North Texas Season Preview: Which Way in 2017?

We won't doubt Seth Littrell again. The first time coach had the Mean Green playing at a high level and got his team to a bowl game when no one, us included, thought that was possible. He proved to have a keen eye for coaching talent as well. The Power 5's purged his staff in the offseason, including Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Ekeler. 

Littrell inherited a near impossible roster situation from a numbers standpoint, he was bringing in transfers late into the summer last year to fill out his depth chart. After two recruiting cycles he's closer to the type of roster he wants rather than scrambling to find warm bodies. 

Troy Reffett's continued presence absorbs part of Ekeler's loss. Reffett's defense played with great effort and reckless abandon. They flew to the football, created turnovers and generally caused havoc. Last year the Mean Green defense was playing shorthanded due to a lack of bodies up front. This season the front seven should be loaded and the secondary is full of stoppers. We can't wait to see what Reffett does with a more complete roster. 

On offense the Mean Green will try to replace three of their top four receiving targets from last season. They'll benefit from the continued excellence of Jeffery Wilson. The senior has been one of the best backs in CUSA for two seasons. Questions up front continue. The line was patchwork last season and the patch job continues. Quarterback Mason Fine had a solid true freshman season, but continued development at the position is critical to implementing Graham Harrell's offense.

North Texas and new AD Wren Baker are really investing in not only the football program but the athletic department as a whole. A new indoor facility is on the way and new suites are in line for Apogee. Littrell signed an extension this offseason and the pool of funds for assistant coaches increased. It's a great time to be a Mean Green Fan.

Key Numbers

Scoring Drive % (CUSA Rank) Touchdown Drive % (CUSA Rank) Scoring Drives % Allowed (CUSA Rank) Touchdown % Allowed (CUSA Rank) 3rd Down Conversion % (CUSA Rank) Turnover Margin (CUSA Rank) Total Adjusted Run Rate (Nat'l Rank)
0.300 (11) 0.244 (10) 0.423 (7) 0.337 (6) 34% (9) 1 (7) -1.364 (113)
  • Scoring Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in points.
  • Touchdown Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in touchdowns. 
  • Scoring Drives % Allowed: Percentage of drives allowed that ended in points. 
  • Touchdown % Allowed: Percentage of opponent's drives that end in a touchdown. 
  • 3rd Down %: Offensives success on 3rd down. 
  • Turnover Margin: Total number of giveaways minus total number of takeaways. 
  • Total Adjusted Run Rate: Taking the national average of yards per carry and yards allowed per carry and comparing that to the relative team. Teams that end up with a plus Total Adjusted Run Rate average 8.4 wins per year. Teams with a negative Total Adjusted Run Rate average 5.5 wins per season. The top 20 teams in Total Adjusted Run Rate Averaged 9.7 wins per season over a five year period. 

Quarterback

As offensive coordinator in year one, Graham Harrell was trying to fit a lot of square pegs into round holes. As year two approaches, Harrell will have more pieces that fit into his Air Raid system including perhaps one and possibly even two quarterbacks. Let's start with 2016's nine game starter Mason Fine

 Mason Fine

Mason Fine

Fine supplanted Alec Morris one game into last season. The results were ok trending to bad. Harrell and head coach Seth Littrell gave the true freshman from Locust Grove, just enough of the offense so he wouldn't be overwhelmed. That meant relying heavily on a running game. Again, Harrell wants to get this offense firing and doing so more effectively through the air. 

Young starting quarterbacks tend to fail in a few key areas, for Mason Fine, the failures were to be somewhat expected. His completion percentage was right in the 50th percentile among passers with 100 0r more attempts, but he struggled with sack rate, typically attributed to the increase in the speed of the game. Understanding timing and throwing windows is a skill learned by repetition as well. In Fine's case a patchwork offensive line added to the issue. 

Fine is a plus athlete but given his size, he's not a players that North Texas necessarily wants making plays outside the pocket regularly. A full offseason in the Mean Green weight room won't hurt, but if Fine were 6-3 210, more than likely he won't have ended up in Denton. Instead at under six feet and under 180, his slight build is a negative part of the equation.

Harrell's plan for the North Texas offense depends on Fine's further development. Either Fine or junior Quinn Shanbour. Shanbour has yet to appear in a collegiate game but showed a flash of potential in the spring game, going 13-for-22 with two touchdowns and 253 yards. Littrell has made it clear that Shanbour is in competition with the incumbent heading into fall ball. 

Cade Pearson might have the most upside of any quarterback on the roster. Pearson enrolled early this spring out of Texarkana. Pearson is 6-3, 205 and if he was at all overwhelmed in April's spring game, it didn't show as he was 13-18 for 148 yards. Pearson was a two-star rated recruit, with offers from Wyoming and a few Southland schools.

Lastly, Devlin Isadore is a JC recruit out of Navarro by way of Aldine Eisenhower. At 6-4, 228, he's the biggest and, depending on how his knee is recovered from surgery, the best athlete. What role Isadore plays is anyone's guess, he played sparingly this spring. 

Running backs

 Jeffery Wilson

Jeffery Wilson

Get to know Jeffery Wilson, one of the more productive backs in CUSA the past two seasons. If he could have stayed healthy, chances are you would have heard of him. Back to back thousand yard rushers tend to garner attention. But Wilson has missed four games the past two seasons, two each in 2015 and 2016.

When he is on the field, the numbers are consistent and impressive. Wilson is an ideal one cut back for Seth Littrell's system. He sees a hole and goes. He typically goes to the end zone with 14 scores in 2016. The run game was the catalyst for the Mean Green offense in 2016, and Jeffrey Wilson was as valuable as any back in the state, this side of Aaron Jones and D'Onte Foreman. 

Wilson, unlike a lot of backs, excels between the tackles. Ball security is at a premium for Wilson, and he runs with great pad level. He's a patient runner, but once he sees a hole, he exploits it. 

Behind Wilson things get dicey. Willy Ivory was penciled into his role spelling Wilson once again until he was dismissed from the team in January. Nick Smith, a redshirt freshman from Arlington Martin, came out of spring as number two behind Wilson. His next college carry will be his first. Senior Andrew Tucker averaged seven yards a carry last season in very limited duty. 

The Mean Green will have the benefit of Loren Easly, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin to carry some of the load in Wilson's absence. True freshman Tre Siggers from Duncanville could get on the field thanks to his versatility and athletic ability. 

Receivers

The Mean Green lost a lot catches from 2016. A lot. Four of their top five pass catchers are gone. Either graduated or transferred. That doesn't necessarily mean North Texas is going to struggle, the Graham Harrell offense can make do with all types receivers, big ones small ones, fast ones, slow ones. Harrell can make it work. 

This season he'll make it work with Turner Smiley, the senior caught 33 balls last year. His catch rate was just below the national average at 52%. The Mean Green did a good job getting Smiley the ball in a number of way, via returns, fly sweeps, and through the air. 

The guy we're excited to see is Jalen Guyton, the JC transfer and former Notre Dame signee. Guyton was a highly recruited high school receiver out of state power Allen. He was suspended from Notre Dame during his freshman season and left the Irish, landing at Trinity Valley. There's no denying his physical tools, he has ideal size and good speed. Kansas and West Virginia offered Guyton, but he stayed close to home with the Mean Green. He can flat out go get it. He's as physical a receiver as there is on the roster and should be in line for a huge 2017. 

Rico Busey came on for the Mean Green this spring.  He took significant steps in the offseason learning the offense and nailing down a starting position. O'Keeron Rutherford has ideal size to cause a ton of matchup problems at 6-5, but he's yet to have that translate into production.

Another player who stepped up during this offseason was Michael Lawrence the sophomore from Sweetwater who'll look to make a bigger contribution next season. Coaches loved his performance during spring ball.

Tight Ends

North Texas really made a find in Kelvin Smith out of Spring Dekaney. Smith was a blocking tight end in high school, but he's shown the athleticism to be a nice target in the pass game. Last season Smith caught seven passes for 79 yards. In his debut against SMU he had a highlight reel touchdown catch. 

Like most Air Raid systems, the tight end will play more H-back, off the line behind the tackle. 

Behind Smith, Jamie King a signee out the College of the Desert and Caleb Chumley from Longview Pine Tree will fill out the depth chart. Neither has taken a snap in Denton. Chumley is a big target at 6-5, 250 pounds. 

Offensive Line

The Mean Green offensive line was a revolving door last season. Both in terms of personnel and results. North Texas allowed 93 tackles for loss and 43 sacks. The Mean Green lose their top two lineman in center Sam Rice and tackle Trey Keenan. This offseason guard Wylie Reinhardt retired due to injury. 

The three returners will be counted on to hold things down, starting with Jordan Murray the 6-9 man mountain at tackle. Murray isn't exactly mobile, but we harken back to another Air Raid lineman from the Mike Leach era at Tech, Brandon Carter, who must've weighed 340 and couldn't run a 10 yard shuttle without collapsing, but he served a purpose. Murray doesn't so much block as he does shield and create an impediment. Given his lack of mobility, his best position might be inside. 

Creighton Barr will slide into center. He started the first six games at center and played in nine games total. Senior T.J. Henson started nine games last season and should fill into one of the guard slots. Junior Chris Miles started three games at guard to round out the 2016 season. JC transfer Manase Mose brings a physical edge to the interior. He'll factor at guard or center.

The Mean Green staff would like to move Elex Woodworth back inside, but he may be needed at tackle.  Much of that will depend on whether Jalen Thomas or Chandler Anthony step up. Anthony sat out last season with a broken leg. Thomas appeared twice in 2016 after transferring from ASA College. 

Defensive Line

North Texas had a surprisingly effective defensive line in 2016. Second year defensive coordinator Troy Reffett along with then co-coordinator Mike Ekeler took a lot of disparate parts and made them into a cohesive unit. Reffett will need to perform a similar transformation in 2017, but he has the benefit of more workable numbers this season.  

 Roderick Young

Roderick Young

Inside T.J. Tauaalo moves to nose tackle full time with Kansas State transfer Bryce English getting work as well. English was a highly productive high school player out of DeSoto, but his height caused bigger schools to back off. He's a smart player who can use leverage to reestablish the line of scrimmage. In Reffett's defense the nose guard is asked to play the 0-tech, drive the center and generally occupying blockers. 

North Texas wants their defensive ends to set the outside edge and contain. Roderick Young started twelve games in 2016, eleven at nose, one at defensive end. He'll move outside to defensive. He possess ideal size against the run on the edge.

At the other defensive end Andy Flusche came out of spring as the starter. All CUSA Freshman selection LaDarius Hamilton will push for playing time as well. Tillman Johnson is going to be part of the rotation. Johnson set a freshman record two seasons ago with 5 sacks.

North Texas has options on the defensive line and a lot of guys who can play in different roles. 

Linebackers

Anthony Wheeler was a big time playmaker for North Texas in his first year on campus. The transfer from Tyler JC thrived in Troy Reffett's multiple, attacking front that gives players like Wheeler the versatility to bring heat from a number of positions. He and Calvin Minor will play the "Jack" linebacker. 

Inside Brandon Garner is the filling some large shoes inside after the graduation of Fred Scott and Courtney Finney. E.J. Ejiya, a senior Minnesota of all places, gets the opening nod at the Will position.  Garner and Ejiya finished sixth and seventh in tackles respectively. 

Behind them things get dicey. Garner's backup, Colton McDonald, came to North Texas via West Texas A&M. Redshirt Corey Mann is another unknown on the depth chart inside. 

Secondary

This is an elite group. They were top 45 in the FBS in QB rating allowed and they are ball hawks. The Mean Green finished in the top 35 in interceptions. Only SMU finished better among Roundup teams. Opponents completed just 51% of their passes against North Texas. That was seventh in the FBS. 

 Kishawn McClain

Kishawn McClain

North Texas returns a trio of playmakers in their secondary led by safety Kishawn McClain. McClain was second team All-CUSA in 2016. He had 91 stops to lead the team as a junior. As a sophomore he contributed 110 tackles, also tops on the team. Taylor Robinson will back up McClain. He played in eleven games as a redshirt freshman. 

North Texas has two very good cover corners in Eric Jenkins and Nate Brooks. Both were Honorable Mention All-CUSA last season. Brooks led the Mean Green in picks with four. Jenkins was right behind him with three picks. Jenkins steps in for Chad Davis. 

Sophomore Khairi Muhammad steps in at strong safety. The DeSoto product played in twelve games last season backing up senior James Gray. The nickel will be either Dee Baulkman or Ashton Preston. Preston made nine starts last season while Baulkman started four games. Preston had a pick last season. 

Specialists

We openly campaigned for Eric Keena for Heisman before it was in vogue to back a punter. Now everyone's doing it. Sadly our efforts went unrewarded. Keena was a real field position weapon and was rewarded with First Team All-CUSA honors.  

The Mean Green went out and signed Alvin Kenworthy a JUCO punter from Kilgore . He averaged 36 yards per punt and also handled kicking duties for the Rangers. They also have Blake Patterson on campus. He redshirted last year out of Cedar Ridge in Round Rock. 

At kicker North Texas returns Trevor Moore. Moore made nine of his thirteen attempts last year. Moore has made 99 straight extra points in his career as well. He was Honorable Mention All CUSA last season. 

Turner Smiley returns to shag punts. He had a respectable 9 yard average last year. He also averaged 21 yards on three kickoff returns in 2016. Nothing concrete but true freshman Tre Siggers seems like he might get a look on returns this fall. 

2017 Schedule

Best Case

North Texas could be discernibly better in 2017 than in 2016 and yet still not exceed last season's win total. The Mean Green have a lot of tools to be better, especially on defense. If they can continue the upward trajectory offensively, they can get to seven or eight wins.  

Worst CaseS

Questions still exist at quarterback where Mason Fine was either a partial year wonder or the next pint sized air raid quarterback to throw for enormous yardage. The offensive line is still a work in progress. If Fine (or whoever plays quarterback) and the O-line struggle, so will the Mean Green. Four wins. 

Lamar Win

Mean Green open the season vs. FCS and Southland opponent Lamar

@ SMU Loss

The Rivalry for the new Millennia has the Hippogriff trophy is once again contested. 

A winnable game for North Texas and potentially huge for recruiting the Metroplex.

@ Iowa Loss

Another trip to Iowa City 

Can North Texas catch the Hawkeyes by surprise?

UAB Win

Mean Green catch UAB early at home. 

@ Southern Miss Loss

Mean Green trek to Hattiesburg for a CUSA Western showdown with USM

Should be close, but a tough task on the road. 

UTSA Loss

The twitter war gets settled on the field. 

This one could eliminate one of the two from CUSA West contention before the race even really starts. 

@ Florida Atlantic Win

How good are the Fighting Kiffins? Who knows. 

Mean Green with a great chance to get a CUSA win on the road

Old Dominion Win

North Texas and an evenly matched ODU squad in New Denton. 

Mean Green have to win games like this.

@ Louisiana Tech Loss

CUSA Western Division contender in Ruston, mark it a loss Dude. 

No shame, but the Mean Green need to be competitive. 

UTEP Pick'em

Last year the Miners blew out UNT in El Paso. 

Can North Texas return the favor in Denton?

Army Win 

Army for the third time in 12 months. The two teams split last season.

This game could be the difference between a bowl or staying home in December.  

@ Rice Pick'em

Thanks to a scheduling quirk the Mean Green visit the Owls for the 2nd straight year. 

Last season North Texas won in OT.

Prediction 6-6

The Roundup...