Houston Cougars 2023 Position Previews: Offensive Line

Houston Cougars 2023 position preview: Offensive line

By: Jimmy Schofield

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New OL Coach Eman Naghavi. Photo courtesy uhcougars.com

The 2023 Houston Cougars offensive philosophy may not change much since head coach Dana Holgorsen returns for his fifth season along Cullen Boulevard, however the two main assistant coaches charged with implementing said philosophy has changed. Though Holgorsen wrestled actual play calling duties with Shannon Dawson over the previous few seasons, the now University of Miami OC had plenty of experience at the job. The new hire, Mike Burchett, on the other hand, does not. But we’ll get more into the Burchett hire, or promotion, on our position preview on the quarterbacks in a few weeks. This article will focus more on previewing the players along the OLine, and new offensive line coach Eman Naghavi.

We just weren’t very good at it

That’s what Holgorsen said of last year’s run game, particularly in short yardage downs. The team averaged 142 yards-per-game rushing, ranking them 76th nationally on 4.59 yards-per-carry (50th). They rushed for just 17 touchdowns however (83rd). Passing wise, led by a veteran quarterback who’s now with the Arizona Cardinals (Clayton Tune), the offense averaged 36.1 points-per-game (16th), 314 yards passing (EIGHTH) with the offensive line giving up 23 sacks (50th) and 70 tackles-for-loss (62nd).

These were slight improvements (minus the rushing TDs) over the past few years as the offense averaged 142.6 YPP (85th) on the ground on 3.87 YPR (90th) and 27 TDs (32nd) in 2021. Tune led the passing attack to the ‘tune’ of 271.6 YPG (23rrd) in 2021.

So, with the offense seemingly getting better (numbers wise) over the past few seasons, why the change in offensive coordinator and OL coach? With a new starting QB for the first time in five seasons, the passing numbers are sure to go down. Running wise, it seemed the line just couldn’t get the push up front in short yardage situations which would often stall the offense. That’s a mentality and technique issue.

Enter Naghavi

“We just lost a little bit of a mentality up front. That’s why Eman Naghavi was hired,” Holgorsen said during his post spring ball presser, “because of his background. He’s from Katy High School (multiyear starter and a captain on the 03 state championship team). He was a three-year starter at McNeese State (from 05-08). He was part of turnarounds at McNeese, ULM (Louisiana-Monroe), Georgia State and finally Tulane, which was really what caught my eye.”

Tulane averaged nearly 205 YPG rushing last season (20th), more than 40 yards improvement over the previous season. The Green Wave also averaged 5.15 YPR (22nd) and crossed the goal line 34 times rushing (12th). “He’s a big part of the reason why they went from 2-10 to 12-2,” Holgorsen also said on a recent Scott & Holman Pawdcast, “To get him to come to Houston and mold this offensive line to what I think can be one of the best in the Big12.”

“He had a lot to do with that with his mentality of running the football and committing to it and coaching it the way that I’ve seen him coach it,” Holgorsen said during spring ball, “What his background is in the run game is what we want. The pass game won’t change much because me and Burch (new QB coach/offensive coordinator Mike Burchett) have been doing this a long time together.”

Physicality has kinda been my thing

Naghavi himself said early during spring ball, “Running the football, whether it’s where I’ve been or my background, it’s running the football or trying to find ways to scheme guys and getting them to play at their best. So I’m hoping physicality, attention to detail and running the football,” the first year offensive line coach said when asked what his coaching identity is.

Another reason for the change in OL coaches is recruiting. A number of high-level targets over the past few seasons had UH on their radar but pulled the trigger choosing a different team. NINE linemen leaving via the transfer portal this past off-season alone didn’t help matters (though a few of those were after former coach Brandon Jones was let go in February).

Now to preview the OL unit itself. It’s an experienced unit as they have a combined 140 returning starts (though a tad over 30 are from transfers from other programs). This is SIXTH nationally, per Phill Steele, and third in the Big12 behind Oklahoma and Texas Tech. The unit has five linemen who started games last season; Patrick Paul (6-7, 315, RSr.) at left tackle, Tyler Johnson (6-5, 320, RSr.) at right guard, Jack Freeman (6-3, 300, SS) at center, Tank Jenkins (6-3, 320, SS), who started the first two games at right guard before being usurped by Johnson, who will presumably move over to the left side because of Tank’s experience at RG (started all 14 games in 2021). Ruben Unije (6-5, 310, SS) also returns as a former starter, six games at LT in 2021 and two last season at right tackle. Holgorsen, on that same Scott & Holman Pawdcast, hinted those would probably be the starters heading into camp, “I’m fired up where we are on the O-line. It starts with being able to retain Patrick Paul and Jack Freeman and Tank Jenkins and Ruben Unije. Tyler Johnson had a great spring ball as well. Those five are solid starters with really good experience. Then we went out and got four transfers that are all here and look good. They’re excited about their roles and are getting coached the right way. I’d known Brandon (Jones, former OL coach) for 20 years but it gets to a point where you gotta change something. You gotta work on the run block thing if you wanna play at the next level. Eman is a Houston kid. Started at McNeese, loves football, and is one of the smarter guys I’ve met in the profession.”

Also returning from last season’s team are Jalen Garth (6-5, 305, RJr.), Demetrius “Pancake” Hunter (6-2, 300, RFr.), Karson Jones (6-4, 305, RFr.) and Tevin Shaw (6-4, 310, RFr.). The transfers Holgorsen mentioned are Shamar Hobdy-Lee (6-4, 308, RSr.), from Florida International, Max Banes (6-5, 310, SS), from Akron but making his second stop at UH, Peyton Dunn (6-6, 315, RJr.) via Louisiana Monroe and David Ndukwe (6-6, 309, RJr.), Western Kentucky. Cayden Bowie (6-3, 290) is the only true freshman that signed for the 2023 class, out of Port Arthur.

Paul is the lynchpin of the line as he has 32 career starts (27 the last two seasons with 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. The Jersey Village product has come a long way; after having switched from the defensive line at the prep level in 2018, Paul has become better each season along Cullen Blvd as he’s allowed just FOUR total sacks in nearly 3,000 snaps at LT (2,190 to be exact), per his bio at uhcougars.com, playing his way into a potential first round NFL draft pick next season. The only negative is sometimes he still has slow feet in getting out of his stance in pass rush situations as he had six holding penalties over the first six games of the season last year (but none in the last seven). Paul has also worked on his body throughout his four seasons, entering at 330 pounds as a true freshman to a svelte 315 on a massive 6-foot, 7-inch frame that’s made for engulfing opposing defensive ends and outside linebackers.

Freeman is the second most experienced returning starter as he has 25 starts at the all-important center spot (in 42 career games), over his five plus seasons. The Heritage High product (Midlothian) has allowed just five sacks in nearly 1,920 career snaps. Holgorsen has raved about Freeman’s leadership abilities over his career, saying “Freeman does a great job leading that group.”

Tank Jenkins will presumably start at right guard after having started in 16 consecutive games there (all of 2021 and the first two games last season), before being replaced by Tyler Johnson as Cam’Ron Johnson (now at Missouri) started all 13 games last season at left guard after splitting reps with Jenkins in 2021. After transferring to Houston from Texas A&M (where he didn’t play in 2018 and 2019), the Montgomery, Alabama native started on the scout team in 2020 (basically redshirting a third consecutive season) before starting in those 16 consecutive games and playing in 27 total games over the past two seasons. Though slendered down from the 350 pounds he played at his first season along Cullen Boulevard, 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 finally started to realize his potential last season, as the former 4-star recruit started 10 games at right guard after only participating in one game from the 2019 through 2021 seasons at the University of Texas. The Oak Ridge product allowed just one sack in 511 opportunities and was the sixth best ranked guard nationally in terms of pass blocking, per PFF while being sixth best in the AAC as a run blocker. 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 been playing as good as he’s been since he’s been here,” according to Holgorsen. Due mainly to various lower body injuries, the Bradenton, Florida native has participated in just 15 career games in three seasons, starting eight times (six at LT in 2020 and two last season at RT). Another 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.

Among the transfers who could make the biggest impact could be Hobdy-Lee and Dunn. Hobdy-Lee started 12 games last season at Florida International, including 11 at LT. Before that, the former 3-star rated recruit split time between the right and left tackle spots as a reserve over 12 games during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The Tampa, Florida native redshirted his true freshman season in 2019. The Jefferson High product was named the Football Network’s Conference USA All-Conference Second Team after playing in 804 snaps least season. Dunn meanwhile was a two-year starter at Louisiana-Monroe, having started in 21 games over the past two seasons after redshirting during the 2020 season. Dunn is the type of player Naghavi likes, a mean run blocker but he’ll have to improve his sets in the pass blocking game. The Brandon, Mississippi native (Jackson Prep) was also a three-year starter along the interior as well.

Banes returns to Houston for his ‘Super Senior’ season. After playing in 23 games from 2018 through 2021, split at both guard spots, the St. Thomas product left for Akron last season looking for more playing time, which he got. After averaging nearly 25 snaps per game in his four previous seasons at Houston, Banes averaged nearly 65 snaps at left guard in 8 games last season at Akron. The Houston native will provide serviceable depth along the interior.

Though Ndukwe is listed as a linebacker on his bio via the official roster, he’s the ultimate “project” at either tackle spot. With the defensive line being as deep as it is while the OL is not, I think it may have been a clerical error to list the Atlanta, Georgia native at LB. The former 3-star rated recruit has played in just 13 games over his three seasons at WKU but switched to OL from the DL last season where he also played at on the prep level at Arabia Mountain in Atlanta.

Bowie is the only true freshman signed for the 2023 recruiting class along the OLine. The left tackle was First-Team All-District last season as Port Arthur Memorial made it to the third round in the 5A playoffs. A torn ACL cost him his junior season in which he was trending as a 4-star per 247, but ultimately ended up as a highly ranked 3-star and the 109tth rated interior lineman, though he played tackle on the prep level.

As for the returning linemen, ‘Pancake’ Hunter “had a really good spring and we’re happy with what he did and how he’s progressing,” according to the head coach after spring ball. Hunter was a 4-star recruit out of West-Orange Stark that was originally committed to Oklahoma before head coach Lincoln Riley left for USC. The Orange, Texas native is as explosive as he is tenacious at the point of attack. Though he redshirted last season, not seeing any action, Hunter is seen as the next starter at center as this is Freeman’s last season.

Garth could be the ultimate wildcard as Holgorsen said, “I don’t know what he can do yet,” alluding to the fact that he didn’t get a waiver to play last season after transferring from Texas where he played during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. A knee injury took his 2019 season away at Port-Neches Groves and his first season at TU during the pandemic ridden 2020 season. In 2021, the former 4-star rated recruit played in just two games. Garth was ranked as the 152nd player nationally for the 2020 class (18th at offensive tackle and 23rd in Texas) via 247 which highlights his potential at either tackle spot.

Jones and Shaw are “young kids who have really improved” Holgorsen said about the two redshirt freshmen over spring ball. Jones, a potential future starter at tackle, was ranked as a high 3-star recruit 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 (Lubbock) product used the strength and conditioning program last season to add a solid 15 pounds to his 6-foot, 4-inch frame while Shaw added some 25-plus pounds on, going from 285 to 310 lbs which he’ll need in trenches at guard. The Manvel product was a highly rated 3-star recruit who’s 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.

Next week we preview who these linemen will be blocking for, a deep, physical and speedy group of running backs as we near the start of Fall camp in the Coogs inaugural season in the Big12!

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Thanks, Jimmy !! :+1: :football:

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The experience level of this group gives me some optimism about the upcoming season. Lots of redshirt seniors and super seniors which is exactly what you want in the OL. We will lose almost all of those guys at the close of the 2023 season. Then we will have to replenish through the portal, otherwise, we will have a very young inexperienced OL room in 2024.

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We lost numbers on the OL but more than half might have never seen the field at UH except for special teams.

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Love this meme. LOL!

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Of the position breakdowns, I think I was looking forward to this one the most. This one does not disappoint. Excellent article. You will not find this depth of reporting anywhere.

I was encouraged to read CDH acknowledge the OL’s deficiencies last year. This is an example of CDH’s honesty being a positive and not a negative. The coaching staff has clearly worked hard to address this issue,

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IMG_3547

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Thanks for the write up!

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I will never unsee that.

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Bbbb

Currently our OL has 4 Seniors including Grad Transfers, 4 Juniors, 2 Soph, 4 RS Freshmen, and 1 true freshman. That is as balanced as we have been in a very long time. CDH has worked hard to achieve this balance to overcome the deficiency he inherited. Paul is a Junior, but he will probably go pro after this season. The portal has brought in our junior class except for Paul. If we can keep his type of progression going forward, we should always have an experienced starting line with experienced backups. The experience and quality of the backups often mean the difference in how successful a team is. When there is a huge drop off from the starters, things can go south quickly – especially if a starter is injured.

No. Name HT Wt CL
50 Tyler Johnson 6-5 320 Jr
58 Shamar Hobdy-Lee 6-5 310 Jr
59 Demetrius Hunter 6-2 300 RFr
62 Karson Jones 6-4 305 RFr
65 Cayden Bowie 6-3 290 Fr
66 Peyton Dunn 6-7 315 Jr
68 Kaleb Davis - wo 6-3 305 RFr
70 Max Banes 6-5 310 Gr
71 Jaylen Garth 6-5 305 So
72 Tank Jenkins 6-3 320 Sr
74 Ruben Unije 6-5 310 Sr
75 Jack Freeman 6-3 300 Sr
76 Patrick Paul 6-7 315 Jr
77 David Ndukwe 6-6 309 So
79 Tevin Shaw 6-4 310 RFr

I am eager to see what Naghavi does with this group. I have high hopes.

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i didn’t know WVU had any good units. 10th is pretty low but surprised to see Bayor and Cincy below us.