

Nov. 23                 Baylor                    L

Nov. 30                 at BYU                   W

Record: 4-8 (2-7)


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