Categories
Football

Mike Ekeler Returns, NT Staffs Up

Back in Seth Littrell’s first season he brought on two guys to coach the defense: Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett. The scheme was Reffett’s but the play calls were Ekeler’s. There was some tension with (reportedly) Ekeler preferring some different calls.

In the end Ekeler left for UNC and something like a step down to coach linebackers again. His resume lists some big programs under big names (Bo Pelini at Nebraska being one) and lots of time playing or coaching special teams.

NT lost Marty Biagi as its coordinator for special teams to Purdue and while we may miss out on some highlights that go viral, perhaps that means we will also not see so many kick returns allowed for TDs.

The current make up is radically different than last year after a disappointing season. Last year we said it was practically a new staff but this is even newer. For four seasons NT went with a true standalone offensive coordinator. Now, that is basically going to be Seth Littrell *or* shared among Tommy Mainord and Mike Boesch.

All coaches are involved in game-planning to some extent but the game planning and final calls on game day are usually the coordinator who gets final approval from the head man. This season is going to be different. We do not know who is going to call the plays. Last year with Bodie Reeder leading the offense Littrell said that he would be “more involved” than in years previous. What did that mean exactly? Well, everything up to play calling.

LSU won the national championship with a highly regarded pass game coordinator taking a ton of credit without calling a play on game day. There are a lot of ways to do this and we will see something different than we saw the last few years I suppose. Mike Leach calls the plays from the sideline as the head coach but has his coordinators upstairs giving him a view of the field.

Littrell had his OC go upstairs for a better view and play-calling from up there. Mainord is the only staff member who has not changed titles in the four seasons here. He has always been listed as an associate head coach and co-offensive coordinator.

The real concern is that the players are hearing new voices all over again. Sure, they come from the same head coach but players have the most contact with their position coaches than anyone else. There are a lot of reasons why 2018 was successful, but one of them was that the staff stayed mostly intact for the two seasons before that. Is this a make-or-break thing? No. Just something to note.

Curent Staff

Seth Littrell: Head Coach
Tommy Mainord: Associate Head Coach, Co-Offensive Coordinator, WRs
Mike Bloesch: Co-Offensive coordinator, Offensive Line
Clint Bowen: Defensive Coordinator, Safeties
Mike Ekeler: Special Teams
Patrick Cobbs: Running Backs
Clay Jennings: Cornerbacks
Adrian Mays: Tight Ends
Galen Scott: Linebackers
Tate Wallis: Quarterbacks

Tommy Mangino: Quality Control, Offense
Chris Petrilli: Quality Control, Defense
Zach Womack: Strength
Lucas Lopez: Assistant Strength
Shelby McIntyre: Recruiting
Cortney Finney: GA Defense
Lorenzo Jackson: GA Defense
JD Perkins: GA Offense
Jack Tabb III: GA Offense

For fun, let us look at the year-to-year since Littrell has been here.

2019:

Seth Littrell: Head Coach
Bodie Reeder: OC, QBs
Troy Reffett: DC, Safeties
Tommy Mainord: Associate HC, Co-OC, WRs
Marty Biagi: ST
Patrick Cobbs: RBs
Clay Jennings: CBs
Adrian Mays: TEs
Galen Scott: LBs
Chuck Langston: OL
Marc Yellock: DL

Tommy Mangino: QC, Offense
Chris Petrilli: QC, Defense
Zach Womack: Strength
Lucas Lopez: Assistant Strength
Shelby McIntyre: Recruiting
Cortney Finney: GA Defense
Lorenzo Jackson: GA Defense
JD Perkins: GA Offense
Jack Tabb III: GA Offense
Luke Walerius: Chief of Staff

2018:

Seth Littrell: HC
Graham Harrell: OC
Troy Reffett: DC, Safeties
Jeff Koonz: Co-DC, LBs
Tommy Mainord: Associate HC, Pass Game Coordinator, Inside WRs
Chuck Langston: OL
Joel Filani: WRs
Marty Biagi: ST
Nate Brown: CBs
Marc Yellock: DL
Tashard Choice: RBs

John David Baker: QC
Tim Burmeister: GA
Cortney Finney: GA
JD Perkins: GA
Luke Walerius: Recruiting
Shelby McIntyre: Coordinator, Recruiting

2017:

Seth Littrell: HC
Graham Harrell: OC
Troy Reffett: DC
Tommy Mainord: Associate HC, Pass Game Coordinator, Inside WRs
Chuck Langston: OL
Joel Filani: WRs
Nate Brown: CBs
Jeff Koonz: LBs
Marc Yellock: DL
Marty Biagi: ST

John David Baker: QC
Tashard Choice: QC
Tim Burmeister: GA
Kenny Buyers: GA
JD Perkins: GA
Herschel Sims: GA
David Stenklyft: Recruiting
Zach Womack: Strength

2016:

Seth Littrell: HC
Graham Harrell: OC
Mike Ekeler: DC, LBs
Tommy Mainord: Associate HC, Pass Game C, Inside WRs
Troy Reffett: Associate HC, Co-DC
Brad Davis: Run Game/OL
Joel Filani: WRs
Nate Brown: CBs
Derrick LeBlanc: DL
Tommy Perry: RBs/Special Teams

David Stenklyft: Recruiting
John David Baker: QC
Brandin Byrd: GA
Thomas Sheffield: GA
Mason Y’Barbo: GA
Tim Burmeister: GA
Scott Conley: High School relations

Categories
Football

The Defense Under Troy Reffett

If you have followed NT football this season, you know that Mike Ekeler was important, but the defense was Troy Reffett’s scheme … sort of. From the preview:

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. … 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.

Ekeler and Reffett were both calling plays for the defense?

The defense — particularly the pass defense — was tremendous at times. The attacking scheme generated sacks, but not enough. Apparently the arrangement between Ekeler and Reffett was one of professionalism, but disagreement. Ekeler was a little more bend-but-don’t break, 4-3 (2 DT), while Reffett is more aggressive and likes three down lineman. Again, going back to his ULM days, this makes sense. The blog and many followers were fans of Mike Ekeler’s play calling, his personality, recruiting ability, and more. We wish him well at his new gig at UNC as he takes over for Gene Chizik.

Make no mistake, *ahem*, the 5-defensive back scheme was always Reffett’s because it was what Seth Littrell wanted. The compromise led to playing the “3-3-5” scheme that was more a “4-2-5” with 3-stack personnel.

To wit:

2016 HOD Bowl Depth Chart — Defense

A note before we continue: Innovation is constant, and modern base defense is a nickel package with either a 2-DT, single gap front or a 3-man, two gap front with varying hybrid linebacker/safety combinations behind them. There is hardly a “right” way or a “pure” scheme. While the 3-3-5 or “3-stack” defense is newish, it is essentially an old 4-3 under formation with speedier players.

I think the compromise Ekeler and Reffett made was up front. NT’s depth chart looks a little different than Reffett’s old ULM ones or a typical 3-stack lineup. For those not versed in the particulars, the Jack position is unusual here. Jacks are usually what you call the rushing/hybrid LB in a 3-4 scheme 1. Last season NT nearly always was bringing four rushers, and the Jack was usually the “fourth” guy. Typically a 3-stack defense will bring four or more rushers, but mix up the rushing backer.

At least in Gary Patterson’s TCU 4-2-5, he will have two different coaches calling plays for the front (the lineman and backers) and the secondary. Chris B Brown at Grantland:

Patterson isn’t the only coach who divorces his fronts from his coverage calls — Bill Belichick is another — but Patterson takes the principle as far as I’ve seen by having different coaches call TCU’s fronts and coverages, in many cases independent of each other. “The best system is to have one guy thinking about how to stop the best run play and the best pass rush, and another guy thinking about the best coverage,” Patterson said in 2006. “That’s the ultimate.”

Here is where we are speculating a bit — was NT doing this exact same thing? Ekeler and Reffett were co-coordinators and each calling a separate part of the defensive scheme makes a ton of sense.

Generally speaking, a 4-2-5 defense will have a typical DE roles — a rushing end, and a strong side end. Teams that run a base 4-3 (meaning with two DTs, as everyone’s base is nickel) will call their rush end Elephant or WDE or LEO (Linebacker/End). 2

While a lot of the defense was not exactly what I expected coming into the year, I chalked it up to the transitional weirdness of having players recruited for a 4-3 playing a 3-3. This experimental 4-2/3-3 hybrid — if it was even that — was successful at times, but terrible at others.

So What Does This All Mean?

Reffett at DC likely means a true 3-stack look instead of calling a 4-2-5 a 3-3-5. It means Josh Wheeler is likely going to be a more traditional LB or move to DE.

To wit:

E: Ends. Essentially stay the same.
N: Nose. Stays the same.
M: Mike LB, needs to stuff the run.
R: “Rob” LB, needs to be a great athlete.
L: “Lou” or “Luke” LB, needs to be a great athlete.
$: Spur, an outside LB/SS type. Plays the strong side, matches up with TEs. (Tyreke Davis?)
B: Bandit, a safety/nickleback. The “Nick” in the current terminology. Dee Baulkman/Preston.
F: Free safety. Great tackler.
C: Unchanged.

Other than some personnel changes and changing where guys are standing, the main thing is more versatility and more aggression. When Josh Wheeler lined up at Jack, it was clear what our intentions were.

We will likely see less two-high safety looks with (perhaps) KiShawn McClain in the Bandit role that Jabril Peppers was originally recruited for in Michigan’s 3-3-5.

Two takeaways from this:

  1. I am excited about the change
  2. I feel a little silly for not noticing the 4-2-5 thing earlier. I chalked it up to the personnel, the transition, and when we played Army: the matchups. At best, it was a clever attempt at a hybrid, at worst merely a compromise that neither coach was fully comfortable with. Again, the differences between a modern 4-3 and a 3-3-5/4-2-5 are slight 3 but I imagine it was the little tiny details that are different that caused the rumored issues.

Who said the offseason was boring?


  1. Reffett coached in a 3-4 scheme early in his career. 
  2. UTSA calls theirs ‘SAM’, confusing everyone – link. Southern Miss calls their’s wolf 
  3. Also TCU has a 3-3-5 package they call ‘nickel’. All 4-down lineman teams have one. Similarly, most 3-4 / 3-3-5 squads have a 4-DL package. See earlier about the ‘Jack’ position. 
Categories
Football

Football Staff Changes – **Updated Again**

SB Nation rightfully points out that the post-signing day shuffle is anti-athlete.

As a practical matter, it makes perfect sense for everyone to perform their job for the program and the school and recruit the best guys they can. However, it is naive to think these coaches are selling the kids on the benefits of the campus and not on the relationship with the coaches. Tom Herman is out here telling you it is about the relationships.

Now that players have inked away their rights to change their mind without penalty, the coaching staffs that have recruited them now begin to look out for their own interests. This could be resolved if we gave players a bit more agency in the process, and schools were able to incentivize them beyond a stipend and a nice gym.

North Texas already lost offensive line coach Brad Davis to Florida, and the little birdies are telling Vito and this blog that one of the defensive staff is leaving — Ekeler? Reffett?

If it actually comes to pass that the defensive staff changes a bit my gut — and those little birdies — tell me that Ekeler will be the one going and Troy Reffett will be the one staying. The 3-3-5 scheme is his specialty, and his attaching, blitzing philosophy is in line with what Seth Littrell has in mind.

UPDATE Feb 9th 12:47pmFootball Scoop reports that it is indeed Ekeler.

North Texas: With Mike Ekeler leaving for North Carolina, sources tell FootballScoop the Mean Green will promote assistant head coach/safeties coach Troy Reffett to defensive coordinator. Reffett served as co-defensive coordinator in 2016. North Texas also plans to hire former Cincinnati co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jeff Koonz to coach linebackers.

Koonz’s resume is good, as he’s coached under some good mentors including defensive guru Gene Chizik (He was once a really highly rated coordinator, y’all). He coached at winning programs (Auburn in their undefeated year, Texas Nat’l Title,) at La Tech, Iowa, and now Cinci. The range of experience at places is good, and so is his time under quality coaches.

From his bio
COACHING CAREER
Year: School – Position
2003: Auburn – Student Assistant
2004: Auburn – Defensive GA
2005-06: Texas – Defensive GA
2006: Texas – Linebackers
2007-08: Iowa State – Secondary
2009: Texas – Quality Control
2010-13: Louisiana Tech – Linebackers
2014: Cincinnati – Safeties
2015: Cincinnati – Linebackers
2016: Cincinnati – Co-Defensive Coordinator/LB

Update 2.9.17 12:58pm — Football Scoop also reporting Derrick LeBlanc took a gig at Kentucky:

Kentucky: Sources tell Football Scoop North Texas defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc is expected to join the Kentucky staff in a similar capacity.

I agree … mostly. Generally speaking you want coaches to stay for longer than a year. At a place like Oklahoma, where Bob Stoops has been coaching for ages, a quick DC change is not a huge deal. At NT, where the entire staff is new, this could have bigger ramifications. As I mentioned on the podcast this is part of the job: finding players, and replacement players and finding staff, and finding replacement staff. Seth Littrell did a good job the first time around. Let us hope he does the same this next time.

Tally

Out

  • OL coach Brad Davis — to Florida
  • Co-DC/LB coach Mike Ekeler (RIP Fake Mike) — to UNC
  • DL coach Derrick LeBlanc — to Kentucky
  • ST/RB coach Tommy Perry by mutual decision

In

  • LB coach Jeff Koonz (reportedly).
  • Troy Reffett slides over to the sole DC spot, and probably will have some big input on the hires for the defense. He already has a guy he coached at the DB coaching spot in Nate Brown
  • ST coach Matt Biagi
Categories
Football Football Recaps

2016 Football Season Recap

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.

Overview

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.

Coaching

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.

Offense

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

Defense

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.

Recruiting

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.


  1. Read: The 1-122 predictions, the breakdowns, DCTF, SI, etc 
  2. One of the fun things about being a long-time NT follower is that we have seen most if not all the terrible scenarios. All the QBs injured? Seen it. QB that cannot throw? Seen it. Wasted talent? Yep. And this is the last decade. 
Categories
Football

Meh: North Texas 24 LaTech 45

The problem with playing nearly well enough to compete against a good team is that when they do not hurt themselves and display their superiority, you can get frustrated and demoralized.

North Texas played well in the first half of this game offensively. The defense was torched by big plays and an efficient offense. That is not good but it was expected. At some point when you say a team was bad you are really saying they were poor relative to their standard.

If you have been following closely, you know that NT’s defense, while capable and maybe even stout against the right opponent, did not match up well with this Louisiana Tech team. The Mean Green defense has struggled with mobile QBs that move and find open players. Remember last week when Dalton Sturm avoided tacklers and found UTSA players for a crucial first down or two? Well Higgins was looking (and finding) guys for TDs or 40-yard gains.

North Texas has not faced a team with a burner like LaTech’s Carlos Henderson. He made the speedy NT defense look slow. Nate Brooks has not gotten beat so badly all season, and he was torched on the first LT score. On the screen pass TD, Henderson caught it and burst up the field for six. He’s good.

Coming into this game Trent Taylor caught 93 for 1274 and 9 TDs, good for 13.7 yard per catch. Carlos Henderson has cuaght 51 for 1035 11 scores and 20.3 yards per catch.

Tonight Taylor was held to 5 for 44. Henderson was not held to anything. He took what he wanted, including a big run on a reverse for 24 yards. The last time we had this much trouble in the pass game was against the talented duo at SMU.

Tonight North Texas had a hard time wrapping up the QB, defending a scrambling QB, and getting off the field on 3rd down. While these things are all areas in which to improve, this is week 9 and that is how NT has played all season. By this point, expecting them to play differently is expecting a chair to not be a chair anymore. This defense is what it is — attacking, prone to allowing big plays, bad on third down, and decent enough in coverage except against truly talented/speedy WRs.

That said, the penalties (that were deserved) did them no favors. Chad Davis subbed in for the injured Eric Jenkins, broke up a pass, and earned an unsportsmanlike penalty for taunting him to his face. Let us set aside the discussion on over celebrating by defensive backs and simply note that doing anything in an opponent’s face is going to earn a penalty.

Still, on some level even these penalties were to be expected. As far back as the Rice game, NT displayed their penchant for helping the opponent by committing untimely penalties.

We can point to the run game being gashed, but part of that was those big throws early opening that up. It also did not help that the starting corner was hurt, and that McClain was ejected. La Tech was moving the ball well anyway, but the leading tackler was gone. NT is a bend but-don’t-break defense that got broken.

Against this Bulldog team, the best hope was controlling the clock, scoring, and getting some turnovers. For the fist half, NT was able to score with them nearly every time. Graham Harrell called a good game that was built on the threat of getting Jeff Wilson the ball on the swing pass in space. He finished with 127 total yards on 20 touches and a score. The problem was the bag of tricks only went so deep.

Ideally as Louisiana Tech adjusts to the swing passes (they did) and the immediate counters (the screen passes away from the swing) you hit them over the top. Unfortunately that stuff requires good pass protection that still was not there. Mason Fine was dealing early, hitting short throws on the money and letting our best players make plays in space. When the space available required a deep throw, that is where NT struggled.

It is no fun to watch Mason Fine take sacks, but like with the defense, at this point expecting much different is a mistake on our part.

Let us unnecessarily deep dive now:

Offense

Mason Fine struggled last week. He did not see the field well, and forced throws into coverage. He was slightly off, which contributed to some incomplete passes and one of the interceptions. This week, he was dealing.

He began by completing his first 11 passes, hitting his guys on the money, and moving the chains. After half time when La Tech made adjustments to sit on the shorter throws, Mason Fine struggled.

North Texas lacks a consistent deep threat, in part because the line cannot protect long enough to allow a longer play to develop, and also the lack of a true burner like Henderson. While Robinson, Wilson, and even Goree have some speed (Goree displayed some of that on his catch-and-run) they do not scare defenses enough to change the way they defend.

While the argument can be made that Goree should be farther along in his development, he played well tonight. Lately, he has been finding the open zones and making catches. Those possession catches and the catch-and-run he had are the types of plays this offense is designed to display. We saw more than a glimpse of what this offense will be in the games and years to come. The ball found players in open spaces and those players made plays.

Next year, finding exactly who those playmakers will be is something of a concern, but assuming Seth Littrell follows through on his promise to recruit players that fit the system over guys with Hudl talent we should see more progress in this area. It was exciting, even if some of the progress was due to Louisiana Tech’s defense being a little bad.

Still, the offense finish the game with a non-Florida season worst in yards per play. To my eyes, this was a function of the third quarter disparity. NT came out and threw a pick, and only managed a FG drive, while LT had two TD drives that covered a total of 8-minutes. By the time NT had the ball back, they were in full desperation mode and it was over.

Defense

While Mike Ekeler’s unit has been the strength of the team, it is by no means a perfect group. At best, this group ranked somewhere in the mid-50s in areas like 2nd down defense, or run success rate. Louisiana ranked in the top 10 in these areas offensively.

Nationally speaking, this was a case of a very good offense going up against a relatively bad defense. Barring a bit of luck like UTSA had earlier in the day (Stockstill went out in the first Qtr), there was little hope.

Coaching rhetoric aside — can play with anyone, no excuses, etc — this was always going to be a huge ask. They would need to play perfectly and even then there were question marks. It will be the same way next week against Western Kentucky.

While North Texas played exceptionally well against Army and much was made about the discipline of defending the triple option, the hardest offense to defend is not necessarily a well-executed one. It is a well-executed offense with system-breaking talent.

Basketball fans might remember that Michael Jordan famously broke the Triangle offense. Kobe, Shaq, LeBron, Steph Curry have broken the rules through sheer talent.

No Louisiana Tech guys are at that level, but I am exaggerating the comparison to point out that Louisiana had talent that could and did break our defensive scheme. Henderson ran by Brooks, who is fast and played decent technique. Higgins scrambled, kept his eyes up and fired a great pass for 50 yards. On the reverse Henderson outran our defense.

La Tech does a good job putting their talent into good-to-great position.

Let me point out here that Florida was probably more talented but did not make good use of it. Their offense needs work.

Coaching

On twitter I mentioned a few times that Graham Harrell did a great job of play calling. He seemingly learned from last week’s film that teams will load up on the inside zone and drew up some plays that got the ball in Jeff Wilson’s capable hands early and often. The swing passes from last week were back, and they were executed crisply. Mason Fine got the ball to Wilson and Ivery on the run, allowing them to make plays.

When those plays were figured out, he used some of the same motions and formations to screen the other way, or counter the defense’s plans for it. It was quality stuff.

NT came into this game averaging 25.9 points per game and scored 24. They scored on 4 of 11 drives (excluding the 14 second possession before the half) and only turned the ball over once. The run game tonight came in the form of the swing passes and screen game; the missing pieces are the deep and medium range stuff. Again, those are not likely to improve in the 2016 season. Another season of OL improvement, and recruitment will (hopefully) help Mason Fine find more time. Another season of Fine growing in the system and seeing the field better will help extend plays and then drives.

Mike Ekeler and Tony Reffert are going to have an easy coaching job this week, as they drill home things about mental discipline. Chad Davis’ penalty was not a game-losing play but free plays to an explosive offense are stupid things to hand out. McClain’s targeting penalty looked iffy to me — it looked like Higgins began his dive right as McClain attempted the hit. Still, a more controlled approach probably keeps our defensive leader out there for longer.

Mistakes like these fall into the coaching bucket for correction. The defense as a whole has been penalized repeatedly, and while that is not really going to be magically resolved soon, the staff should make this a point of emphasis.

Season Implications

North Texas did not play particularly well, but they were not embarrassing. The huge crowd saw a entertaining first half, and that is fine.

I have already seen some narrative-setting about this being an ‘abysmal’ performance and disagree. But then again I watch this team all the time. For the casual fan, a blowout is another blowout and that does not help the program in the marketing effort.

Unfortunately, barring a WKU complete meltdown (perhaps helped by injuries) next week will be more of the same but without the home field boost. If NT avails itself this way next week I will be satisfied. It is not great but basically North Texas is playing to expectations — a median performance — and that is all we can ask for.

Notes

How about ESPN3? How about that music playing continuously through the broadcast early, never ever stopping and making us all crazy? Good stuff. Eric Capper tweeted that they spent a lot of money to make the broadcast good. They probably overspent on the music. Heh.

Categories
Football

Quadruple Fine-overs: NT 17 UTSA 31

When I ran the Massey simulator for the Army game, it came up Army 9 out of 10 times. The score was usually something like Army 35-17, but once NT won the simulation 52-7. Last week NT essentially that outcome in part because they grabbed seven turnovers and Army’s DBs slipped.

This week NT was on the other end of that luck tonight. Mason Fine threw interceptions on passes that fell incomplete last week. Jeff Wilson was not able to save a poor pass performance by breaking any 41+ yard runs and the defense did not manage seven TOs to help.

Note: While Jeff did not score, Mason did do this:

I have seen fans say we lacked hunger or were out-coached, or that the whole team played poorly. I cannot agree with any of this. I saw a North Texas team play essentially how they have played all season.

Before we get detailed, let us just look at the defensive numbers:

Stat Season v UTSA
Points Against 27.1 31
Yards per Play 5.48 5.3
Sacks Allowed 4.14 4
Sacks For 2.14 5
Rushing YPC Allowed 4.66 4.3
Passing YPA Allowed 6.6 7.47

This game was about turnovers by our freshman QB — understandable, yet still frustrating — and the inability to run the ball inside.

More numbers before we get to the main thrust of this review:

  • NT had four turnovers (2 INT, 2 Fumble)
  • UTSA went 4/4 inside the red zone
  • NT went 2/5 in the red zone
  • In the 3rd Qtr that saw UTSA score 10 and NT 7, NT out gained UTSA 175 to 71.
  • NT allowed two scoring drives of over 50 yards, and one of 50.

Game Narrative

North Texas kicked off defended UTSA and forced a punt. The offense went backwards (pretty expected) and punted. Then UTSA went on an 11-play 49 yard TD drive that involved some 3rd down conversions, nice passing, and nifty running by Dalton Sturm.

North Texas and UTSA traded three punts until UTSA drove 5 plays 80 yards and hit Josh Stewart deep for a score. North Texas managed only 30 yards in 8 plays during this time.

After their score made it 14-0, Mason Fine threw an awful INT but he hit two straight 12+ yard passes before that pick. North Texas was finally moving.

NT managed a 10-play 67 yard drive only to fumble with no time left on the clock that was nearly a scoop-and-score for UTSA.

Starting the second half, Mason Fine scorched everyone for 80 yards and the first TD. We were all ecstatic.

The defense forced a 3-and-out from UTSA and everyone was hyped. This looked exactly like the beginning of the second half against Army, right?

Wrong. Fine immediately fumbled on a messed up swing pass and UTSA drove a sort 20 yards for a FG to make it 17-7. This was the beginning of the first death.

North Texas drives 29 yards in 4 plays before … another INT. This time Mason Fine over throws a screen pass to Jeff Wilson. It was a gift.

UTSA drives 50 yards in six plays for another TD making it 24-7. This is how you lose games folks. Still NT had UTSA at 2nd-and-18 but allowed a 31 yard pass, and then three straight runs for a TD.

It was miracle time. North Texas got the ball with 5:34 left in the quarter and used it all to drive down to the UTSA 6. More time came off the clock in the 4th before NT kicked a FG.

UTSA then went on a game-clinching 8-play 69-yard TD drive to make it 31. This is where I suspect everyone was disappointed with the defense and most of the ‘poor’ play narrative comes from.

NT scored a TD, got the onside kick to make it interesting before losing the ball on downs. A possible TD was called back because of offensvie pass interference that would have made it different ball game. NT had three time outs remaining with about 4 minutes to play.

NT forced a punt, then the final stat-padding drive stalled at the UTSA 25.

Offense

Mason Fine was bad. He played like a freshman. I want to reiterate the extent to which I understand this fact and also how it is still important for the starting quarterback to play well for this team to succeed. For any team to succeed.

UTSA’s Dalton Sturm played a classic game-manager game. He made SR plays like getting out of bounds, scrambling and sliding, and throwing the ball away.

Mason Fine — the good lord bless his heart — tries to make plays. He dives head first. He throws into coverage. He does not give up on plays.

All of this is commendable, but without a live arm like Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre it is dangerous. Hell, it is dangerous even with those kinds of arms.

He threw two interceptions and nearly had two others but they were dropped. The first throw came along the sideline as he tried to fit a ball into triple coverage over the top. He may have seen a guy open slightly, but the right play there is playing for second down. NT had just went down 14 and we all sure could have used a nice drive to keep the fans in it.

The third quarter saw the absolute best and worst of the kid. He ran for 80, displaying his primary gifts. Then he basically threw a fumble. Tossing a swing pass to Wilson, he lost the ball (was it batted?) and UTSA recovered, drove for 3 points. He followed that up with a nice little sequence of plays before over throwing a screen pass that led to 7 more for them.

Was that scheme? Was that hunger? Was that being out coached? Not really. Those were freshman mistakes. The kind we have Mason making so he does not make them later in his career. That said, this program is not here to make Mason Fine a solid QB — it is here to win games. While we want to be reasonable in assessing him, we cannot overlook the mistakes simply because he is young and we like him.

Graham Harrell and Seth Littrell have tried to reduce the pressure on the kid by going to our best player and letting him carry the load by carrying the rock. Jeff Wilson could not find room. The line that has been able to magically create enough room for Jeff Wilson to run was beat. Was this effort? Was this coaching? I doubt it. North Texas’ line has been beat all season. We know this. We have wrote about this.

The failure to get short yardage were just as instrumental to the losing of this game as were the INTs. From the UTSA 1, Jeff Wilson was stuffed twice for no-gain, fumbling the second time. From the UTSA 6, Jeff Wilson was stuffed for 3 total yards on two rushes, forcing a FG. If NT scores a TD there the gap is only 10 instead of 14.

In the first half, he had something like 8 rushes for for 5 yards. As a team NT ran 13 times for 1.6 yards in the first half. Let us give credit to Harrell for finding a way to get Wilson the ball with those swing passes, one of which went for 38 yards (and another was nearly a fumble, then there was the actual fumble *headdesk*)

UTSA obviously made it a point to stop the only aspect of this offense that is somewhat reliable and did a good job of doing that. MTSU did something similar and Mason Fine was solid but under pressure. In this one, he had the makings of a solid game but turned the ball over. The late game drives had more of the pass attack that sort of worked in spurts in the first.

More about this in the Coaching section.

Defense

Rating this group really depends on your expectations. The most reasonable among us did not expect another 7 turnovers. Considering the circumstances, this group was solid. They forced 5 3-and-outs, including a couple at A Stop Could Change The Game moments, and even look good in the totals box score.

UTSA played well offensively in that they protected the ball, took what was available, and made enough plays to win. Those deep passes? We knew they would hit on one or two. Josh Stewart caught some clutch passes to move the chains (one 31-yarder, and another on a slant) and a TD. NT did not get gashed for 40-yard TDs but did allow some big runs.

That has been par for the course. Again, this was a 14-7 game in the third quarter before NT turned the ball over twice in their own territory.

Still, there were areas to improve in. Although NT got to Sturm enough to sack him, he had hours to throw — especially in the second half. It looked like Ekeler went to a zone in pass coverage after getting burned by Sturm’s running against zero-blitzes. NT brought the house a few times and was killed for it. The straight 4-man pass rush was unable to get to him consistently and he found his guys running slow-developing routes. This was in stark contrast to Fine, who again had very little time to go through a read.

The defense was burned for those aforementioned chunk runs. The stats say there were 8 in total, including the final TD for 19-yards. By then, North Texas was tiring and allowing more yards. UTSA moved the ball fairly easily then. Still, Jarveon Williams, Sturm, and Jalen Rhodes all had 10+ yard runs. It was disappointing to see, especially considering how poor UTSA had been recently but let us give them credit. UTSA has been focusing on improving their run game after two poor showings.

That said, they hit big runs in the 4th, when the defense was tired. Through three quarters they were at 105 on 31 carries (3.4 ypc). That is decent-to-good and confirms my thinking that this defense played well enough to win an average game. That is to say, if the offense could have managed more than the 111 yards and 2/7 3rd down conversions in the first half this could have been a different game. It could have been more like the game we were hoping for.

Coaching

A few of my Mean Green friends want to put the blame squarely on the coaching staff, calling our guys out for being out coached. Considering that NT out gained them by nearly 80 yards on the road with a freshman QB is evidence to the contrary. They lost a winnable game, yes. They lost because the freshman QB played like a freshman and made mistakes.

If we admit this, how can we blame the staff for it? While I have answered this question before with something like “they can call more screen stuff”, having seen (again) Mason Fine struggle with the quick WR and RB screens, I see why they do not include those in his arsenal as often. Jeff Wilson, while improving, is not the best pass catcher and also slipped on a play with huge potential. Simply put, there are no easy answers.

The long term solutions will not help us right now. By that I mean getting more bodies on the offensive line. The short term stuff is a bit easier, and why I am not too upset about the turnovers tonight. Seth and Graham can continue to coach Fine about decision making.

Graham Harrell has managed to sneak in some things that have worked to overcome the limitations of our group. The Pistol look last week changed the game. This week I saw a PA pass that was nice, along with some things that got the ball to Goree and Thaddeous Thompson.

There is no perfect play call, and when the front five are not able to get the push necessary to stay on schedule it makes things infinitely harder. Football is simple sometimes.

Implications for the Year

North Texas played the biggest game in recent memory (since about 2013) and flopped. The chances to bowl are very slim now, as two wins are required from Louisiana Tech, WKU, Southern Miss, and UTEP. The very slim, outside, not-even-worth-talking about chances for a CUSA division title are damned-near done. This is the nature of college football. After all, remember when in week one when Houston was on top of the college football world? Remember how Texas was great, then terrible but now upset Baylor?

This was a missed opportunity, but it may be good in the longer term. Seth Littrell has not built up a team yet. He has cobbled together a roster in a short time. Slightly lowered expectations from here on should keep things manageable.

Rivalry Thoughts

Again, losing to this team feels awful. This thing will have more juice when both squads are back to a competing for division titles and not just respectability. UTSA’s home had huge swaths of empty seats, which is a nice bit of schadenfreude for every CUSA opponent who heard endless internet brags about the UTSA fan support.

Being petty and laughing at that is fun to a point, but ultimately bad for all of the conference members. We want CUSA to be well-supported for our own enjoyment and for the players. Playing in front of 24K is better than 10K etc, etc.

I mentioned some thoughts on UTSA’s “new tradition” Come And Take It 4th Quarter thing and predictably was met with defensive tweets about it.

I called it ‘a good effort but a bit forced’. Let me expound a bit:

  1. I am very supportive of new, home-grown traditions. There is a lot of borrowing in college football and new stuff is good stuff.
  2. The CATI flag is over-used in Texas. Like, it is cool and everything but you can see it at Astros games to Texas Tech gear sites. Everyone in this state likes to reference it and use it and it is fine and great.
  3. I also realize that UTSA made it a thing for themselves in recent years
  4. I am not a fan of adopting a state-wide favorite thing and calling it your own. I am even less of a fan of combining that with faux-ultra fandom and unfurling a tifo that is clearly aping the more impressive parts of soccer fandom. That feels forced. Combine that with the adoption of a popular state flag/phrase and you have 25 students lifting that thing over empty seats.
  5. While I appreciate the UTSA administration adopting this fan idea, it does not absolve the UTSA fans for being uncreative.

I say all this while completely acknowledging that there is very little that is new or unique in this world, if at all. So this might even become a thing that people do and it will always look weird to me every other year when NT plays at the dome.

You could maybe argue that it is very similar to Wisconsin’s adoption of this but if you cannot see how it so obviously not similar in at least two glaring ways I do not want to have this conversation with you.

Categories
Football Football Recaps

Return Of The D: NT 38 Marshall 21

Eric Keena ran for 18 yards on 4th down and 9 from the North Texas 41. After getting hit slightly late, he taunted his tackler and caused a ruckus. The stats say that Jeff Wilson, who ran for 188 yards before being injured, was the statistical difference in this game. It is hard for me not to tell the story of the punter who hyped up the team to pull away in a tie game.

To that point, North Texas was only slightly better than Marshall on this night. The offense was better than it was last week, but still endured too many 3rd-and-longs. Mason Fine was sacked six times, two more than the season average per game. The run game had some trouble finding the edge consistently, and there were too many drive-killing penalties.

I maintain these are the mistakes of a young team in transition.

That said, North Texas began the game with a TD drive. Just like last week. Jeff Wilson scored to cap it off, just like last week. The defense managed to hold Marshall, as they did Middle last week. This time, the offense managed to score again. All of the casuals on twitter make a mention of how tough and confident this team looks.

After the defense put up a double-stand against Marshall to close the half, sandwiching a Jeff Wilson fumble, Marshall scored on the kickoff to begin the second half.

The ensuing drive started well but stalled after a sack. Then Keena scampered for 18, and saved the momentum. Mason Fine capped the drive with TD strike to Tyler Wilson while enjoying all the time in the world in the pocket.

The stadium ignited, and while Marshall managed to score on the very next drive it was only to tie. Momentum is a tricky concept. How can it be so powerful and yet swing so wildly? Well, if you call it belief and/or confidence it makes more sense. So much of human ability is determined by belief that it makes sense. Coming into this season my entire premise for picking NT to win 7(!) games was that they had lost belief in the previous coaching staff somewhere in the first game.

All of the casuals on twitter make a mention of how tough and confident this team looks. Now consider this: a compelling argument can be made that this team is less talented in aggregate than last year’s team. And yet this one looks like it would put up 45 on Danny Mac’s squad.

And so you see why I count that Keena’s run as hugely important than any ordinary conversion.

Let us go through the units and pretend we know everything:

Offense

The numbers say we dominated on offense: 458 yards, 252 rushing, 23 first downs. We who watched the game know that in between those huge runs, those competent drives, and those TD celebrations were frequent appearances of yellow flags, sacks, and desperation scrambles from the FindDozer.

The broadcast folks made mention of Seth Littrell’s goal of 250 yards rushing as The Benchmark for winning. I heard that as “We Need Jeff Wilson To Carry Us”. This blog maintains that he is our best offensive player and this was evident tonight. While Willy Ivery is talented, he is not Jeff Wilson.

Ivery had a couple of highlight runs but only managed 42 on 11 carries. Wilson totalled 116 on 25 in all the carries that were not the 72-yard scamper that won the game (Marshall never scored again).

Mason Fine still runs too much like a full back but he is clearly more comfortable with his responsibilities than he was earlier. As Littrell said, the run game needs to do the bulk of the offensive work. When it is moving the ball, life is easier.

This is not some revelation but perhaps surprising considering the nature of the offense. This roster does not have the personnell to throw the ball as a first choice, yet. As was noted in the MGN Slack, when Jordan Murray came in to play RG the run game improved dramatically.

There are positive signs for the future, however. Tyler Wilson, Turner Smiley, and Kenny Buyers all contributed big plays in pressure situations. Next season we will have to worry about Thaddeous Thompsons’s replacement. He turned in yet another game as the possession receiver extraordinaire.

Defense

In a conference that showcased three teams who scored 50+ points this week, having a defense hold a high-powered CUSA opponent to 271 yards on 3.9 yards per play; grab 5 sacks; and collect a pick-six is such an incredible feeling.

Marshall came into this game as a fairly explosive team (ranked 22 in IsoPPP) with a capable set of offensive players. North Texas held them to 14 offensive points and the above stats. The defensive line and various blitzing linebackers and defensive backs harried Chase Litton into poor throws, sacks, and long third downs. This defense was always built for the big play

Only Louisville defended better against Marshall and that is good.

Eric Jenkins took the interception back for six and that continued the streak of games with an interception to six. Yes, that is all six games this season (including that Florida game).

This defense was always built for the big play. It bends, but very often does not break. Thus far this season it has not faced the most potent offenses in the nation, and the upcoming games will test Mike Ekeler’s defense like no other has. The good news is that this unit is improving weekly. In the SMU game, there were broken plays, missed tackles, and almost plays. Tonight, we did not see that. Brandon Garner got two sacks, and three tackles for loss. That is indicative of the successful aggression this defense has now.

Special Teams

Do we count Keena’s run as a great special teams play? We probably should considering this unit was poor tonight. The kick game went 1-2, and the KO unit allowed a TD. John Schilleci has been praised in this space before, and it is only right that we point out that his missed tackle was the reason Marshall took it to the house to start the second half.

To my eyes 1 it seemed that the lane fits were in the right places and a couple of guys even got off their blocks. I mean, Schelleci was in position to make the tackle, after all. Perhaps most importantly, he was unable to even slow the guy. Keion Davis shrugged of the attempt, and continued running through the lane the tackle came from. It happens. Later, Marshall did well on a punt return or two. Overall this was a poor-to-mediocre performance here.

Coaching

The team came off of a disappointing offensive performance and put up big numbers. Seth Littrell has been searching for consistency — in drives, quarters, halves, games — all season. The swings between good and bad will likely continue. While it will be frustrating it is important to remember the circumstances and keep our eyes open for signs of overall improvement. I see that here.

As this group figures out what it does well (run) and what it does not do well (WR edge screens, really deep drops) the confidence will increase and good things will follow.

The offensive staff has had to shuffle the offensive line because of poor play and injuries. Graham Harrell has had to adapt his play calling to the talent available, and everyone has had to break in the freshman quarterback on the fly. With all that, NT has put up 394+ yards in four out of six games. You may remember this was a feat only accomplished once last season.

Yards do not win you games. Points do. This team is scoring full 10 points more per game than last year’s team. That is why this team has tripled that team’s wins.

Next

Next week is a well-deserved bye week. North Texas takes on Army in West Point in two weeks. They started out hot, but have lost two in a row (Buffalo and Duke). While Seth Littrell guided his squad to a win in Houston against Rice, the NT fans were at least 35% of that crowd.

Here is the deal, you guys. I (crazily) predicted 7 wins on the premise that the defense would be as disruptive and dominating at times like we saw tonight. I hoped the offense would be more explosive, but they still are good enough to win games — especially when Jeff Wilson is getting good blocks up front.

Given the state of CUSA West, and the general unpredictability of college football in general, North Texas has about a 1-in-10 shot of winning the division, and a 1-in-5 shot of getting to six wins.

Right now everyone ahead of NT in the CUSA West standings are on the schedule, meaning that North Texas would leapfrog them with wins against each. While the actual percentages differ depending on your flavor preference of advanced analytics, NT’s most likely wins are UTEP, UTSA, and Army in that order of likelihood.

By most measures, the UTEP game is the only one that is actually probable (greater than 50%). It is not the easiest road to six, but it is a very possible one.

Before the year, I predicted 7-wins and one of those being a steal against one of WKU/La Tech/Southern Miss. Before today I would have said La Tech is the most vulnerable. After Southern Miss allowed four plays of 70+ yards against a previously anemic UTSA? Well, maybe that home game in November is not so ominous. Maybe.

Whatever happens — and that very well could be losses the rest of the way — it is fun to sit here at the beginning of October and see North Texas at 3-3. Part of the fun of being a fan is excitedly speculating about bowl games and conference tie-breakers. I, for one, am enjoying this moment very much.

Go Mean Green


  1. I could not rewind as I was watching this via over-the-air TV in San Antonio. Yes, I realize it is 2016. Take it up with Spectrum. 
Categories
Football

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!