2016 Football Season Preview

Welcome to the MGN 2016 Season Preview

I’ve treated this in years past as an exercise in self-education, never an obligation, nor a cry for page views. While I am certainly obsessive about my interests, I try to keep enough of a balance in my life that no one passion becomes all-consuming or overwhelming. Not being completely up-to-date with every ounce of information means that you can enjoy learning and discovering a bit about a topic once you are ready. So it is with Mean Green Football and you.

Do not feel bad for being unfamiliar with the entire roster, the coaching staff, or the entire history. That is what this season preview is for. Read it, remember a tidbit or two and refer back to it to guide you as you follow your favorite college football team. Or your second favorite college football team if that is the case. It is often the case with NT alumni. I do not judge you. I am your friend.

Guide

Click the ☝ to go back to the top as you go through the preview.

  1. Overview
  2. Coaching
  3. Offense
  4. QBs
  5. RBs
  6. WRs
  7. TE/H-backs
  8. Offensive Line
  9. Defense
  10. Defensive Line
  11. LBs
  12. DBs
  13. Special Teams
  14. Schedule and Predictions
  15. Recruiting

Overview

North Texas football program is in a precarious position. Through a series of very unfortunate bouts of mismanagement by a combination of the former athletic director, coaching staff, and players the Mean Green Football team is coming off a one-win season that included a 59-point loss to the FCS-dwelling Portland State Vikings. We were embarrassed, the coach was fired, most of the existing staff was let go and will be forever stained by the experience.

Athletic Director Rick Villarreal “stepped down” but before he left he hired a first-time head coach with a reputation for offensive fireworks, a down-home demeanor, and a no-nonsense public speaking persona. That person is Seth Littrell. The hire was a classic pendulum reaction as Dan McCarney was a long-time head coach, defensive, and good for a quote.

In January 2014, North Texas looked to be on solid ground coming off a bowl win, a new stadium, and a new, richer conference with Texas teams. Here at the start of the 2016 season Seth Littrell has only 68 scholarship players, is in the middle of a facilities arms race with no ammunition (read: donations), the lowest attendance of the Apogee era, and the threat of conference realignment looming.

Here is what I wrote after NT was destroyed by MTSU in November

Whoever [the coach is] will have the blankest of slates. Any progress next year will be met with round of applause. It will be basically like 2011 all over again. And that’s the problem isn’t it? This program went backwards.
Its not an unusual thing. College football by its nature, is unstable. Every four years we get a new crop of players. This fall has been different. It looks more like we didn’t fall from greatness, but more that we had a blip of a great season in the midst of a sea of awful bad.
North Texas is a tough job. It can be a great job — any program can be — but it will take a unified effort from the administration, the athletic department, and the coaching staff to make it one. And that means winning. It means the cash to pay these guys, it means scheduling a decent football schedule, it means finding and developing the right players, and it means each player working on their game.

While you as a fan will likely want to quickly skip past this season, there are plenty of reasons to watch. Not the least of which will be tracking the growth of a young team grow into what we hope will be a conference champion in three or four years.

The schedule is tough, the future uncertain, and the coaches — and players — inexperienced. There is very little to know about the how but the what has already been predicted. Many losses.

Coaching

Seth Littrell needs some patience from you. When the season starts the temptation to place weight on the outcome will be great. Resist. Such is the nature of opening day. It would also be foolish to have very high expectations. We will not be able to ascertain his quality as a coach until he makes over the roster to his liking, and subsequently coaches them into the types of players he wants.

Is that in three years? Is that in four? Should we give him the benefit of the doubt considering the situation he inherited and maybe tack on a few more years of qualified demands?

These are nigh-unanswerable questions right now. The task at hand — preparing his team for the rigors of a season with basically zero FBS quality depth is enormous. Even the most skeptical North Texas fan will admit that this roster has talent at positions of note. Jeffery Wilson, Tee Goree, Fred Scott, and Kishawn McClain are capable of good things – maybe even great things. Beyond that, Seth is trying to fill in spots with JUCO guys to hedge against the inevitable injury, suspension, or poor play.1 It is a tough task, but one for which Seth Littrell signed up.

The staff coaching offense is intriguing. Offensive Coordinator Graham Harrell is a college football legend in this state. While the high school recruits he is recruiting are probably too young remember him playing, their coaches and parents likely are not. If nothing else, he and Joel Filani – another in the Air Raid/Mike Leach/Texas Tech line – bring first hand knowledge of the offensive system that is wildly popular throughout the state.

The run-first system of the McCarney era was unfairly derided and misunderstood as a philosophy . It was rightly criticized for its ineffectiveness. 2 The post Derek Thompson years were the two worst offensive displays in at least a decade. If Littrell can simply produce NCAA-average quarterback play from presumptive starter Alec Morris this season we may have reason to proclaim the new staff as better than the old one.

It will be difficult to judge Harrell fairly outside of that. With the depth chart similar to newly-promoted FBS squads, we should probably have the expectations of a new FBS program: somewhat competitive, playing for the future, incremental improvement. We would be doing disservice to ourselves to expect anything beyond that, but even I will be hard-pressed to remember that on September 3rd.

The marketing points – youth, excitement, scoring – will be quickly forgotten once the games are played, as they are every year. With only limited potential for on-field success likely, qualified success and off-field accomplishments will have to be our gauge. That is to say we will watch closely for moral victories, recruiting wins, and incremental improvement.

Defensively, coordinator Mike Ekeler joins the staff from Georgia, where he was praised for his position coaching. Molding a defense with some talents but that is coming off a season in which it was roasted for gobs of yardage and points will be tough. He is coaching the defense along side Troy Reffett, formerly of ULM fame and together they will bring the squad into a 3-3-5 alignment. 3

While the current defensive roster was recruited to play under both versions of the 4-3 coached by former DCs John Skaladany and Chris Cosh, the lack of depth along the defensive line, and with the relative size disparity of a CUSA roster means the new 3-3-5 is ideal for our roster. The attacking variety was designed by current Texas Longhorn coach Charlie Strong for his outmanned South Carolina defense 16 years ago which had similar issues. Necessity being the mother of invention, etc.

Ekeler and Reffet will spend this season looking for players who can fit the system for the long-haul, while developing and shaping it to suit the talent at hand. There will be lineup changes, and subtle shifts in alignment and scheme along the way. Their progression ideally will look like Skladany’s squads during his time leading up to the vaunted 2013 defense that was the ideal mix of scheme and talent and produced memories that will last for a long time.

Offense

Graham Harrell is the coordinator but we know this is Seth Littrell’s offense. He was hired for his capabilities as a coordinator and play caller and while he hired friend and qualified candidate Graham Harrell, all eyes will be on Seth Littrell when senior QB Alec Morris lines up.

The frustrating predictably of the McCarney regime, along with the developmental questions that produced two of the worst seasons in UNT football history. Unfortunately, the cupboard is bare. Alec Morris was brought in to be the starter and is only challenged by a former walk-on.

RB Jeffery Wilson was the lone bright spot last season, and he and Wily Ivery lead a very thin running back stable that still might be the most talented position group through and through. WR Tee Goree can produce a highlight catch, but can he fill the shoes left by Carlos Harris, and before him Brelen Chancellor?

Can the OL stay healthy and pass block?

Yes, there are a lot of questions to be answered this season, and all we can do now is project players who played in a power-spread amalgamation under McCarney/Canales into a spread-and-shred modern Air Raid system. The history shows that such as transition is an ugly one, with some big numbers that look good in the stat sheet, but equally garish sloppy play.4

There will be sloppy play. Not only is the transition a factor, but so too is the depth. Yes, that again. Littrell/Harrell are going to play fast and require their receivers to do a lot of running. That means the fast-dwindling roster of pass-catchers need to be productive or Alec Morris will throw lots of incomplete passes – at best.

The great news is that it cannot possibly be worse than last year, where the only hope for much of the year was that departed QB DaMarcus Smith would scramble for a score.

Given the staff, it is reasonable to expect something approaching the look of Mike Leach/UNC offense we saw. But Harrell and Littrell aren’t the Pirate and this roster, and this conference, and this era make the circumstances ripe for innovation and improvisation. Expect some differences from Washington State / Texas Tech.

Offensive Coaches:

Graham Harrell – Offensive Coordinator
Tommy Mainord – Associate HC/Pass Game Coordinator/ Inside WRs
Joel Filani – Wide Receivers
Tommy Perry – Running Backs
Brad Davis – Run Game Coordinator / OL

QBs

Alec Morris is the starter, and you should really appreciate it. He can sling the ball around and seems like the best option. Quinn Shanbour is the backup that is quite frankly ridiculous. I do not mean to unnecessarily knock QS, but only to point out that three years after Derek Thompson graduated, the QB situation is such that a walk-on beat out a projected TE. And so Littrell had to bring in a guy that could run the show.

Alec Morris had great highlights in high school, spent most of the last half-decade under the best college football coach we have right now, and learned winning football. We do not know much about his abilities to run the Air Raid, but he at last brings knowledge of a first-class program. That is invaluable now. Thus far he has the accuracy, poise, and confidence of the coaches and the players.

Quinn Shanbour, my snide comments aside, showed some ability in the spring game. He earned a scholarship to play football, which is more than I can say for myself. His running talents were the most impressive thing on display during the Spring ‘scrimmage’. With questions along every roster spot save for the RB position, that may be more useful than knowledge of Saban’s program. That said, we thought the same thing about DaMarcus Smith. Barring injury or blowouts in our favor, Quinn will likely only get repetitions in game situations if Alec Morris is spectacularly awful. In that case, we will see if he can fire TD passes to defenses with more skins on the wall than the Spring version of the NT defense.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
5 Alec Morris 6-3 233 SR Allen, TX Alabama
19 Quinn Shanbour 6-0 191 RS JR Oklahoma City, OK Heritage Hall HS
18 Devin O’Hara 6-5 211 JR Arlington Heights, IL College of Dupage
6 Mason Fine 5-11 170 FR Locust Grove, OK Locust Grove HS
10 Mitch Cason 6-2 183 FR Flower Mound Marcus HS

Devin O’Hara will probably take Quinn Shanbour’s #2 position by the end of fall practice. He was brought in to “compete” for the starting gig, but that likely means next year. He has good size, decent mobility and put up okay numbers at College of Dupage. He has the most game experience out of anyone on depth chart here and that should factor in to the battle for backup.

Mitch Cason and Mason Fine are the freshmen. Fine is the one whom you know from signing day, Cason the walk-on. Fine is the future as he is the only HS recruit Littrell brought in this last class. If the plan is truly to bring in a new HS quarterback every February, Mason Fine is the first of many to come. His development will be closely monitored. He throws a nice ball, has good accuracy and can use some time in the strength program. He is the shortest of the crew, but that should not hurt him as much as it would have under the previous regime.

RBs

Since 2004, North Texas has produced two national rushing champions and three NFL running backs. Post Lance Dunbar, Brandin Byrd, Reggie Pegram, and Antoine Jimmerson have at least shown hints of all-conference ability. And now? Jeffery Wilson, whose Adrian Peterson-like running style was the lone bright spot in a poor offensive season carries the feature back role.

To the layperson the change in offense may portend less carries and a smaller role for Wilson. Depending on how everything fits together, that very well may be the case but the change in offense will not be the reason. In recent seasons North Carolina and Texas Tech, two Air Raid teams, have produced 1000-yard backs. Wide splits and four-wide sets mean there are more spaces for a speedy back like Wilson to rampage through. Against Marshall, one of the best against the run last season, he tore up the Herd with little or no help from the pass game. Here is video evidence.

We have every reason to believe he will do more of the same, given some support and maintenance of health. If not, there is always Willy Ivery.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
26 Jeffrey Wilson 6-0 195 JR Elkhart, TX Elkhart HS
29 Willy Ivery 5-9 185 JR Sulphur Springs, TX Sulphur Springs HS
25 Andrew Tucker 6-0 203 RS JR Tyler, TX Chapel Hill HS
44 Nick (Nic) Smith 5-10 175 FR Arlington, TX Martin HS
4 Anthony Wyche 5-11 195 JR Philadelphia, PA LA Valley College
46 Christian Hosley 5-9 175 SO San Antonio, TX Howard Payne University

Ivery is not as powerful a runner, but he is more shifty and has speed. Given the Wilson’s injury history, an argument could be made that Ivery should be the number one back. I will not make it here. Of the top five rushers last season, he finished with the third most yards (290) on the least number of carries (44). The question is can he do it against first team defenses, in a close game.

Behind him are a collection of backs that have potential, and probably one real talent that makes them intriguing. The nature of the half back role — the sport’s oldest ball-handling position — is that it is simple. The oldest tradition in football is running it and avoiding being tackled either through power or speed.

Andrew Tucker might get some time here and there. He’s big and has been around a while. He’ll avoid being brought down by power. Fun fact: he got the start last season against SMU. Wilson’s emergence and Ivery’s shifty play relegated Tucker to also-ran. Pun intended. Aside from injury pressing him into service, he will move up the depth chart through his ability to catch the ball and pass-block.

Nic Smith has a similar path to playing time. He is fast, has some nice agility and probably might get the third most touches out of this backfield. It is hard to say for sure because Anthony Wyche has a similar game. Speed, agility, but with some power and a slightly better resume given his time putting up numbers in JUCO. He was recruited for his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The newest addition is Christian Hosely out of Howard Payne University. He played QB, RB, and FS in high school and WR at Howard Payne. Smart, reasonably talented utility guys are extremely valuable with a roster so shallow. I am intrigued.

WRs

Generally speaking the wideout group will be divided into Outside and Inside subgroups. A quality player will eventually learn all the positions and will move around all four spots to take advantage of match ups. However, typically a player will pick a spot and learn that one. We will see Tee Goree and O’Keeron Rutherford start outside at the X and Z, with their range and height perfect for the go routes and lobs that are part of the package.

Remember Goree’s spectacular catch? Well that is what makes him well suited to the position. His height and speed are perfect for the role and Morris will be looking to him to win one v one battles. In the spring scrimmage he demonstrated his ability to get by the corner

Sometimes this game is as simple as beating the man in front of you.

Goree has been hyped since his signing here, as one of the more talented receiving recruits to come to Denton. He certainly has the physical gifts. The leading receivers the last decade have all been 6-0 at best. Johnny Quinn, Brelan Chancellor, Carlos Harris, Casey Fitzgerald, were all 6-0 and under. We would have to look back to 2012 and Ivan Delgado to find a leading wideout (42 catches for 570) who stood 6-2 209. 5 Goree lit up the spring scrimmage for 6 catches 141 yards and a score, the kind of production we want to see weekly from an outside receiver.

O’Keeron Rutherford is taller and bigger than Goree, and is a prototypical outside receiver at 6-5. Thaddeous Thompson is looking to finally fulfill his potential after being tossed errant passes by the last group of quarterbacks. He has plenty of size and length for the position and looks to finally have the QB and coaching staff that can help him put up numbers.

Kenny Buyers and Deion Hair-Griffin will get some time at inside receiver. Buyers was a captain and played tremendously well for the 2013 defense as a cornerback. He will not be making edge sealing tackles this season. Vito reports he is doing well at WR, which is unsurprising. He is a worker, and that’s what a position change requires.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
3 Terian (Tee) Goree 6-3 173 RS SO Carthage, TX Carthage HS
1 Turner Smiley 6-0 189 JR Frisco, TX Wakeland HS
11 Thaddeous Thompson 6-2 202 SR Cibolo, TX Scottsdale CC
83 Tyler Wilson 5-11 170 FR Arlington, TX Martin HS
2 O’Keeron Rutherford 6-5 190 RS SO Carthage, TX Carthage HS
89 Willie Robinson 6-0 185 SR Fort Worth TX Tyler JC
88 Jason Pirtle 6-2 195 FR Locust Grove, OK Locust Grove HS
32 Michael Lawrence 5-10 165 FR Sweetwater, TX Sweetwater HS
81 Daniel Khan 5-11 180 RS SO Sherman Oaks, CA Notre Dame HS
82 Deion Hair-Griffin 5-10 165 FR Fort Worth, TX Arlington Heights HS
37 Connor Davis 5-10 193 SR Grapevine, TX Texas Lutheran
31 Kenny Buyers 5-11 185 RS SR Hurst, TX L.D. Bell HS
8 Rico Bussey, Jr. 6-2 175 FR Lawton, OK Eisenhower HS
85 Garrett Barton 5-11 185 JR Diana, TX Kilgore College
80 Will Boyd 6-3 185 FR Arlington, TX Pantego Christian Academy
27 Kam Duhon 5-11 170 FR Southlake, TX Southlake Carroll
84 Dennis Smith 5-9 170 RS FR San Antonio, TX Sterling College
39 Braydon Watson 5-11 175 FR Waco, TX Celina HS

Griffin’s speed is notable and could earn him the PR or KR jobs. He played QB in high school (as most Best Players do) and so this should give him an advantage in playing inside WR. He presumably can see the field well, and knows how to help his QB by settling into the holes. A big part of this offense is reading the defense and basically not running oneself into coverage. In fall camp he is getting time with the first team. Take that as an indication of his talent or the depth chart problem. Either way I expect him to get some time and to produce some good things.

Turner Smiley is suspended for SMU, but is the leading returning receiver. That isn’t saying much considering the output last year, but he is talented. Again, the running theme here is that all the receivers on the roster have a chance to reset whatever their resume says and live up to expectations.

The rest of the receiving roster reflects this notion. The walk-ons, transfers, and what-have-you that make up the depth chart here did not light up the recruiting sites but that does not matter. Like the program, everyone is trying to prove something this year.

Ideally one of the inside guys will turn into “a guy that can score” after a catch. When Goree signed the hope was that he could be the speed guy on the outside that stretches the defense and opens up things for a Carlos Harris type underneath. That wasn’t quite the case in the last few seasons. The staff in place should coach up this group into solid, productive receivers. Anything beyond that will be natural talent shining through and that is all you can ask for. There are some signs that one or two of these players will be really impressive.

TEs

The Air Raid does not have traditional Tight Ends. However, there is a place for tweeners, big (relatively) slower guys that can catch but will not start for Alabama. Aside from big targets, they make excellent blockers for the screen game and outside zones. They are not going to flatten an All-American linebacker but they do a great job against a nickel corner. That is the thinking at least.

In this offense, Y was traditionally a TE. The Y-Cross, and Y-Stick were designed for TEs and at the very least require a guy to catch in traffic.

Kelvin Smith, a ‘blocking’ TE according to his MGS bio, was the surprise of the spring scrimmage. He displayed the classic Air Raid TE qualities — the ability to catch and run and be hard to tackle. His two catches both went for scores. The first came on that Air Raid classic Y-Cross. He caught a pass that was beyond him, turned up field, outran a couple of defenders and dragged Schelleci into the end zone. Watch it here.

It was the kind of play we expected to see a lot from Marcus Smith last year. His other TD was a classic tight end catch in traffic over the middle. If this is the norm and not just a spring game performance, we can be excited.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
87 Kelvin Smith 6-2 252 RS FR Spring, TX Dekaney HS
86 Kevin Dillman 6-4 249 RS FR Ystad, Sweden Guyer HS
15 Caleb Chumley 6-5 240 RS FR Longview, TX Pine Tree HS
7 Connor Means 6-4 215 RS SO Deer Park, TX Deer Park HS

Kevin Dillman Here we begin the first of former QBs-turned-TE. Dillman is something of a fan favorite among the GMG message boarders. He has good size and decent speed for a TE. He likely will play more of an H-Back role than a Y like Smith.

Caleb Chumley played QB as recently as spring and was okay. He had his shot at QB, which was unofficially the agreement when he committed. He was seemingly destined to play TE. His size makes him intriguing here, but reports from fall camp are that he is dropping everything.

Connor Means like every backup, had fans calling for his name during the last campaigns. When the former starters were highly praised by the previous staff and produced so little, it casts a poor light on poor Connor, who was a recruit under said staff. So then it is no surprise that he was moved to TE at the beginning of fall practice.

OL

The offensive line has gone through defections and changes. Mike Leach likes wide-splits to allow for better pass-blocking. We shall see what Seth Littrell and company decide to go with. That said, there will be questions. Alec Morris has looked good in camp when he has time, and this unit will need to keep him clean. The offense is designed to get the ball out relatively quickly, but there are enough play designs to get the ball deep that will require quality pass blocking. Overall, this unit was young and gained experience. The poor quarterback play obscured their play, but they kept the QBs clean, and opened creases for Wilson. The graduations and exits will hurt but can be overcome with the talent.

Jordan Murray is huge and a prototypical tackle. He had some starts and is getting time with the first unit in fall practice. Can he own the job or will he just default into it because of his size? Sam Rice is the new center after moving over from guard. Expect some learning mistakes but overall he should be solid. He played well at guard last season.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
74 Chandler Anthony 6-7 280 FR Tuttle, OK Tuttle HS
54 Creighton Barr 6-3 302 SO Flower Mound, TX Marcus HS
73 Garrett Gunter 6-4 293 SR Spring Branch, TX Trinity Valley CC
53 T.J. Henson 6-4 315 JR Plano, TX Trinity Valley CC
59 Trey Keenan 6-5 272 SR Argyle, TX Texas Tech
67 Chris Miles 6-4 299 RS SO Flower Mound, TX Flower Mound HS
68 Chett Munden 6-5 305 RS FR Marshall, TX Marshall HS
71 Jordan Murray 6-9 360 SO Coppell, TX Coppell HS
60 Doro Omerhi 6-4 290 FR Pearland, TX Pearland HS
58 Wylie Reinhardt 6-4 261 JR Saginaw, TX Saginaw HS
64 Sam Rice 6-4 297 SR Coppell, TX SMU
57 Bernie Santos 6-3 326 FR Argyle, TX Guyer HS
78 Jalen Thomas 6-5 295 JR Detroit, MI ASA College (Brooklyn)
70 R.D. Wegmann 6-3 265 RS FR Wichita Falls, TX Rider HS
77 Elex Woodworth 6-4 284 RS FR Mesquite, TX Horn HS

Garrett Gunter has spent time with the first unit and has good size. Trey Keenan is a Texas Tech transfer which is nice since he has played in the system. He is a bit undersized which was the reason he made the move. He was not with the first team at the scrimmage.

There is talent throughout this group, the question for fall camp will be who makes and impression. The scheme is different and so players who excelled under Canales might not fit the pass-blocking, inside-zone heavy stuff required here. I expect the starting line up to change a few times before SMU.

Defense

North Texas allowed 41.3 points per game last season. There were worse teams — SMU at 45.7, and Texas Tech at 43.6 — but those two squads did not allow 66 to an FCS team 6. During homecoming no less.

A quick look at the recruiting speculation post from December:

A look at the game film will show the DL getting pushed 5 yards back often. The Worst Defense In NT History got that way because pretty much every team could run through the A gap at will. As a whole, the defensive line was okay when pass-rushing, but never could get into defensive third and longs, because of the porous run defense. When Mike Canales talked about lacking size and strength I have to believe he meant here. After all, he made that comment after the Louisiana Tech game that saw Kenneth Dixon scorch his guys for 195 and 6 TDs, largely through the middle.

It might be that time has clouded my memory and made the pain of weekly obliterations fade. It might be that the months in between that time and now have provided me some semblance of objectivity. In either case, I am convinced the defense was not as bad as it performed.

The offense provided almost no support. If the offense could have produced league average yards and points to start the year, the morale leading up to PSU would have been different. Instead the offense sputtered for the second straight year and squandered a couple of decent showings by the defense.

For three years the defense has been the best unit on the field. The all-time great 2013 squad was led by a suffocating defense and supported by a near-great special teams and an average offense. In 2014, the defense regressed (understandably) while the offense suffered anemic quarterback play. Last year saw historically bad offense paired with rebuilding defense that really needed support.

The defense simply was not motivated to play their best given the awful offensive unit for which they were busting their ass. Before you being your lecture about grit and discipline, look at the attendance figures and see that fans were demoralized also. Imagine the defensive unit. Hell, if Dan McCarney was giving up while getting big bucks can we blame the 19-year-old?

At the very least apportion blame accordingly.

After McCarney’s debacle against PSU, the defense reduced the points allowed per game by 14, from about 49 to a little over 35.

We could break it down further but suffice it to say that this roster may not be as bad as the numbers they allowed last year. That is encouraging. The move to 3-3-5 is also.

The new scheme fits the roster, and is more aggressive. The Skladany/Cosh defenses were the bend-but-don’t break variety. It paired well with a ball-control, mistake-free offense. In 2013 it was devastatingly effective. The defensive line was dominant, allowing rangy linebacker Zach Orr to make plays and ball hawking safety Mike Trice to grab picks.

Unfortunately, when the line was not as dominant, the likes of Cody Sokol, Brandon Doughty and other CUSA QBs could pick it apart for big yardage.

Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett are bringing a more attacking, flexible, and unpredictable defense. It is the perfect defense to pair with an attacking, up-tempo offense. The emphasis will be on chaos and creating the turnovers that will give the (hopefully) explosive offense the ball.

Reffett coached 3-3-5 at ULM who were known for getting turnovers and getting pressure on the quarterback in a pass-happy league. You might remember his 2012 team that upset No.8 Arkansas and gave Auburn a run into OT the following week. Derrick LeBlanc will attempt to bring improvement to the defensive line though coaching, while Nate Brown inherits a talented secondary. Brown played and coached under Reffett at his alma mater ULM and also brings experience with the scheme being implemented.

Defensive Coaches:

Mike Ekeler – Defensive Coordinator
Troy Reffett – Associate HC/Co-Defensive Coordinator
Derrick LeBlanc – Defensive Line
Nate Brown – Cornerbacks

DL

It all begins here. The defensive line that I maligned is going with a three man crew in the 3-3-5. After Sir Calvin Wallace decided to leave, we were concerned about the future of the middle. Bryce English was brought in with the hope that he could get a waiver and play immediately. Unfortunately, that waiver was denied and so his usefulness will be confined to practice. That is not insignificant but it is not ideal.

The good news is Demonte Hood is the most talented player on the roster. He is a late addition out of Kansas State, another of the transfers that make their way back to DFW after some time away at a P5 school. As a 3★ recruit, that makes him the highest rated HS man on the roster. He had offers from A&M, Arkansas, Kansas, and San Diego State to go with his K-State offer. We do not know much beyond that. He is big and strong and had time in the K-State DT rotation the last few years. No one saw this coming, and if he can produce at his talent level, this should be a nice consolation prize after losing the English waiver decision.

Tackles

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
97 Demonte Hood 6-0 303 SR Arlington, TX Kansas State
44 Sid Moore 6-1 261 JR Van, TX Van HS
15 T.J. Tauaalo 6-2 287 RS SO Keller, TX Central HS
49 Roderick Young 6-1 287 SO Spring, TX Dekaney HS
93 Julius Combes 6-1 313 RS FR Washington, D.C. DeMatha HS
34 Bryce English 5-11 332 RS FR DeSoto, TX Kansas State

Sid Moore, TJ Tauaalo and Roderick Young comprise the rest of the DT rotation. There is some talent here. The biggest problem last year was their size. In the recruiting speculation post I mentioned the problems the line had:

The starters were and are undersized. Flusche, Orr, and Tauaalo are all 250-ish lbs. …

If Littrell wants any kind of improvement immediately, he will have to bolster the DT spots. I expect the young guys that were thrown to the fire to get bigger and stronger and learn from their season getting gashed, but this position group is as important as the QB spot and should be addressed.

NT already lost RS FR DT DeMikal Harrison to transfer, so this spot is in dire need of some size. One or two 350+ lbs guy would be ideal. Obviously, those types of players are highly coveted so it will not be easy.

Much will depend on the defensive coordinator Seth Littrell brings along with him …

A fancy scheme won’t make up completely for talent, but it can use talent more effectively. No matter what NT runs they’ll need to control the line or the defense might be setting the wrong kinds of records next season.

The bad news is that the 350+ DT is not on the roster. The good news is that the scheme change might better use the talent we have. One out of two is not bad. The attacking 3-3-5 should be able to produce pressure on the quarterback and stymie the run game by creating confusion. Chris B. Brown:

In the 3-3-5, there are more stunts, and usually at least one linebacker is rushing. This means each player ends up responsible for one specific gap, though the player’s specific responsibility will change from play to play. The 3-3-5 is designed to make both pass protection and run schemes (particularly zone-blocking schemes that heavily rely on double-team blocks) difficult to the point of futility.

Ends

In a two-gap system like the Patriots 3-4 or Saban’s 3-4 you want your DEs to be a little bit bigger, to absorb blockers and let the LBs do the pass rushing. Generally speaking in the 3-3-5 the DEs do not need to be as big — but it helps. Ekeler and Reffert have 4-5 guys stalking the line of scrimmage with the intent of confusing blocking assignments. The confusion and threat of the blitz should make things slightly easier on Combs, Roberts, Dilonga et al.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
7 Jareid Combs 6-3 258 SR Minneapolis, MN Iowa Central CC
56 Malik Dilonga 6-4 264 SR Cedar Hill, TX Trinity Christian School
99 Andy Flusche 6-3 259 RS JR Muenster, TX Muenster HS
90 Tillman Johnson 6-1 248 JR Round Rock, TX McNeil HS
94 JoJo Ozougwu 6-3 205 FR Alief, TX Taylor HS
30 Jarrian Roberts 6-2 252 SR Clarksville, TX Clarksville HS
18 Joshua Wheeler 6-3 240 JR Grand Prairie, TX Tyler JC
92 Terrance Johnson 6-4 257 RS SO Austin, TX McNeil HS

Last year’s preview mostly applies:

A lot of buzz is surrounding [Tillman] Johnson who was really starting to come on last year before getting hurt. [Jarrian] Roberts can be an explosive pass rusher, but struggled against the run. [Malik] Dilonga had a great spring last year, but never really got going. This year NT adds Jareid Combs, Dakota Smith, and Eli Howard to its DE depth.

No question this group can get after the passer, but can they bolster the run defense?

Last year the pass rush was only occasionally succesful and mostly against the poorer teams like UTSA. Tackling was an issue, as Roberts and Dilonga were able to get hands on passers and runners but were unable to bring them down, which is the entire point.

JoJo Ozougwu has the prototypical size for the position but barring an amazing camp, the majority of reps will come from familiar names. Expect the coaching and regime change, along with a sense of pride to carry this defense to a much better performance. The previous scheme put the entire weight of defensive success on the line and they failed miserably. The new philosophy might help this group of talented players make the plays that will lead to wins.

LBs

North Texas has always had slightly undersized LBs. Often they are simply workers who know they are not the biggest or strongest, and put in the time and effort to be great. Craig Robertson, Zach Orr, Derek Akunne are NFL players that represent the tradition of NT linebacking best.7

Fred Scott is the next in line. He was hesitant, but still showed signs of his talent and leadership last season as Robertson and Orr detail in this excellent video series.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
32 Fred Scott 5-11 233 SR Kennedale, TX Kennedale HS
10 Calvin Minor 6-3 213 JR Lewisville, TX Lewisville HS
37 Brandon Garner 5-11 225 RS SO Mansfield, TX Timberview HS
17 Cortney Finney 5-11 220 SR Bay City, TX Trinity Valley CC
43 Zack Bishop 6-2 225 RS JR Allen, TX Oklahoma Baptist
22 E.J. Ejiya 6-3 220 JR Blain, MN North Dakota State College of Sciences
57 Shane Gerths 6-1 205 FR Celina, TX Celina HS
50 LaDarius Hamilton 6-3 240 FR Corrigan, TX Corrigan-Camden HS
59 Hayden Harrison 6-2 220 FR Wollforth, TX Frenship HS
53 William LeMasters 6-2 213 RS FR Dallas, TX Parish Episcopal HS
42 Corey Mann 6-0 195 FR Decatur, TX Temple HS
5 Mylam Peters 6-5 240 JR Kissimmee, FL Arizona Western College
52 Braelon Schwartz 6-0 226 JR Arlington, TX Stephen F. Austin

Calvin Minor and Brandon Garner had their moments last season, but for a unit that was part a defense that was roasted repeatedly, it is difficult to say much more without being overly negative. As with the DL, this unit should have a fresh start in the new scheme. A LB corps that will feign blitz and drop, or simply bring numbers, the athleticism of Garner and Minor should be useful.

Still the Scott’s leadership will be key, as the defense is likely to experience growing pains and give up huge gains and allow lots of scoring as they adjust or the gambling, aggressive style bites them. Keeping the unit and the entire defense steady and ready for the next play is on Scott.

The rest of the depth chart is a collection of guys most notable for not being Will Johnson, the highly recruited LB who did not qualify. There is size, speed, and athleticism along the depth chart but hesitation or bad technique can nullify all that. E.J. Ejiya and Mylam Peters were brought in for depth and are big and rangy and will likely get a chance to show what they can do.

DBs

With some pressure on the QB, and some relief from injury, the defensive backs could have had a better season. As it was, we only saw glimpses. Cedric Fernandes showed some nice things in the first game-and-a-half before being lost to injury for the year. Unfortunately, he is hurt to being fall camp. Kishawn McClain is a playmaker, and racked up 110 tackles last year. James Gray was another bright spot, doing what he could racking up 100 himself. The two safeties getting 200+ tackles tells you a lot about the front seven.

With improved support they should be able to make tackles closer to the line of scrimmage, and in the backfield.

Nate Brooks has been a star at camp, continuing his improvement from last year. He started beginning with the WKU game and impressed in spots. Ashton Preston started on the other corner spot that WKU game. He is capable of making plays if, again, there is support up front. Chad Davis returns and should get time as a nickel corner and spot duty on the edges, although he started most of 2015. Dee Baulkman is a JUCO signing and expects to get time.

No Name Height Wt Class Home HS
36 Dee Baulkman 5-11 200 JR Bainbridge, GA Arizona Western College
9 Nate Brooks 6-0 170 SO Whitehouse, TX Whitehouse HS
16 Chad Davis 5-10 181 SR Richmond, TX Bush HS
14 Cedric Fernandes 5-10 176 RS SO Arlington, TX Martin HS
21 James Gray 6-0 190 SR Atlanta, GA Fort Scott CC
13 Kway Hill 5-11 195 RS FR Columbus, GA
38 Andrew Jones 6-1 173 RS SO Mesquite, TX North Mesquite HS
23 Kishawn McClain 5-11 201 JR Rosenberg, TX Terry HS
47 Dakota Michaels 6-1 185 FR Lucas, TX Lovejoy HS
39 Jameel Moore 5-10 160 FR Cedar Hill, TX Cedar Hill HS
4 Khairi Muhammad 5-11 170 FR DeSoto, TX DeSoto HS
27 Ashton Preston 5-10 183 SO Edmond, OK Santa Fe HS
39 Taylor Robinson 5-11 191 RS FR Keller, TX Central HS
19 John Schilleci 6-0 201 SR Denton, TX Guyer HS
45 Nnamdi Umeakuana 6-1 205 JR Irving, TX Austin College
11 Sam Wells 6-0 193 RS SO Commerce, TX Commerce HS

Depending on the scenario, we may see five “true” DBs in, or a LB like Brandon Garner (speedy) in at the LB/S hybrid spot. UTSA did a lot of WR screens and used TE David Morgan to destroy the smaller corners fighting though blocks. The maleable, modal defensive scheme should allow for more counters to these scenarios while staying in base principles.

We will see a good number of the DBs given the depth issues. If say John Schilleci or Chad Davis is having trouble, expect Nate Brown to move in the younger guys. The learning time spent on Nate Brooks and Ashton Preston last year helped. It should do the same for this group.

That said, this unit is not the conferences’s best, by resume or Rivals numbers. It is a capable, winning collection of players. Brooks and McClain are playmakers and can capitalize on the mistakes and turnovers the scheme aims to create.

Special Teams

Tommy Perry has done an excellent job in the last few years coaching this unit. Not only have the specialists been great — Eric Keena and Trever Moore — but perhaps more importantly, the ST has been Virginia Tech-like. In 2013, bolstered by starters contributing, the ST blocked kicks and returned punts and kickoffs for huge, game-changing yardage. Every coach likes to talk about all three phases, but few ever put the time required.

No Name Pos Height Wt Class Home HS
93 Blake Patterson SPEC 6-2 195 FR Round Rock, TX Cedar Ridge HS
96 Tim Ursery SPEC 6-2 238 FR Great Mills, MD Great Mills HS
84 Eric Keena P 6-2 175 SR Keller, TX Sunrise Mountain HS
94 Sam Aguilera P/K 6-5 200 FR Fort Worth, TX W.E. Boswell HS
30 Trevor Moore K 5-11 194 JR Edmond, OK Edmond North HS
92 Trey Enterline DS 6-3 225 SR Arlington, TX Martin HS
91 Kel Straubmueller DS 5-11 195 RS FR Argyle, TX Louisiana-Lafayette

With the roster lacking depth, the starters will need to contribute here out of necessity. The hope is more game-changing blocked extra point against UTSA.. Last year, since-departed walk-on Tre’ Johnson returned a punt against UTEP. With apologies to Tre’, having guys like Wyche, or Hair-Griffin back there should be even better.

This unit has been a not-so-secret strength for the team for a while and if Seth Littrell gives Tommy Perry the practice time he requires to make this group into what we know he can, that should continue into 2016.

Schedule / Predictions

Predicting games so far ahead is dumb but fun. So let us begin. Contributor Greg Goedecker predicted the slate and so did Adam.

SMU
Greg:
I believe that SMU had more talent and depth than North Texas (NT) right now. They are in year 2 of their reboot, NT is in year one. In rivalry games you never know exactly how things will play out. I think this game is really hard to pick. It will be a shoot out and closer than last year. I may change my mind over time, but right now I’d pick SMU.
SMU 41 – NT 37

Adam:
North Texas will be hungry and at home. In 2015 SMU had the season North Texas will have in 2016: lots of scoring, lots of losses. North Texas’ defense will be too much of an unknown and it will flummox SMU. Also I cannot pick SMU to win in Denton. That just does not happen. I see loads of yardage for both squads.
NT 31 – SMU 30

Bethune Cookman
Greg:
The Wildcats are no push over FCS school. They can score in bunches and will challenge the Mean Green. In the end North Texas still has more talent and they will win.
North Texas 42 – Bethune Cookman 30

Adam:
North Texas was destroyed by PSU because they quit on Dan McCarney. Seth Littrell will not let them quit in week 2. BC might give us an unexpected run — all FCS teams do. Talent will win out. This probably will not feel like the blowout we want.
NT 45 – BC 21

@ Florida
Greg:
Florida isn’t that great on offense, but they do have a stellar defense. It’s going to be tough for Alec Morris and the offense to put up points. I think the Gators will beat NT in Littrell’s 1st road game.
Florida 27 – North Texas 14

Adam:
Florida is good at beating themselves. They still are more talented, but that talent has been getting suspended recently. Let’s hope that by Week 3 UF still doesn’t have its QB situation figured out and turns the ball over. This will not be as close as the score indicates.
UF 35 – NT 17

@ Rice
Greg:
Some are bullish on the Rice Owls, Im not one of them. I don’t see them as being much more talented than NT. I think Alec Morris, and the offense have enough to beat Rice on the road.
NT 31 – Rice 28

Adam:
Rice is weird in that they can play like the best in the conference and then like one that should give up football. They still have an iffy defense (that allowed a 90+ yarder to Andrew McNulty and Carlos Harris y’all) and now have QB questions. This will be the first conference game and first non-money game road game for Littrell. McCarney was awful on the road. This will be a test.
NT 31 – Rice 17

Middle Tennessee St.
Greg:
MTSU will have too much offensive fire power for NT to stop.
MTSU 37 – NT 24

Adam:
Tony Franklin is back to coach Middle Tenneseee. North Texas will be in Year One of the Air Raid, going up against one of the offense’s prophets. Franklin coached the Troy’s offense in 2006 that destroyed NT, the 2009 MTSU offense that destroyed NT, left to coach Cal and is now back coaching one of the conference’s best offenses. This should be ugly. The only good news is that we are at home and we’ve done well against Middle at home.
Middle 45 – NT 21

Marshall
Greg:
Could this be a surprise game? Maybe Marshall’s offense isn’t that good. Well their defense is still good enough to slow down NT. I believe Marshall will win a close one.
Marshall 30 – NT 26

Adam:
Chase Litton is a little older and should be better. I cannot shake the feeling that North Texas had a shot at the Herd in 2015. Poor QB play and a shaky defense cost the Mean Green. I can totally see NT getting revenge in Denton, with an improved defense and a coherent offense.
NT 35 – Marshall 28

@ Army
Greg:
Getting Army after a bye week is great. It will give the defense extra time to prepare for the option attack. It will be a tough battle, but I have NT winning.
NT 24 – Army 21

Adam:
The service academies are always tough but Army is no where near as good as the other two recently. It is weird saying you want revenge on Army but they did win the last two games played — in 2009 and 2010.
NT 31 – Army 24

@ UTSA
Greg:
UTSA could be better than advertised. The roadrunners have amassed a nice group of talent down in San Antonio. It’s a game that NT could win, but I think facing Army the week before will take its toll on a thin Mean Green team. I think UTSA wins.
UTSA 35 – NT 28

Adam:
Since that classic 2013 matchup that saw an NT senior class take on a UTSA JR/SR startup squad class, these two have taken interesting paths (for we observers). Since then, both coaches are gone and both had disappointing seasons. UTSA is pretty talented this year especially at the QB spot — the weak point of last season. I call it a rivalry, and every time these two play nothing plays out the way the stats say they should. Zach Orr wants the squad to win. So do I.
NT 31 – UTSA 27

Louisiana Tech
Greg:
After losing to UTSA I see NT rebounding to upset the Bulldogs.
NT 33 – La Tech 31

Adam:
Going from a team with talent but some questions, to a team that just reloads. They do the Transfer QB Does Well the best. I did not think much of HC Skip Holtz when he took the job but he has found a way to make the program his. I cannot shake the feeling that there are too many changes this time. Greg calls it an upset, but I would not be surprised if LaTech is struggling by this point. I would not be surprised if the opposite were true either.
NT 28 – LaTech 24

@ Western Kentucky
Greg:
WKU has too much talent for NT and the Mean Green will come back to earth.
WKU 42 – NT 28

Adam:
WKU is replacing their prolific QB but still is way more of a stable program to drop off too much. They’ll be like Marshall last year in that respect. NT is on the road here and that makes it too tough.
WKU 31 – NT 21

Southern Miss
Greg:
Southern Miss may be the best team in CUSA. They have the best QB and should win easily in Denton. Only think that could make this a close game is Mullens being injured.
Southern Miss 40 – NT 24

Adam:
All the smart money is on Southern Miss to run away with the conference. Jay Hopson steps in for Todd Monken, who pulled Southern Miss from the abyss. By late November these predictions will be quaint. That said I cannot see a win for NT against a better squad top-to-bottom.
SoMiss 38 – NT 24

@ UTEP
Greg:
At this point of the season NT’s limited depth will be starting to show. Facing a team like UTEP wont help the matters. The Miners big OL will impose its will on the Mean Green. Had this game been played earlier in the season I’d pick NT, instead its at the end and I think UTEP wins.
UTEP 31 – NT 20

Adam:
Greg makes a great point about depth. All these predictions assume a perfectly healthy roster throughout which is quite ridiculous in this sport. UTEP had an injury plagued campaign last year and stands to benefit from all that youth getting playing time. The trip to Hell Paso should be hell. I feel like this one will be turnover-plagued.
UTEP 31 – NT 17

Greg: Final Record 4-8
Adam: 7-5. Clearly I’ve been drinking the green Kool-Aid.

Recruiting

Dan McCarney asked Why Not North Texas? and subsequently answered his own question.

This isn’t the easiest place in the world to recruit to. This isn’t the easiest place in the world when you have a track record and a lot of years of losing. Just because you put up some cement and some bigger stands, that doesn’t make it easy. Did it happen fast because I came in wearing some big ass ring from Florida or because some people respected what I did at Iowa State? No. It’s still North Texas. — Dan McCarney October 13, 2014

That quote enrages me to this day. However much truth is in his statement, he was the one person paid to change the situation. I am perfectly fine with him having this opinion or even expressing it privately. The fact that he said this publicly would have put him on the hot seat with me.

Dan McCarney and his staff bungled recruiting. Not only did they fail to stock the roster with a full set of 85 scholarshi- worthy players, but they failed to staff it with contributors in the most important position. The quarterback depth chart was abysmal. Every quarterback brought in by his staff either flamed out or transferred. The most frustrating part of it was that average quarterback play could have made the last two years decent. Instead they were only memorable for the depth of their awfulness.

And so Seth Littrell steps into the job, the latest to declare North Texas as a fertile recruiting ground and the latest to promise he will own DFW. Thus far, North Texas has been behind UTSA’s Frank Wilson, losing not only San Antonio’s QB/ATH Frank Harris, but Denton’s own OLB Javaris Steward 8.

The recruiting finish line is in February and we are only in August so we should not overreact to developments so early. Still, we should note the situation.

UNT’s recruiting plan is often to find unrecruited, and not-so-obvious, and rely on big transfers from P5 schools for 4★ talent. It is a solid plan as these things go. No matter what path you choose, talent evaluation and development is the most important part of this process.

The good news is that SL and staff have the resumés that suggest they are better evaluators than the previous staff. However, every move to a new job means proving yourself all over. So it will be with Littrell.

Success at North Texas requires a clever coach. Although in a talent hotbed, it is heavily recruited. Although in a giant metropolis, every state school and the big ones from nearby make a trip here.

Littrell’s recruiting strategy is a long-term one. He wants to build relationships with the high schools in the area and establish a playing style that will make the school more attractive to the state’s talent. This requires time. Selling kids on the product will require more film. North Carolina football doesn’t get a whole lot of television time in Texas, and so his success the last few years is muted.

I’m unsurprised at Frank Wilson’s early success at UTSA. He is a good recruiter and has an easy sell. UTSA’s recent profile has been positive, last year aside. Rhetorically speaking, a bad two years are small relative to the general positive feeling in San Antonio. Wilson can sell success, San Antonio, and being a part of building something.

Here, the 2014 HOD Bowl is not enough to overcome the last decade. The early 2000s may as well be the 1970s in the minds of the 17-year olds the coaches are chasing. And so it is good that the Littrell hashtag is #NewDenton. It is a great slogan. Forget what you know. This is new. It is a compelling selling point, but not one to overcome SMU’s or UTSA’s yet.

Yet.

Edit 8/15/16 6:00p: Clarified the DB situation. Added Joel Filani to the Offensive coaches. Copy/Paste error.


  1. As of this writing Turner Smiley is suspended for SMU, and Rodney Bendy quit the squad. This all before fall practice began. 
  2. Under Mac, NT threw way more than you probably would guess. 
  3. This is primarily Troy Reffett’s specialty. 
  4. For recent examples, look at Sonny Dykes’ Cal, Mike Leach’s Wazzu. 
  5. We had high hopes for Darius Terrell, but is potential wasn’t met. He dropped passes and had awful quarterback play. 
  6. SMU did allow 48 to James Madison. 
  7. If you are wondering if this scheme will hurt the chances of producing a new NFL LB, know that the 3-3-5 helped Brian Urlacher get noticed. 
  8. Four stars!