Houston Cougars Top 10 Returning Players in 2023 Include Donovan Smith, Matthew Golden

Dana Holgorsen and the Houston Cougars enter a new era when they arrive to the Big 12 in 2023, and the move brings excitement with it. How will the Coogs fare? Houston’s Top 10 Returning Players give us a glimpse of the future of Houston football.

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Houston Cougars Top 10 Returners in 2023

Analyzing the returning players at every school is a difficult task in the transfer portal area. As such, we’ve included transfer-portal athletes that were included on each team’s roster page to open fall camp in addition to the rostered players from last year.

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1) Matthew Golden, WR

Losing WR Tank Dell leaves a big hole in the Houston Cougars offense, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Holgorsen’s staff worked hard to bring in talent behind him, even if they need time to develop.

Matthew Golden returns after a solid freshman campaign. He caught 38 passes for 584 yards and 7 touchdowns last year, and fans hope he can take his game to another level in 2023.

The former four-star arrived in Houston with high expectations, and now he’s hoping to meet those by following in Dell’s footsteps.

2) Chidozie Nwankwo, NG

If you’re looking for arguably the most underrated player in college football, Chidozie Nwankwo gives you a strong candidate. Literally.

He may be undersized at 5’11”, 295 pounds, but he makes up for that with a solid anchor, power, and the strength to command double teams on a regular basis.

Houston’s defense took a step back last year, but there’s a reason to believe this group can improve in 2023. The defensive line returns a number of players in this Top 10 that will make this unit better, and Nwankwo leads the charge.

3) David Ugwoegbu, EDGE

Initially, when Ugwoegbu transferred to the Houston Cougars, the thought was that he’d help a linebacker unit that lost plenty of talent. The Coogs and defensive line coach Brian Early had other plans.

Ugwoegbu recorded 109 tackles at Oklahoma last year, but Early and the defensive staff saw his potential on the edge. The explosiveness he brings to the table will help ease the losses of Derek Parish and D’Anthony Jones, and give the Houston defense a formidable tandem on the edge.

4) Patrick Paul, OT

If Patrick Paul plays to his potential, he’s the best player on this team, easily. At 6’7″ and 315 pounds, Paul already has the attention of scouts at the next level.

The length jumps out on film, and the tenacity he brings to the position helps him thrive against the pass rushers he faces.

He’s a tone-setter for an offense that will need that heading into the Big 12, and he gives Donovan Smith a safety blanket knowing he’ll have time to throw. If he can clean up some of the mental errors, he’ll be in the conversation for the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

5) Nelson Ceaser, EDGE

We finally got a glimpse of what Nelson Ceaser can do as a regular contributor last year, and the results told us that 2023 could be entertaining. He returns after a season in which he notched 10 tackles for a loss and 4 sacks.

Another year of learning from Early means we should expect bigger things this year.

Ceaser came to Houston as a linebacker but moved quickly to the edge (a growing theme with their recruits). His instincts as a linebacker helped him sniff out plays, and his raw skill set helped him mold into an explosive edge rusher.

Now he gets to put that combination to good use, and that will be huge for this defense.

MORE: All-Big 12 Preseason Individual & Team Honors

6) Donovan Smith, QB

Houston Cougars fans are currently navigating mixed feelings with Donovan Smith. Many of them still have flashbacks of Smith slicing up their defense in 2022, but they’re also getting the relief of knowing he can’t hurt them anymore.

He’ll only help at this point.

Smith’s a massive quarterback, coming in at 6’5″ and 241 pounds. He’s an athletic player who showed some promising potential as a passer too.

Clayton Tune did wonders for the Cougars’ offense, and the fanbase hopes that Smith can benefit from the same system that turned Tune into an NFL Draft pick.

7) Sedrick Williams, DT

Another underrated player right next to Nwankwo, Sedrick Williams saw his career put on hold two years ago thanks to an injury. So he had to find his footing all over again in 2022, but he quickly showed why he earned a starting spot for the Coogs’ defense.

Williams benefits from teams allocating extra resources toward other players on the line, but they’ll quickly learn that Williams can make them pay. After producing seven tackles for loss last year, he’s hoping to break out even more this year.

8) Adari Haulcy, S

Some losses and reshuffling of personnel left holes in the secondary, but the staff quickly addressed that by hitting the transfer portal. Haulcy found a way to stand out at New Mexico and turned that into a ticket back home.

The Missouri City native comes to the Houston Cougars to help a secondary that finds their back against the wall.

If the Coogs improve even slightly in stopping the pass, the team should take huge strides this year. Haulcy provided a lot for the Lobos’ defense, so it will be interesting to see how he’s utilized in a new defense.

9) Stacy Sneed, RB

Holgorsen’s Air Raid attack continues to run the football more, but it still needs the backs to be efficient when they get opportunities. Stacy Sneed provided that last year. He carried the ball the least of the four main ball carriers last year, but he yielded the highest average at 6.6 yards per carry.

With Brandon Campbell back and Tony Mathis coming in from West Virginia, the Houston Cougars are locked in for a solid year running the football. Right now, Sneed could be the focal point, but there are plenty of mouths to feed in this offense too.

10) Josh Cobbs, WR

Adding a wide receiver transfer from Wyoming doesn’t always move the meter, but that stems from the lack of production in that offense. Josh Cobbs brings great size to the Houston Cougars’ passing attack at 6’4″ and 204 pounds, and the staff hopes he can be that big-time vertical threat for his offense.

Tank Dell commanded most of the attention last year, but rarely did we see him consistently take the top off the defense. This year’s team doesn’t appear to be a one-man show, which is good for the group as a whole.

That just means someone needs to stretch the field vertically, and Cobbs could be that guy.