Is it tanking if you don't get a draft pick for it? That's a question I wrestled with when trying to figure out what to call what Dana Holgorsen did with the Houston program during his first season in charge. After getting off to a 1-3 start that included losses to Oklahoma and Washington State, Holgorsen made a decision I don't know how many other coaches would be willing to make.
He essentially punted on 2019. Thanks to the NCAA's new rule that allows players to appear in four games and still take a redshirt, Holgorsen saw an opportunity to prepare his team to be in a better position come 2020. He convinced five of his senior starters -- including star quarterback D'Eriq King -- to take a four-game redshirt. Those seniors were part of a group that included 35 players redshirting overall. As you'd expect would happen in a situation like that, Houston struggled in 2019. Its deliberate lack of depth took a toll as the team suffered injuries, and the Cougars finished the season 4-8.
So was it tanking? I feel like the word "tanking" has such negative connotations. How about we call it "building for the future" instead? Entering the 2020 season, Houston is hoping that last year's efforts to "build for the future" pay off, and there's a decent chance they could. Let's take a look at a few reasons why this could be the case.
1. The Cougars have one of the most talented rosters in the Group of Five: Building for the future didn't go exactly as planned. When King decided to redshirt after starting the first four games of the season, he did so intending to return to Houston in 2020. Instead, King, like LeBron James before him, took his talents to South Beach as he joined the Hurricanes this offseason. The Cougars also lost two of their better offensive linemen from a unit last year that was bruised and battered. Left tackle Josh Jones was taken in the third round of the NFL Draft. Right tackle Jarrid Williams followed King to Miami (FL), though he waited until this spring to do so.
That leaves an offensive line without a lot of depth but more experience than you might realize. Four of the projected starters on the line in 2020 will be seniors, while 6-foot-7 Patrick Paul started the final three games of 2020 at left tackle and was able to take a redshirt. Still, the overall lack of depth is the most significant area of concern on this Houston team heading into 2020. It's a concern Houston hopes to overcome in other areas of the roster.
While 247Sports hasn't updated its talent rankings for the 2020 season, Houston's roster ranked second in the American Athletic Conference last season, just a sliver behind UCF for the top spot. Losing guys like King and Jones hurts that, but there's still plenty of talent overall.
You might remember that in 2016, Houston landed Ed Oliver as the cornerstone of its recruiting class. Oliver was a five-star prospect and the No. 6 overall player in his class. He was the biggest recruit in program history. Well, while Oliver left after three seasons, other members of that class -- which finished No. 36 nationally -- are still around. One of those players was Braylon Jones, who took a redshirt as a senior last season, and will likely start at center on the offensive line, as well as starting left guard Keenan Murphy. Running back Mulbah Car and receivers Marquez Stevenson and Keith Corbin were a part of that class as well, and the offense should benefit from their return.
2. The receiver corps is packed with playmakers. While it will be difficult to replace a player like King, Houston does have the benefit of having terrific playmakers at the receiver position. This was a group, led by Marquez Stevenson, that showed a propensity for making things happen after the catch. As a team, Houston receivers averaged 8.07 yards after the catch last season. That number finished seventh nationally, with two of the teams ahead of Houston being service academies (option offenses don't throw a lot of short passes). Other than Air Force and Navy, Houston was the only Group of Five program to finish in the top 10 of the category.
YAC per Reception
Stevenson deserves a large portion of the credit. He finished the year with 907 yards receiving on 52 receptions, both of which led the team. However, 556 of those 907 yards (61.3% of them) came after the catch. Stevenson averaged 10.69 yards after the catch per reception last season. Among FBS receivers with at least 50 targets in 2019, that number ranked fifth, behind names like DeVonta Smith, CeeDee Lamb and Brandon Aiyuk, but ahead of guys like Henry Ruggs, Ja'Marr Chase and Jerry Jeudy.
Antonio Gibson, Memphis
DeVonta Smith, Alabama
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State
Marquez Stevenson, Houston
Tutu Atwell, Louisville
Henry Ruggs III, Alabama
Tamorrion Terry, Florida State
Deangelo Antoine, FAU
Ronnie Bell, Michigan
Stevenson isn't alone, either. I mentioned earlier that Keith Corbin is returning, and he was one of the seniors who redshirted last season. In 2018, he caught 40 passes for 691 yards and 10 touchdowns. Then there's Tre'Von Bradley, who flashed signs of Stevenson-esque ability after the catch last season, averaging 9.63 yards after the catch per reception on 29 grabs.
Throw in Jeremy Singleton, who emerged as a reliable possession type in Corbin's absence last year, and juco transfer Nathaniel Dell, and Houston might have the best receiving corps in the AAC in 2020.
All of which would make Clayton Tune's chances of "replacing" King a bit better.
3. Clayton Tune isn't D'Eriq King, but he doesn't have to be. Tune was thrust into the starting role last year after King decided to redshirt. He is nowhere near as dynamic as King, but that doesn't mean he can't be a capable quarterback for the Cougars. In fact, Tune outperformed King in a couple of key areas last year. Tune had a higher touchdown rate, a higher completion rate, a higher on-target rate and averaged more yards per attempt than King did.
Of course, King's numbers last year were well below his career numbers, and four games weren't much of a sample size. Still, the numbers give a reason for hope with Tune, who spent much of last season dealing with a hamstring injury. Here's a look at how Tune performed in some key areas compared to the AAC's top four rated passers last season.
Yards per Attempt
Air Yards per Attempt
Brady White, Memphis
Dillon Gabriel, UCF
Shane Buechele, SMU
Holton Ahlers, East Carolina
Clayton Tune, Houston
As you can see, Tune holds up pretty well against them in most categories, but his interception rate was horrific in comparison. In fact, among 115 FBS QBs to throw at least 175 passes last season, Tune's interception rate of 5% ranked 111th. It was the glaring weakness in his game, and it's something he needs to improve on if Houston is going to bounce back and prove capable of competing in the AAC in 2020.
The hope is that with improved performance from the offensive line, Tune will improve some of his decisions, which could help limit turnovers and improve his accuracy overall.
4. An experienced defense should lead to better results. In 2019, the Houston defense allowed 19.1 points per game in the second half. Only SMU allowed more at 19.2 points per game. Of course, the Houston defense also allowed 16.5 points per game in the first half, which ranked 86th nationally. So, it wasn't exactly good in either half, but that difference between halves is a strong indication of how a thin unit would wear down over the course of 60 minutes. Particularly as the offense followed the same script (16.9 ppg in the first half, 13.2 ppg in second).
The good news is that defense returns nearly everybody. According to Bill Connelly's returning production rankings at ESPN.com, the Houston defense returns 93% of its production on the defensive side of the ball. That ranks third nationally behind only Georgia Tech and Rice. The units 10 leading tacklers all return. On the defensive line, Payton Turner, David Anenih and Derek Parish combined for 11 sacks and 20.5 TFL, and they're all back. Grant Stuard moves to the weakside linebacker spot after leading the team in both tackles (97) and TFL (9.5).
In the secondary, Deontay Anderson, Damarion Williams and Shaun Lewis all return. They will be buttressed by several transfers, including former Troy defensive back Marcus Jones. All of which adds up to a unit that might not have the star power it once held with Ed Oliver anchoring the defensive line, but provides plenty of depth. The kind of depth that should keep the unit from cratering in second halves again and allow the team to stay in more games.
All of which makes Houston one of the more interesting teams to follow in 2020. While I wouldn't call it a likely outcome, there's a chance this Cougars team rebounds from a 4-8 season to competing for an AAC title in 2020. Competing for an AAC title would also put the Cougars in contention for a New Year's Six spot, as the AAC has claimed that place in each of the past three seasons, and four times in the College Football Playoff's six-year history.
If it works out that way, whether you want to call Houston's 2019 strategy tanking or building for the future, you'll likely see plenty of other programs adopt the philosophy.