A fundamental difference between old and young is a perspective on change. Experienced people are more skeptical, having seen and been a part of lots of change and seeing mostly the same thing. Inexperienced people are more enthusiastic, not having been burned by big promises being undelivered. The young become the old and it continues. There is no good way to escape this, as it has been the case for all of the history of mankind.
I remember being dissatisfied with the performance of the Darrell Dickey-era football progress, and while being appreciative of the on-paper accomplishments (I was not around for the actual bowl victories) I was ready to move on. The older alumni noted the folly in asking for more when NT had not really been experiencing much greatness in the years before DD came to town. NT moved on, to a younger coach with high-school success and … paid dearly for it. Todd Dodge came in promising lots of offense, and looked inexperienced vs his peers — there was some rumors that some coaches didn’t like Dodge saying that football-is-football and showed him up a little. The Dodge-era saw a lot of losing, and lots of short passes and ultimately lots of fingers pointed at who was to blame. The boosters don’t give enough! The AD was a joke! The coach sucks! The resources are not there!
Everyone was ready to move on — well, there were some who thought we should build up more of the resources and whatnot but still, not too many people had a strong argument for keeping Dodge Ball. North Texas hired Dan McCarney1 who came in, criticized the roster for being too small and not up to standards. He showed off his “big ass ring” from Florida and proceeded to make North Texas look like a college program. He crescendoed with the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl win over UNLV, a game that saw Neal Smatresk see off his UNLV program and make the transition to North Texas.
Those players were former Dodge recruits and so it is fair to say that Dodge had some say in the win. Of course that is true. Nothing is built on its own, and it all builds upon what came before. Grant McCasland is not winning like he is if even Tony Benford hadn’t been here, and definitely not if Johnny Jones weren’t here. Some build up more, some build up less, but it all is part of building something — (forgive the tortured analogy) even if it is tunnel somewhere that teaches us we shouldn’t waste resources doing so.
Dan McCarney was unable to find a quality starting QB after the Dodge-recruited Derek Thompson graduated — maybe he should have looked back to Todd and asked for some help in evaluating? — and cratered in the awful loss to Portland State. So it goes. I was more than ready to see the end of that particular time. Some fans said we didn’t give him a fair shake. Some insiders said he had long checked out. He recruited a ton of guys that would ultimately feature on the best teams for Seth Littrell’s 2017 and 2018 teams — the best of his time (Nate Brooks, Jeff Wilson, TJ Tauaalo, et al) and so it went. Seth Littrell came in, tasked with putting up some better offensive performances than had come before and did just that. He never won a bowl game, was well-liked by his players and the community and went to two league title games and earned six bowl appearances. NT did not win any of those games. Some people were still fans of his, the empty stands suggested that a lot of fans had declared they had other things to care about.
That brings us to now, and here. Eric Morris is the head coach, having previously won at the FCS level, promising a lot of similar things that every coach promises — exciting offense, an “unbelievable” staff, relationships with the community, starting in DFW, and filling the stands. It sound like Dodge, talking about letting it fly; it sounds like Mac — “Why Not North Texas?”, he famously asked in his introductory press conference; it sound like Seth, saying they were going to be explosive and how this place “can be a monster”.
It is Morris Time
So far Morris has made good on his promise to stir up excitement. He hired a guy, Coach O, who is a well-known HS coach and big in DFW-area circles. Morris poached Texas’ right-hand guy with loads of Texas high-school connections. He has hired an intriguing defensive coordinator that has been a part of staffs that have stopped or slowed down big time offenses.
Older fans are saying things like “This smells like Dodge and that didn’t go well.” Younger fans are saying “That was then, this is now!” Both are right. This does smell like Dodge. NT famously hired a HS phenomenon coach — just like Gus Malzahn. One worked out and won, and won stumbled. Is it bad to hire high school coaches? Not necessarily. Like anything, it depends. Is it bad to hire an offensive-minded coach? If you only look at the failures — and there are plenty — sure. But (now disgraced) Urban Meyer made his name as an offensive guy. Sonny Dykes and Jim Harbaugh are offense-guys and are in the CFP.
Coming up as a head coach means you will have to make your name on one of the three sides of the ball (phases) and good coaches make good hires to compliment their expertise. 2. After that it is about recruiting the key positions.
Given this entire piece has been arguing for some perspective in evaluating the choices, it is difficult to simply say “this is good” and “this is bad”. Morris is letting go of some quality coaches in bringing in his own dudes — Mike Bloesch, Randy Clements, Adrian Mayes, Luke Walerius. Is that bad? Yes, in the view that losing any quality guys is bad. Is it good? Yes, in the aspect of bringing in guys that believe in what Morris is doing and having a unified front with no possibility of disunion.
The great challenge in football is the same one in any human group endeavor: getting people with varying loyalties and points of view all moving toward some common goal. There will be guys who are Seth’s recruits being a part of the Morris good and bad, just like there were Mac guys who were part of the good and bad of Seth’s early years. That’s how it goes. It will be great to get DFW guys in to be a part of NT. People point to Miami in the 80s as an example of how it can pay off. I also point you to the recent UM squads of how it can backfire. It is about talent, and execution. A program needs talented football players, and if all being from the same areas of Texas makes them move toward the goal? Sure. let’s do it. If it is better for them to be from Oklahoma, big towns, small towns, villages, unincorporated census designated places? So be it. The goal is to win and produce.
So is it good that NT is hiring coach O and other guys with Texas HS football connections? Sure, if it means a connection to good football players that are willing to sacrifice for the team and be a part of something greater than themselves. That has always been the goal and the question. (Also NT needs a quarterback)
The Real Question
Back when UTSA’s Frank Wilson was the talk of the league, he was surrounded by national reporters (that rarely made appearances otherwise) to discuss whether or not Wilson would be moving up and on to the SEC or something like that. He deflected those questions. He also lost a ton, in no small part because he had the absolute worst luck as a head coach. He recruited CUSA player of the year, and 7th-year returnee Frank Harris to San Antonio, beating out Seth Littrell for him. Harris’ people say now that one reason is that only UTSA said he could play QB. At the time NT had Mason Fine, and was winning while UTSA was losing. They hired Jeff Traylor, who has cleaned up in recruiting but also has had the luxury of putting off the Real Question any coach absolutely must answer: Can You Find A QB?
Seth Littrell brought Mason Fine, but also Alec Morris. One is a program legend, and the other got the closest to winning a bowl game until Austin Aune this past year. Since then, there has been Jason Bean, Austin Aune, Jace Ruder, Sort of Grant Gunnell, and a few other guys that been on the depth chart (Quinn Shanbour, JD Head, Pioneer Kid, etc)
Tyson Helton at WKU turned around the Tops program by finding a QB — two of them! — in Bailey Zappe, and Austin Reed. One reason UAB lost a handful of one-score games this season was because Dylan Hopkins was injured. He came back and NT got smoked in Birmingham. I digress.
Job One for every head coach is to find a starting QB. The AAC has more talent top-to-bottom compared to CUSA, but it isn’t like the league NT played in for ten years didn’t have talent. 3. Find the best QB you can, and keep finding more. This never stops. The QB spot is the most important position on the field, and having questions there leads to losses. (Bean/Aune, Ruder/Aune, Aune/Aune).
If the Morris hype train has fuel, it is that he has had success finding QBs, and developing them. Jon Copeland of UIW played two seasons, threw for 6K yards, 44 TDs (against 22 INTs) and tried to transfer to a G5 school with no luck. He was good for UIW, if not great, and won a league title. Morris replaced him with Cam Ward, who threw 24 TD passes in six games, and 47 in his second season. He totaled 6900+ 71 TDs (against 14 INTs) in his two-season career 4 The point is that Morris found a QB good enough to win his league, and when one left he replaced him with no slow-down. 5 If you want to give credit to Morris for building the foundation of the program, you also give him credit for the subsequent staff being able to find a guy to step in and be even better than Ward (Scott threw for 60 TDs in one year). Morris gave himself a little credit in his introductory press-conference. That is the type of program we want here in Denton.
With all due respect, we want Mason Fine to fall down the all-time list of QBs. Air Raid-style QBs routinely reach near 4K yards passing but the defining quality of a QB is not necessarily accumulative totals, but when they are good 6 Austin Aune did well enough to pass up Fine, in a season in which he was also heavily criticized. This highlights a weakness of simply looking at aggregate stats. It matters less what you do vs FIU, than it does vs UAB, for example. The truth of the situation is that if Morris gets the next guy — maybe it is Aune again?? — to put up the same stat line it wouldn’t be terrible.
There are rumors that Jyaire Shorter is going to poached, but right now NT has a good level of talent on the offensive side.
QB: Aune♦︎, Jace Ruder, Grant Gunnell, JD Head, Stone Earle
I can be convinced that the next starter is in this group. I think it is smart to bring in someone else to set the pace at practice and challenge for the top spot.
RB: Oscar Adaway III♣︎, Isaiah Johnson, Ikaika Ragsdale, Ayo Adeyi, Qualon Farrar, BK Jackson
Morris will run the ball more than say, Leach maybe. WSU averaged 28 totes per game while NT was at 38. There is a little bit of circumstance involved there, as NT ran the ball 49 times per game in 21, when there was a rash of WR injuries, but has been at 32/per in the most pass-happy seasons, more than WSU did this last year. So 28 is more than Leach’s ~20 or so. The point is that the “F” or tailback will get touches but not necessarily with the ball in their belly. One of these guys might become a slot WR.
TE: Jake Roberts ♦︎, Var’Keyes Gumms, Christian Lee, Asher Alberding ♦︎, Xzavier Kautai
Roberts and Alberding are gone, but Gumms said he’s ready to work. An “H” or some TE stuff is a big part of the modern Raid, and Gumms’ versatility should be intriguing in that set up. Gumms was listed as an “H” a lot, and Roberts a true “TE” but there was a lot of overlap.
WR: Tommy Bush, Damon Ward, Ja’Mori Maclin, Detraveon Brown, Khatib Lyles, Rod Burns, Jordan Smart, Jyaire Shorter, Zhiglil McMillan
Shorter might be poached, Bush was updating his LinkedIn, but there is talent in this group. Ward is very intriguing and I absolutely loved his hands-first catching against UAB. Maclin is a burner, Lyles, McMillan have size. I mean when the head coach is a former WR in the system you have to get a little excited, yeah? *If* Shorter returns and cleans up his hands-related issues? Oh man, color me intrigued.
OL: Kaci Moreka, Daxton Byers, Gabe Blair, Leke Asenuga, Dane Jackson, Febechi Nwaiwu, Nick Gallo, Howard Sampson
There is a lot of beef here that played a certain way: power running. They are talented and the biggest key is in retaining some of these guys and replacing Manase Mose, the irreplaceable.
♦︎ in the transfer portal
♣︎ rumored to want to leave, also injured
In all of that, I think NT has a competitive team. The early signing day was a punt, and NT can expect more in February. That will tell us a lot about what this staff value, and what they think is lacking. If we see a lot of HS guys, you can surmise that they like what they have, and want to build depth. If we see a lot of transfers, we can surmise they want to improve the top-line roster.
Defensively, well there are some questions about a defense that played well at times but got roasted in the run game by UNLV, UAB, UTSA (title game), and the Bowl game vs Boise St.
DE: Kadren Johnson, Tom Trieb, Cam Robertson
Talent and promise with plenty of good moments and also head-slapping ones.
NG/DT: Roderick Brown, Kortlin Rausaw, Enoch Jackson, Faafehi Vailea, Kaghen Roach
Talent, but again there was a lot of tape of them getting pushed off the ball. The new scheme is predicted on alignment and not necessarily simply overpowering anyone so maybe that helps.
Devil: Mazin Richards, Şifa Leota
A couple of guys who had a more big moments than small. I imagine they get more time at LB and playing in space.
LBs: Jordan Brown, Larry Nixon, Kevin Wood
Can definitely build depth, bring in talent here. We might see some position changes but this is an are of improvement. Need game-changing talent here.
Safeties: Jaylen Smith, Logan Wilson, Keenan Crosby, Dillion Williams, Harold West
I liked Logan Wilson this season, but the rest of the group (including ones not listed as they are graduated) had about 50/50 seasons. It is not necessarily easy to find game-changers here, but it is easier to find playmaking safeties (Logan Wilson was a transfer) vs monster DTs or DEs. NT will play similar stuff here so those hybrid tweeters will be clear areas of improvement. Expect lots of work in the recruiting department here.
CBs: DeShawn Gaddie, Ridge Texada, John Davis, Lorenzo Thompson Zahodri Jackson
Ridge was a revelation, and Gaddie had some big moments. You absolutely cannot have too many good corners so more talent in this area is definitely needed. John Davis will be trying to return, but no one should expect too much. When hoping for talent, imagine someone who will not allow UTSA to get loose in the secondary in the title game. Or allow SMU to walk through the defense, or allow WKU to get behind the secondary. Etc.
It is much harder to evaluate defenders than .. offenders(?). Ridge Texada made a bunch of plays early, but he was clearly finding his way through the system. Opponents found weaknesses in the squad and pressed those advantages with lots of success. Everyone wants to find a Micah Parsons or Aaron Donald, but most have to make do with ‘tweeners and guys with big hearts if not big stature. Texada is undersized, and maybe a Nick Saban can afford to pass up on that kind of guy but NT can use him.
The short version is NT absolutely needs to improve on defense. The pass rush needs to be more formidable (it was solid, if not okay) and the run defense needs to be more stout. Turn those 300+ yard games into 200-yarders. The 200-yard games into 150s and so on. That is minimum. NT needs depth. John Davis was injured and Texada came on and struggled for a bit. NT needs a two-deep that can all compete. That will certainly take a while, but with the portal it might be sped up a bit.
I saw a bowl replay of the 2001 Independence Bowl and saw a very young Mac and it was strange↩
We have written previously that Seth Littrell’s downfall began when he could not make a good DC hire following his firing of Troy Reffett. That choice (to fire him) and the terrible wasted year after put him in a position to chase goodwill ↩
Fine, Zappe, Mike White, Mullens are all pro-level QBs, Reed Blankenship is a starting safety for the Eagles, Jeff Wilson is on the Dolphins etc↩
He had a Jon Copeland-esque 23/9 ratio with 3K yards in his WSU season, which suggests something of a talent transition thing thing to the Pac 12 from the Southland. ↩
Theoretically, it should have been easy to replace Fine, as QBs want to play somewhere where they can show their skills. Seth Littrell tweaked the system a bit, and that meant it was slightly harder to find the same kind of QB. Instead of a decision-maker with accuracy, a decision-maker with a big arm was the necessary ingredient. Also there were some injuries. ↩
Cam Ward threw 5 TDs against 0 in the FCS loss to SHSU in ’21↩