Mason Fine surprised almost all of us with his 2016 season. We all penciled Alec Morris into the starting lineup for North Texas and expected the Mean Green to put together a two to three win season as Seth Littrell began the process of rebuilding the program. What happened was an improbable bowl trip for North Texas and Mason Fine contributed to that trip.
We take a look back at Mason Fine's 2016 season.
Here's our usual disclaimer, we're suckers for radar graphs and all other demonstratives, we have excel and we use it at times ineffectively, but whatever. We track quarterbacks through 8-10 criteria the most important of which (and we totally stole this from Bill Connelly over at football study hall) are completion percentage, interception rate, sack rate, yards per attempt, and yards per play (taking into account passing, sack, and rushing yardage). We take those five indicators and every quarterback with 100 or attempts and give each quarterback a percentile rank amongst his peers. Is it flawless? Nope. Does it give us a pretty good indicator of how efficient a quarterback is? You bet. If you rank in the top 75 in terms of percentile, you're really good, probably elite. If you rank in the top 50% that's a decent number. Below that and we've got some work to do.
Here's Fine's radar graph and, for frame of reference, Shane Buechele's.
Buechele, another true freshman, put together perhaps the best season from a first year quarterback in college football. He was average at most things, and struggled with the things that young quarterbacks struggle with - sack rate and interception rate. Overall, Buechele put together a pretty good season.
Fine's 2016 was marked by struggles in some of these same areas, those struggles built on top of each other, but there's some cause for hope in 2017.
Fine struggled with sack avoidance as a lot of young quarterbacks are prone to do. Sacks and interceptions are efficiency killers. Interceptions gift away the most valuable asset in the game and sacks make lose you yardage and downs, two essential and valuable commodities. Young players struggle with sacks for a number of reasons, first the speed of the game throws off their internal clock, when the throw should be made. Everything is faster. Compared to high school the windows for throwing the ball and what constitutes an open receiver also changes and space shrinks. As speed increases and space decreases young quarterbacks can get caught out.
Other factors of course lead to sacks: line play, route issues, coverage, missed assignments, scheme, all lead to sacks. For Fine his sack avoidance or sack rate percentile was in the first percentile, nearly dead freaking last. For Fine, the upgrade from Locust Grove to North Texas was immense. Only two qualifying quarterbacks were worse at avoiding sacks than Fine. On 13% of his attempts he was sacked. North Texas' offensive line was an issue, it was patchwork in 2016 and was perhaps the unit hardest hits by offseason defections. The result was a 122nd ranking in sacks allowed in the FBS.
Fine should improve in this area due both to his own development and the hope that North Texas is better up front in 2017. If Fine can work on his sack avoidance, that improvement should be compounded as an improvement in sack avoidance should cause a trickle down in more yards per play and more yards per attempt.
Dink and Dunk
Speaking of yards per attempt and yards per play those were also areas where Fine was in the 10th percentile or worse. Again, sacks and incompletions play a role in overall efficiency as well as yards per play and yards per attempt, but Fine, for lots of reasons wasn't able to stretch the defense downfield. Part of this probably falls on scheme and what Fine was asked to do. Some of it falls on Fine as a young player and internal clock issue we discussed before. Also factor in a couple of stinkers including a trip to the Swamp where the Mean Green ran into a buzz saw top five Florida defense. He also had two other games where he averaged less than five yards per attempt, oddly in his first start vs. FCS member Bethune Cookman and again in a start cut short by injury at Western Kentucky.
It's critical that Fine expand his range and give North Texas a downfield threat. That development will open up options and space for the run game. No one factor dictated winning vs. losing like North Texas ability to run the football. In wins North Texas averaged over five yards per carry, in losses that number dropped to below three.
Interceptions and Completions
Now onto some good news, even though Fine took a lot of sacks, that pressure didn't result in interceptions. Fine's interception rate was among the best in the country, in the 74th percentile. For comparison Buechele ranked in the 39th percentile. That's closer to what you'd expect from a young signal caller. Among Texas FBS quarterbacks only two were equal to or better than Fine, Texas A&M's Trevor Knight equaled Fine's 74th percentile finish and UTSA's Dalton Sturm was slightly better, finishing in the 77th percentile.
Some other good news is Fine's completion percentage, 59% was in the 50th percentile among qualifying quarterbacks. that's encouraging. If you take out the 27% outing at Florida, his completion percentage jumps to 62% which would put him in the 74th percentile.
One last issue for Fine and it's not something he can control, but he's undersized both height wise and weight wise. His injury seemed inevitable given his slight stature and often times kamikaze style of play. If Fine can put on some weight and maintain his ability to move that should benefit him. Fine is a gym rat. You don't become the leading passer in Oklahoma prep history without having some gym rat tendencies. That gym rat nature and an offseason in North Texas' weight room should help.
He'll also be pushed by JC transfer Devlin Isadore, the former Baylor recruit who stands 6'4 and weighs over 210 pounds. Isadore certainly looks the part, but North Texas hasn't put Isadore on scholarship yet, so there's some question as to how they perceive the newcomer and he's coming off a knee injury that will limit him this spring but competition is good.
It's easy for coaches to go with a guy that looks the part. That's probably why Fine was overlooked by everyone is spite of putting up gigantic numbers at Locust Grove. Then later in the recruiting process someone got to Seth Littrell's ear about Fine and to his credit, Littrell saw something in Fine and brought him on board.
We're excited to see how Fine develops and improves in 2017. He did some good things in 2016 and helped get his team to a bowl game.