Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s Dana Holgorsen Loves His Old Man Team — Age Isn’t Just a Number to Clayton Tune and the Coogs

Why a Veteran Team Provides an Invaluable Edge in College Football

BY // 08.21.22

Old is often thought of as a dirty word in sports. No one really wants to be called old in a world where many careers end before the age of 30. But college football is a little different. In the arena where Dana Holgorsen operates, maturity (both physically and mentally) can make a world of difference.

So excuse the University of Houston’s coach if he’s pumped to have an old team.

“That’s the one thing that’s kind of exciting about this team,” Holgorsen says. “We’re kind of a veteran team. We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of snaps. I believe our average age is like twenty one and a half.

“That’s pretty old. When you take everything into consideration. You’ve got some 17 and 18 year olds out there. But the average player on our team is about twenty one and a half.”

In college football, sometimes it literally is a case of the men against the boys. And it’s better to have the men. Coming off a breakthrough 12-2 season, UH definitely has them.

The Cougars roster is filled with older, experienced players. Quarterback Clayton Tune is a 23-year-old fifth-year senior who’s already started 30 college games. Safety Gervarrius Owens is also a 23-year-old senior with 29 starts on his resume. Strong man Derek Parish is a fifth-year senior who’s made 23 starts.  Even the younger guys are old in playing chops.

Middle linebacker Donavan Mutin, who UH defensive coordinator Doug Belk calls the Peyton Manning of the Cougars defense because of the way he gets everyone in the right positions, is still only 21. But he’s already started 28 games.

If you don’t realize what an edge all this old experience is, you understand college football about as well as Saul Goodman understands restraint.

“Teams that win are usually older teams,” Mutin says when I ask him about UH being old. “Guys that’s been through it. Understand what it takes. Understand what culture needs to look like. Understand what practice needs to look like.

“Those are the teams that usually win. Those are the teams that do well. You can look across at any team that wins at a high level, those teams are pushed and backed by — the backbone is their senior leadership and their older leadership.

“We’re at the point now where I’m four years into this scheme. We got dudes three, four years into this scheme. The offense has got continuity. They got time together. They’ve built a real rapport with the last few years of working, talking, hanging, going to get barbecue, whatever it may be. They built that.”

Holgorsen helped lay the foundation for the build with his then-controversial decision to redshirt a host of players during his first season in Houston in 2019. This UH coaching staff’s embrace of the transfer portal has also helped make the Cougars an older team.

Take Sack Avenue member Latrell Bankston, who has played in 22 college games even though last season was his first at Houston.

The University of Houston football team, led by head coach Dana Holgersen, held practice in their bubble.
University of Houston coach Dana Holgorsen is confident in where the program is. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This UH team is even old in spots where it looks young. Take the receivers room.

“We have six wideouts — seven wideouts that are repping,” Holgorsen says. “Six of them are freshmen. Now. it’s a little misleading. (West Virginia transfer) Sam Brown just turned 20. He’s got some playing experience. (USC transfer Joseph) Manjack has played. (Oklahoma transfer) Cody Jackson has played.

“They got four years of eligibility — most of them have four years of eligibility, I think Manjack’s got three — but they’re older.”

Sophomore nose guard Chidozie Nwankwo isn’t older, but he’s already made 15 college starts.

Dana Holgorsen’s Golden Year Cougars

Outside of receiver, most of this UH team’s other units are older — and experienced in Holgorsen and Belk’s systems. That makes a major difference in how the gameplans come to life. It’s one thing to come up with a good gameplan for an opponent. It’s another to get your team to execute it correctly.

Older teams tend to have a much higher rate of doing that.

“Younger guys, there tends to be more missed assignments,” senior defensive lineman D’Anthony Jones says when I ask about the difference. “We call them MAs. Certain things don’t really correlate with younger guys.

“But with an older team we’ve got everything locked down. Everyone knows what they’re doing. Everyone’s running to the ball. We’ve all have an expectation being older guys. We all have those same goals. No young minded dude coming in here, thinking they can run things their way.

“Everyone has the same goals. And we’re all trying to push to get that goal.”

Holgorsen can see the difference heading into his fourth season in Houston. It’s no coincidence that the coach with the flowing hair in back (a cut Sports Illustrated’s dubbed a skullet) and the Red Bull  habit seems a little more relaxed. There is reason to have some confidence in what’s to come.

“Teams that win are usually older teams. Guys that’s been through it. Understand what it takes. Understand what culture needs to look like.” — UH linebacker Donavan Mutin

The University of Houston is an older team. And that’s better than the world’s most plush security blanket.

“We built that,” Mutin says. “And it’s organic. It’s crazy too, this is my fifth year, I’m only 21. Like I’m younger than half the dudes that’s in grades younger than me, There’s dudes on their second, third year and they’re older than me.

“Like I’m the old guy. But not really. It’s crazy. We learn from each other. The age thing man. But I think it’s just everybody’s more mature in the system. We’ve had the same staff. Same coaches. Offensive, defensive schemes, special team schemes — for years now. People know the standards.

“. . . All that together just makes the boat go a little smoother. Teams like that are older, you have familiarity. You add that in all phases. — coaches, scheme wise on the field — those are the teams that win. We’ve got guys that know what it take. Guys that have been around.”

Old guys. One of most precious commodities in college football.

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