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Darden Time: North Texas 33 MTSU 30

Jaelon Darden fell backward as he backpedaled and adjusted to a ball thrown over his left shoulder with less than 10-seconds left. Mason Fine had rolled to his left three steps, and floated a ball to the hash, in the only spot that Darden could get to but away from the defender. Darden made the grab, and NT was set up for a nice chip shot field goal. NT wins, 33-30.

The win stopped something like a skid. There were 16,094 announced for this one, but even if there were that many scanned into the stadium, they were not around by the time NT was kicking the game-winner. That is life in CUSA and in a disappointing season like this one. Yes, it does say something that NT is just 3-4 on the season and just four seasons removed from barely squeaking out one or two wins in a lucky year.

This is how it all works, so we can save the reflections for later. Right now NT is still in the fight for a bowl appearance, which is necessary if Seth Littrell is ever going to get a chance at a bowl win with Mason Fine at the helm.

The conference chances improved after the day’s results as well. Southern Miss fell apart late against La Tech in Ruston, with Jack Abraham throwing four interceptions. Tech is on the NT schedule, and on UAB’s too. That means everyone has a chance if they get a little luck. NT needed a dash of luck and execution in this one. There were many self-inflicted wounds in this one: NT dropped something like two clear interceptions offered by MTSU QBs. They finally grabbed one in what seemed to be a the final defensive stance before Loren Easly fumbled it away soon after.

The poor snaps were ever-looming over the offense, and many a FG was attempted. In the end, Mason Fine threw some strikes, playing just a week after he was knocked out of the USM game and playing through more pain sustained in this one. He was hit often — as he always is — but found Darden 13 times on 14 targets, for 125 and a TD.

The new, young WRs stepped up in this one — Shorter, Ogunmakin, White, and Simpson all grabbed two or three or more.

NT looked a little more crisp in the face of some injuries. Tre Siggers dressed but did not play. His backup DeAndre Torrey played but did not impress. Loren Easly fumbled, but he did rack up 99 on the ground. Nic Smith played in spot duty but grabbed a huge screen pass late.

In shades of the UAB win two seasons ago, NT blew a lead, allowed a game-tying TD with under 40s left. Deion Hair-Griffin, demoted from WR duties, returned a big one — 50 yards — to set up the drive. Nic Smith got a screen pass for 11 yards. Then Mason Fine found Darden down to the 7-yard line.

It was not pretty but it did not have to be. This league is still winnable and we all would much rather be complaining about the ugly in a win than the pretty in a loss.

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Tough Losses Are Tough

Losing by two at home to one of the best teams in the division is not anything to be ashamed of.

North Texas was not “exposed” or revealed to be a fraud. Two good teams played a good game and NT’s previously existing flaws — that up-and-down offense, and the defense reliant on two outstanding corners playing exceptionally well and a fierce pass-rush — was going to be challenged by a team that had tape and talent.

So it goes.

The real loss was losing Loren Easly — officially ruled out for the season — and having QB Mason Fine and CB Kemon Hall still in evaluation mode. UTEP is not good enough to exploit NT’s weaknesses unless North Texas really just comes out a shell of itself — perhaps something like the 2016 game in El Paso.

Keeping Fine upright and healthy all season was always going to be goal 1A for each game. While Seth Littrell has worked on building depth at the QB spot, that ceiling was always going to be lower without number 6 back there. Nothing has been made official just yet, but I would not be absolutely shocked if NT trots out Quinn Shanbour or Cade Pearson out there on Saturday.

The schedule does not let up until November 3, when NT is idle. Four conference games, split home and away, including the very tough UAB game in Alabama, are on the slate. NT with a limited offense is favored in only the UTEP game without Mason Fine. That is the reality of college football especially at this level.

Loren Easly was rounding into the clear number one option and was making individual plays — breaking tackles and punishing the lighter lineups in front of him. The good news is this group has good depth. Nic Smith was expected to be the feature guy, splitting reps with Torrey. DeAndre Torrey has gotten the second team reps, with some explosive results. He looks shifty, but had trouble holding on to the ball. He fumbled and muffed a kick return.

There is also Anthony Wyche, the D. Torrey before D.Torrey made his way to Denton. Oh, also Christian Hosley and last year’s surprise: Evan Johnson.

Name G Att Yards Avg TDs YPG
Loren Easly 4 74 286 5.22 4 96.5
Nic Smith 5 27 146 5.41 1 29.2
DeAndre Torrey 5 31 128 4.13 4 25.6
Anthony Wyche 4 12 59 3.0 0 14.75

Kemon Hall is tough to replace, if that is the situation. Cam Johnson came in and did some nice things, but not enough nice things that Jordan Roberts could stay sitting. Seth Littrell said nice things about Roberts in the post-game press-conference but was never going to say anything negative about CJ.

Between the two, there is talent there but they will be picked on viciously by everyone including UTEP’s questionable pass game. Increased reps at practice should help speed things along but losing Hall is tough.

The reality is that there is plenty to play for for everyone in this division, including La Tech. The Bulldogs have a very tough UAB run game to try to stop in Ruston this Saturday. You should definitely keep an eye on that one.

 

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Mile Marker: North Texas Entering Conference Play

We are four games into the season, with the non-conference slate behind us, and it is time to take stock of things. The most important metric is the W/L column. Your Mean Green Fightin’ Eagles of North Texas are 4-0.

Surprisingly, the defense has been the story of the season. That is not to say the offense and Mason Fine have been bad — far from it — but they have not been at the same level as the 2017 team was in efficiency metrics. Some of that has to do with the situations. NT has played some odd games.

The UIW and Liberty games were played in rain and that contributed to some of the drops and weirdness. The run game made its debut against Liberty last week, and that bodes well for the team as conference play looms.

Let us take a quick look around and check on things.

Category NT FBS Rank
Points 48.8 12
Total Offense 510.8 17
Rush Offense 165.5 81
Passing Offense 345.3 12
Scoring Defense 15.8 18
Total Defense 308.0 20
Passing Defense 209 61
Rushing Defense 99.0 14

The above category are your standard numbers and the quickest glance tells us that NT can score, can defend, and is dominant against the run game while allowing some passing yards. This does not tell us about efficiency or the other kinds of things. We’ll get to the advanced numbers later.

Elsewhere NT is highly ranked in some notable areas.

Category NT FBS Rank
Sacks 14.0 tied 7
Interceptions 10 1
Sacks Allowed 6 46
10+ yard plays 75 10
TFLs 28 35
3rd Down Conversion % 41% 59
3rd Down Conversion % All 30% 23

Let’s look at some advanced numbers.

S&P+

Rank 42nd (of 130), Off Rank 61, Def Rank 41, ST Rank 10

Massey

Rating 72, Off 55, Def 97

FEI

Rating 82 — through 9/17

Sagarin

Rating 50

SRS

Rating 14, Off 23, Def 29

FPI

ESPN projects us to go 11-1 based on the ratings of everyone on the schedule.

NT is ranked 10th overall in team efficiency (84.8), 58 (55.9) on Offense, 6 (88.6) on Defense, 2 (87.9) on Special Teams.

Broadly speaking we can see that NT is more favorably rated in the numbers that look at raw counting totals, and less favorably rated offensively in the ones that look for efficiency. There are more details in each link. Check them out for more.

What It Means

As I wrote on CUSA Report, NT is the best team in the league right now and that is largely thanks to the defense. EJ Ejiya and Brandon Garner have been incredible. The defensive line has been good — about as good or better as they were last season. The improvement in linebacking play is a small thing that makes a big difference. The blitzes and scheme are largely the same, but getting to the QB instead of just after he releases is the difference between winning and losing.

The defensive backfield has been the biggest beneficiaries of the QB pressure. Kemon Hall, Khairi Muhammad, and Nate Brooks all have three interceptions each which puts them in a eight-way tie for 2nd in the nation.

Nate Brooks in particular has improved from his 2017 form, but he played at near this level in 2016, so it is relatively unsurprising. It is a truism that it is much easier to defend hopeful, wobbly passes thrown under duress than not. This is a team game, and it is important to consider context when evaluating the individual units.

Last year, the defense was not good if you simply look at results, but there were some good signs. This season a combination of improvement and poorer quality opposition has translated to one of the best defenses NT has seen in some time — since 2013 at least.

The competition is going to improve. Yes, we write that knowing the SEC team is behind us. La Tech has talent — J’Mar Smith, Teddy Veal, Adrian Hardy, and Jaqwis Dancy all can make plays in 1v1 matchups. They will present more of a challenge not only because Smith is a more mobile QB than has been on the slate thus far.

Beyond that, FAU still has Motor Singletary. Southern Miss has an accurate QB and a handful of talented WRs and RBs. UAB has a focused offense predicated on a power run game that can give anyone in this league some trouble.

Thus far NT has an offense that can score against all of CUSA. The drops from Guyton are concerning, but they can be overcome. The run game was the primary concern. Mason Fine is good, but having to make 57 perfect decisions is a giant burden to place on anyone no matter how good.

Liberty is weak against the run. We saw on Saturday that Army was not just optioning them to death, but overpowering the line. NT was able to get anything it wanted in the ground game.

Tech and the rest of the league slate is much better. RB Loren Easly has been amazing in his two games as the primary back. He bulled some Arkansas defenders, and that bodes well going forward. Nic Smith and DeAndre Torrey have shown some great things as change-of-pace backs.

Meanwhile, Rico Bussey is on pace for 84 grabs this season, which is 26 more than Mike Lawrence’s team-leading 62 last year. Bussey had 7 TD grabs in 2017 and already has 5 thus far.

He has transformed from a hit-and-miss player, to a consistent, prototypical outside WR threat.

Outlook

Everyone is healthy heading into the rest of the season. The schedule sets up nicely, with the remaining tough games at home with the notable exception of UAB on the road in Alabama.

This upcoming week is the toughest game to date, with Tech being the only winning team NT will have faced thus far. The Bulldogs have had success in Denton previously, with that 2014 game looking familiar if only because of the overall similarities between the seasons. Obviously, the major difference is that NT is good with good quarterback play in 2018 and is taking advantage of the opportunities.

This game is the equivalent to the UTSA game and the Tech game from 2017 in importance. Then, UNT President Smatresk called the October UTSA matchup “the division title game” and he was sort of right. It sent UTSA reeling and set up NT for the rest of the year. The Roadrunners were not as good as predicted. We do not know too much about Tech just yet, but they did give LSU a game after spotting them 24 points early.

The advanced numbers like North Texas the rest of the way, and while we can expect some weirdness and a challenge, even one loss (depending on to whom) will still set up NT for another title game appearance.

Things are looking good early.

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Football

2017: CUSA Championship Game Preview

FAU has set records for offense this season in total yards, yards per game, rush yards per game, rushing touchdowns, rush yards, yards per rush, points and that’s just a quick browse.

This has been an historic season for the Owls in many ways very similar to the North Texas year which has seen similar records set for points, points per game, passing TDs, total offense, yards per game, and first downs.

By most measures this is a fun pairing and would be more exciting but for the fact that it has already happened. Florida Atlantic famously dominated the previous matchup in Boca Raton 69-31 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated, if even that is believable.

The concern for North Texas is that the defense was shredded for 500+ yards by Army and this FAU offensive line, led by C Antonyo Woods, is likely thrilled at the chance to blow away North Texas’ defensive line again.

The Mean Green defense held Devin Singletary to 7 yards on his first three carries. The real surprise was the struggling FAU pass game exploded for 357 yards — his most all season. North Texas’ rush defense has been serviceable (I write that with a straight face) but the pass game has been questionable on third downs.

In the October game both were awful. Lane Kiffin is a great offensive coordinator and Kid Briles knows the offense that helped Robert Griffin III to win a Heisman and the Baylor Bears to average about 600+ yards per game. Combining those two offensive minds together with some talent has helped the Owls rewrite the record book fairly easily.

It poses an issue for North Texas’ defense, which is not built to combat this type of offense especially. Power run teams like Iowa, UTSA, and even La Tech were more easily handled through the use of angles and effort. Still, North Texas’ linebackers are somewhere in the middle of the league and that is not going to cut it against a good offense.

Marshall did a great job against FAU, allowing only 353 yards on 63 plays (5.60) including only 189 rushing and 164 passing. The trademark pull away by FAU did not happen in the 4th quarter and the biggest reason for the loss was Chase Litton throwing four interceptions.

Marshall controlled the time of possession and stole a possession with a successful onside kick. If there is a blueprint it is that.

The issue is of course that this is much easier written than done.

Lane Kiffin is one of the better game-planners out there and he and his staff will have a good one to attack this North Texas defense. Seth Littrell and company need some luck.

Kiffin at the league conference call said that his squad got all the luck in the first meeting and he is right. The Owls were beneficiaries of numerous questionable calls including the famous holding on the double-slant play that resulted in an interception.

Offense

North Texas has to score a lot. This game will not be comfortable if North Texas scores less than 40. Beyond that North Texas will need to modify their modus operandi. NT does not huddle but in modern college football that does not necessarily make you supremely fast. NT is 49th in adjusted pace and FAU is first.

The question is if offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and head coach Seth Littrell want to try to help the defense through some ball-control. If NT thinks they can still score effectively while slowing the game down a bit they should do so.

Given what we have seen, however, NT believes the offense should never compromise and should go all-in all the time. This is admirable and probably the best way to attack things.

Jalen Guyton was held out of the Rice game but he seemed fine. He was eliminated from the game after a vicious hit and North Texas was without its deep threat for most of the game. Guyton had not had but one target up to the point where he ws injured anyway and so it made little difference.

Here, he will be vital in stretching the defense. Turner Smiley has been coming on of late, and Rico Bussey is always a threat to make good run after catch yards. Florida Atlantic will focus their efforts on making Mason Fine beat them while being hit.

This is not an unusual tactic, and NT has been able to keep teams honest for the most part with play-pass and deep stuff with max-protection. The Mean Green like their chances with Smiley, Guyton, and Bussey 1-on-1 deep.

Last game, FAU won those battles. Bussey lost a couple of matchups and was out-fought for a jump ball that changed the momentum early. Without Guyton, the only receiver that stood out was Mike Lawrence who had a big game.

The offense put up numbers late, but it struggled early and that was the real issue. This type of offense looks great when it is converting 4th and shorts and moving the ball. It looks awful when it is 4-and-out in their own territory.

This is how the game is played and Seth Littrell will live and die by this philosophy. Nic Smith is a different back than Jeff Wilson. Wilson was great on pass protection but Nic Smith does not have the fumble problems that Wilson does (as of now).

It is not quite blasphemous to say that NT will not lose much in the promotion of Nic Smith to primary back. Smith is the future, and Mason Fine has taken a larger portion of the offense upon himself, as was always the plan. Wilson is a game-changer, and that loss will be significant but will not hinder the offense enough to matter significantly at this point.

Last year Wily Ivery stepped in, and this year it is Nic Smith doing the same.

Other than the score, here are some indicators to keep an eye on:

  • 3rd Down Conversions
  • TOs
  • Average Field Position
  • Rico Bussey catches

Defense

This is the big question. Florida Atlantic put up 804 yards of offense and North Texas is now written on a bunch of FAU records. The contested portion of the game was over in the first half, and even then in the first quarter.

North Texas could not deal with the tempo, and could not get lined up. NT had too many defenders organizing themselves when the ball was snapped. This, of course, is the idea behind going super-fast as FAU does. They are first in adjusted pace, and there is no reason to slow down for North Texas.

Lane Kiffin thinks his offense can go score for score with North Texas if need be, and thinks his defense can come up with one or more timely stop and NT’s defense cannot do the same.

This was evident in the October game and was true to an extreme degree. NT did not ever stop FAU all game.

Of course, the NT offense did not help things by gifting the ball to FAU quickly and often in the first quarter. Still, the defense tried to do what it could and forced some third down situations early before getting sliced up by big plays in the pass game — a common occurrence this season.

Defensive coordinator Troy Reffett is known for his aggression and we will need to see more of that than less. The issue last time was that FAU is ready to exploit aggression — again, because they have good game planners — and often hits over-aggressive teams with devastating counters.

Every FAU highlight package includes a receiver running free over the middle thanks to a Run-Pass-Option or a trick play 1 that stems that tide.

Those counters or constraint plays are drawn up to keep your defense playing honest football. FAU believes that they can win with their base stuff against North Texas’ base stuff and uses the constraint plays to keep you in your base.

Simple, yes? Yes. That is a good offense in a nutshell. The teams that cannot keep defenses in base, or cannot win vs a defense’s base are the ones that lose. Last year NT could not keep defenses out of the box and they struggled. Now? Well Guyton keeps everyone back and there is so much more room for everyone.

The pass game for FAU has been better in the last three weeks — averaging 200+ a game — and that is a concern. After 12 games the defense is what it is: a poor passing down defense.

If FAU has not figured out the pass game and instead was benefitting from playing poor teams only, then we can feel a little better. In any case, the important thing is to win the first quarter. FAU came out last time and scored on the first possession, putting the pressure on North Texas immediately.

The best defense is likely a good offense. We saw NT take possession first against Army, as Littrell anticipated the concern of ceding possession to an offense that likes to dominate proceedings. Marshall had a surprise onside kick that worked in their favor.

If North Texas cannot force three-and-outs or turnovers, look for some possession-maximizing calls — an onside, a 4th down attempt, a punt fake.

Indicators beside the score:

  • First Quarter plays

If NT is on the field for a long time — large number of plays in this case — then this will be a long afternoon in Florida. The Owls ran 29 plays in the first quarter (to North Texas’ 15) and only had three incompletions. By then the score was 24-0 and the defense was visibly gassed.

FAU made North Texas work on defense for every one of those 29 plays.

The good news for NT is that they forced four third down attempts. The bad news is that FAU converted on 3rd/4th or kicked a field goal in all situations.

Overall

This is what the game is played for: championships. The College Football Playoff relies on resumes, and committees. The league title is all about beating the teams in front of you ever week. North Texas has done that against every opponent. The one they have not will be standing in front of them on December 2nd.

Worse teams have overcome bigger deficits with bigger talent disparities. Vegas has North Texas somewhere at 10.5 point underdogs. The advanced numbers point strongly in favor of The Lane Train and all for good reason.

North Texas is on a miracle turnaround run but so is Florida Atlantic. These two former Sun Belt champs are battling it out for the CUSA title that most observers thought would be held in Ruston or Bowling Green.

Just a few short years ago Rice held this up and now just fired the man who led them there. That is a testament to how quickly fortunes can change in this game. It would be a shame to blow this opportunity.

My brain is screaming about how in every aspect of the game North Texas is just a smidge behind FAU. North Texas offense is explosive and efficient especially with the pass. Florida Atlantic’s offense has been more explosive and more efficient especially with the run.

NT’s defense has done enough to win games — especially late in the 4th quarter where the are ranked in the top 26 in S&P+ — but Florida Atlantic’s has gotten turnovers that feed the offensive machine.

NT’s coaching staff is filled with good coaches showing promise or showing their skills. FAU’s has a staff of some of the game’s best offensive and defensive minds in recent years.

My heart, of course, says North Texas will find a way to do the difficult task of beating Florida Atlantic in their place to win the title and really declare a win for #newDenton.

MGN Prediction: North Texas 24 Florida Atlantic 38

MGN Heart Prediction: NT 41 FAU 40

Listen to your hearts, friends.


  1. Against Marshall FAU broke out a WR pass that was extremely wide open. 
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Ugly Wins Are Wins: North Texas 45 ODU 38

Mason Fine saw the rush, stepped up, scrambled to his left. He found daylight to his left and sprinted toward it. He began his slide and NT was safely in the win column following some cursory kneels.

Why was NT in need of a 3rd-and-8 scramble to win things? Well the reason is a long and terrible story that involves Marty Biagi coordinating a unit that kicked to Isiah Harper a second time after he returned a kick 97 yards for the inital score.

North Texas is 5-3 on the year, 4-1 in conference and yet there is a pall over this win. It was ugly and no one is happy with anything group that played. Still ugly wins are necessary wins and much more desireable than pretty losses. This North Texas team controls their destiny in the CUSA West division and that is quite the accomplishment.

When anyone outside of the Mean Green Family asks, your response should be ‘5-3, 4-1’. The internal self-reflection and doubt will stay in-house.

The Game

The Mean Green were expected to dominate this overmatched ODU team at home at Apogee fairly easily and looked to be on the way toward that end early. Mason Fine was hot, completing his first eight passes including a 34-yard TD to Rico Bussey.

The first drive went 77-yards on 13 plays in 4:55 and saw Jeff Wilson get the TD.

Despite allowing ODU’s Isaiah Harper to score on the ensuing kickoff, NT seemed unfazed. The Bussey TD drive went 68-yards in 4 plays. ODU would punt as the defense looked like they wanted blood. Then . . . NT thew an ugly interception. Mason Fine was hit as he threw and added his eigth interception on the year. He has now thrown at least one in the last four games, and five in the last four (all in conference play).

Still NT would score again on a 75-yard drive on 9 plays. Mason Fine was hot, and NT was moving the ball easily only facing one third down on the drive (3rd and 1, converted by Evan Johnson). The blocked punt on the next drive put NT ahead 28-10 and twitter was feeling good. This was exactly the kind of game we all expected and NT probably needed after being torched in Boca Raton.

However, incredibly NT kicked to Harper again. He scored from 98-yards out and Jeff Wilson fumbled after an 8-yard gain the following drive. ODU kicked a FG and this ‘blowout’ was only an 8-point lead at 28-20.

NT went three-and-out, getting sacked by ODU’s Rotimi killing the drive and a near-interception averted by Guyton’s effort to fight off the defensive back. Andy Flusche got the tip-drill interception he should have gotten against SMU.

The NT defense had saved the day. Nic Smith dove into the endzone to cap the 30-yard drive (7-plays). NT was up 35-20. After another ODU 3-and-out that included a big Eric Jenkins stop, NT got the ball back with 4:11 left and a chance to pour it on.

Instead, the drive stalled after three incompletes and a no-gain from Smith. Then the unthinkable: Trevor Moore missed a kick wide left. ODU had their first decent drive of the half to make it 35-23.

The Monarchs were expected to be able to move the ball somewhat, considering the talent and the coaching staff, and they managed their second good drive of the game to open the second half — 9 plays for 66-yards to make it 35-30. NT followed with a 3-and-out thanks to a Bussey penalty that was iffy.

Eric Jenkins seeminlgy stems the tide with a great interception. Nic Smith actually ran for long TD but it was called back thanks to a mystery personal foul penalty on Jordan Murray. NT would stall out after 9-plays, 53 yards and 2:57 after Nic Smith was stopped on 4th and 1 from the ODU 35.

ODU then pulls out their third great drive to pull ahead 38-35. Steven Williams morphed into the talented player he will grow into on these drives, moving the ball well and firing some big time throws. His 3rd-and-11 pass to Jackson for 27 yards was ridiculous. He converted one other third and long and capped off the drive with a 10-yard rush and the threw for the conversion.

ODU had scored 18-straight points.

NT punted after four ugly plays — the exception being the 22-yard pass to Bussey.

Here is where it got interesting: ODU had the ball at the three, drove to the 29, and then Tillman Johnson forced the sack-fumble that was recovered by Hambone. NT got inside the 10 before stalling out and kicked the tying FG.

Then began the first of three 4th and 1 stops for the NT defense.

Stop One

Old Dominion moved the ball 24 yards but was stopped on 4th and 1 by Andy Flusche and Rod Young. NT followed that up with a 4-play, 48-yard TD drive that saw Nic Smith score from 20 yards out. Bussey and Guyton got two first-down big pass plays that moved the chains and opened things up. NT was up 45-38.

Stop Two

Old Dominion followed the score with another 7-play 21 yard drive but Dee Baulkman cam up with two huge plays back-to-back. He first stopped Gemonta Jackson’s catch-and-run to 3-yards on 3rd-and-3, then got a pass break up on 4th-and-1.

With 2:11 on the clock NT opted to … pass? Yes, NT’s play calls:

Run with Nic Smith
Pass attempt
Pass attempt

NT punted. Just :55 of the clock was used.

Stop Three

After two rushes for two yards total, Williams completed a pass To Travis, Fulgham for seven yards. NT had thier third straight 4th-and-1 and stuffed Jeremy Cox for no-gain.

NT ran twice and on third-and-8 mason Fine ran for nine. Then the kneeling began.

Let us review things:

Offense

The numbers show a good performance: 460 yards, 309 passing, 151 rushing and 24 first downs. The problem was that the majority of that came in the first quarter: 224 yards, 173 passing, 51 rushing, 12 first downs.

The Mean Green had two turnovers, three three-and-outs, and were 42.9% on 3rds.

Mason Fine was harrassed after the first quarter, and the run game was nonexistent. We have to credit the ODU pass rush and the their staff for keeping Guyton away from the deep stuff he has feasted on earlier in conference.

The glimpse of the offense with answers was there, as Rico Bussey had himself a game. Turnovers and sloppy play aside, the offense was good and probably the best unit overall.

Defense

Three straight stops on 4th and 1 is not insignificant. The defense had the spotlight on them and stepped up and won this game late. The 18-straight points by Old Dominion are concerning but are nothing out of character. The next step from this offense is creating turnovers. This game presented an opportunity to take advantage of the youth and inexperience of Steven Williams and the defense came up with three takeaways.

This is good. If circumstances were different, this would be the story. The two kick off returns made the defense’s lapses more stark. Still, the three straight stops were evidence of the improvement over last year.

Army managed conversions to win the Bowl game. This defense stopped UTSA and ODU to allow the offense to win things. The defensive line is good, and should have the advantage against the rest of the schedule.

Special Teams

Special Teams were mostly bad but also had two super positive plays that resulted in 7 points. The bad was obviously the two kick off returns for scores and the missed field goal.

Three negatives and two positives. This phase nearly put the game in danger, and put the defense in a precarious position. Marty Biagi has drawn the ire of the fans. Without more insight, there is not much we can know about how or why this group has been struggling. Is it preparation? Is it the talent? Is it practice time?

Coaching

Seth Littrell’s team came out and underperformed in the last two weeks. Given the Lane Train is at full steam, it is conceivable that this was the weird and strange week and Boca Raton was just an ass whooping.

Regardless, ugly wins are wins and wins are all that matter in this game. Seth Littrell has guided a young team to the top of the division with the second best offense in the league. There is a good amount improvement to be had. It is important to remember the relative inexperience on this staff — Seth Littrell is in his second year, Graham Harrell also. Reffett has coordinator experience.

Overall this staff has done well and the bad — what of it there is that we can directly pin upon them — is understandable. This is Year Two after the worst year in NT history. The team controls the CUSA Title Game destiny and that should be remembered as we complain about the quality of win.

Next

La Tech beat Rice 42-28 to get to 2-2 in the league. A loss in Ruston would put NT at the mercy of La Tech’s schedule and probably would force the Mean Green to root for FAU against the Bulldogs. A win, however, would essentially sew up the division title. While there are games to be played UTEP and Rice are not the toughest challenges.

You might call it a semi-final before the title game. A win against a good solid team on the road is just the sort of next-step challenge. It is the biggest game of the season.

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Conquer the Rock: North Texas 43 – Southern Miss 28

North Texas went into Hattiesburg and handled Southern Miss 43-28 in a game that looked precarious early. Southern Miss ended the game with the advantage on turnover margin, held a 14-0 lead, and for a large part of the game: third down conversions.

Mason Fine struggled but put up 366 yards regardless. He found a friend in Jalen Guyton — to the tune of 14 catches for 211 yards and a score. Guyton was targeted an incredible 18 times. Southern Miss respected his speed early and allowed him all of the underneath space. NT took advantage of that early and later hit the big stuff over the top. In between Jeff Wilson was his typical amazing self, adding 148 yards on 30 totes and three scores. A series of smaller, drive saving runs by Wilson were key and just as important as the bigger highlight-worthy ones.

NT’s defense made enough plays to allow the offense some breathing room and NT won relatively comfortably — unlike last week. North Texas got a week-better and made a case as dark horse division challenger here. Southern Miss came into tonight boasting the league’s best statistical defense but were sliced apart by NT’s Power Air Raid.

Southern Miss came out the blocks hot, and found their best playmaer Ito Smith for 45 big yards to set up the first score. NT missed a tackle, having Colton McDonald on Smith and things looked bad.

First two drives included a mishandled snap, a loss of dive, and a sack in the six plays. Total plays: 6, total yards: -3.

Ater a punt, USM scored again, thanks to a deep toss up to Allenzae Staggers for 33. NT looked like the defense that was giving up big plays to UAB but without the scorching offense.

USM looked like they were recreating the SMU game

Finally, after trading three-and-outs (S/O to Ejiya for an early drive-killing sack) NT converted a 4th and 1 as Jeff Wilson scampered down the left sideline for 46 yards and a score. He did the classic Jeff run where he stiff armed the inital tackler, turned it up field, and then made a move. NT 7 USM 14.

NT’s defense continued the strong play but this time Kwadra Griggs could not find anyone on bail-out 3rd and long plays. Another punt.

NT threw away a good drive on a Rico Bussey fumble — it came on the snag play we saw against SMU

The Golden Eagles capitalized and everyone was thinking this thing was a typical NT game. Ito Smith outran everyone for 65-yards and a score, matching Jeff’s run and making Kemon Hall look silly.

Bad turned to worse and Mason Fine threw a terrible pick over the middle. USM looked like they were recreating the SMU game: capitalize on early NT mistakes to take a big lead.

Instead the defence forced a punt after three plays and NT took over from the five.

Then the game turned.

The Drive

Last year NT was down 17 to Rice and had come off five straight quarters of terrible offense. Then Mason Fine tossed up a prayer to O’Keeron Rutherford for a miracle first down and everything changed.

Here, NT was backed up at the 5 yard line and nearly was tackled for a loss and a safety. Jeff Wilson made a hugely underrated play and battled forward for only a two yard loss. Mason finds Mike Lawrence for 11. Then Jeff converts a huge third down run with a 2-yard gain. This was when NT was having trouble converting already. The Mean Green have struggled (on both sides) on 3rd. They struggled especially on 3rd and short on offense which is very strange. I cannot stress enough how important and unlikely that conversion was.

Suddenly this is a game.

The very next play Mason Fine hooked up with Smiley for 41-yards. Southern Miss was sitting deep early, then started creeping up. Fine found him streaking on a skinny post and hit him perfectly. NT was down to the USM 43 and cooking. Fine found Guyton for 8, Jeff ran for a no-gain and there was an incompletion on third down. Then another huge conversion on 4th and 2. NT came out in a bunch look and Fine rolled out — just like he did on the previous interception — and found Kelvin Smith just past the marker for a first down. He caught it along the sideline and fell forward.

That was Smith’s only catch of the game.

Southern Miss had a flag on the play that added 15 yards. NT now getting some luck. Jeff runs for 12 down to the five yard line. Then again for 3 up the middle. Finally Mason Fine rolles left and hits Guyton for 3 yards and the score. It is 21-14 and suddenly this is not a blowout loss, choke job. Suddenly NT is the team the stats say they were. Suddenly this is a game.

NT’s defense, hyped and rested after NT’s 12-play 95-yard drive over 5:11 quickly forces a USM punt. Griggs had found Staggers for a miracle 31-yard gain but that proved to be more luck than anything. Two Ito Smith rushes were bottled up and then Griggs threw incomplete to Isaiah Jones.

We Continue

NT was now at the 20 yard line, 54 seconds on the clock and down four. Instead of packing it in and heading into the locker room, NT gets aggressive (love it) and Mason Fine drops a beauty to Caleb Chumley for 43 yards on 2nd-and-16. He hit him in stride, in between the safety and trailing backer. Beautiful. Who says he can’t throw deep?

After a couple of incompletions and a Guyton six-yarder, NT faced 4th-and-4 with :20 left on the clock from the USM 37. NT lines up in a tight formation and Mason Fine floats a pass to Nic Smith for six yards and a first down. Trevor Moore bent in the FG and NT was down 21-17 at the half. What an amazing turn of events.

Second Half Destruction

After Fine’s interception the NT drive chart looks like this:

TD, FG, FG, TD, TD, TD, FG, Punt, END OF GAME.

North Texas outscored USM in the third 16-7, and it was 16-0 much of the quarter. For the second half, NT outgained USM 302 to 162 and outscored them 26-7. After only converting 2/10 on third down in the first half, NT converted an incredible 7/11 (64%) in the second half.

The defense was scorched by USM for 253 in the first but held them to 162 in the second, including only 4.8 yards per play on 34 plays and 1/6 on third down.

For the game USM only converted 33% of 3rd downs, including 1/5 on 3rd and 9+, and 1/2 on 3rd and less than 4. Kwadra Griggs came into tonight at 58% completion and finished 19/42 (45.5%) passing for 270 and only 1 score (that was mostly a sweep).

Offense

Whoo boy that was fun to watch. Last week I wrote that NT officially has a good offense. We had seen too many good things — even and maybe especially in losses — that suggested that NT could continue this pace the rest of the way. There is plenty to improve upon but there was plenty of great tonight.

Let us quickly complain:

Mason Fine missed throws, missed open guys, looked hurried, and did not take care of the ball. The line did not get enough push on short yardage and NT did not convert goal-to-go situations easily.

Okay I am done.

Let’s celebrate:

Mason Fine-to-Jalen Guyton is fun to watch. Number 9 absolutely owned the secondary all night to the tune of 14 catches for 211 on 18 targets and 1 score. He feasted on the shorter and intermediate routes after seeing soft coverage all night. His reputation as a burner has preceded him and USM played him accordingly. Fine and Guyton took that space and after USM decided to play straight, they went over the top.

Jeff Wilson was JEFF WILSON all night. I’ve repeatedly called him the best player on the offense and he repeatedly shows that is not an exaggeration. He was the offense early and the closer late. He put up 148 yards on 30 carries (workhorse?)

He also added a big 18-yard catch early. He’s lessened his role in the pass game as he’s increased it in the run game. He’s been spectacular all season and is inching up the all-time charts here.

The little things he did tonight were noticed and appreciated and worth every bit as much as the highlight worthy ones.

Incredible: Smiley, Chumley, Wilson, Lawrence, Nic and Kelvin Smith all had one catch and each catch was either clutch and/or an important point in a scoring drive.

The offense put up 540 yards on 87 plays, 366 passing, 174 rushing, had 24 first downs. This offense is good and is stil improving.

Defense

USM had a great first half but was stunted in the second. North Texas learned from the UAB debacle and found a way to turn 3rd and longs into an advantage. USM had talent in Ito Smith and outside and took advantage. Getting worked by Ito in the open field is part of the game and you learn from it and move on. Staggers, Robertson, and Jones are big and strong and can move in the open field. The key was making Kwadra Griggs beat them and he could not do what AJ Erdely was able to do: Complete big 3rd down passes.

Khairi Muhammad had 10 tackels (6 solo) and played solid coverage. EJ Ejiya continued his strong play and picked up a sack along with 10 tackles. Kemon Hall was good and had a pass break up. So did KiShawn McClain — who showed a little of his ability to fly in for big tackles. Colton McDonald had a big third down pass break up early in the game.

TJ Tauaalo was hurt late but had a QB hurry. Tyreke Davis has bee making plays as a true freshman. I am excited about his future here in this defense. Sid Moore, Andy Flusche, Rod Young continued to dominate the line of scrimmage. They did a good job of wrangling a talented back and one big 65-yard run is very understandable. There was also a Tony Krasniqi sighting.

The big question was at corner and yes, Eric Jenkins started. He had another pass break up and played his usual solid corner work. Withe Kemon Hall and Jenkins playing like this, this defense is shaping up to be the one we hoped would compliment a good offense.

Special

The special teams was solid today and Trevor Moore was his clutch reliable self. That end-of-half kick was incredible.

Coaching

Much has been made of the adjustments from half-to-half. This was not without good reason. I have liked what Harrell has done here and the bones of this offense were set last season. The missing piece was well, talent. NT thought it had this kind of talent in Goree, Wilson, Robinson and Smiley last season but has found it in Guyton, Bussey, Smiley this season. Add to that combination the maturation and growth of Mason Fine and this offense is clicking like no other Mean Green team in recent memory.

This pass game is on pace to be the most explosive in NT history while the run game is comparable with some of the better ones in Denton (and that is saying something). Credit the staff for the improvement. They boasted of their ability to identify talent and develop it. The last recruiting class was mid-conference in ranking but has produced Darden, Guyton, Evan Johnson, and Tyreke Davis. Not bad at all.

What It Means

I had North Texas at 3-2 heading into the bye but I thought SMU was going to be the win not USM. (I must have transposed those letters) NT is better than expected offensively and slightly worse defensively. Still, this league is very winnable. UTSA is the consensus best team in the league but the have yet to play anyone of note — Baylor is terrible, Southern is bad and hurt, and Texas State is not better than UAB. UTSA supporters are pointing to stats … but so did Southern Miss fans.

We will learn a lot next week as UTSA hosts this same Southern Miss squad. As it is, North Texas is atop the West standings for now at 2-0 and 3-2 on the season. The Mean Green are halfway toward bowl eligibility and positioned nicely to compete for a division title. That is a good place to be.

The bye week not only allows rest and recuperation but a return for Bryce English to bolster the defensive line that has been a strength. While it is disappointing to have a bye right when the offense is clicking so nicely, the rest is well deserved and much needed.

Categories
General

North Texas 59 Lamar 14

In the tailgates and preparation for the game that I felt North Texas could get 60 in this one based on a couple of things: Lamar’s situation, and the talent disparity, and my belief in the quality of this team.

I rambled this point on the podcast so let me clarify it a bit here:

Based on last season we knew that NT’s ceiling offensively was about high 30s, low 40s and the floor was something like what happened to UTEP and Florida. Littrell complained about inconsistency (and so did we). We didn’t know what the team would be from half to half let alone game to game. While a team will play A+ games throughout the year, a good coach likes keep his guys at the highest repeatable level — something like 85-90% of their abilities.

If Lamar had a full week of practice and wasn’t distracted by the Hurricane destroying their town, I’m sure they would have come in and put up a little more resistance. Still, NT is the better, deeper team in this matchup and a blowout was always in the cards. That NT did not let up, take their opponent lightly, or take their foot of the gas for long stretches was great to see.

In short, if you are playing a team that had not practiced since Monday, was less talented, and on the road? You should put up somewhere near 60.

Atmosphere

The athletic department has begun rolling out its new programs for game day experience and they were okay. There were some little things that I understand but dislike — the game day woman advertising a hat on the big screen, the dance-off stuff. I do appreciate everything that is modern about the new efforts. They feel like we are trying to be the type of program we always say we want to be. Good stuff.

The turnout was limited, as expected. Not only was this Labor Day weekend a tough one to compete with — nice weather, other college football and soccer games — but the gas ‘shortage’ and hurricane aftermath surely sapped whatever casual fans left.

The student turnout was solid, the tailgating was fun, and the fans that made it out were treated to a fun game with lots of touchdowns. I brought a NT newbie and she enjoyed her time thoroughly. It is for this reason that I do not dismissively scoff at the games scheduled against FCS competition.

The Game

Offense

Mason Fine put in a workman like effort, only throwing 21 passes and completing 15 on his way to 224 yard and three scores. It was is the kind of line you expect from the QB when the run game is dominant. He tossed a beauty of a lob to Q Jackson that hit him perfectly on the outside shoulder and led him toward the end zone to make it 14-0. Later he found The Standard by looking off the defense, staring down Guyton and firing the ball down the middle. He could have done more, and made a few mistakes he was frustrated with but even Seth Littrell was more bemused than angry. Littrell put his arm around Fine with a smirk as Mason was outlining the pass he missed.

Meanwhile, Jeff Wilson was everything we expected: quick, fast, shifty, strong, and injury-prone. He outclassed the Cardinals easily and broke into space without much challenge. The line created gaping holes for him to scamper into but Wilson was making the most of those and more. Nic Smith and Evan Johnson put in good shifts but the difference between them and Jeff is evident.

Name Att Yards Avg. TD
Jeffery Wilson 12 176 14.67 3
Nic Smith 18 101 5.61 1
Evan Johnson 13 98 7.54

Nic Smith caught four passes on top of his 18 carries for 35 yards and a score. He — thus far — is doing an admirable job replacing Wily Ivery. Meanwhile the top pass-catcher (yardage) was The Standard Mike Lawrence. I think it is fair to say we did not see a full pass game but it was a good runout for the squad.

Defense

Nate Brooks allowed the 68-yard strike that made it 14 for Lamar, and earlier the defense was beaten for a 1-yard TD on 4th and 1 after the muffed punt (Eric Jenkins).

Even on the second TD the defensive line was in Lamar’s face and a good amount of credit should be given to the kid for standing tall and making the throw in that situation. Brooks was turned around by the move and does not come away looking great there. Still, that play is a preview of what we will see against better teams and better offenses. The big blitzes we bring need to reach their targets and the corners need to stay step-for-step if this thing is going to be successful.

As it was, this was an A game for everyone.

What It Means

Hey, North Texas is 1-0 for the first time since 2013, a year in which they won nine games and went to the HOD bowl against UNLV. Then they had a chance to control their fate for the CUSA West division title. This season sets up nicely for an outsiders’ run for the division and this kind of performance was one that indicates this team is maybe that kind of outsider. The point total was the the highest for a season opener.

The rest of the conference looks questionable as even the best teams looked a bit shaky. North Texas takes on SMU next week who won 58-14 in their home opener. NT has a real chance to go 3-1 in the first month of the season and that continues with next week’s rivalry game agains SMU, who is one year ahead of the rebuild calendar.

GMG

Categories
Football Football Recaps

NT Spring Game 2017

Saturday April 8th, the North Texas Mean Green lined up for the final scrimmage of spring practice. The team has been recovering, (from injuries – Fine, Wilson) reloading (Nic Smith, Pearson, Guyton), and adjusting (all those new coaches). Once more we are afforded the opportunity to overreact to a scrimmage months away from the real thing. So much can happen from now until the final game of the season and we all would do very well to remember last season’s example. Rico Bussey did not show the things we wanted until the bowl game, Tee Goree had a fine spring game only to get the boot halfway through the season. Turner Smiley did not make waves until the last two or three games of the year as well.

The storyline coming in is this: Year 2 of the Surprising Seth Littrell Experiment. The staff was poached of the offensive line coach, one of the co-defensive coordinators, and a special teams coach. Seth Littrell is taking more of a hand in coaching the running backs, also. Mason Fine is out here attempting to hold onto his job, after a solid freshman campaign. Oh and we need to figure out the offensive line again.

Defensively, Troy Reffet is going with a true 3-3 stack and some new toys — including Bryce English, the big nose tackle. The line was shuffled a bit to get bigger on the edges, and the linebacking corps is not helmed by Brandon Garner, who is coming off a stellar campaign. NT has had traditionally had little trouble reloading in the linebacking spot, with the exception of one or two seasons in the recent past.

Here we watch the Spring Game replay and give our running thoughts:

Deion Hair-Griffin wears 82

Kam Duhon juggles the first pass from Cade Pearson

Andrew Tucker with a 40-yard pickup, showed shiftiness, and burst. It was the kind of run that Jeff Wilson gets a crack at often and one we will hope to see more of this season as teams respect the pass more.

They call Kelvin Smith a TE, and I imagine he’s going to be used in the H/Wing back role. Modern football requires versatility, and this is what he brings.

The scoring system for this game is displayed, and I really am not interested enough to pause it and transcribe it here.

We get our first (recorded) view of Nic Smith, wearing 21 out here. He catches a flare pass and goes down immediately. That play will be featured this year as it was last.

Jalen Guyton grabbed a quick dig for a first down. That’s a play we had struggled with, as our WRs could not get the seperation, or couldn’t grab it often enough (Thad Thompson excluded).

Christian Hosley (46) was on the roster last season, and is making an appearance here. This prompts more talk of the H-back, even though we had lots of H-back last year. If they mean it will be more prominent, then they are more right than they sound here.

Rico Bussey drops the pass off a nice skinny post. He was the single WR in the trips formation and beat his man. Obviously we do not want him to drop the ball so easily, but Brandon Garner got some credit for this, and that’s good too, I suppose.

Nic Smith came over and made a good pass protection block in Shanbour’s series in the first. Caleb Chumley dropped a pass (if it hits your hands, it should have been caught) and the series ended.

Chumley was always going to be a TE, even if they gave him the shot to be a QB.

Tillman Johnson is hard for this line to handle. It is a little difficult to keep up with any and all offensive line rotations, with the camera moving quickly (or poorly).

Speaking of the defense, Nate Brooks is still a good cover corner y’all.

Missed field goal means we get ‘wind’ talk, but it is useful. We want our kickers to be used to the vagaries of the stadium here.

At this point it is 14-4 White.

Pearson is sacked. There is a lot more of a 3-3 stack look from the defense — as expected — and they are having their way with the offensive line that is in transition again. The five up front will be the key to this thing yet again. This is the way of football.

Rico Bussey showed again why we are excited about him, breaking a tackle on a 15-yard dig that turns into a 68-yard TD. So much of this offense is designed around getting the ball into playmakers’ hands, and that means Rico Bussey — or someone — needs to make plays. He did there.

Eric Jenkins makes a play on Turner Smiley’s button hook out here. Jenkins was such a great pick up last season. The secondary was the unit’s strength, and if the front six can generate more pressure on the quarterback the defense can be the game-changing type that we saw in the wins.

Andrew Tucker looks like he will adequately replace Willy Ivery. We know he has the speed, and he has enough wiggle to him to make the plays to spell Jeff Wilson.

Again, it is hard to accurately assess our defensive line when the O-line is all-new, all-different.

At 4:13, Pearson throws an ugly floater. The wind is tough, but that’s not really an excuse. Andrew Tucker uses the screen to get big yards. He is solid catching the ball, and has the kind of burst you need to be solid on those screens. Jeff Wilson is clearly the number one, but there is not a whole lot of drop off from there on these. We have no reason to believe Jeff will be any less injury-prone, next season and so we should expect to see a lot of Andrew. In that sense, we have not improved much from last year. Hosley has gotten the most run in this scrimmage, but the staff expects Nic Smith to make some noise.

Caleb makes a nice catch on a seam route. That Y-position is traditionally a TE position in the Air Raid, and so it is nice to see these guys getting the kinds of catches that are not really ‘open’.

Mason Fine tosses a touchdown on a corner route, one that we will see attempted often. It was not nearly as pretty as we want to see, but it was effective.

Tucker again with a nice screen catch and run.

Pearson gets sacked and pressured and Tucker catches another screen.

Pearson hits Smiley for that 61-yard TD that really shouldn’t have happened, considering the circumstances. Troy Reffet can’t be happy here.

Cool moment: The 2016 senior class getting their framed jerseys.

Senior Frames

Mason Fine found Bussey to start the second half, Nic Smith had a nice little run, and then Fine did not see a guy over the middle and missed a pass. If anything gives Pearson an advantage, it will be height. That said, Fine has had some nice runs that will only be nicer when they are against live competition.

Funny moment: Sideline reporter John Liddle getting Jamize Olawale’s NT resume completely wrong.

Turner Smiley abused Tway Hill on a Shanbour pass, then Shanbour scoots in for a score, making this his second straight MVP-type Spring Game performance.

… and Hank Dickenson says exactly that after I wrote the above. I should have that job y’all.

Shanbour tosses a floating fade route to Bussey who beats Eric Jenkins. That is more impressive than the previous pass beating Hill.

Again, Bryce English is abusing the front five. Every announcer is comparing him to Brandon Kennedy, who was before my time but appreciated nonetheless.

Kelvin Smith makes an appearance. He had a promising start — a good spring game followed by a highlight-worthy TD against SMU — before being injured and shuffled in the pack as North Texas struggled to find a solid footing at the QB spot. Right now it looks like Chumley is making the plays of note, but it is early days and I feel good about Kelvin Smith.

Fine throws an ugly pass toward Guyton, but nowhere near him. The argument could be made that Guyton should have dove for that, but it is spring and we don’t need that. Meanwhile, Fine nearly dies in a collapsing pocket and manages to toss it away.

Mason Fine has not had the worst ever spring game, but it has not been good. This would also mark the second straight Spring Game in which the presumed starter struggled.

Shanbour finds Deion Hair-Griffin wide open out there. I am nitpicking here, but the ball could have probably been a little further out front. A better, faster DB would probably close the gap a little quicker and possibly make the difference between the touchdown and something worse.

Shanbour has a nice run near the end and overthrows Hair-Griffin. It is hard to tell if it was a bad throw or a bad route. Maybe a little of both. Hosley then breaks open a 40+ yard run. He got some blocks and showed some burst. It was a great way to end things.

Categories
Football

2016 North Texas Football Stat Predictions & Projections

OFFENSE

 

Team Offense
Stat 2016 Projection
Points Per Game 28
Passing Yards Per Game 280
Rushing Yards Per Game 149
Total Yards Per Game 429
Passing TDs 28
Rushing TDs 12
Passing
Name Comp Att Comp % Yards TD INT QB Rating
Alec Morris 254 410 62% 2870 25 10 149.4
Mason Fine 42 70 60% 490 3 1 130.1
Rushing
Name Carries YPC Yards TD
J. Wilison 183 5.1 933 6
W. Ivery 95 6 570 2
A Wyche 53 4.5 239 3
N. Smith 40 4.1 164 1
Receiving
Name Catches YPC Yards TD
O’Keeron Rutherford 63 12 756 10
Tee Goree 55 14 770 3
Rico Bussey 42 15 630 5
Kelvin Smith 36 10 360 4
Kenny Buyers 23 9 207 2

DEFENSE

Team Defense
Stat 2016 Projection
Points Per Game 33
Passing Yards Per Game 247
Rushing Yards Per Game 188
Total Yards Per Game 435
Passing TDs 22
Rushing TDs 27
Sacks 24
INTs 9
Tackles for Loss 73
Tackles
Name 2016 Projection
Fred Scott 91
James Gray 82
Cortney Finney 73
Kishawn McClain 70
Sacks
Name 2016 Projection
Josh Wheeler 7
Jarrian Roberts 6.5
Jaried Combs 5
INTs
Name 2016 Projection
Nate Brooks 3
Eric Jenkins 2
Chad Davis 1
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!