“It is difficult any time we don’t meet our own expectations as coaches and this was one of those years. I have a lot of respect for Troy and Bodie and I’m grateful for their passion for this program and their leadership of our student-athletes. Sometimes a different perspective is needed for the growth of a program, and I feel like this is one of those times.”
There you have it in press release form. The Mean Green head coach changed coordinators just one year after hiring Bodie Reeder to replace new USC coordinator Graham Harrell.
Littrell (and Fine) has praised Reeder for his football acumen and Littrell in particular remarked at the shared philosophy that would benefit the team. “I want to be more involved and Bodie really understands what I like to do with tempo and being aggressive” he said at league media days.
North Texas had some big numbers at times but ultimately the poor execution that lingered and contributed to early non-conference losses was present into conference play. NT went scoreless in the fourth vs UAB and struggled in the red zone vs Rice.
While injury contributed to the issues and coaching changes at WR, QB/OC, and RB no doubt effected the group, a change at the top makes sense.
Meanwhile, a similar story can be told for Troy Reffett, whom Littrell defended often over the four years here. The head coach wanted an attacking, aggressive defense and there were glimpses of that vision realized last year when EJ Ejiya, Brandon Garner, Nate Brooks, and Kemon Hall led a defense that got sacks and forced turnovers.
This year the roster is young and mistakes can be attributed to youth and inexperience. The overall fact is that the defense still made a lot of mistakes and the game plan was inflexible. NT brought a lot of pressure but it did not put the defense in a great position.
Example: NT bringing extra pressure vs Rice and QB Tom Stewart being unaffected by it, and finding his big WR in a size mismatch.
As with most things, when it worked it looked genius. When it did not, it looked awful. I do not know that Reffett lost his job because of the performance this year, but maybe because of the overall direction of the program.
The entire season can be summed up in the third quarter game-losing interception: tough scenario, bold plan, terrible execution, awful result.
North Texas kicked off the last season of Mason Fine’s collegiate career with much fanfare. There was a little G5 Heisman talk, some beat writer-led division hype, and the lingering good feelings from back-to-back nine-win seasons.
Instead North Texas finished 4-8, with three straight losses. Seth Littrell and Mason Fine produced their second losing season in four season’s time and miss out on a bowl game for the first time.
Readers of this fine publication will no doubt remember that we warned and cautioned and talked about how when we talk about the wins that could have been we have to acknowledge the losses that were nearly there as well.
Two seasons ago the Mean Green went to the league title game and lost. The louder part of the internet fandom complained that it was the beginning of greatness but it was a few bounces away from being nothing.
This season felt like that one — but with all the bad luck and none of the good. It was difficult to enjoy but Mason Fine said the right things about it in the end. “It wasn’t the way we wanted it to go but that’s life and that’s football.”
It is true. Life does not always reward hard work with triumph and immediate glory. The “mysterious ways” cliché comes to mind.
For supporters and interested parties, it was difficult to enjoy. There is little shame in finding something else to do besides watching a seemingly meaningless game in a losing season.
It did mean that Fine got to go out like Lance Dunbar and Patrick Cobbs: in front of empty crowds.
Ultimately it reinforced his feelings that the people he cares most about are the guys in uniform with him that went through the grind every day. “I’m excited to see what [his teammates] do. They are going to become better men, husbands, and fathers because of this season”.
We all want to give a greater meaning to our efforts to justify it to a critical eye, and yes, every moment can be learned from in some small way.
Ultimately, the program put together a bad season and fell victim to its weaknesses: limited depth, unbalanced recruiting, coaching turnover, and well, some misfortune. Oh yeah, and the other teams played well on the day.
Another truism: If this was easy they would not pay the coaches so much.
The young defense was learning big the seemingly stacked offense sputtered and cane up short too often. Last week NT could not score the game winning TD against Rice despite having the ball in the red zone.
This week NT threw a game losing interception in the third, because the offense got shut down and sacked too much.
Seth Littrell said he was proud of the team because he saw effort and fight. That’s all we want out of anything we spend our precious attention on. Let us applaud them.
It has been clear since about midsession that the real root causes were systemic and not something that would be fixable in-season let alone in-game.
Yes, Jyaire Shorter and Deonte Simpson grew as recovers, but it was not enough to get the offense unstuck for long periods. The line was still allowing sacks, still snapping low or high, and they were not going to be able to improve quick enough for it to matter. There were big numbers but the inability to get first downs and touchdowns in the fourth against Rice and UAB were the reason for the losses.
It’s Blame Season across the nation and coaches are getting ready to pack up and move. NT fans want Seth Littrell to do like Herman at Texas and fire the defensive head man. There are more still that want Bodie Reeder gone for the sin of coaching Mason in a losing season.
Littrell practically turned over his coaching staff last off-season and the scientist in me dislikes the idea of changing another variable. The offense will be led by a new QB — one of Jason Bean or the other guys or maybe a transfer? — and so much change while breaking in yet another staff sounds like a recipe for another losing season.
Note: It has since been reported that Bodie Reeder is out as offensive coordinator, but that has yet to be confirmed by the program.
That said, the strength of the team was not well, strong. That means there is some soul-searching. The good news is that Littrell and his staff are the kinds of people that are willing to put in work and take accountability.
For the fans and stewards of the program that means adjusting expectations a bit. Do we want progress or perfection? If the former (as it should be) then we must acknowledge that progress is not always linear.
So while we should not blindly demonize a set back season, we also should not blindly trust every and all decisions. Littrell hit big on Harrell and Fine, but maybe not so much on Reeder (pending) and has some work to do building a more consistent defense.
Recruits like Simpson, Shorter, Tre Siggers, KD Davis and the young guys have impressed while some of the transfers have not. Compared to the rest of the league NT is in good shape. Finding one QB is a hell of a way to get a program on its feet. NT did that. Finding the next one is how a career is made. That’s yet to be seen.
HOUSTON, TX — As usual, the traveling North Texas crowd looked bigger than the home supporters, but that did not matter. Mike Bloomgren’s Rice Owls came to play on Saturday at Rice Stadium, and Seth Littrell’s Mean Green did not.
Of course, things are not as simple as effort and desire and the twenty-two starters on each team cannot be summed up by a simple adjective. Still, North Texas preaches being the “most excited to play” and it looked like the green team was not.
NT went down 20-0 and the same old problems emerged: could not protect Fine, mistakes in execution, and some questionable play calling. Defensively, Reffet’s player okay but could not generate the consistent pass rush that would have put Rice in reaction mode.
Late in the game, needing a stop, the defense surrendered two first downs that sealed the game for Rice. They ran out the clock and celebrated their second win of the season, and their first at Rice Stadium.
Rice had that to play for — Bloomgren has done a great job of keeping his team ready despite so many close calls — and NT had just a chance at a bowl game in a season that started with much higher hopes.
This season is effectively over. There is one game to play: next week vs UAB on Senior Day. Outside of sending off Mason Fine and the other guys who helped revive the program, there will be nothing extra to play for.
Long time North Texas fans will remember that the last time the season ended this way it was 2015, and we had a coaching change. Seth Littrell will not be fired, but he will still he sought after despite this season’s outcome. He can point to the record book, the young talent on the roster, and the three bowl appearances as proof that he built something at NT.
The setbacks can be explained by acknowledging that he is a first-time coach and learning mistakes happen. There probably could have been some better decisions made in recruiting and hiring but it all has been for the good and this has been one of the most successful eras of the program that does not include a trophy case.
It is important to keep that perspective when attempting to digest an ugly loss such as this one. Rice, for all the very due praise they have gotten all season for being tough, is not as talented as NT from 1-85.
They made that not matter for a large portion of this game, however. A lot of that is coaching.
putting their The offense had only 238 yards on 57 plays. Rice wanted to choke the game by holding the ball but the real culprit was the poor execution. Fine threw an ugly early interception and missed a few receivers — including Greg White in the end zone. The line could not create space for Siggers not protect Fine often enough to get a rhythm.
Later, NT had a shot from the red zone after Rice fumbled. The refs did not call an interference call on 3rd-and-12 but NT was not exactly not exactly putting the Owl defense on their heels. They needed a 4th down conversion the previous drive and a ball to go through a defender’s hands on a pass to Lawrence.
Ultimately, NT had their chances to win and did not capitalize.
The Rice offense was solid and unspectacular. They scored 20 in the first half, aided by some short fields but scored when they needed to. The NT defense allowed some conversions early and that hurt them. Later in the second half they did well to force punts except on the final drive when they allowed a big first down on third and long.
NT brought heavy pressure and left Nick Harvey in single coverage. QB Tom Stewart lofted a pass to his big target Austin Trammel who had inside position and used his superior size to go up and get it. Rice used up more clock and then converted a game-sealing 3rd down on the ground.
Defense should be judged in two ways: comprehensive and situational. North texas did well overall and poorly in the latter category. The overall numbers are solid. Holding a team to 20 and under 350 is usually winning defensive football.
However, allowing red zone touchdowns and game sealing drives when you need a stop is not. The staff takes a lot of heat and some of it is very deserved — how, in a scheme that is designed to get pressure, does the squad not get enough pressure?
Some of it is undeserved — this defense is young and getting better weekly.
In this one everyone will remember that the defense was the last unit to make a losing play, but the gave the offense enough possessions and therefore opportunity to win.
We wrote that Seth Littrell would earn his paycheck this week, as he had to motivate his group in a game that is very easy to dismiss against a team with nothing to lose, and hunger to impress.
There are a string of bad starts to this season — on the road and at home. SMU, Cal, this game come to mind quickly. North Texas is simply not ready to play to start the game. That is coaching.
The head coach is an offensive guru, and handpicked his new offensive coordinator. He said in preseason that he always had changes in mind for this year and wanted to be aggressive and more explosive.
Injuries have taken some of the experience from the team, but the mistakes that have plagued the group all year do not inspire confidence.
The criticism of the Air Raid system Littrell brought with him was of empty calories: big numbers but little in the way of details. Put another way it is “yes, you can have big per-game numbers but can you win a big game, or a big drive, or a high-leverage moment?”
Littrell’s group has pulled off some big plays in crucial moments but also has some huge, glaringly bad performances in others. It is discouraging to see his offense be the inconsistent performer in those games and moments.
This was a terrible loss. Rice deserves a lot of credit and Bloomgren has them playing well. Still, NT is further along the process than Rice is and had an all-timer at QB.
There is little reason to expect better in the finale against a better team than Rice, and a more experienced coach than Bloomgren. UAB beat Tech this day and combined with the USM loss to WKU, controls their fate in the west division.
Put simply: NT has nothing but pride to play for while UAB has a championship appearance on the line.
Mason Fine threw seven touchdown passes, including two in the first couple of minutes as the Mean Green proceeded to handle UTEP easily on Homecoming. The Miners kept it closer-than-expected, but there was never really a point where NT looked like they would be too troubled.
This makes two weeks in a row that NT has exploded on offense. NT finished with 479 on offense and it could have been more if they wanted. Mason Fine threw for five scores in the first half and seven for the game following last week’s five score effort against Charlotte.
Jyaire Shorter caught his first TD pass of the game on a 48-yarder, making it 4 straight catches for 4 TDs across the last two. He finished with two grabs 59 yards and the one score. On the season he has eight TDs on 19 catches, an incredible return.
The star of the game and the season, really was Jaelon Darden. North Texas found a way to execute on short yardage plays and that involves throwing the ball to Darden in the flat on some motion-swing passes. He scored three times in this one, including two from 6-yards out.
Darden is just about un-guardable in space, and NT has recently found a way to make him a threat throughout the game. This has been helped by the emergence of Shorter and Deonte Simpson. Both struggled to start the year — Simpson did not get the start over Bussey and Hair-Griffin but has recently been getting lots of snaps.
Darden finished with 6 grabs for 60 yards and the three scores. He has 11 on the season, putting him just two behind Ron Shanklin’s school record of 13. Darden is tied for 4th. Rico Bussey Jr. and NT hall-of-famer Casey Fitzgerald are tied for 2nd with 13.
He also tied with like, a ton of guys, for the 2nd with 3 receiving scores in a game.
Fine’s seven tosses were a school record at Apogee. Previously, Mason Fine had the school record for scores there with four three other times (v UTEP ’17, v Army ’17, v Incarnate Word ’18). Houston’s Casey Keenum had five at Apogee in the stadium opener way back when.
Fine also becomes just the second NT QB to throw for five TDs twice in one season, with Steve Ramsay throwing for five three times in 1968. The school record for a game is Giovanni Vizza’s 8 in 2007 vs Navy. Fine has now thrown for 12 scores in two games. He now has 27 on the season, which equals last year’s total. He has the school record of 31 set in 2017.
Fine already has the school career record at 91 and counting.
North Texas is now 4-5, 3-2 on the season. Charlotte and UTEP were the easier of the games on the schedule. We saw evidence of that in the way the offense was able to score seemingly at will. The defense did not hold up against Charlotte but was able to dominate UTEP.
The schedule looks like this: @Tech, @Rice, vs UAB.
The Mean Green need to win out. After that, they need Tech to drop another game and have Southern Miss lose twice more. USM has division leading FAU, surprising WKU, and defending champ UAB on their schedule. It is not unreasonable. Tech has NT, UAB, and Marshall and UTSA. Three of those are tough.
There is hope, and really, if NT can just get two of the final three, it will be enough to be eligible. Realistically, the Mean Green need to get to seven wins. Four CUSA squads have six-or-more wins at the moment, including Tech with seven and UAB with six.
Mason Fine is injured with something that looks very serious. He tried to continue with what looked like a shoulder injury once, did so, and then hurt that same shoulder bad enough to sit out the rest of the way.
Without NT’s all-time passing leader in pretty much every category, there is even less hope for digging out of a 2-4 hole. Even with Fine at the helm, NT has struggled to move the ball the way we all expected. Fine’s numbers are down slightly from last season, and he has been hit more often than he has been since his freshman season where he took a beating.
Watching USM explode for 563 yards while NT struggled to get 378 was telling. NT’s playmakers are not making the plays that USM’s Quez Watkins (8 grabs for 198) or De’Michael Harris (19 touches for 186 yards and 3 scores) are.
The offense is not getting players in space to run against hesitating defenders. Tre Siggers went out early and NT was back to not having an identity any longer. Jaelon Darden had 5 grabs for 87 and 3 scores, but one of those came in garbage time and there were not enough plays by the other guys to help him get more.
At half this game was 28-20 USM. This game was lost in the third quarter, however, where NT went Missed FG, Punt, and INT and USM scored 10. By the start of the 4th quarter Mason Fine was injured and NT was down 18.
That is not to say the first half was really good. No, NT punted three times in the first quarter, continuing the streak of poor starts. Mason Fine threw off his back foot (bad) and the ball was intercepted through a bit of luck (which happens when you are in good position) and USM was set up for a short, go-ahead score.
This loss would not feel as bad if it were not on the heels of a poor performance against Houston two weeks go. It would also be much better if Mason Fine were not ending the game getting medical scans.
NT is 2-4 and 1-1 in conference play. This is not a completely untenable position, but a bowl game and a conference title appearance do not look too likely at this point.
With Mason Fine there are no guarantee wins the rest of the way — even UTEP can be dangerous. Without? Well, NT may have to squint really hard for another win the rest of the way.
Houston losing D’Eriq King after he redshirted was never going to be an automatic win for NT. In fact, this site cautioned against thinking the defense would continue the streak of touchdown-free quarters. Dana Holgerson is too good of an offensive mind to let his teams go without a score.
We also were concerned about Marques Stevenson, he of the many targets and ability to change the game returning the ball.
We also thought the run game would be the focus of the Houston defense. It was.
We hoped that NT would have the answer for all these things. They did not.
No, North Texas lost 46-25 to Houston in front of the largest crowd in Apogee history. Mason Fine mustered 353 yards passing but a good portion of that was while chasing the game.
The run game was the focus, and Houston got lots of pressure. NT was unable to find the necessary counter measures early. The essential takeaway from the first quarter was that NT had a 4th-and-22, and two 4th-and-1s.
They punted twice and were stopped short of the sticks the other time. Houston scored 14-first quarter points. One was on a 68-yard TD by Patrick Carr. The other was on a 9-play, 81-yard drive.
North Texas held Houston to a FG after that turnover, but only managed a FG after that.
NT had a better second quarter but totaled six points, and needed a buzzer-beating FG to do it. The good news was that that the defense managed three stops of the Houston offense in that time. It could have been worse earlier.
Houston scored on their first drive, 8-plays, 60-yards that included a big pass-interference call on Taylor Robinson on 3rd and 4 from the NT 23.
NT scored six on the next drive, an 11-play, 75-yard drive that saw Siggers get into the end zone from four.
Then it kind of fell apart. NT kicked it off to Stevenson who returned it 82-yards for six. The next possession saw NT score again — this time a 33-yard score to Jyaire Shorter
NT managed another stop after 5-plays and only 14 yards. NT could not move, punting to Bryson Smith who returned it 60-yards for six. Houston added a 2-point conversion to make it 39-18.
By then it was desperation time. NT failed to convert on 4th and 2, getting stuffed in the backfield with 12:32 left.
Houston punted after 4 minutes, and NT scored after 3:16 to make it 39-25. Houston scored again, on four plays. Clayton Tune got free for 55-yards. Patrick Carr scored from 12.
NT turned it over and then Houston kneeled it out.
So where did it go wrong? Let us analyze this loss.
NT had yet-another slow start to the the game. They were not quite sure if they wanted to be aggressive, and we can look at Seth Littrell and criticize. The run game was the focus for both teams, and NT was unable to power through the Houston line like they did UTSA’s.
The pass game was not crisp. The snaps were low, and that seemed to throw off the timing. The early shots were just sort of the sticks and that meant the WRs needed to get a yard. They failed to do so.
That set up some big decisions. NT punted early, then was stopped later in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, the situation was the same. Mason Fine throws incomplete on 3rd-and-5 to Lawrence. That led to a field goal.
Later, NT got to the Houston 27 after a big 4th-and-9 pass to Lawrence that got 12. NT followed that with a four-yard-loss, a Fine sack that lost 9, and an incomplete pass. Punt.
The next time NT had the ball, on 4th-and-1 from the NT 40 Mose had a false-start that caused a punt. Mose had a bad game, losing his man, snapping high, and this play here.
The next drive was promising but the half was creeping up. NT found points but the earlier blunders kept them from the end zone.
The second-half first possession was better. NT looked complete, mixing up pass and power runs that kept Houston off-balance. The pass game was crisp, getting the ball out of Fine’s hands faster, and the run game managed to get yards in short-to-go situations. There were some more mishandling of the ball, however.
Later, NT got out of a tough situation twice. The intentional grounding call put NT at 2nd-and-22. A couple of big completions helped the cause but NT scored on 3rd-and-10. Not nearly the best down-and-distance management.
Last drive that mattered: NT threw three-straight but couldn’t get the blocking on the Darden screen. NT punted from their own 8.
There were compounding problems here. NT had trouble blocking up front, snapping the ball, and throwing on-time passes, and then catching those passes. After they were caught — if they were caught — NT did not have many plays made.
Shorter, Darden, Lawrence, Simpson, Hair-Griffin made some good catches but did not get enough YAC to turn these drives into TD-scoring drives.
NT needs the pass-game equivalent of those Siggers runs where he powers through arm tackles.
Mason Fine was hit entirely too often early, and then of course, when NT was chasing the game he took the brunt of the hits.
NT managed 456 total yards, scored 25 points., went 8/22 on third downs and 4/7 on fourth.
NT had a nice second quarter after a terrible first. The 68-yard score from Carr was a great effort from him, finding the cutback lane and exploding to daylight. NT did not fill the run lane gap and that is a mistake we have seen before. Talent will make you pay for mistakes, and Carr is talented. Chalk this one up to inexperience.
The second drive in the first quarter was more inexperience, and miscommunication. Marques Stevenson took a pass 32-yards and make people miss in open space.
The second quarter saw better pressure on Tune, better gap-integrity in the run game, and better tackling overall.
Early in the third, NT allowed an opening TD after a big return from Stevenson. They got beat on some check downs. Later, Patrick Carr powered his way into the end zone.
The next Houston drive was a great exercise in discipline.
Overall NT held Houston to 359 yards, 235 through the air, 4/11 on third downs and sacked Tune once. It was not always pretty, but 15 of the 46-points were thanks to special teams.
Marques Stevenson had 112 kick return yards, one of which went for six. The other set up a short field that led to another TD. Bryson Smith had 2 returns for 63 yards including the big 60-yard score.
Biagi’s group has been praised heavily recently, especially after the Arkansas game last season. He deserves praise for the good, and criticism for the bad. This game was a reminder of the time NT kicked twice to ODU’s star returner and yes, he scored on both.
This game was not lost because of Special Teams, but it certainly wasn’t helped by it. Houston scored only 31 offensively and NT’s offense only mustered 25, so that would not cut it. The coverage teams did not help the cause, however.
Seth Littrell has a troubling trend where he loses all the big games. Three is no real definition for “big”, but the ones that immediately come to mind are these:
Bowl games: 0-3. Two were by blowout (Utah State, Troy) and one was an OT loss.
Championship game: 0-1. The embarrassing blowout to FAU in the title game.
Big Regular Season Games: 2-4? He beat UTSA in 2017, albeit via miracle comeback. He beat FAU in a big game last season. He lost to Louisiana Tech, and UAB in big games, and this one where NT was favored by 7.5 in front of the largest crowd in NT history.
It is an unfortunate truth that eventually fans will become accustomed to success. If the program wants to maintain the growth and success, it needs to win some of these 50/50 games.
Dana Holgerson called a good game and had some good playmakers. NT did not capitalize often enough, and the special teams killed them.
NT was always going to drop off compared to last year’s team. The biggest concern has been the offense. Last year we hoped it would be more consistent, even though it had big overall numbers. Seth Littrell suggested they knew this was the case anyway, and that changes were coming even before Graham Harrell moved on to USC.
This season, the pass game has been lacking, while the run game has carried the offense. NT has the same old problem it has had for three seasons: it cannot protect Fine that well, it cannot find consistency, and it comes up short in crunch time.
There is a lot to play for this season. All of CUSA is weaker. Defending Champ UAB just lost on the road to a weak WKU, that is starting a new QB. Southern Miss looks good and talented but they have questions still. La Tech was taken to OT by Rice, a program that is still rebuilding.
Over in the East, favorite Marshall was demolished 52-14 by Cincinnati. FIU is a shell of itself. FAU just beat Charlotte, but has not looked like that championship-winning side from 2017 until today.
The point is that NT very well may be bad vs the rest of the nation. But so is the rest of the league and well, the hardware is what matters. Last year’s team was better but faced a better UAB team, and a luckier La Tech team at the wrong time.
Darrel Dickey won Sun Belt titles but few remember the quality of the league then. In fact, few people go back and assess the quality of any trophy in the display case. To modify the famous Herm Edwards words, “you play to win the trophies.”
There is still a trophy to play for and NT is 1-0 on that road.
Signing Day is around the corner and per a request from friend-of-the blog, here is what North Texas is looking for. This is a compilation of some of the things written on this site and in the season preview e-book.
We are not in the huddle or the game-planning sessions but after three years of watching this team recruit and play, and knowing a little about the systems we have an idea of the roster requirements. When you see NT going after some players this coming signing day, use this guide to help project their ideal fit into the scheme.
Since Littrell has been the head coach, he has preferred a 3-3-5 / 4-2-5 hybrid. Officially it is called “multiple” but it is referred to as a 3-stack defense even though North Texas rarely lines up in the traditional 3-3-5 look. Instead, North Texas has 4-2-5 defense with some 3-stack nomenclature.
TCU has a 3-3-5 look they call ‘nickel’ and all 4-down lineman team have a 3-stack look. Most 3-3-5 and 3-4 defenses have a 4-DL package. It is all the same.1
Let’s talk broad strokes first. Every defense would like to have behemoths who can fly. As compromises with the laws of physics are made, teams make choices.
In this defense there is a pass-rushing defensive end, and a run-stopping defensive end. The “DE” is really the JACK LB. We will get to that later. The Nose tackle is usually bigger, and the other tackle is lighter and can probably play some of the run-stopping DE spot if he is versatile.
The linebackers are usually split between a run-stuffing guy and a versatile one. The corners are usually field-boundary, unless they are not. Generally speaking, the more versatile you are the better for everyone. The safeties are generally interchangeable, but usually one or two are better at run support while the other is better in coverage. The NICK ( in our terminology, it is the $pur in others ) is a hybrid. Not quite linebacker, not quite safety.
Let us get into specifics.
Nose: The foundation of the defense. The ideal size is “big” and strong. Weight at about 300+ lbs and strong as an ox. Most defenses want this man to command two-blockers.
Every defense needs a good nose tackle, and NT is no different. Ulaiasi Tauaalo is 6’2″ 300 lbs. Bryce English is 5’11” 297 lbs. Rod Young, who has spent time in the position over the last few years, is 6’1″ 298 lbs.
Strong Side DE: This man is usually a little stouter, as he has to be on the strong side of the defense, inside the tackle. He usually faces the strength of the offense and the focus of the run game. Ideal weight is somewhere between 270-290 lbs.
Rod Young, again, plays here for NT. The defense also likes to have Dion Novil in to play the other DE spot to have a “big” old 3-4 defense look with two space-eating DEs to go with a big Nose tackle. This usually for the bigger sets in short-yardage and goal line.
Jack: This is a pass-rushing linebacker. Jack linebackers are usually found in 3-4 defenses but they do the same thing as a 4-3 defensive end. DeMarcus Ware, Charles Haley, Bruce Smith, and so on. In most 4-DL sets this is called the Elephant or WDE or LEO or something. Southern Miss calls it Wolf. The idea is that it is different and supposed to get to the QB and drop in coverage. You need an athlete here. Ideal size is something like 6’3″ – 6’7″ 230-250 lbs, that is super quick and good in space.
North Texas had Josh Wheeler the last two years here. He was 6’3″ 230 lbs. Joe Ozougwu is 6’3″ 235 lbs and Jamie King is 6’3″ 231 lbs. Last year NT also put EJ Ejiya here also. He has the same size. NT’s latest haul of LBs like Tim Faison, Darrian McMillan all are near this height/weight and should grow into it if not.
DE: This is where it can be confusing. When NT has that SS DE play like a “3-technique” tackle (meaning on one of the offensive guards) this other DE becomes the “strong side DE.” On pass rushing downs, this is where NT will have two pass-rushing defensive ends. Ideally can play defensive end. Depending on the need, it can be another pass-rusher or another DE.
NT uses LaDarius Hamilton here — 6’3″ 240 lbs. Sometimes when they need more size they go with Caleb Colvin or Dion Novil. Colvin is 270 lbs, and Novil is 285 lbs.
MLB and WLB: These linebackers need to stop the run, and occasionally run in space. Everyone needs to be able to run, obviously, but these backers have some crossing and underneath route responsibilities. Good height — something about 5’11” – 6’4″ is fine, and solid enough to make tackles while light enough to run everywhere is ideal. Weight about 210 lbs at the lightest to about 240 lbs at the heaviest.
North Texas’ linebackers are 5’11” 223 lbs (Brandon Garner) and 6’3″ 231 lbs (EJ Ejiya). They are fast and hit hard, while being sure tacklers.
Safeties: Most teams like a free safety and a strong safety that likes to hit. The free safety is more coverage, while the strong safety can come up and make tackles. Defensive back size — no more than about 210 lbs and usually in the 195-200 lbs range.
North Texas is really interchangeable with their safeties. Khairi Muhammad and Makyle Sanders are about the same height and weight — 5’11” 185/191 lbs respectively. Both are solid in coverage but Khairi is probably the better at both aspects.
Nick: The “extra” safety is usually a hybrid linebacker/safety. Most often it is just another strong safety. Ideally, this man can cover a DB and hit like a LB without losing anything. Most often, teams will have to swap this position for the better coverage DB on passing downs.
North Texas has used Ashton Preston, Dee Baulkman, Tyreke Davis, and Jameel Moore here. Ashton, Dee, and Tyreke are all in the safety mold — about 200 lbs, while Moore was a backup corner. Teams have recently picked on this position — anyone in here really, but most recently Tyreke Davis got burned by UTSA and ODU — as this is the weakest of the five defensive backs. The right guy here can be a game-changer — someone that can do it all, wreaking havoc.
This is much easier, as the offense can set the tone. Defenses have to be reactive while offenses are proactive and set the personnel each play.
NT still runs the Air Raid but a more modern, run-friendly version.
QB: Ideal QB is about 6’4″ with a rocket arm and enough heft to withstand a couple of hits while also being mobile enough to extend the play. Patrick Mahomes is great but any QB has to be smart and accurate above all else. Mike Leach talked about his QBs needing to be accurate first, because it doesn’t matter how much arm they have if it is not where it is supposed to be.
Mason Fine is short but accurate and has improved his deep ball that now he is one of the best in the nation. He knows where to go with the ball and makes great decisions. He’s a great example of size not being the number one factor in QB-finding.
LT: Tackles are usually tall and quick enough to keep up with the freak athlete defensive end/ pass rushing linebackers. Ideally they are tall so they can get their long arms out and protect that way. Flip this if you are a lefty QB. Something like a 6’5″ 300 lbs guy with great mobility — quickness, balance, reaction.
Jordan Murray is 6’9″ and has good mobility. He gets a ton of flack because he might be a little taller than the ideal range for a left tackle and so does not have the greatest leverage against the pass rush.
RT: You can probably live with your second-best tackle being out here. This still has a ton of pass-protection responsibilities, but usually this is the run-clearing tackle. Ideal is a quick, long-armed tackle with heft that can bulldoze and move.
LG/RG: Guards need to be powerful, but quick enough to pull and get out and block on gap-runs. Ideally something like 6’3″ 323 lbs or so — strong enough to deal with the mammoth nose guards, but mobile enough to get a hat on a linebacker in space.
NT has Elex Woodworth — a converted LT — at left guard (6’4″ 288 lbs) and Manase Mose at RG — 6’1″ 294 lbs. Woodworth has been good but Mose has been outstanding.
C: The center is usually the smallest and most mobile of the lineman, they usually have the responsibility of calling out the blocking assignments.
NT has Sosaia Mose, 6’1″ 301 lbs. He has also been outstanding.
Outside WRs: X and Z: In the Air Raid, the outside WRs are the biggest, fastest, and most prototypical WRs on the team. Usually about 6’3″-6’5″ 195-220 lbs, they are responsible for getting vertical, beating man coverage, and winning 1-on-1 matchups against the opposition’s best cover guys. Mike Crabtree was 6’1″ 215lbs, could jump, run, and catch everything.
Rico Bussey Jr and Jalen Guyton are the outside WRs for NT. Bussey is 6’2″ 190 lbs, and Guyton is 6’1″ 202 lbs. Both can run and stretch the defense vertically, but also can get yards on medium and deep crossing routes. They catch shorter stuff for variety, but they need to win the medium to deep stuff for this offense to run best.
Inside WRs: Y and H: Some teams call the ‘H’, ‘A’. It is the same thing. The ‘Y’ was traditionally a TE but in the 4-WR sets it is usually a slight-of-frame slot WR. Wes Welker did it for Mike Leach at Texas Tech and went on to be the prototypical slot guy in the NFL. While shortness is what people think of, it is really about route precision and quickness. The size thing came about because Tech usually got the cast-offs — guys who would not normally find their way on a roster.
Mike Lawrence 5’10” 181 lbs and Jaelon Darden 5’9″ 165 lbs have had good-to-great seasons in their two years here. Lawrence caught a bunch of passes last year while Darden has been explosive in the slot this year.
Y / H-back / TE: Again, the traditional Y-position was a TE and the intermediate crossing routes, the flag routes, the “safety valve” stick-routes are all from the original BYU-era playbook. A pass-catching TE that can also block in the run game is ideal. A slighter-than-normal TE is fine but a big guy is awesome. Gronk was an Air Raid TE.
Kelvin Smith is 6’2″ 243 lbs TE with sure hands and quick feet. He is solid in the run game, too.
RB or F: The Air Raid backs of the Texas Tech days were slight, quick, pass-catching guys — one guy had 100 catches — and this again was due to the recruiting available to Leach in those days. As the entire sport has moved toward spread-and-shred it is clear that a good back in more space is fine. Power backs, scat-backs, and so on have all thrived in this position.
Jeff Wilson, Loren Easly, DeAndre Torrey, Wily Ivery, Nic Smith — these guys have all had nice games — 150+ yards rushing — in this offense and caught the ball and made plays. NT has favored some more power looks — using an H-Back/TE — and usually will carry at least one power back. Loren Easly was that power guy until he was hurt. DeAndre Torrey is the evidence of what happens when there is lots of space to run in, and a speedster with the ball in his hands.
H-Back: As mentioned previously, NT has favored an H-Back at times. Last year, Cannon Maki was a full-back without the name for a while. NT has favored Kelvin Smith in that role this year. NT will not likely recruit for this role, but backup TEs might be ideal here.
It is important to remember that you want football players and not beauty pageant winners. While some coaches will choose a guy that fits their profile over a good football player who is undersized, (Nick Saban is famous for this) they usually have the advantage of choosing a 5-star athlete and know they can coach them into the player they need.
Ultimately, the result is the most important thing. EJ Ejiya is the leading sack-man on the squad and he is a MLB. That is “supposed” to be the Jack. Does it matter? Not so much, as long as the defense is getting stops.
Utah State, the bowl opponent lists four linebackers. In truth, one of those is a NICK/Spur (210 lbs) and the other is a JACK LB (6’5″ 230 lbs). ↩
According to Inside Carolina, Mack Brown hired Graham Harrell as his offensive coordinator after losing out to USC in the bid for Kliff Kingsbury earlier this week. Harrell has helped groom Mason Fine into a two-time (back-to-back) league offensive player of the year and has transformed the offense from a struggling, self-defeating unit, into one of the more feared in the league.
The offense has set school records the last two seasons under the modified Air Raid under Littrell and Harrell. Seth Littrell turned down the K-State job after some negotiations and will now need to find a new play-caller.
When Mason Fine fumbled at the six yard line early in the 4th quarter, it was only fortunate that the referees — already hated by both sides of the internet fandom — blew the whistle way to early because it prevented a sure UAB touchdown return.
As it was, UAB’s QB AJ Erdely completed a 36-yard bomb to Xavier Ubosi — his only grab on the night — to get them out of the shadow of their own end zone. That set up a long UAB drive that ate up 6:14 and went 87 yards in 13 plays. It resulted in a Nick Vogel field goal that put the Blazers up by the winning score margin.
Mason Fine’s final pass to Jalen Guyton on 4th down was a yard short — clearly — and the potential game-tying drive ended at the UAB 18.
The Mean Green started well, scoring an electric 21 points in the first half. Rico Bussy Jr. had a 57-yard TD score on a quick slant that saw him out run everyone on the way to the end zone. Jaelon Darden pulled off some highlight-reel moves on the way to accumulating a career-best 10 catches and 143 yards to go with his 2 first half scores.
Those three touchdowns — all in the first half — were all of Mason Fine’s scores, as he put up 336 on 29/40 passing. He out-dueled Erdely, who had 189 on 14/22. Both QBs were sacked four times — Brandon Garner, EJ Ejiya, Joe Ozougwu, and Rod Young combined — but the run game for UAB did the most damage.
UAB’s big offensive line and powerful back Spencer Brown were able to lean on the Mean Green in the third and fourth quarters, extending drives and killing the clock long enough to keep the Mean Green off the field.
Echoing the performance against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs back in September, the Mean Green only had the ball for 4 minutes of the third quarter. A failed 4th down attempt gave the ball to UAB at midfield. The Blazers drove 3:53 before fumbling at the six. Mason Fine was forced into an intentional grounding by Garrett Marino that caused a safety. Then UAB drove for another three-and-a-half minutes for a TD. It was 21-10 and NT had not had the ball in ages.
The offensive rhythm gone, and the defense unable to get off the field thanks to 3rd down penalties, NT struggled to find the form of the first half. The adjustments the Blazers made were along the lines of hitting Mason Fine more. The possession after the TD, Mason Fine hit Kelvin Smith for five yards, then was harassed into two incomplete passes while taking big hits from the defensive line.
In the fourth, after going down 26-21, yet another 4th down conversion failed when Mason Fine threw incomplete when Jack LB Stacy Keely knocked down Mason Fine’s pass.
The defense did enough to get the ball back once more, but the drive ended on the six when Mason Fine clearly fumbled. After UAB drove, NT had one last gasp in them but could not convert. A mishandled snap cost NT a third down and on fourth down, Fine avoided pressure and found Guyton for 9-yards, just a yard shy of the first down that could have extended things.
The offense came out, well, blazing. Mason Fine was accurate, quick with his passes and finding playmakers in space. North Texas has 222 total yards to UAB’s 140 at the half, and 212 passing. The run game was a concern, and that never improved. DeAndre Torrey and Nic Smith ran hard, but could not find much space against the huge UAB defense.
In the second half, NT simply could not execute. Misfiring on 4th and 2 (run game) gave the ball away. A sack in their own end zone ended another drive. A misfire on 3rd and 2 (run game) and the failed subsequent 4th and 1 (pass game) killed another.
Finally, the fumble by Mason Fine ended yet another possible scoring drive. North Texas was good enough to win this game — much like they were in the Louisiana Tech game — but mistakes against good teams — like against Tech — will cost you wins.
This was unsurprising — both aspects — as North Texas has been playing this inconsistently all season. Every post-game review has remarked on how the offense struggles for a quarter or two, but also puts together a remarkable run of points where it looks like the team we expect it to be.
In this game, the total numbers mask the fact that NT had an awful third and fourth quarter. NT went scoreless in the second half and largely through their own doing. Credit UAB for making things difficult — the defensive line was good — but there were too many mistakes in short yardage to think that NT was simply overpowered. They just did not execute when it mattered.
The defense has been the most consistent and best unit this season. They held this UAB defense and gave the offense more than a few opportunities to win things. Nate Brooks ripped the ball away from a UAB running back that saved a scoring drive — shades of last week when Khairi Muhammad did the same against Southern Miss. EJ Ejiya racked up 10 tackles and flew all over the field. AJ Erdely was sacked four times and the run game was held in check until late, when the defense played way too much.
Even then, they held UAB to a FG in their final drive, giving Mason Fine one more shot to tie things with a TD+two point conversion.
UAB had a huge return that set up a short field. That drive resulted in a TD for UAB. Outside of that, NT did not have any return chances. No one muffed a return. Kentworthy punted four times and had one over 50 and two inside the 20.
What It Means
Well, as we explained earlier this week, it is all but over for NT. This UAB team — a very good one — would have to drop three of their next four to the likes of UTEP, UTSA, Southern Miss, and Middle Tennessee.
NT falls to third in the division behind UAB (4-0), and LT (3-1).
Rice. The Owls played better this week but are still struggling.
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.
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.
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.
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.