NOTE: This preview sat collecting dust on the digital bookshelf of my laptop while I stewed over whether publishing season previews served any purpose. I’ve realized this preview does less than diddly to swing the outcome of a college football season happening and we could all do with the joy of hoping for a 2020 season, so here’s an exhaustive look at the North Texas football team.
Oh, and please wear a mask!
A guide to good writing practices would probably tell you to avoid clichés whenever possible. This is doubly true in sports writing, a sub genre where it is even more difficult to not constantly intersect with a number of clichés.
Yet, the entire time I researched and wrote this preview I couldn’t stop think about the ‘window of opportunity’ and how it relates to UNT Mean Green football.
On a macro and micro levels, the 2020 season will answer a lot of questions about that figurative window when it comes to this program.
Big Picture Outlook:
I am of two minds when it comes to Group of 5 college football coaches who get an opportunity to coach at a school in a Power 5 conference.
On one hand I am a fan of a school that's been on the wrong side of getting a coach poached by a more resource rich program. But another part of me understands the desire to advance towards the zenith of one’s profession, make more money and in lots of cases take a dream job. In nearly all cases these opportunities come with a limited window of time, too. Just because you’re the hot name one year doesn’t mean you'll stay it for long.
A great example I became aware of (thanks to ESPN's Bill Connelly) is Gary Darnell. For most of his career, Darnell was a defensive assistant and coached at some big names: Florida, Notre Dame and a couple of regional Texas colleges located in Austin/College Station.
But Darnell was also a head coach at Western Michigan and in 1999-00 took the Broncos to back-to-back MAC championship games. After the 2000 season Darnell had ample interest from bigger schools but elected to sign an extension and stay at WMU. Darnell didn’t finish another year with a winning record and was fired after the 2004 season. It was also the last head coaching opportunity Darnell received.
It seemed for everything that after an impressive 3-year run from 2016-18 that UNT head coach Seth Littrell was destined for a Power 5 job and apparently Littrell was deep into negotiations with Kansas State. Ultimately, K-State and Littrell couldn’t come to an agreement on who had final say on the rest of the coaching staff’s makeup and he elected to return to UNT.
Last year’s UNT team did lose a lot of defensive experience from 2018, but returned 4-year starting QB Mason Fine, most of the offense and some interesting playmakers on defense. I did notice in researching last year’s preview that in 2018 UNT had a number of close wins or comeback wins.
That close game luck swung hard against the Mean Green last year, as they lost 4 games by 6 points or fewer and went 1-4 in all of their one-possession games.
Beyond being unlucky, Fine didn’t look like his vintage self in a new offense (previous OC Graham Harrell had moved on to USC) and even with an experienced secondary, the Mean Green defense took a big step backwards.
Fine is now gone, along with several key contributors on both sides of the ball and Littrell made changes at both offensive and defensive coordinator. I don’t want to bet against Littrell as a coach, but nearly all the key indicators go against UNT having a bounce back year in 2020.
So much of Mean Green football’s recent identity is tied to now-graduated quarterback Mason Fine.
I’m not interested in doing a deep comparison of careers, but I see a lot of parallels between Fine’s career and Case Keenum. Both were very under the radar coming out of high school and became the face of their programs while breaking tons of passing records.
The two quarterbacks’ careers diverge in their final season. Whereas Keenum had his best season in his (second) senior year, a combination of injuries and scheme change contributed to a somewhat disappointing 2019 season for Fine.
To be clear, Fine’s play is low on the list of reasons why the Mean Green backslid last year. But you can’t ignore that in most of the key metrics he had his worst year since he was a freshman.
For Mean Green fans used to prolific offense most of the previous couple seasons, a season-ending 3 game losing streak where the offense failed to break 21 points in any game had to be a gut punch to end a frustrating year.
Last year’s offensive coordinator: Bodie Reeder, took the same job at Utah State and Littrell brought in Mike Bloesch from Tulsa to be the co-OC, along with returning wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord. Cougar fans may remember Bloesch as a 3-year starter on the UH offensive line and member of the 2006 Conference USA championship team.
Even though Mainord and Bloesch have OC in their titles, this move is clearly Littrell taking back control of the offense and perhaps tapping into his own experience as a well-regarded OC.
Before he took the UNT job, Littrell held OC titles at North Carolina (2014-15), Indiana (2012-13) and Arizona (2010-11). Littrell played and coached under Mike Leach, so there’s the Air Raid influence but his best offenses at Indiana and UNC featured great rushing attacks.
In Littrell’s last year at UNC, the Tar Heels averaged 40.7 points/game and averaged 262 pass yards and 224 rush yards per game as the team went 11-3 and won their division of the ACC. Larry Fedora’s fortunes as a head coach took a nosedive after Littrell left UNC for Denton.
Even though UNT has been recruiting well during their recent renaissance, I have a lot of questions about this Mean Green offense that don’t have clear answers. It’s not a surprise then that this group is 114th in the country in returning production.
Fine wasn’t the only big contributor that departs, but in his place he leaves a wide open quarterback battle that didn’t get a typical set of spring practices to start resolving it.
On paper, the top 2 candidates are sophomores Austin Aune and Jason Bean.
Bean was the #2 QB behind Fine last year and completed 22-35 passes for 176 yards in 7 games worth of action last year. Aune was a one-time 2nd round draft pick of the New York Yankees and signed with TCU in 2012, before electing to play pro baseball instead and saw action in 2 games last year.
There’s also Kason Martin, the one-time successor to D’Eriq King at Manvel High, who appeared in 2 games in 2018 but none last year.
I could see any of the 3 QBs I just mentioned or even possibly redshirt freshman Will Kuehne win the starting job, but if I had to guess it’ll be Bean starting at TDECU Stadium for the Mean Green.
Whoever wins the starting QB will have an experienced running back group to lean on as they learn on the job.
Behind a shaky offensive line, junior Tre Siggers put up strong numbers and despite missing 2 games led the Mean Green in rush yards (853) and rush TDs (6). Senior DeAndre Torrey, the #2 back behind Siggers, finished with 380 rush yards and 5.2 yards/carry. Torrey did finish the 2018 season with 15 rush TDs and 200 total touches, so he could be due for a bounce back.
If Siggers and Torrey are able to be more of a focal point to this offense and allow Littrell and the offensive brain trust to take pressure off of the new QB, then this offense could actually improve off of last year.
The as-yet unknown new UNT quarterback will also have an incredibly valuable weapon at his disposal in the pass game: senior slot receiver Jaelon Darden. On such a young offense, Darden’s 156 career receptions and team-high 12 receiving TDs last year are beyond invaluable.
If Darden is the undersized, consistent ‘move the sticks’ kind of receiver, sophomore Jyaire Shorter is this offense’s big, supremely athletic ‘home run hitter’. Shorter led the Mean Green by a wide margin with his 19.3 yards/reception and had 9 TD receptions in 24 total catches, an absurd ratio. He’ll need to be involved in the offense a lot more for this team to succeed, but there’s little to criticize from his first season on the field.
And Shorter isn’t the only bigger receiver who could have a breakout 2020, as junior Greg White and sophomore Deonte Simpson are both 6 foot plus receivers who saw extensive action in 2020.
Including senior tight end Jason Pirtle and DeAndre Torrey, the Mean Green return 6 of the team’s top 7 receptions leaders from 2019.
What keeps me from being more bullish on the Mean Green offense, despite a wealth of returning talent at back and receiver, is the offensive line.
The line struggled badly last year giving Fine enough time to find open receivers and couldn’t create the kind of rushing attack that’d take pressure off Fine. And this group returns a grand total of 2 players with starting experience: juniors Manase Mose and Jacob Brammer.
Mose has started every game of the last 2 seasons at right guard and Brammer has started at both tackle spots in a combined 13 career starts. But that still leaves 3 spots on the line (barring a late grad transfer joining UNT) to be manned by a Division 1 newcomer.
Junior Brian Parrish and sophomore Cole Brown are both listed offensive linemen that appeared in all 12 games last year and should be among the favorites to grab one of those spots.
The same way that the UNT quarterback battle has been hampered by the Coronavirus pandemic, the job of figuring out who will be the starting offensive line has now become exponentially more difficult.
Even with more involvement from a good offensive mind like Littrell and numerous intriguing returners in the skill group, I have a hard time projecting too much optimism.
Just trying to figure the quarterback position or offensive line is difficult enough, and the Mean Green are trying to figure out both in the mother of all atypical off seasons.
Its rarely ever one problem that causes a team to backslide 5 wins, like the Mean Green did last season. While its true that the Mean Green offense failed to live up to expectations with a senior QB and veteran supporting cast, their defensive counterparts hardly had a season to remember.
The Mean Green defense allowed 32.5 points/game, a poor number devoid of context and certainly worse when considering that only 2 of the 11 FBS opponents on the schedule (SMU, LA Tech) could be called an above average offense.
If you want something a little more advanced metric-y, the Mean Green were 91st in Team Defensive SP+. This wasn’t a dramatic drop off from 2018 when they were 78th in the country, but even a little defensive regression can cost you close games.
Littrell was clearly concerned enough about the drop off to replace previous defensive coordinator Troy Reffett with longtime Kansas defensive assistant Clint Bowen.
Its hard to judge what Bowen could be at UNT because in nearly 30 years of coaching he only has 2 years of experience not coaching in the KU football program. Funny enough, one of those years was when he served as UNT’s defensive coordinator in 2011 under then-first year head coach Dan McCarney.
Bowen would return to KU as a defensive assistant in 2012 and stayed on under 3 head coaches, including serving last season as Safeties coach under Les Miles, after serving as the Jayhawks’ DC (and briefly interim HC) the previous 5 seasons.
I wasn’t legal drinking age the last time Kansas played anything close to good football, but Bowen was on the Jayhawk staff in the glory days of Mark Mangino and has coached a surprisingly high number of former and current pros. Neither of Bowen’s non-Kansas defenses (2011 UNT and 2010 WKU) were that good, but those were places where he was at the beginning of a rebuilding cycle.
Any improvement will have to start up front. Stopping the run was a struggle last year, as the Mean Green allowed 5 opponents (including UH) to rush for over 200 yards and finished allowing 188.6 opponent rush yards/game.
The biggest loss will be last year’s team sack leader: LaDarius Hamilton, who graduated and will be going to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys.
Senior Dion Novil will be one of the more accomplished interior linemen the Cougars face in 2020. Novil is listed at 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds and was 2nd on the team with 13 tackles for loss, to go along with 61 total tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Alongside Novil in the interior should be sophomore Dayton LeBlanc, who had 30 total tackles in 12 games and was named to the CUSA All-Freshman team.
These are 2 good players to build around, but those are also the only 2 defensive linemen on this roster to have seen extensive game action. Senior Caleb Colvin, who appeared in 11 games last year, will probably get the first crack at replacing Hamilton as the team’s best pass rusher.
It’s a little bit more an unknown what you’ll get out of mid-semester enrollees in this incredibly unusual offseason, but Juco transfer Davontae McCrae is a winter enrollee to watch. McCrae played at JC power East Mississippi Community College and was a top 50 overall JC prospect according to ESPN and rivals. Not coincidentally he’ll be wearing Hamilton’s #2 jersey this fall.
For any of the question marks up front, the Mean Green bring back an enviable amount of experience in their linebacker group.
The team’s top 2 tacklers: junior KD Davis (88 total tackles, 7 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) and senior Tyreke Davis (80 total tackles, 14 TFLs, 4.5 sacks) are both back, along with senior Joe Ozougwu who started 9 of the 10 games he appeared in last season.
One name for the future might be sophomore Kevin Wood, who appeared in all 12 games last year and was named to the CUSA All-Freshman team.
The questions return when it comes to the defensive backfield, where the Mean Green lose starters Khairi Muhammad, Taylor Robinson and Nick Harvey. Rotation defensive back Jameel Moore also graduates.
Senior Cam Johnson started every game last year opposite of Harvey at cornerback and surprisingly leads all returning Mean Green defensive players in solo tackles (39). Johnson also leads all returners with 4 pass breakups.
The other returner with starting experience is Makyle Sanders, who started 7 of the 10 games he appeared in last season. Junior Alex Morris played in all 12 games last season and was someone the staff liked enough to not redshirt his first 2 years on campus.
What should worry UNT fans is that this wasn’t a good defense in 2019 and now has even more questions to answer in 2020 than they did the year before.
I like Novil and the Davises and you could do a lot worse than building around that trio. The problem is there aren’t many other Mean Green defensive players who are proven commodities at the Division 1 level.
You can be inexperienced in the secondary if you have an experienced front seven that can create negative plays and pressure, but there are so many questions for this team to answer up front as well. This is a defense that’s 108th in returning experience and that’s not a recipe for success, usually.
Also, the lack of a normal offseason for the new DC Bowen to come in and implement his scheme has to be considered here as well.
It feels like a victory here would be UNT showing some signs of life with the new scheme and not doing any worse than they did in 2019 (e.g. a lot of UH fans’ expectations for the 2019 UH defense).
I always like to bring up any firsts wherever I can in these previews, and the Mean Green’s returning placekicker: junior Ethan Mooney, is the first player I’ve written about with iconic ‘zero’ jersey number. This isn’t because nobody before Mooney had ever thought to do this, but is now allowed thanks to a 2020 NCAA rule change.
Back to the gridiron, Mooney made 16 of 20 field goals last season including an impressive 12 of 13 inside 40 yards.
Gone is last year’s starting punter Alvin Kenworthy (and his sweet mullet) and in his place is junior Bernardo Rodriguez, who started his college career at Kansas State.
The specialists will be aided by the return of senior Nate Durham, who will be entering his 3rd year as the team’s primary deep snapper.
Senior Deion Hair-Griffin hasn’t ever gotten into the regular rotation at receiver, but he posted an astonishing 40.8 yards/return average on kick returns last year and had the team’s only kick return TD. DeAndre Torrey also returns after being last year’s highest use kick returner.
Jaelon Darden also should be the primary punt returner after accounting for 16 of the team’s 19 punt returns last season.
For any of the team’s other ups and downs Mean Green special teams have been quite good the last 2 seasons and I expect it’ll be 3 good seasons in a row for this group.
Matching Up With the Coogs:
If you can think back to about 9 months ago, the UNT game was the first one after the big announcement that D’Eriq King and other key seniors would not be returning.
That was a bright spot of a night in what was a slog of a season otherwise. And while I don’t want to use one game as too much of a basis for confidence, considering what a large percentage of this Cougar team was on the field last September its not a bad data point.
There are questions about the Cougar offensive line and Dana Holgorsen hasn’t been shy about saying that’s the most unproven position group on this offense.
But even on a night where 2 Cougar O linemen were making their first career starts and 2 of UH’s top 3 backs (Kyle Porter, Mulbah Car) weren’t available the Coogs still finished with 235 rush yards against the Mean Green.
Its not unreasonable to predict that against an even less experienced Mean Green defense that Car and Porter could repeat that performance. A lot will hinge on the ability of the interior linemen to keep Dion Novil out of the backfield and out of the running lanes.
When it comes to the Cougar passing game there’s still a lot of unknowns with Clayton Tune, but he’ll have proven options like Marquez Stevenson, Keith Corbin and Jeremy Singleton against a Mean Green secondary with just 2 returning starters.
This game against UNT and the one before it against Wazzu will be interesting tests as both teams have lots of questions to answer and the UH offense has its own questions after an inconsistent 2019. If the Cougar offense struggles on one or both of these weeks, its a bad omen for the rest of the season.
On the flip side, the Mean Green offense is far from a proven commodity but I think putting Littrell in a position where he has more control over the day-to-day is a good idea. He’s someone who’s proven he can call a game that scores points at the college level and he’s flexible in how he’ll go about it.
Of the candidates to start at QB, Jason Bean feels like the most likely to emerge as the starter whenever we have football again and Littrell could use his dual threat ability in the running game with returning backs Torrey and Siggers.
A fairly experienced Mean Green receiver group is going to test what will still be a Cougar secondary figuring out what to do with a lot of new faces. Jaelon Darden will move the chains and ‘get his’ in the way that every good college slot receiver is going to do.
What’s going to be the key to this match up is the Cougar secondary not letting Jyaire Shorter or any of the Mean Green’s other young, talented outside receivers get behind them.
Even if the numbers say that an offense with as little returning experience as the Mean Green shouldn’t improve, it wouldn’t shock me if Littrell’s increased involvement ends up being a net positive.
The Cougars should be a favorite at home against the Mean Green, just like they likely will be against Rice.
But just like that week 1 encounter with Rice, the Coogs would be wise not to underestimate their in-state foe in this one.