The story of Dalton Carnes is almost too ridiculous for a movie of the week script. The 5’9″ star athlete in high school catches 11 touchdowns in his senior year, walks on at an FBS school, works his way up to the scout team in his first year, makes Academic All-Conference, starts to rep in the spring and during fall camp, gets on the field, catches his first pass, sees his good friend get dinged up, subs in for him, and then turns on the jets to catch a touchdown to tie the game.
It can’t be real. It just can’t. But somehow, it is. It’s the improbable story of a college football player who takes pride in his performance but nearly gives it all up. He recommitted himself to the team, started to make plays in practice, and used his confidence and consistency to get on the field.
While at College Station High School, Dalton received only Division II and III offers. He considered going to junior college to play baseball but chose to try to play football at the highest level. He searched FBS for a preferred walk-on spot but couldn’t find one and enrolled at Houston as a traditional walk-on.
“It was really the only (football) option I had,” Carnes said in a recent media availability.
Typically, being a preferred walk-on guarantees a player a roster spot and allows him to participate in Fall camp. A traditional walk-on can only begin participating once classes start. The Cougars began fall practice in 2022 on August 4th, but Carnes did not arrive in Houston until August 20th. He redshirted in 2022, serving on the scout team offense.
He embraced the challenge of the scout team, working against the first-team defense.
“When I was on scout team, you’re going against the (first-team) defense the whole time,” Carnes said in an interview. “If you take it seriously, if you want to get better, you will definitely get better.
“I think that really helped me develop a lot, honestly.”
After his redshirt year, he started to get reps in spring practice but thought he deserved more. He knew he’d probably have to go to JUCO for his chance. After discussing it with his parents and friends, he approached his position coach, Daikiel Shorts Jr., about his role.
“Coach Shorts told me he respected me coming in there. He could tell that I really wanted to play,” Carnes said. “He told me to just finish the spring out and see where we’re at after that.”
As Spring progressed, Carnes saw the field a little more and forced his coaches to take notice.
“He took advantage of his snaps in the spring,” Shorts said in a recent media availability. “He didn’t get many, but when he got his snaps, he was always making a play.”
“I thought he had a really good spring,” Dana Holgorsen said in September. “I told him, ‘You’re gonna play.’ He stuck it out and hung in there.”
In the Fall, he began running with the second team and getting reps over guys on scholarship. He said it finally started to click.
“Taking it day by day and going into camp, it was more just understanding that the coaches are watching and they’re telling me about it, and that builds my confidence,” Carnes said.
He planned on earning playing time in any way he could. He knew his best shot would be on special teams. Special teams appeal to Carnes, who returned kicks and punts in high school. On UH’s frontline kick return, he focuses on technique and finishing the play.
“Special teams are kind of a pride thing. It’s you versus the guy in front of you,” Carnes relayed. “I don’t want you to beat me. It’s a competitiveness. I will be pissed off if I lose a rep against that one guy, knowing it could affect everything else (on the play).”
He started getting offensive snaps because of his practice habits and special teams work. Carnes’ first receiving target was in the final drive of the TCU game, and his first catch came against Sam Houston State. “Finally getting a ball in my hands, getting my first catch, I started to build on it,” he said.
A week later, Joseph Manjack IV suffered a minor injury early in the game at Texas Tech but kept playing with a bandage. As UH mounted a drive, down 28-21 late in the second quarter, Manjack was in the game on first down on the Tech 48. On second down, Carnes subbed in for him. On 3rd and 3, his life changed.
Carnes was lined up to QB Donovan Smith’s right, shaded just outside the 6’3″ cornerback, Rayshad Williams, who towered over the receiver. On the snap, Carnes put an inside fake on him and broke to the outside on a go route. Ten yards down the field, Carnes looked over his left shoulder and saw the ball coming at him. When he caught it 20 yards later, he had two steps on Williams.
Touchdown. Redshirt freshman walk-on Dalton Carnes.
Williams has been targeted 140 times over the last three seasons and has given up only five touchdowns. Carnes’ 41-yard score is the only one in 2023.
“That was an unbelievable moment for Dalton,” Shorts said. “That kid works his tail off. He’s a guy we feel comfortable putting at any position, and he’s going to line up right and do the job at a high level.
“I think that was pretty good for him to give him some confidence. Not only for him but the (wide receivers) room as well. They were just as excited to see him get in the end zone. I think that was a pretty cool moment for him.”
Carnes says the wide receivers are tight, but Manjack is his closest friend in the position group. They share the qualities of being detail-oriented and selfless teammates. Manjack would need stitches at halftime for the injury but would catch a touchdown a week later.
He takes pride in his reliability and continues to hone his play with film study, working to improve his blocking
“I try being in the right place all the time. I mean, you can do that, but you have to do it well and actually get open and make plays.
“I’ve never really had any MAs, missing assignments, where you may run the wrong route, or you’re not at the right depth.”
“He always does the right stuff. He runs well, he’s not very big, but he’s always in the right spot,” Holgorsen says about Carnes.
“He’s taking advantage of every opportunity,” said Shorts.
In the last four games, Carnes has caught 12 of 14 passes thrown his way (85.7%), for 143 yards and seven first downs. He says earning a scholarship is something he wants to achieve, but for now, he’s happy to play a role on a team stacked with receiver talent.
“Whatever role I’m needed to have in the offense, I’m good with it.”
Part 2: Dalton Carnes: In his own words