Two UH quarterbacks have 50/50 chance of starting

It was bound to come up in conversations when Donovan Smith transferred from Texas Tech to the University of Houston this offseason.

About that fourth-down-and-20 conversion …

“It’s crazy how I ended up here,” Smith said recently as the Cougars wrapped up spring practice. “I try not to bring it up, but every time I meet somebody new, they always bring it up.”

Last September, Smith engineered a double-overtime victory over the Cougars, the defining play a 21-yard pass to extend a drive in the first OT of the Red Raiders' 33-30 win.

So when the Cougars went in search of a quarterback in the transfer portal, it was a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, add ‘em.”

As the Cougars concluded spring workouts last week — less than five months before their debut season in the Big 12 — Smith was locked in a battle with sophomore Lucas Coley to be the starting quarterback for the Sept. 2 season opener against UTSA.

While a decision won’t be announced until sometime in August, Smith is considered the front-runner for QB1 status given his Big 12 experience.

Of course, the Cougars can just turn on the Week 2 game film to see Smith display his arm, legs and poise.

“His poise was something we watched up close and personal,” UH coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It wasn’t just that one (fourth-and-20) play. If you watch the totality of his plays, he’s pretty poised. He's got experience — and we need an older guy that has experience.”

Smith and Coley split reps 50/50 during the spring, Holgorsen said, because the Cougars fully expect to need both quarterbacks at some point this season. It was a change from previous springs for the Cougars, who for the first time in four years will have a new quarterback, Clayton Tune having finished his college career with nearly 12,000 passing yards.

“We were spoiled with Clayton,” said Michael Burchett, who enters his first season as UH’s quarterbacks coach. “He was a really good player and knew what we were doing offensively.”

This spring amounted to Holgorsen, Burchett and the rest of the offensive staff going into the laboratory and devising a new offensive formula. Smith and Coley have similar skill sets, Burchett said, which allows the Cougars to run the same offense regardless of which quarterback is on the field.

There are, however, some major changes around them. Gone are Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, an All-America wideout who led the nation with 17 receiving touchdowns last season, and reliable tight end Christian Trahan. UH’s new quarterback will inherit a couple of key pieces on the offensive line, namely left tackle Patrick Paul and center Jack Freeman, and benefit from the return of running back Alton McCaskill IV, who had 16 rushing touchdowns as a freshman before missing last season with a knee injury. Even with the loss of Dell, the Cougars return a talented, albeit inexperienced, receiving corps that includes Matthew Golden, Joseph Manjack IV and Sam Brown, transfers Joshua Cobbs (Wyoming) and Stephon Johnson (Oklahoma State) and heralded prep recruits Jonah Wilson (Dekaney) and Mikhail Harrison-Pilot (Temple).

This is Coley’s second season in Holgorsen’s system, while Smith was a quick learner in 15 spring practices.

“Lucas and Donovan are two very bright individuals,” Burchett said. “It gives you a new perspective on the offense when you must reteach it to somebody new. There are nuances in the offense that might not have come up because you haven’t been the quarterback. Those things come to light when you are going with a new quarterback.

“Those guys are pushing each other.”

Competition is nothing new for Smith, who passed for nearly 2,700 yards and 19 touchdowns in 21 career games at Tech. After beginning the season as the third-string quarterback, Smith made five starts, throwing for 350 yards in the win against UH, 331 yards in an OT win over Texas, and 359 yards and two touchdowns in a narrow loss to eventual Big 12 champion Kansas State.

“Competition always keeps you on your toes,” Smith said. “You’ve always got to have a good day every day. You try to do your best every day because the people in the room are going to give their best every day. It makes you want to be on your top game.”

Asked how he’s picked up the offense, Smith said he has benefited from having Holgorsen “in the back of your ear.”

“He’s been helpful with little things for me to learn, little things he sees for me to fix,” Smith said. “I feel good at this point. I feel like it’s second nature to me right now.”

Coley, a 2022 transfer from Arkansas, has made a similar climb up the depth chart. He was UH’s No. 3 quarterback to begin last season before impressing coaches during practice and moving into the backup spot at midseason. He saw limited action in three games.

“Last year was all about growth,” Coley said. “I learned a lot from (Tune) — how he handles adversity, how he handles the big lights, how he handles the easy wins and hard losses.”

Coley has quickly earned a reputation inside the locker room for his detailed preparation for practices and games.

“I feel like everything starts off the field,” Coley said. “I pride myself on watching more film than anyone. I pride myself on being early to every meeting, every practice. I feel that shows up on the field by being comfortable and being confident. When you do all the work on the back end, the front end becomes a lot easier.”

Holgorsen said he’s not ready to name a starter. There will be time for that later.

“Spring is over, but we’re not done coaching,” Holgorsen said. “They’re both going to play. They’re both going to need to play.”