Houston Cougars 2022 Position Preview: Offensive line

Houston Cougars 2022 Position Preview: Offensive line

By: Jimmy Schofield

photo courtesy uhcougars.com

If one word could describe the Houston Cougars over head coach Dana Holgorsen’s first two years (in which he amassed a 7-13 record), it would probably be inconsistency. That changed last season as team won 12 of its 14 games, including 11 straight to end the regular season.

Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawsons unit averaged 35.9 points-per-game last season (15th nationally), an improvement over the previous two seasons by just about a full touchdown (30 and 30.7 PPG respectively). They averaged 414 yards of total offense (59th).

Offensive line play is the key to whether any offense is successful, no matter the scheme. Inconsistent play due to injuries, plus youth, has hurt the offensive line over Brandon Jones first two seasons (2019 and 2020) as there had been a combined sixteen different starting combinations over those 20 games (with 13 different players making at least one start over that stretch). That changed last season as the O-Line started just ONE lineup the entire season, which is very rare. The offense rushed for 142.6 YPP (85th) on 3.87 yards-per-rush (90th) and 27 touchdowns (32nd). The passing game fared much better, averaging 271.4 yards through the air (23rd), but the line allowed 38 sacks (111th). Of course, some of those sack numbers must be placed on the quarterback play, which we’ll get into when we preview the QB position later in the month.

This season that line must replace its center, right guard and tackle as only two starters return. Patrick Paul (6-foot-7, 315 pounds, RJr.) is the returning starter at the all-important left tackle spot (most quarterback’s blind spot). The Jersey Village product has 19 career starts (14 last season and a combined five the two seasons before that due mainly to knee injuries). The former 3-star recruit (via 247sports) is strong at the point of attack and athletic for his size as he can engulf opposing defensive ends with his length and can quickly kick out to the next level on screens. In nearly 1,500 career snaps, Paul has just allowed three sacks (seven QB hits and 14 hurries) per nfldraftbuzz.com. Being relatively new to the position (having moved from the defensive line in 2018 at Jersey Village), Paul is still trying to improve the instincts that allow him to quickly engage his opponents along the edge as sometimes his lateness off the snap can cause leverage issues which leads to holding penalties.

With Dennis Bardwell taking his 20 career starts to the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the right tackle spot looks to be a 3-man race between transfers Lance Robinson (6-3, 284, Jr.) and Tyler Johnson (6-6, 315, RJr.) with Reuben Unije (6-5, 305, RJr.) also bringing veteran experience over his first few seasons along Cullen Boulevard. While Robinson may bring the “pedigree,” as the 58th ranked product was a high 4-star via 247sports for the 2019 recruiting class, Robinson brings actual playing experience. The Mitchel County High product (Camile, Georgia) has participated in 16 career games with 13 starts at right tackle for Middle Tennessee State University over the past two seasons. Robinson, a 3-star recruit for the 2020 class, was a one-time 255-pound defensive end at the prep level who possesses both the power and speed engage blitzing defenders along the edge as he was rarely beat one-on-one last season at MTSU.

Johnson has all the “upside” in the world but has just participated in one career game over the past three seasons at the University of Texas. Per his scouting report via 247sports, Johnson “terrorizes defenders at the second level and when pulling in lead-blocking situations. Hunts linebackers and defensive backs. Block-finisher with impressive straight-line speed relative to size. Strong at the point of attack. Stout lower body and impressive punch. Plays with a good motor. Hustles downfield to find more action. High ceiling as a pass protector. Can improve fluidity through the hips and core. Balance and body control are sometimes shaky. Above-average bender, but can improve overall flexibility. Built a bit more like an elite right tackle, but owns true left-tackle potential. Potential first-round NFL draft pick.”

Unije has participated in only eight career games (with six starts at LT in 2020) due mainly to knee injuries. The problem is he is still very raw as he started playing late in his high school career. The physical tools are there as they do not just let anyone play at IMG Academy, which is basically just a training ground for major division 1 colleges out of Bradenton, Florida. This has shown as he lacks basic fundamentals in both foot and hand work as he was called for too many holding penalties due to getting out of position against faster defensive linemen and linebackers. He received offers from Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Oregon and Oklahoma before signing with the Illini. He transferred to Coahoma after just four games in Champaign for “personal reasons.” The former 4-star recruit started his career at Illinois in 2018 before transferring to Coahoma Junior College in Mississippi.

Between the four of Paul, Robinson, Johnson and Unije, depth at both tackle spots looks solid entering training camp. As we know though, injuries can always dampen that depth as youngsters Ugonna Nnanna (6-4, 285, RSo.), Almarion Crim (6-3, 310, RFr.), Karson Jones (6-5, 290, Fr.) and Trevonte Sylvester (6’5, 270, RSo.) will all be “next up” should injuries occur. Nnanna has participated in six career games in his two seasons and has gained a solid 20 pounds, according to his bio on the official roster. The Arlington-Seguin product played both guard and tackle in the North Texas area and was named District 5-5A 2nd team in 2019 as a 3-star prospect as well. Crim is another offensive tackle that ranked as a top-100 player out of the state of Alabama. The Adamsville native was the 189th ranked tackle. He is also an intelligent young man, picking the Coogs over Army, Air Force, Duke and Georgia Tech. Although Crim didn’t play last season he’s looked to have gained 25 pounds as well.

Jones, meanwhile, though ranked a high 3-star for the 2022 class has the size that engulfs defenders along the edge yet has the athleticism to also engage at the second level. The Wolfforth Friendship product will most likely sit this year to add weight to an already solid frame. Sylvester could be a wildcard at tackle as he was 3-star ranked defensive end at Breaux Bridge, Louisiana that was athletic enough to be signed as a tight end for the 2020 recruiting class. Last season he was moved to the O-Line while adding 30 pounds. Defensive coordinator Doug Belk was impressed with Sylvester over the course of the spring in his picking up of the position.

MarcusTankJenkins (6-3, 320, RJr.) and Cam’Ron Johnson (6-4, 305, RJr.) return as the starters at left and right guard respectively. Jenkins started his career Texas A&M in 2018 as a 4-star recruit but did not see the field during his two seasons in College Station. After transferring to Houston and staring on the scout team in 2020, the Montgomery, Alabama native played in and started all 14 games last season. Though slendered down from the 335 pounds he played at last year, he should still have the strength and mauling ability at the point of attack but will have to continue on his technique and fundamentals after not seeing consistent playing time over his first three seasons on the college level.

Johnson has taken the time to bulk up and refine his technique after being a team captain for an Alvin Shadow Creek team that went 15-1, losing 27-17 to Highland Park in the Class 5A state finals in their first season playing varsity ball in 2018. After playing in just one game his first two seasons, Johnson was a major part of the rotation at right guard (though he did not start), playing in 13 of the team’s 14 games.

The backup guard spots may belong to Derek Bowman (6-5, 280, RSo.) and Carson Walker (6-4, 315 RFr.), Bowman has gained 20 pounds since last year after playing both guard and tackle and was named District 8-5A Offensive lineman of the year in 2019 for Magnolia as a 3-star and Top-100 Texas recruit. Walker is impressive as an interior blocker (58th ranked offensive guard), being named the Class 4A Division 1 District 5 Offensive lineman MVP out of Midlothian-Heritage (the same school as Freeman) and like Bowman, has used his redshirt year to add major bulk, as he’s up to 315 pounds, from the 285 he signed with last year. True freshman Tevin Shaw (6-5, 285) is a high rated 3-star recruit who’s also listed as a guard. The Manvel product is said to have a mean disposition meaning he uses his strength impressively at the point-of-attack, which is what you want from an interior lineman. He’ll likely redshirt while adjusting to FBS football both on the field, the classroom and weight room.

At the beginning of spring ball Coach Holgorsen had said that the center spot was one of the spots he worried about the most. After the 15 practices were completed, this was no longer the case after the performances of Jack Freeman (6-3, 295, RSr.) and True freshman Demetrius Hunter (6-2, 300). “The best thing that happened to Jack Freeman was Kody Russey (last year’s starter),” Holgorsen said prior to the spring game in April. “Kody taught Jack how to be a leader. How to be professional and this is a totally different Jack Freeman that’s ever been here. He’s put 14 practices together that have been outstanding.” Freeman has played in 29 career games with 12 starts, but none (starts) last season.

Nicknamed “Pancake,” Hunter is a 4-star recruit out of West-Orange Stark that was originally committed to Oklahoma before head coach Lincoln Riley left for USC late last year. Usually, true freshmen don’t see much playing time along the offensive line, much less at center, but Hunter will be the exception as the nation’s top ranked center coming out of high school. Hunter is as explosive as he is tenacious at the point of attack.

“Demetrius Hunger is learning from Jack and he’s had 14 great practices too,” according to Holgorsen. “That’s two guys that we didn’t know we had prior to spring so we’re very happy with both of their performances.” Even Belk has been impressed with both Freeman and Hunter over the spring, highlighting that Freeman has had to block “a lot of different body types” this spring while calling Hunter “a special talent.”

Chase Todd (6-2, 300, RJr.) has seen action in just three games in his first three seasons after starting at every position at Crosby. Todd has used his first few years in the program to gain good weight, adding 20 pounds since signing in 2019.

In all, the OLine brings back players with 51 starts under their belt but remember that Cam Johnson played the majority of the snaps last season at left guard so the experience returning is really higher. This should help an offense looking to remain balanced as the Coogs look for a conference championship in their final season as members of the American Athletic Conference. Stay logged into Coogfans as we take a look at deep core of running backs.


Thanks, Jimmy

—Happy 4th !!! :firecracker:


I am really going into this season with the mentality that we are returning 4 starters. Tank and Paul started every game. Most will tell you Cam was just as good if not better rotating in at guard behind the veteran.
Freeman has starting experience and got to take a back seat learning behind a 5th year sr last season. He is ready to pick up where Russey finished. The question we will not knowing until the first game is how our transfers produce at RT.


Thanks Jimmy ! Another solid article with perceptive depth analysis…love it when CDH chimes in, then you know it’s good !
Happy 4th to All !!!


Thank you for posting. This is the first area that I always look at/study. Jimmy I can write to you that I can’t wait to see our OL play. I have not been this positive on this crucial area for us since the 80’s/1990.


Thanks for the compliments, all. I’m worried about the line too. We have six guys that have significant snaps on the college level (Paul, Johnson, Unije, Jenkins, Johnson and Freeman). Plus for having the entire line start every game last season they still allowed 38 sacks which is worrisome. But how many of those were on Tune for holding onto the ball too long in the pocket? I hadn’t re-watched every game to see. Hopefully they improve this year because the offense was still pretty impressive last season.


If you count Lance Robinson we have 7.
Feeling better yet? lol

What was great last season is this group staying healthy. It was a big reason for their improved play through the season.

I still see this as pretty much the same line with the RT a question but thinking if Robinson has to play on the outside he can at least do a good job in pass protection.





What’s everyone else going to eat?

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