If anyone doubts the Seth Littrell rebuild, just look back to 2015 and specifically Portland State. Those were dark days as the FCS Vikings came into Apogee and beat the breaks off North Texas 66-7. Two years later the Mean Green won the CUSA Western Division and nine games. From 1-11 to 9-5 and two straight bowl games.
As he enters his third spring, Littrell's Mean Green are building towards another CUSA title run. To get there, North Texas has some work to do.
About that Defense
We had some nice things to say about Troy Reffett heading into last season. His unit played above expectations in 216. Last season with more scheme fits, the Mean Green struggled. North Texas dropped from 89th in total defense to 97th from 2016 to 2017. When the Mean Green needed it, their defense didn't deliver.
Welcome to 2018 where hope springs eternal. North Texas' returns seven starters, including four of the five in the secondary. We had immense hope for the North Texas secondary in 2017, but they let us down falling from 26th in pass defense to 72nd. They've got a chance to rectify that in 2018.
Safety Khairi Muhammad made a huge impression as a sophomore in his first frontline action. JC Transfer Kemon Hall stepped right into a starting job. Nate Brooks still flashes the playmaking abilities he did in 2016. But can they put it all together? Can they provide the man schemes that Reffett wants to employ so that he can bring the pressure he wants to?
Up front, the Mean Green are looking to some new faces as well, including several JC transfers. Roderick Young and Ulaiasi Tauaalo are back after playing inside. We don't know whether Young is better inside or outside, but at some point, we'd like to think that decision will be based on his ability rather than necessity. JC transfer Darrian McMillan is a classic Reffett flex player, capable of playing either end or outside linebacker. He has active hands and a quick first step.
Tuulau Saafi comes from Mt. San Antonio College; he's a non-traditional recruit who took time off after graduating from Euless Trinity to help his family. He's a thumper who, again, can flex around the front.
Fitting the front together and finding depth on the line is an important job this spring. North Texas is perhaps historically stacked on offense, but the defense could be the difference between a conference title and another end of year struggle.
Even with the stacked offensive group, the offensive line has to keep quarterback Mason Fine upright. The Mean Green front struggled against better competition in 2017. Classic air raid teams make opponents pay for pressure, North Texas' opponents learned that pressure forced mistakes.
If the NCAA doesn't grant Riley Mayfield's appeal for a sixth year, the Mean Green will replace their entire right side. They'll do so with unproven youth and JC players.
Nothing derails your season like losing a starting quarterback and North Texas can ill-afford to lose Fine. Offensive line coach Chuck Langston enters year two in Denton, and while he may have more overall talent, he may not have as many answers.
Sosaia Mose and Creighton Barr can each play center or guard so that Langston may have an answer there. The second unit will be made up of almost entirely unknown/new faces. North Texas doggedly redshirted most of its young offensive lineman, giving them time to grow up in the system. They'll be called upon to contribute next year. North Texas needs to use this spring to sort out their options.
When Bryce English was at DeSoto, he was one of the most dynamic defensive players in Texas high school football. He played with a level of explosiveness that made him a nightmare matchup. Playing at a blue-chip factory like DeSoto, English was the bell cow.
He was also 5-10, 330 pounds, not the ideal height for a defensive lineman. In a world where he who punches first, wins, English thrive with a quick first step that got him into the chest of linemen before they could use their length to neutralize him. He committed to Texas, signed with Kansas State and two years ago, transferred to North Texas to be closer to home and his ill father.
Most projected English as a breakout performer, then he injured his foot. He tried to rehab and get back on the field but needed surgery and missed the season. One surgery led to another, and now his return is up in the air.
Depending on whether English can rehab his injured foot and how much it affects his explosiveness, North Texas could have a game-changing interior player on the defensive side of the ball in 2018. But at this point, North Texas can't depend on English on the field. If English loses that first step, that dynamic explosiveness, does his size become a greater liability?
This spring and into the summer, English needs to get on track to get back on the field, and while the Spring Forecast is typically about the benefit of spring drills, for English the real benefit is recovery.
Is Mason Fine the Next Great Air Raid Quarterback?
Last season we postulated that Mason Fine's quarterback trajectory might follow closely with the classic Mike Leach, Texas Tech Air Raid passer. Leach, until he signed Graham Harrell, now Fine's offensive coordinator, made life in the Big 12 miserable with unheralded, often undersized, quarterbacks. Leach had a clown car of them.
When one of Leach's prolific, under-recruited quarterbacks graduated, he seemed to pull another out of some 3A program in the Panhandle. None were physically imposing, but they were accurate, gym rats who picked apart blue blood programs all while Leach ran the same five plays scribbled on an ever-shrinking play sheet.
Rivals have mocked Mason Fine's diminutive status and his high school pedigree (let's be honest, the Locust Grove jokes write themselves). Last year Fine made those detractors rue the day as he set a school record for passing yards and touchdowns. Now in year three of the Littrell/Harrell offense, and as Harrell progresses as a play-caller, the sky is the limit. Or the ceiling, whatever.
Fine returns one of the deepest receiving groups in the FBS that seems to have every flavor of receiver you could want including a budding star in Jalen Guyton. As Fine continues to grow into the offense, he'll become more lethal. For CUSA opponents that's scary.
Can Fine break the mythical 5,000-yard mark? Eleven quarterbacks have eclipsed that mark. Of the fifteen seasons of 5,000 or more passing yards, eight came from Mike Leach or his coaching tree. Don't bet against Fine adding his name to that list.