True Freshman, Detective.
North Texas quarterback Mason Fine was both hyped and rebuked throughout his true freshman campaign. His first year was filled with memorable moments of moxie, playmaking, and Fine-dozing – including an 80-yard touchdown run to start the second half against UTSA. That same game was filled with forgettable freshman moments – including two interceptions and a fumble.
That UTSA game is a perfect example of Fine’s first year: exciting drives and plays, mixed with poor decisions and miscues.
Through all the grit, Romo-ness, and fumbLOLs, we frequently forgot to put into context that a true freshman wrestled the starting job from an Alabama transfer. Put differently, he wasn’t as bad as the other guy. We capped his abilities as a product of his talents, not as a product of a freshman player who had just danced at his prom only a few months prior (no, not Graham Harrell), and of a freshman coaching staff turning over a roster that was coached into a 1-11 team the previous season.
Well, 2016 is in the books. In a sad North Texas kind of way, it was a better season than most sane people anticipated. After a seemingly tumultuous freshman year, we all asked if Fine had the ability to build upon what I would regard as a not-bad-but-not-good year 1?
The storylines were formed and much was written and podded: Mason Fine was the returning quarterback with enough experience and talent to hold off long-time backup Quinn Shanbour, incoming freshman Cade Pearson, and (now former) Juco transfer Devlin Isadore.
In this article, we compare Mason Fine’s stats so far and scrutinize any discernible improvements from 2016 – or lack thereof – in some of his available tape. We will attempt to build a picture of what Mason Fine did as a true freshman, within the context of other 4-year starters. The reason I decided to use 4-year starters is to compare Mason Fine to quarterbacks that were worthy starters as freshmen, and who continued to have stable careers.
By the Numbers
Below are his Sports-Reference 2016, current 2017, and 2017 pace stats.
His 2016 totals were less than modest, but let’s talk about it in context.
In addition to only playing a total of two quarters in two of those games, the North Texas passing game was inconsistent. In a 6-week stretch, Mason Fine averaged nearly 220 yards and a passing touchdown in every game.
In his other two full games, he averaged far below 100 yards/game. Play calling was a learning process, and star running back Jeffery Wilson was injured for some of the season. Flashes of hope, however, lay sprinkled through the season like a defiant dandelion in a freshly mowed lawn.
While his touchdown total was paltry, his INT rate was
even lower great. Fine threw 5 interceptions in 261 pass attempts – two of which came in one game.
While he boasted one of the best INT rates in the country, his sack rate was one of the worst. Seth Littrell criticized him for holding the ball too long.
His INT rate has gone up marginally in 2017, while improving his sack rate. He is making fewer mistakes, reading the field better, and has made decisions quicker. Additionally, improved receiver play has turned drops and off-target throws into receptions.
His touchdown rate has tripled.
I say again: One, two, three, tripled. His yards per attempt has increased from mediocre to top 20 in the nation. His completion percentage is improved, also.
Y’all, Mason Fine has arrived.
This two-time Oklahoma Gatorade Player Of The Year spent much of his summer running Madden trainings in order to spend points on his vision, decision-making, and those fade passes. Fine’s play has both improved — and been improved — by his revamped supporting cast. Play calling has seen leveled up as well, giving Fine chances to bail himself out on shorter throws to (open!) receivers.
By the Charts
Let’s take a minute and compare him to past freshman QBs who went on to become 4-year starters the past 10 seasons.
In the following chart, Mason Fine is the red dot. Both the x and y columns are a 4-year quarterback’s rating during their first season. It’s visualized so you get a sense of how Fine performed compared to his peers.
Side note: I’ve also classified QBs as either a P5 or a G5 QB. Talent matters, but also level of competition matters. Differentiating by P5 and G5 makes more sense when we project improvement from year to year, which we hope to write about more in the future (yay numbers). Typically, P5 QBs averaged higher QB ratings, but G5 QBs improved more dramatically.
As a true freshman, Mason Fine’s QB rating (113) among 4 year starters was slightly below average (124) from a statistical point of view. From a film point of view, Fine’s vision, decision-making, delivery, and downfield placement needed improvement.
In the next chart, we compare year 1 QB rating to year 2 QB rating. We want to plot how much a QB improved from one year to the next. The green line represents the average G5 QB trend. If you’re above it, it’s generally a good thing. Again, Mason Fine is the red dot.
Through 5 games, Fine has shown improvement both statistically and on film. Fine has shot up from a QB rating of 113 to 154. The year 2 average is a rating of 131 among his cohort. He not only improved at a rate above average, but also one of the better year 2 QBs in this cohort – in terms of rating. Only Kellen Moore, Zach Terrell, and Case Keenum had better year 2 ratings (the three green dots above the 155 rating along the y axis). That is great company to keep in successful spread, spread option, and air raid teams, respectively.
On the field, Mason Fine has shown improved decision-making. Knowing when to fold them (and hold them) helps your team out by losing a down instead of losing yards on a sack, gaining 40 yards on a bomb to an open receiver instead of going for the swing pass, or conversely going for the one yard conversion rather than going for the double covered receiver. Confidence in his abilities has increased, and he has been delivering balls 50+ yards downfield from release to catch point.
While those are the limits to his delivery, it’s still an impressive feat considering that in 2016, North Texas completed only 4 pass plays of 40+ yards – last in Conference USA. In 2017, Fine has hit on 10 pass plays of 40+ yards through 5 games.
That’s good for first in C-USA, and tied for second nationally.
While Fine has received deserved praise, we do need to be cautious. Mason has had a great start through 5 games, but there is a lot of season left.
Graham Harrell’s play calling must continue to grow and improve. In its second year, the offense has been able to install more air raid concepts and plays. Harrell, Fine, and his supporting cast has been able to come together and improve over 2016. It is imperative that the momentum and improvement continues not just through this season, but subsequent seasons.
You can’t shut down one facet of an air raid offense without exposing another facet of your defense. Double team Jalen Guyton, and leave open underneath routes. Commit to the run, and leave receivers in exploitable situations. This is where play calling and execution is stressed. Fine has to continue to see the field as he has been in 2017.
It’s an exciting and refreshing time to be a North Texas fan. The combination of conference-leading offensive statistics and a winning record is something rarely seen by older fans. I am hopeful – and confident – it continues.