I flirted with the idea of recapping the season after UTEP, and then again after the HOD Bowl. Niether felt right, as we were too close to the results.
We just signed the next class, and so a look back is timely, as Spring camp is near and we will essentially begin looking toward the 2017 season.
This post is essentially a converstation with the MGN 2016 season preview and so you might want to start there. It isn’t necessary but it might help put you in the frame of mind for reading this.
You might have to think really hard to the feeling everyone had coming into the season. Seth Littrell was hired by Rick Villareal and the latter’s poor reputation among we Mean Green fans cut into the goodwill we gave Seth Littrell. North Carolina football had a good-to-great season (for them) and Seth Littrell was right near what we wanted. There was some talk about TCU’s Doug Meacham (current Kansas OC) but NT settled on the guy from Oklahoma.
NT was coming off an embarrassing season in which the defense was routinely roasted for gobs of yardage on the ground, while the offense was solely relied on DaMarcus Smith and Jeff Wilson. It was bad.
The hope, such as there was, involved knowledge of two things about this game: college football is unpredictable, and CUSA is not very good.
Let us acknowledge that that hope is small and so it was understandable to see the prediction industry1 look unfavorably upon Littrell’s group. Every advanced analytic pointed to a best case scenario of about two wins.
What happened? Five wins and a bowl berth. Most incredibly, NT reached four wins in late October, beating Army on the road. This was the peak of the season. Army was a surprisingly good team this season, and that only further helped boost the quality of the win (as did Army beating Navy, and then only narrowly beating NT in the bowl).
The essential bits of information from 2016 were these: The staff has some competence, the defense in 2015 was demoralized (coaching matters), there is talent on this roster.
Thankfully, we did not have to enjoy the season by picking out microcosmic development in the players (there was that, but not only that) but with also wins and a bowl.
I declared Littrell needed patience as he learned on the job. He improved with the less essential aspects as the season went on — press conferences, extemporaneously speaking etc — but we still are waiting on how he recruits, maintains a program, deals with expectations.
For each time the team was impressive in preparation, resilient, competitive, they had an equal number where they were not. They always played hard on game day, but Littrell himself bemoaned the lack of attention to detail in practice. Habits take time to break, and NT had a habit of losing and giving up. As the staff brings in more of their players, this aspect should be improved.
Harrell was really good in spots, and questionable in others. Overall his “mistakes” came from a place where he believed in his players to execute. I can get behind that. So much was made of McCarney’s overly conservative philosophy, and so I will not complain about Graham Harrell having freshman Mason Fine throw from inside his 10-yard line in the Swamp. There was so much learned in that one play that the risk involved was minimal in long view.
The patience to look at the longer view was what I was asking for. In the moment it is very hard to remember this, as even I was throwing my hands up.
Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett were an incredible combination. The defense was as advertised: aggressive and attacking. Given this was a transition year — to a new staff, and scheme — there were going to be troubles but nothing overly concerning or unsurprising.
The entire staff did a great job managing mismatched parts and juggling the roster with little or no depth.
The bar was set so low that even a relatively subtle shift toward the positive side would be hailed as miraculous. And so it was. This kind of philosophical and staff change meant there would be some boom-and-bust instead of a well-oiled machine, but there was too much bust and little in the way of boom. I do not mean to sound overly negative, just descriptive of reality. Even the HOD Bowl performance that was praised — I raved about it also — was pedestrian when put up against similar systems.
A good portion of the issue was in deciding in favor of Mason Fine’s development over Alec Morris’ Savior narrative. Here is where the patience of the staff is evident. The Alec Morris that played in the final four games was decisive, accurate, and pretty solid. If he had made an appearance against UTSA and Army the first time, we might have seen at least one more win and a less-shaky first half effort in West Point.
We would not have learned more about Mason Fine (tough, capable) and Fine would not have gotten valuable development time.
Meanwhile Jeff Wilson was his spectacular self, if oft-injured. Willy Ivery stepped forward and shone brightly before blowing his second and final chance. Turner Smiley finally played like the receiver the magazines thought he would in the last three weeks. Tee Goree made one final spectacular play before breaking team rules. The WR group made the occasional play, but no one was consistently good.
Much of this had to do with the youth of Mason Fine and the shuffling offensive line. Seth Littrell made it clear often that the sacks — Mason Fine was among the most sacked QBs in the nation — were not always the line’s fault. The false-starts and holding that contributed to killing drives was on the line, however.
Still, the offense scored more TDs than last year (again, low bar) and did enough to win in most games. This is all that can be asked of a unit.
The real question here is how much of the necessary Transition Year Pains did we get out way? Was this mostly just a Depth problem? Again, the WRs were poor-to-okay, but does that mean that the addition of Jalen Guyton next year is a problem solver?
That is hard to say. Tyler Wilson is intriguing, Turner Smiley is going to have room to shine and Rico Bussey had himself a day against Army. The rest of the depth chart contains some possibilities and so I am excited.
What about the line? The new class has some potential starters, but they will have their own growing pains to endure. Will the holdovers gel into a cohesive, productive unit?
What I am trying to say here is this: I cannot imagine many more worse scenarios for a new staff to inherit and they produced some decent results from it.2
In reviewing the 2015 season, the thought that the unit performed so poorly because they did not believe in the staff was stuck in my mind. So I was hopeful that a new staff combined with an influx of fresh talent would improve on things. For the most part, it did.
The staff wanted to play aggressively and attack the passer while manning up on the pass-catchers. When it worked, it looked great. When it failed, we saw a 3rd-and-45 completed, Nate Brooks get roasted, and the front seven gouged for yards.
There were some mistakes that came as a function of the style of defense — when you play press-man, sometimes you will get burned over the top. Others that were mental mistakes — not filling the gaps properly against UTEP. The rest were talent disparities — WKU, La Tech.
From October to December the little injuries that inevitably come up took their toll. The schedule got tougher and everyone had film on Ekeler’s men and so the element of surprise was gone, with the best offenses and injuries piling up. These are not excuses, but the challenges that come up in any season with every team.
The idea behind the 3-3-5 is speed and multiplicity. NT had the latter but was held back by the limited footspeed at times. Army, La Tech, WKU all took advantage of the edges. The staff recruited more speed — Tyreke Davis is a step toward that idea — but there were no obvious game-changers here. Improvement will come from the normal growth as individual players and from familiarity with the scheme.
This is not a bad thing. Skladay’s teams showed a similar improvement-but-with-mistakes in his first seasons before it all came together — talent + scheme + fortune — in that 2013 season. The ideal is the NT team that harassed Marshall, Army (in Oct), and Southern Miss, racking up turnovers because of QB pressure. Or the one that almost wrangled in SMU’s Matt Davis, or picked off Matt Davis, sacked UTEP’s QB, and nearly chased LaTech’s guys into turnovers.
Given that modern football is heavily weighted toward offense, NT has the right style of defense to compete. Everyone outside of Alabama gave up big yards and even they got roasted in the title game. Good offense beats good defense in this game, so the defense that can force a turnover is better than one that bends but does not break.
Special Teams and Other
Tommy Perry left the program. He had a mixed reputation among we fans. Eric Keena, Trevor Moore performed well under his watch, and occasionally his special teams units looked really good. While the depth chart sapped some of his talent, he never could find a solid returner without issues.
This year there were no recurring major issues. Keena was great although he had that snafu against UTEP. He made up for it by converting a couple of huge 4th down conversions — one v Marshall, and the other in the bowl game.
Trevor Moore had a huge clutch kick in the bowl game and we should be grateful.
If there is any part of a team that is indicative of the raw talent available, it is here. There is a little bit of scheme — staying in one’s lane, minding a fake etc — but a good portion of kick coverage is sprinting down the field and shedding blocks. At NT’s best — again 2013 — the squad was the deepest and the starters played on Special teams. Marcus Trice, et all were blocking kicks and starting WR Brelan Chancellor was returning them for TDs.
Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that the unit was largely well-coached but not particularly special.
Greg Tepper called the NT class underrated, and that is fair. It certainly will not assuage the undercurrent of disappointment among the message board horde, but NT did a good job of addressing needs. The offensive line that was a question mark all season? Well NT went out and got five (and a sixth blue shirt) players. The WR crew suffered attrition and lack of an outstanding playmaker. North Texas went out and recruited three WRs highlighted by Jalen Guyton (also Evan Johnson could perhaps play some H or Y). The grabbed some speed at other positions. This is on top of the blueshirt haul that came before the season started that netted Eric Jenkins and Demonte Hood.
There is hole to dig out of, but at this level that is an fact of life. Quality recruiting at the most important positions — QB, OL, DL — is what is important. Mac whiffled badly at QB and suffered the consequences. While the class is not highly rated, the focus on OL, QB, and DL is heartening.
Grading on the curve that is comparison to Mac’s final two years, the Littrell QBs have produced at a higher level. Both Mason Fine and Alec Morris performed solidly. Mason Fine has room and time for improvement while Cade Pearson comes in to challenge him.
None of this is to say we should not be concerned that UTSA, FAU, and FIU are leading the recruiting battles, but attracting the right players — as Littrell so often says — is more important. We will have to wait to find out if these 18 are the right players and what that means. To me, that means a about six turn into future starters/maybe all-conference players, six into important contributors, and the rest graduate with no problems.