Season Preview: North Texas

Opening Statement:

If you plot out the Seth Littrell era on a graph, it's trajectory looks like Apple stock in the mid 2000s. In 2016, North Texas hired Littrell, a little-known coordinator from North Carolina, and most, including the dumbasses on this site, projected a disastrous year zero. On paper, the program lacked numbers - just 67 players on the roster, and frontline players to compete in the CUSA.

That first offseason Littrell and his staff turned over rocks and beat the bushes to find transfers, walk-ons, and diamonds in the rough. The result was an improbable bowl run. Detractors pointed to win/loss record, and the APR assisted postseason trip as cause to tap the breaks on optimism. 

A year later, Littrell's squad shocked the league, beating Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, pulling off a miracle win over UTSA, and edging out UAB and Army. Nine wins, a CUSA West Crown, and a second straight bowl trip legitimized the Mean Green. The trajectory continues in 2018. 

North Texas, in their program's history, has never won ten games. They've won nine games six times, including last season, but that tenth win is elusive. If North Texas' offense is as potent as we think it could be and the defense makes a marginal improvement, the Mean Green might break the ten win ceiling.

Guyton.png

We've written lots of nice things about Mason Fine. The undersized, under-recruited, quarterback from Locust Grove, Oklahoma, arrived as an elite passer last season. This season he could push some of the great air raid quarterback's numbers and further the school marks he's already posted. 

Fine more than doubled his passing yards in his second year starting, setting a school record and raised his completion percentage into above-average territory. More significant for the Mean Green was the improvement Fine displayed on deep balls, forcing defenses to defend the entire field. He raised his yards per attempt by nearly two full yards and his yards per game by over 100. He threw 25 more touchdown passes, setting a school record.  The conference named the short kids no one ever heard of the Offensive Player of the Year. 

Expect bigger and better from Fine in 2018. 

Quinn Shanbour returns as Fine's backup. In limited duty, he seemed up to the task, and the system is nothing if not quarterback friendly. Cade Pearson performed well in the spring game, but safe to say; North Texas would prefer to not experience life without Fine. 

The most significant void on offense comes at running back where Jeffery Wilson moved on to the NFL. Wilson ran for over 1,200 yards at 6.5 yards per carry. For three seasons Wilson was the bell cow, leaving Denton with 3,205 career rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. It's not all bad news, the position might be as deep as it's been in some time, but replacing the loss of production is still a question. 

Nic Smith gets the first crack at carrying the load. He rushed for almost 700 yards last season including a 178-yard evening at Rice. DeAndre Torrey arrived from the JUCO ranks to give the Mean Green a viable second option. He's a one-cut back, suited for the North Texas offense. If there's a ding on the Smith/Torrey combo, it's that neither a particularly imposing. Torrey stands just 5-7 which allows him to hide and find creases, but he's not a thumper. Neither is Smith. 

The Mean Green receiving corps is the envy of a lot of Power 5s. Jalen Guyton is a legitimate star. The Notre Dame transfer caught 49 passes for nine touchdowns and a fifteen yard average per catch. He transitions beautifully from receiver to runner once he has the ball and he's a sharp route runner, fighting for 50/50 chances and clearing space. Guyton, arguably, isn't even the best receiver on the roster. 

 Rico Bussey Jr. ( Jonathan Bachman Getty Images)

Rico Bussey Jr. (Jonathan Bachman Getty Images)

That designation may go to Michael Lawrence; the former walk-on from Sweetwater, led the Mean Green with 62 catches. He reminds you of so many of those Texas Tech slots that no one recruited, but no one could cover. He's too quick to label as a possession receiver, but he's also a great security blanket for Fine. 

After Guyton and Lawrence, you might forget about Rico Bussey Jr. who quietly caught 47 passes, if you can do that quietly. If you lose track of Bussey, you'll wind up chasing him. Jaelon Darden put together a tremendous true freshman season with 32 catches and three scores out of Aldine Ike.

Two pass catchers might be set up to break into the rotation as well. Kansas transfer Keegan Brewer seems like a guy that's going to catch a ton of balls. The Lake Dallas alum caught fifteen passes as a true freshman in the teeth of the Big 12. Redshirt freshman Greg White from Riverdale, Georgia, at 6-3 has the length to create chances and if he can get stronger running his routes, could be another nice option. 

Kelvin Smith and Caleb Chumley are steady if underused at tight end. Smith's athleticism combined with his size makes him tough to handle.

The x-factor for the Mean Green offense will be the development and cohesion of the offensive line. Last season in two against FAU and Troy, all loses, North Texas allowed fifteen sacks including nine to FAU in the CUSA title game. Just know CUSA defensive coordinators have gone to school on those game films to work out how to slow the Mean Green down. The sacks were one issue, but the hits Fine took are a problem as well. If Fine can stay upright, most teams won't be able to deal with the Mean Green offense. 

North Texas' is better inside, with Sosaia Mose back at center after ten starts in 2018. His brother Manase Mose will move into the right guard position, replacing T.J. Henson. Junior College transfer Thomas Preston slotted immediately at left guard. 

The Mean Green moved mammoth former tackle Jordan Murray to guard this spring. He'll provide depth, but could move back out to tackle if a few pieces don't come together. Murray is a two-year starter. Creighton Barr adds depth, experience, and flexibility to the interior. 

Tackle is the spot to watch as North Texas may be forced to restructure completely. 

Elex Woodworth moves from guard to tackle. The Junior from Mesquite is a better athletic option on the edge, and he's played outside before, starting seven games in 2016 before moving inside while Murray remained at tackle. The bigger question is the status of Riley Mayfield, a fourteen game starter at right tackle who petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. 

If Mayfield can't get back on the field, redshirt Jacob Brammer is the top choice. Redshirt sophomore Chandler Anthony can provide depth at tackle, but ideally, the Mean Green staff would hear on the status of Mayfield sooner than later. 

This might be a good time to mention that it's a good bet to trust in Littrell and his staff's evaluation processes. They've consistently found players who weren't highly regarded by the accepted recruiting services, and they've hit on a fair amount of those guys. If they're making the rather extreme move to remake their offensive line by shuffling the deck, the staff's track record is pretty good. 

Ejiya.png

Troy Reffett's 2017 defense was worse than Rice's 2017 defense. They were almost as bad as UTEP's. Those two team combined for one win and their defenses were the rusty screen doors of CUSA.  Reffett knows how to run a defense, his units at ULM and New Mexico were consistently in the top 50 in total defense, including a Warhawk defense that finished 22nd. If you count 2017 as a regression then you have to hope that 2018 is a bounce back for the Mean Green stoppers. 

 Roderick Young ( Rick Yeatts )

Roderick Young (Rick Yeatts)

The bounce back should start up front where Roderick Young moves back outside to end, hopefully, to stay. In the 3-3-5, you're trying to get as many athletes on the field to attack from different angles, but you also have to commit assets to stuff the run. Run properly it's a spread killer, when the personnel don't fit, you can't stop the run and your secondary is exposed. Young is a big, strong, run thumper and a better athlete than you might think on first inspection. He's got great get off and the he can rag-doll lineman. 

The down three in a 3-3-5 or stack alignment are drilled in reading on the run, attacking with a purpose and discipline, and react to pressure or movement with pressure. They aren't catching and reading; they're attacking a gap. 

Ladarius Hamilton returns at the other end position after starting eight games last season. The Mean Green lose most of their depth along with starter Andy Flusche, who'll they'll miss, but to what extent depends on how the interior develops in Young's absence. 

Inside T.J. Tauaalo will be back at nose or tackle. He'll play a lot of zero technique and will need to create penetration through the center. He's bulked up from 287 to 300 pounds for his senior year. Dayton LeBlanc is penciled in to back up Tauaalo, and we'll have to see whether he can hold up in his first year in the college trenches. 

Bryce English is the wild card. The former DeSoto star and Kansas State transfer missed last season recovering from foot surgery and sat out 2016 after transferring. English, if healthy, is tailor-made to play inside and shoot gaps in Reffett's offense, but at this point, you can't count on him to play extensively, if at all, given his injury history.  

Tuulau Saafi is a JUCO transfer from Mount SAC by way of Euless Trinity. He's a space eater as well. Caleb Colvin was a late add to the 2018 class out of a JC in Oklahoma. He played last season after recovering from a traumatic, almost career-ending knee injury suffered in high school. He looks to be back to 100%, and his athleticism is impressive. 

Linebacker might be the area most set as far as front line talent goes. E.J. Ejiya is a tackling machine who excelled after settling into the MIKE position last year. He's an every down backer. Littrell and Reffett found him out of the North Dakota State College of Science. A hotbed for linebacking talent. 

Brandon Garner will flank him at the WILL position, his success and Ejiya's depends in large part on whether the big bodies protect them up front. If you're going to play linebacker in this system, you'd better be a runner and when you're done, keep running. That's why Ejiya excels. 

Joe Ozougwu will slide into the rush or JACK backer, a spot held down by Joshua Wheeler and Ejiya last season before he moved inside. Ozougwu, out of Alief Taylor, has all the athletic traits and if he gets his technique up to part, he could cause problems.

JC transfer and former Purdue linebacker Tim Faison, if he qualifies, will be an asset as well and should force his way into the playing time. He plants people. If you watch his Independence JC highlights at the 1:06 mark he puts a de-cleats a guy, ass over tea kettle. You'll fall in love. 


The secondary has talent but finding the right mix might be an issue. Kemon Hall and Nate Brooks return at corner, Hall came out of nowhere to get on the field last season at a position of strength for the Mean Green. Brooks is a ballhawk ready for his last ride after a nice career after a less than stellar 2017.

At nickel, Ashton Preston made ten starts last year, but he's been pushed by Tyreke Davis. Davis has made it hard for coaches to go with Preston and either way, it's a position with solid depth. Cam Johnson saw live action at corner as well as a freshman. 

Khairi Muhammad is back at safety after a very productive 2017 season with 94 tackles. His play will help augment the loss of the excellent Kishawn McClain. At free safety, McClain's old stomping grounds, Taylor Robinson is the player with the most experience but Tre Siggers; a converted running back is rocketing up the depth chart. Again, competition and depth are a great thing, especially two years removed from the Mean Green hoping for enough warm bodies. 

Specialists

The Mean Green must replace one of the most consistent kickers in college football with the loss of Trevor Moore. Cole Hedlund transferred in from Arkansas, as a high school kicker at Argyle, most considered him one of the better players at his position. Hedlund performed well in 2016 for the Razorbacks but missed both of his attempts last season before being replaced. 

Blake Patterson averaged 41 yards per punt with a long of 56 as a redshirt freshman. 

Lawrence.png

Mason Fine - Quarterback

You'd be hard pressed to find a quarterback who logged as much improvement as Fine did in 2017. This offense is officially his. 

Jalen Guyton - Receiver

Players like Guyton don't end up at North Texas often, but the Allen product transferred home after heading to Notre Dame. He's a home run threat. 

Michael Lawrence - Receiver

Lawrence is the most consistent of the Mean Green pass catchers. His intelligence and hands make him a constant threat. 

Rico Bussey Jr. - Receiver

Bussey gets overshadowed by isn't out-produced. He excelled when given a bigger chunk of playing time last season. 

Roderick Young - Defensive Line

Young is versatile and explosive and with his move outside, he's a matchup nightmare. 

E.J. Ejiya - Linebacker

The ball of energy from the hotbed of Minnesota is back after 109 stops last season. 

Kemon Hall - Cornerback

Hall blew up after transferring in from the JC ranks. He's a rarity, a corner who isn't afraid to stick his nose in. 

Khairi Muhammad -Safety

Muhammad is the definition of a great box safety. He's ready to build on an excellent 2017 season. 

The Schedule

North Texas Schedule.png

Best Case: The line comes together and gives Fine time to drop dimes, and a running game emerges from Jeffery Wilson's shadow. No reason the Mean Green can't beat SMU or UAB. 10-2.

Worst Case: The depth issues at certain positions catch up, opponents take notes on the FAU/Troy games, and Fine is running for his life. 7-5.

Closing Statement:

The reality is that Littrell is proving too good to stay off the coaching carousel. With opening likely at Tech, Kansas, and maybe even Oklahoma State, the Mean Green might be victims of their own success. 

If they are, Wren Baker has shown the ability to make solid hires in other sports and, more importantly, Littrell has dug the football program out of the pit that it was in back in 2015. With a new indoor facility on the way and Baker's ability to get cranes on campus, the future is bright, and North Texas is a place young coaches will find attractive. But let's not bum everyone out, thinking about Littrell renting a U-Haul, the 2018 season has the chance to be one of the best in school history. If you get another year with Littrell, that's house money. 

The Roundup...