Phil Bennett is the answer to the question: “Who will make the North Texas defense good enough to win?”
That, of course is according to Seth Littrell. We noted previously that this hire is going to make-or-break him as a head coach. Reportedly, he turned down the K-State gig a couple of years ago because he wanted full control over this staff. This is the big one. This is the (likely) the final time he gets to make a big decision like this.
North Texas is in a good place on offense — top of essentially every category in the conference on that side — but has been poor-to-awful on defense. It all comes down to this. Phil Bennett is just about an experienced a hire as is possible in the game.
From his wikipedia biography:
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
- 1978–1981 Texas A&M (DE)
- 1982 TCU (TE/T)
- 1983 MacArthur HS (TX) (LB)
- 1984–1986 Iowa State (DC)
- 1987–1990 Purdue (DC)
- 1991 LSU (OLB)
- 1992–1993 LSU (AHC/LB)
- 1994 LSU (AHC/DC)
- 1995–1996 Texas A&M (DC)
- 1997 TCU (DC/DB)
- 1998 Oklahoma (DB/Co-RC)
- 1999–2001 Kansas State (DC)
- 2002–2007 SMU
- 2008–2010 Pittsburgh (DC)
- 2010 Pittsburgh (interim HC)
- 2011–2016 Baylor (DC)
- 2017 Arizona State (DC)
- 2021–present North Texas (DC)
Experience is useful in a lot of ways but too much can be bad. You can get stuck in your ways, or not see the innovation in front of you because “that’s not how it has been done” and things like that. Obviously too little experience can be bad, as you are trying to learn lessons that others have fully absorbed already. To me, the most important numbers come from Bennett’s time as Baylor defensive coordinator from 2011-2016. The head coaching stint at SMU is notable, as gave him a perspective on the job that he had not had previously and will help him help Littrell for having been through it.
The reason I think the Baylor years are most interesting is that it was during a time in the Big 12 where offense was exploding at a ridiculous pace. The Bears did not do that well for the first three seasons, but were top-3 (including first in his final year) in yards-per-play against. On its face it suggests that once Bennett could get his players in there to play his system, and he made the necessary adjustments for the ridiculously high-performing Big 12 offenses, he was successful.
Much like the situation at Baylor, the NT offense is the best offense in the league, although there are a lot of early indicators that the WKU squad is going to be very good. Bennett does not need to have the best defense in the league. He just needs NT to get to the middle ranges.
I have put together some tables 1 with the numbers and relative rankings of the title game participants over the last couple of seasons. The winner is the top row of a given year. The loser was the second row.
Here are the same teams with their ranks in the conference.
What this tells us is that Bennett’s defenses do not need to be the absolute best in the league but good enough relative to the offense. If we say that NT’s offense at least has the potential to be top-3 in the league — that should put it around 30+ points per game and we want the defense to be around ~20 or so allowed. Interestingly, the 2018 NT team was +10.2 scoring differential. It had a really good defense — it came in around 6th in total defense, and 5th in yards-per-play allowed. That was why that team was so good — it beat Arkansas etc — and why it was so disappointing to lose to both Tech and UAB that season. That team had the makings of a CUSA champ, but it was dropped.
That is a lot to say that the Bennett defense of 2021 just needs to be as good as the Reffett defense of 2018 — of EJ Ejiya, Brandon Garner, Nate Brooks, Kemon Hall et al.
How Does This Happen
“Just be good” is obviously not an interesting note. We should, however, have an idea of what something realistic looks like. I do not know how possible it is to turn the current defense into a top-five CUSA defense. If I did I would have been asking for an interview. No, I think NT fans (us) should have that roughly as the goal. It has been done before (the previously mentioned 2018 team) and can be done again.
Will it be done next season? That is harder to say. Presumably that was a lot of the interview there. Bennett no doubt looked at some film and looked over the roster and gave his opinion. That may have had something to do with the transfer notifications these past couple of weeks. Evaluation of the current players is one part of the gig and we will know if his evaluation of the roster is good enough very soon. The other part of evaluation is of course future evaluation. That is a much harder skill. Can this kid turn into an all-conference player? Will this HS linebacker be a good enough college rush end?
Bennett will have to do a couple of things: turn this current roster into a good enough squad to compete in the league, find transfers that can compliment, support, and/or lead this squad also, and find future players that can grow into quality players.
I do not know Bennett’s time frame, but I cannot imagine anyone will be happy with another Worst In the Nation performance and if that is the case then I do not imagine this staff will be long for Denton.
We will see more 4-2-5/3-3-5 looks, which is a modern thing and roughly what NT has been running the last few years anyway. Everyone runs some form of this. The varying offenses and flexible players mean you need to be flexible on defense. Again, the fact that Baylor’s defense improved with recruiting and teaching suggests that Bennett knows what he is doing. His one year at Arizona State was not impressive from a numbers point of view, but he did not get the time beyond the year as Todd Graham was let go as head coach after the season.
We wrote previously here that the teaching part of the game is more important than the scheming. There are a lot of great ideas that need to be taught so they can be executed in the moment with the least amount of hesitation. The indications are that PB has a good scheme, and knows how to teach it. Then the question becomes: Are there players on the team that can execute it at a high level?
That remains to be seen. We as yet do not know what Bennett thinks of the current group. We know that some experienced players are leaving. That presents an opportunity and a weakness. Typically a secondary with experience is vital to a good defense (according to advanced metrics) and with the losses of Cam Johnson, Jaxon Gibbs, and Makyle Sanders that presents an issue. The good news is that there were a lot of guys that saw some time on the field. That they saw it as part of a different scheme … well we do not know what that means.
The challenge remains the same. Find good players, coach them up in a scheme they can understand and execute that will be effective against the league’s defenses.
I do not expect drastic improvement this upcoming season. That is to say, right now I do not expect top-5 in yards allowed and (the more important) yards allowed per play. Maybe we set the goal at the improvement Arizona State made in his 2017 season as DC: They went from 39ppg allowed to 32. That is not huge number but it is manageable. NT allowed 42 points per contest and that is completely awful. Bring that down to about 32 and I will not be happy, but I will think that is improvement.
The 2016 Arizona State team finished last in the Pac-12 in yards against/ypp against at 520/7.07. His 2017 team improved that to 449/6.33. Not terrible.
The 2020 NT team finished at 522/6.94, and we can set our very reasonable goals at 450/6.2. Obviously we would like to see much better than that but we will take what we can get if it looks like improvement. At that level NT would still be the worst team (statistically) in the league but that is only because they were so awful this season. With a little luck that still can mean a trip to the title game — remember the ’17 team allowed 431/5.96 and was a game away from a title. The better defense in 2018 did not.
Right now the task at hand is laying the foundation for the next season by evaluating the roster, finding complementary talent, and then teaching it as soon as that is possible.
forgive me if I have transcribed some of these incorrectly, what is important is not the exact number but the overall sense of how good the offense/defense was↩