UH football: Transfer QB Donovan Smith looks like ideal fit

13-17 minutes 8/27/2023
There’s a special relationship between a quarterback and a center.
There’s an even greater trust between a quarterback and his blindside protector at left tackle.
At one point this offseason, Donovan Smith had neither.
Almost two months had gone by since Smith transferred to Houston from Texas Tech, and Jack Freeman had yet to say a word.
“In all honesty, I didn’t really know how I felt about Donovan,” Freeman said. “I didn’t talk to him for a month and a half. I didn’t say hardly any words to him. It was kind of a trust thing. I kept my boundaries, kept my guard up. Then one day he just said, ‘What’s up? ’ to me, and we ended up hanging out.”
Smith took Freeman, a two-year starting center for UH, and Patrick Paul, a two-time all-conference left tackle and NFL prospect, for a guys’ weekend back home in Las Vegas.
They sat at the pool. They ate at Smith’s favorite taco spot. Smith rolled out the red carpet and took his new teammates on a tour of UFC headquarters and introduced them to Dana White (Smith played youth football with White’s oldest son, Dana III). They walked the Las Vegas Strip.
“You don’t want to come in and say, ‘Hey, listen to me,’ ” Smith said. “You’ve got to prove yourself in certain things: work ethic, accountability, being on time every day. That’s when leading by example comes into play. You can’t really be vocal in those situations, because nobody knows what you’ve done. You haven’t done anything here.’ ”
Fourth-and-20
One day this summer, Freeman and Smith were watching highlights of UH’s game last season against Texas Tech.
“I wish he wouldn’t have beat us in overtime,” Freeman said of the Cougars' 33-30 double-overtime loss in Week 2. “I still make fun of him. I pulled up the UH highlights, and we get to that play … I immediately turn it off, and he starts laughing.”
That play was fourth down and 20. Ahead 27-20 in the first overtime, UH needed one final defensive stop. Smith converted a 21-yard pass. Two plays later, Tech tied the game, and Smith ran for the game-winning touchdown in the second OT.
“I try not to bring it up,” Smith said. “But every time I meet somebody new, they always bring it up.”
As Smith went through spring ball and the start of the summer conditioning program, coach Dana Holgorsen could see relationships begin to form with teammates.
“If you do it artificially, it doesn’t work,” Holgorsen said earlier this summer at Big 12 media days. “I think Donovan’s smart enough to come in and not be overbearing and come in and not force himself on other people. He’s a coach’s kid. He’s got three years’ experience on this level. He’s been starting quarterback. He’s been backup quarterback. He’s been team captain. He’s been second fiddle. He’s been a guy who I think his upbringing as a coach’s kid prepares you for that. So he’s mature and smart enough to come in and let it naturally happen.”
Time went on, and Smith began to prove himself on the field.
From rival to teammate.
From new guy to potential leader.
“You really see him stepping into everything,” outside linebacker Hassan Hypolite said. “I know he’s willing to do and ready to do. I watch him go out and work every day. He’s a hungry kid.”
Freeman helped Smith mount a TV in his apartment. They’re regularly on a group chat and go out to dinner. When Smith is out of town, his teammates stop by his apartment and feed his cat, Tev.
Holgorsen officially named Smith the starter on the final day of preseason camp Aug. 19.
“This is Donovan’s team,” Holgorsen said.
Natural from start
DeAndre Smith has seen the ability for his youngest son to excel since he became a quarterback in an organized kids league in Ohio at 5 years old. Young Donovan took the ball, faked a handoff, instinctively switched the ball to his outside arm and “made little kids miss and scored.”
“I hadn’t spent any time showing him anything like that,” said DeAndre, the running backs coach for the Indianapolis Colts. “He just naturally, the first time he got a ball in his hand, had the ability to make plays and run.”
That’s how it’s always been for Donovan. Like the time he took a bounce pass on the baseline and dunked for the first time as an eighth-grader.
“Where did that come from?” DeAndre asked.
“I don’t know. I just jumped,” Donovan replied.
Smith was a three-sport star (football, basketball and track) at national powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Nevada. He had a record-setting senior season at Frenship in Wolfforth, a suburb outside Lubbock. On the basketball court, Smith was the district’s newcomer of the year.
“He kind of has that ability, the more he does something, the better he excels at it,” DeAndre said.
Donovan is the third member of his family to play college football. DeAndre, an option quarterback at Southwest Missouri State, was named the Gateway Conference player of the decade (1985-95). Older brother Ryan was a slot receiver, return man and sprinter at Duke.
Off the field, Donovan has a wide range of hobbies. He has hosted a YouTube channel and customized sneakers. He loves to cook; his specialties are breakfast (including heart-shaped pancakes for his mother, Lori, on Mother’s Day) and red-velvet cupcakes.
“He’s always been an interesting, fun kid that likes to stay busy,” DeAndre said.
When Donovan was in second or third grade, Lori recalled, she bought a case of blank writing books. One of his first stories: “My Cat is Crazy.”
“Whatever he was thinking about at that moment,” Lori said.
In the sixth grade, Donovan watched “The Hunger Games” and became interested in archery. DeAndre bought Donovan a bow and arrow so he could practice in the backyard at the family’s home in Syracuse, N.Y. The first time he picked up a bow and arrow at an indoor facility in Las Vegas, Smith hit a bull’s-eye.
“I feel confident enough to shoot an apple off somebody’s head,” Smith said.
He grinned.
“Maybe use foam tips.”
‘He’s a quarterback’
DeAndre Smith wants to set the record straight.
“Donovan’s always been a quarterback,” he said.
Donovan was a backup quarterback at Bishop Gorman and briefly moved to receiver as a junior, hauling in 49 passes for 806 yards and eight touchdowns as the school won a 10th straight state title in 2018.
“That’s the only time he’s ever played receiver,” DeAndre said. “He’s always been a quarterback.”
When DeAndre followed Matt Wells from Utah State to Texas Tech, Donovan joined his dad in West Texas. Frenship, which finished 0-10 and 3-7 in the previous two seasons, went 7-4 and made the playoffs with Smith at quarterback.
“It’s been a few years, but he’s not a guy you forget,” Frenship coach Jay Northcutt said.
In his only season, Smith threw 3,123 yards and 25 touchdowns and added 489 rushing yards and 13 TDs. He still holds the school single-game records for completion percentage (94.1 percent vs. Odessa High) and total touchdowns (eight vs. Lubbock Cooper).
“He can make any kind of throw you need,” Northcutt said. “He can keep the play alive with his legs. He wants the ball in his hands. He wants to go make the big play for you when the game is on the line.”
At Frenship, Northcutt said, Smith was a “physical, big 'ol kid” at 6-foot-4½ and 210 pounds. He’s currently listed at 6-5 and 241 on Houston’s roster.
And Smith’s not afraid of contact. A YouTube video shows him delivering a pancake block in a game against North Carolina State last season.
“He kind of reminds me of a Cam Newton type,” Hypolite said.
Smith finally got his chance in his second season at Tech, throwing for nearly 200 yards and a touchdown in the second half of a lopsided loss to Oklahoma.
“He came out and was not fazed at all,” DeAndre Smith said. “I didn’t see that at that point in practice. He just went out there like it was nothing.”
With regular starter Tyler Shough still nursing a shoulder injury, Smith got his first career start the following week. He threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-38 win over Iowa State.
“After the Iowa State game, I was like, ‘Yeah, he can do it,’ ” DeAndre said.
Smith went 2-2 as Tech’s starter down the stretch, including a win over Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl. He was named the game’s most valuable player, and DeAndre used highlights from the game as part of his interview with the New York Giants.
Smith led the Red Raiders to two of their biggest wins last season, against Houston and in overtime against Texas, and had 359 yards and three total touchdowns in a near-miss against eventual Big 12 champion Kansas State. He injured his shoulder on a touchdown run against the Longhorns and made only one more start the rest of the season.
Smith went 4-4 as Tech’s starter. Six of the games were against Top 25 opponents. In 21 career games, Smith completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,686 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
“Some of the experiences I may not have won, but I felt like I won in the long run,” Smith said. “I was able to understand where my game was and where I could improve.”
Smith left a crowded Tech quarterback room in the offseason and entered the transfer portal.
“I just felt the need to go somewhere else and play,” Smith said.
Tech coach Joey McGuire offered to help him in the search for a new school.
“Houston got a great human, a really good football player,” McGuire said at this year's Big 12 spring meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He did it the right way. He came into my office, sat down face to face, everything just class.”
Passing the torch
At the time Smith entered the transfer portal, Houston was in search of an experienced quarterback to replace Clayton Tune, a four-year starter who finished as the program’s third-leading passer with 11,996 yards. Holgorsen and his staff made Smith their top portal target.
On the visit to campus, Paul took Smith and his family to breakfast. Tune and Tank Dell also played a role in the recruiting process.
“I think his character and his demeanor are something that coaches are looking for and will help him when he starts playing,” Tune said.
Asked what advice he would give Smith, Tune added: “I think this is not just being the quarterback at Houston, but any quarterback: Just learn to deal with adversity; learn to deal with success. Don’t be too up or too down.”
Smith saw enough on his visit. He liked the vibe in the locker room. He liked Holgorsen and the staff. He was a big-city guy.
“I feel really good about it,” Smith said. “There’s no need for me to go look at other schools. This is where I feel comfortable.”
Smith told his parents to cancel any other planned visits.
“He pulled the trigger on his own,” DeAndre Smith said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to stay here.’ I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ ”
In a video posted on social media, Dell handed Smith a black No. 1 UH jersey. Tune tossed him a football. It was a symbolic passing of the torch.
UH had its next quarterback.
“The expectations are high for Donovan,” Holgorsen said. “I felt like it was important to bring a guy in with experience, with Big 12 experience. I think his best days are ahead of him.”
‘Another chance’
It’s the second half, and a once 14-point lead over No. 25 Houston had evaporated as Jayce Rogers returned an interception thrown by Smith for a 54-yard touchdown to tie the game.
UH took a 20-17 lead on a 35-yard field goal by Bubba Baxa, set up when Smith was sacked by Derek Parish and two plays later intercepted by Gervarrius Owens.
Thirty-seven seconds left on the clock.
Smith looked up at the crowd, which had started to leave Jones AT&T Stadium.
“Oh man, they kind of feel like the game is over,” Smith recalled. “We have another play, another chance.”
Smith methodically led the Red Raiders on a six-play, 46-yard drive to set up a field goal to force overtime.
“I easily could have freaked out and gone away from what I was taught,” Smith said. “Just be calm and don’t stress out about any situation, because you don’t know what can happen and the outcome.”
Houston scored a touchdown — a 15-yard catch by Matthew Golden — on its first possession of overtime. Backed up at the 35-yard line, and faced with fourth-and-20, Smith scrambled to his right and found Jerand Bradley for a 21-yard gain.
Houston settled for a field goal in the second OT, and Smith completed the improbable win with a 9-yard touchdown run.
“We should have won, and it still makes me sick and makes me want to go be by myself when I think about it,” Holgorsen said. “The good news is the guy that made the play is on our team.”
If you can’t beat ‘em, sign ‘em.
“It was crazy how I ended up here,” Smith said. “I’m not the new guy anymore. I’m comfortable.”

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