Houston football has a major quarterback battle on its hands

Nov 4, 2023; Waco, Texas, USA;  Houston Cougars quarterback Donovan Smith (1) waves goodbye to the
Nov 4, 2023; Waco, Texas, USA; Houston Cougars quarterback Donovan Smith (1) waves goodbye to the / Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Houston football has kicked off the first spring football practices of the Willie Fritz era. While much of America has been focused on March Madness and the No. 1 seeded Houston Cougars hoops team, Fritz continues to work towards playing off that momentum and building a football powerhouse in Houston.

But who will take the snaps this fall? 

Kelvin Sampson’s “signal caller” is Jamal Shead, the Cougs’ point guard who was a Player of the Year finalist, the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, Big 12 Player of the Year, and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Fritz came into Houston eager to build Donovan Smith into a similar success. Smith transferred to Houston from Texas Tech last January and, under former head coach Dana Holgorsen, made game-winning plays in two of the four wins Houston had last fall. He’s a giant with a cannon. His 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame ran over Baylor defenders into the end zone and came with an arm that hit Stephon “Boogie” Johnson with a game-winning bomb that traveled half a football field in the air. 

But Smith will miss the majority of spring practice drills healing a shoulder injury sustained, and played through, last season. He's participating in non-contact and non-throwing aspects of spring practice, engaging and learning with the quarterback room and quarterbacks coach Shawn Bell. That’s meant a ton of mental reps. But in terms of physical reps, Smith can’t take very many right now. Had Smith been healthy it may have been his job to lose… and, in some ways, he’s already proven it probably should be. 

But spring practices for new offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay will be instrumental in setting the tone for the new era of Houston football.

This opens the door for other contestants to take the first snaps under Fritz, namely new transfer Zeon Chriss. He transferred to Houston from Louisiana in January of 2024, a year after Smith, and brings a very different skill set. Chriss can “boogie” himself. The electric dual-threat quarterback lit up the Sun Belt and caught Fritz’s eyes. He’s taking the opportunity and running with it, literally.

Chriss had 6.7 yards per carry along with six rushing touchdowns last season, shortened by four games with a broken fibula. He also completed the only pass in Division I football last season to travel more than 60 yards in the air. In Houston's spring game, the Cougs hope to see a bit of both.

But folks who stomached the pain of last season, where the Cougars went 4-8 and fired Dana Holgorsen remember the name Ui Ale. He's back and active in spring, entering his junior season as a Cougar quarterback. Ale embodied the “everyone’s favorite player is the backup quarterback” mantra, and the talk only got louder after his first collegiate pass. The 58-yard touchdown to Stacy Sneed was heard 'round the world… or at least on Houston message boards. Some pointed out the ball traveled less than 20 yards in the air, and that Sneed did much of the work. Others touted the timing and vision of Ale, a Carson, Calif., native. His moments in the spotlight were brief, but the potential had fans wondering -- optimistically -- what could have been.

For what it’s worth, Ale had to fight to be the second string quarterback a season ago. Publicly, Holgorsen was undecided between Smith and Lucas Coley, a 2022 transfer from Arkansas. Coley, who is still on the Houston roster, had a chance to start for Houston last season before falling behind Ale in the depth chart. Is it Ale’s turn to make a similar leap on the roster this fall? Further, Redshirt Freshman Caleb McMickle appears to be making headway and could also find his way onto the depth chart.

Fritz and the Houston Cougars have a plethora of talent at wide receiver. Joseph Manjack IV, Sam Brown Jr., Boogie Johnson, and Jonah Wilson all highlight a wide receiver room that adds redshirt freshman and former four-star prospect Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Georgia transfer Mekhi Mews. But who will throw them the ball when the Cougars host UNLV? And when will Fritz’s staff make that decision? Do Cougar fans have to wait until late August?