Sunday night, I started sketching out my (mostly) weekly ‘5 things’ write-up about North Texas, determined not to miss 2 weeks in a row. Then, Monday happened.
While I felt an organic urge to write about this, I don’t think I could avoid this topic and portray myself as even an occasional writer of Houston Cougar content.
This past Monday began normally enough, with Dana Holgorsen sounding surprisingly upbeat on the AAC’s weekly conference call.
Then, in the early afternoon it was reported D’Eriq King would be sitting out the remainder of the 2019 season and using this year as his redshirt year as he'd only played the 4-game cutoff for a redshirt season. Everything was kind of ambiguous there for a moment and nobody conclusively knew if he was also staying in the program.
Unfortunately, the next bombshell clarified that ambiguity as diminutive Fox 26 'scoop guy' Mark Berman reported King would be leaving the UH program and entering the transfer portal. The news came not only with Berman’s ironclad reputation, but a direct quote from King’s father Eric about why his son was electing to play somewhere else.
We were already mentally moving on from King as the face of this program, then cryptic tweets from a diverse set of UH people, including Dane Roy and Houston Chronicle UH beat writer Joseph Duarte implied that more big news was coming.
Thankfully, the news was good: that King and fellow 4th year senior Keith Corbin would be redshirting and planning to return to the program for the 2020 season.
This still leaves open the possibly that one or both guys will have a change of heart and elect to finish their collegiate careers at a different school. On Tuesday, King directly addressed the redshirt decision at a press conference and doubled down on his desire to come back to UH for the 2020 season.
It was more unequivocal than anything I expected from King or any of the involved parties, although I didn’t find his explanation for Berman’s early reports too convincing. Answering questions at a press conference isn’t a binding verbal contract, but if King really is set on leaving this seems like overkill.
The obvious question both in the short and long term is: what’s next?
Offensively there will still be interesting players like Patrick Carr, Marquez Stevenson and Kyle Porter. There’s still the possibility that Courtney Lark joins Corbin in redshirting, as well (although, he's right at the 4-game limit). The offensive line personnel won't be affected either, which is maybe the best news for the remaining 2019 season.
Make no mistake, losing King means losing the best offensive player on the UH roster. It changes the dynamic of a rushing attack that’s been the clear highlight of an up and down Cougar offense.
Clayton Tune is far from a proven commodity as the new starter at QB, but I would push back on the notion that his 5 games and 117 pass attempts in 2018 tell us anything meaningful about his long-term trajectory. For all of last year's offensive success, Kendal Briles clearly had no idea how to cut back on what he called offensively for Tune (e.g. calling nearly 50 pass plays on the road at Memphis in Tune’s first career start).
Losing King and Corbin doesn’t guarantee this offense dramatically backslides. There are scenarios where the offensive line keeps playing at a high level like we saw against Tulane and Tune can lean on what is still a good group of backs and receivers.
But there’s no way to project this offense accurately and not admit that losing 2 of your 3 most dynamic offensive players is a negative for any 2019 success.
The defense is affected less by this new redshirt edict, although defensive captain Aymiel Fleming’s redshirt year hasn’t been used and it sure seems like that option is on the table for every 4th year senior.
That unit’s predicament is showing enough progress in 2019, however incremental, to get an itchy Cougar fan base to believe better defense is somewhere on the horizon. Against Tulane, 7 of the Coogs’ 11 defensive starters were players who entered the year with 1 or fewer collegiate starts.
In a uniquely awful situation, somehow the 2018 Cougar defense was historically bad and senior-heavy. This leaves DC Joe Cauthen and the UH defensive coaches with the unenviable task of trying to show measurable progress with a collection of inexperienced players learning a new system.
Believe it or not the ‘big picture’ could be rosier for the defense than their offensive counterparts. In 2020 transfers like DE/OLB Eyabi Anoma (Alabama), CB Marcus Jones (Troy), CB Kelvin Clemmons (Hutchinson CC/Minnesota) and S Thabo Mwaniki (Oklahoma State) become eligible.
The idea of a potentially elite pass rusher like Anoma paired up with David Anenih, who’s well on pace for double-digit sacks himself, is a mouth-watering one. Jones, an All-Sun Belt/Freshman All-American corner/return guy for some good Troy teams and Clemmons, a 3-star JuCO recruit from Hutchinson CC, will upgrade this team’s biggest positional weakness.
That’s the long-term hope: that this Cougar offense looks better for a full season and another offseason in Dana Holgorsen’s system and returns stronger with another year of King/Corbin and accompanied by a defense that once again has some genuine difference makers.
Since the NCAA changed the redshirt rule in 2018, no other Division 1-FBS program has taken the kind of radical approach Cougar football is ‘all in’ on now. I have no other data points to extrapolate on how this will play out for all parties involved.
Somebody will always be the first one to do something and good idea or not, this adventurous person (or people) ends up receive some level of scrutiny.