What do we really know about this Cougar football team?


Cougar Football practice gets underway Wednesday, and, at last check, Dana Holgorsen anticipates 42 new players jogging out to the practice fields. With so many new players, including potential starters at every position group, there are question marks everywhere. And I keep asking myself, what do we really know?

Like you, I’ve read previews that rate this 2023 UH team near the bottom of the Big 12. One site that covers the league, HeartlandCollegeSports.com ranked each position group in the Big 12:

Position GroupUH's Big 12 Rank

Heartland could be more impressed with UH in the preseason, but most media outlets peg the Cougars the same. Maybe they’re right, and UH will have the worst linebackers and defensive backs in the league and the second-worst running backs and quarterbacks. That sounds like a formula for blowouts: three-and-outs on offense and the defense getting worked sideline-to-sideline and deep.

According to this ranking, Houston’s best offensive position is wide receiver. But the Coogs lost a ton at that position: a fantastic player in Tank Dell and a solid wideout in KeSean Carter. They combined for 1999 receiving yards last season (49% of the team’s production) and 22 touchdowns (55%).

UH’s top five returners (Matthew Golden, Samuel Brown, Joseph Manjack, Peyton Sawyer, and TE Matt Byrnes) combined for fewer catches, yards, and touchdowns than Dell alone last season. Dell finished with 109 catches for 1398 yards and 17 TDs, while the top-five returners had 104 catches for 1367 yards and 14 TDs. That’s a devastating amount of production on paper (which is the only place preseason rankings reside). But WR is UH’s best offensive unit, according to Heartland. And Dana Holgorsen joked at Big 12 Media Days that receivers were the one spot on the field that was not causing him to lose any sleep.

You know what you have in Matthew Golden as he transitions into the (likely) top target in the offense. And Samuel Brown has shown some electric flashes, but he’s currently known for his off-the-field skirmishes more than his on-field production. Joseph Manjack IV could become a legit go-to possession receiver.

But those are projections. After those, what do we really know? Mikal Harrison-Pilot is a massive get as a recruit, but is he ready to produce this season? When asked what new players have impressed them, quarterback Lucas Coley and Manjack noted transfer receivers Joshua Cobbs (Wyoming) and Stephon Johnson (Oklahoma State). Coley said that duo “came in ready to work and learned the offense pretty quick.”

Cobbs and Johnson combined for 52 receptions, 700 yards, and four TDs last season as Cowboys (the Wyoming and OkSt versions, respectively). Cobbs was the primary target in an offense that did not throw it much, and, as a freshman, Johnson was not an integral part of the Oklahoma State attack.

None of the eight or so receivers you expect in the rotation have been the #1 guy. Cobb led Wyo in 2022 with 35 receptions, but that’s deceiving: four UH players had more catches. Golden will get every chance to be the #1 guy, but anyone could be the top target early on with a new QB. And several others could rise as the season plays out. And then, who separates himself as the second and third option? And

Is this talented group the ninth-best in the Big 12? Are they last? In the top five? Do they commit to blocking in space and in the running game? Do they run clean routes and help their QB when he’s in trouble? I don’t recall opening a fall camp with more questions than this year. With 42 new players, we don’t really know anything.

In most seasons, you can tell what type of team you’ll have in the first game. With all the moving parts, this season may take longer for real answers to emerge.

Full coverage of UH’s 2023 preseason football camp: