It’s hard not to look at the University of North Texas football program, north of the DFW Metroplex in Denton, and think about the potential. Even taking out the kinds of recruits that won’t consider a G5 school, there’s an absurd amount of Division 1 talent within an hour drive basically any direction UNT wants to go.
But you must square UNT’s prime real estate and potential with their lack of any ability to sustain football success. Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell’s 23 wins since taking over in 2016 are the most the program has had in a 3-year stretch since 2002-04.
Given the unprecedented level of success Littrell has achieved, its somewhat surprising he is still in Denton and not at a power conference school. Apparently, Kansas State was close to naming Littrell their head coach. But after being told he wouldn’t have full control over his staff he took his name out of consideration and remained at UNT.
One of my pet peeves is when college football writers descend upon any promising Group of 5 coach and insist that (INSERT NAME OF P5 SCHOOL) would be the perfect landing place for that coach. I am mildly surprised Texas Tech and North Carolina didn’t even give Littrell a cursory look, though.
The Mean Green team he returns to is a good one that won’t struggle scoring points, albeit one that is unproven in some key areas.
The Mean Green Offense:
Littrell’s entire coaching background is on the offensive side of the ball and one of his first hires was former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell to be offensive coordinator. Given his background in the Air Raid offense, it’s not surprising Harrell eventually got the Mean Green throwing for lots of yards and scoring points.
While UNT kept Littrell, Harrell was hired to the same job at USC after somehow Kliff Kingsbury got an NFL head coaching job. The new OC Bodie Reeder on paper looks like a good replacement. Reeder is only 32 and coached as an offensive QC assistant at Oklahoma State before taking the OC job at Eastern Washington for 2017-18. The 2018 EWU offense averaged 43.1 points per game, over 250 yards/game both rushing and passing, and the team went to the Division 1 FCS championship game.
In a period truly saturated with cutesy names for offenses, Reeder just calls what he does “winning offense”. It’s delightfully simple, if a bit reductive. Last year when he had a healthy 5th year senior QB (Gage Gubrud, now of Washington State) Reeder went pass-first and in those games EWU averaged 283 pass yards/game. Once he lost that starting QB to injury he transitioned the offense to one that was more run-heavy and they didn’t skip a beat, ultimately losing to North Dakota State in the FCS Championship game.
Despite coming from tiny Locust Grove, Oklahoma (population: 1,423) senior QB Mason Fine has spent almost his entire collegiate career as the Mean Green’s starter. Coming into his final season, Fine has thrown for 9,417 career yards and 64 passing TDs. He also holds school records in: completions, pass attempts, passer efficiency and several other categories.
The big step Fine took last season was dramatically reducing his interceptions, going from 15 in 2017 to only 5 last year, while still throwing for 3,793 yards and 27 pass TDs. You’d have to think the new offense will still be pass-first with a talent like Fine, but how it will look exactly is still a question to be answered.
Most teams would be in trouble if they lost a QB of Fine’s caliber, but I was surprised to see that every other QB on the UNT roster is a freshman. Its worth noting that Fine missed most of last year’s New Mexico Bowl and the Mean Green were clobbered by Utah State 52-13.
The new offense may utilize an experienced and talented group of running backs more than the last offense. Despite averaging almost double the number of passing yards as rushing yards, the Mean Green used their rushing attack effectively in the red zone, with nearly as many rush TDs (25) as pass TDs (28).
Last year’s top rusher: junior DeAndre Torrey, a 5 foot 7 'bowling ball', returns after a good first year at the Division 1 level. Torrey led the Mean Green with 977 rush yards and 15 rush TDs. He was also named 2nd team All-CUSA. The rushing attack may have been even better, but they lost senior Loren Easly to a torn ACL 4 games into the 2018 season. Easly was on pace to top 1,000 yards comfortably before the injury and this is his 3rd torn ACL since high school.
Some more good news for Mean Green fans is the return of senior Rico Bussey Jr. who was a 1st team All-CUSA selection and led the team in receptions (68), receiving TDs (12) and receiving yards (1,017). Bussey did all of this despite missing most of the last 2 games injured. What caught my eye was Bussey caught just under 64% of his targets, a good percentage considering his heavy usage.
The 2 top slot receivers from last year return: senior Michael Lawrence and junior Jaelon Darden. Lawrence led the Mean Green in receptions 2 years ago and Darden had an outstanding 79% catch rate last year. They also return last year’s starting tight end and a team captain: senior Kelvin Smith (29 receptions, 1 TD).
One of the few questions with this offense will be who slots in at the Z receiver spot on the outside, opposite of Bussey. Last year’s Z, Jalen Guyton, was 2nd in basically every team receiving category and declared early for the NFL draft. The names I’ve seen most frequently mentioned out of spring practice to take this position are sophomore Greg White and redshirt freshman Jyaire Shorter.
There are also some unknowns with the Mean Green’s offensive line, but 3 of last year’s 5 regular starting offensive linemen and 1 part time starter return.
Both of last year’s linemen who earned All-CUSA honors on the O line return: senior center Sosaia Mose and sophomore right guard Manase Mose. As you can probably guess, the 2 are brothers and both prepped at Trinity HS in nearby Euless.
The other returning starter is senior left guard Elex Woodworth, who comes into the year with 34 career starts and was named Honorable Mention All-CUSA honors in 2017. The only other returnee with more than a game of starting experience is sophomore Jacob Brammer, who started 4 games at left tackle last year.
This coaching staff clearly identified the need for immediately help up front and brought in D’Andre Plantin, a grad transfer from Virginia Tech who was in Denton for spring practices. Plantin was a career backup at VT but should start at one of the tackle spots.
The Mean Green Defense:
It’s easy to focus on what a dynamic passing attack the Mean Green have had lately and overlook the fact that a massive defensive improvement in 2018 was a huge contributing factor. Last year’s defense shaved almost 11 points/game off their scoring average and were top 10 nationally in stuff rate and completion % allowed.
They’re coordinated by veteran G5 DC (previous stops at UTEP, ULM, New Mexico) Troy Reffett who runs a defense with a base 3-3-5 stack alignment. They attacked relentlessly and that sometimes resulted in giving up big plays, but on the balance were a good defense last year.
Here’s the bad news for Mean Green fans: 3 of the 4 players who earned 1st or 2nd team All-CUSA honors on this defense have graduated. The lone returnee is senior LaDarius Hamilton who had 7.5 sacks last year and hasn’t missed a game (starting most of them) since he arrived in Denton. Hamilton was a 1st team All-CUSA selection last year and will certainly be on the shortlist of CUSA preseason defensive player of the year candidates.
The next most experienced returning lineman is junior Dion Novil who had 34 total tackles, 7 TFLs and 1 of the team’s 2 blocked kicks last year. Novil will probably start opposite of Hamilton.
Figuring out the interior is going to be tougher, as they graduated every game starter at nose tackle: Ulaiasi Tauaalo. The most experienced interior lineman is last year’s back up nose senior Bryce English. Incredibly, English didn’t get on the field from 2015-17 due to redshirting at Kansas State, sitting out a transfer year and then missing 2017 with an injury.
The top 2 linebackers from last year (also the team’s top 2 tacklers) have graduated. Those 2 players alone represented 15.5 of the Mean Green’s 34 team sacks and 43 of their 97 TFLs. The most experienced returning linebacker is junior Joe Ozougwu, a Houston area product. Ozougwu made 5 starts at the ‘Jack’ linebacker position last year and had 7 TFLs and 2.5 sacks.
One of the player’s Ozougwu split time with at ‘Jack’ last year was senior Jamie King, who interestingly started his college career as a QB at Grambling. King played in all 13 games last year and had 36 total tackles and 4.5 TFLs.
In what’s been a theme of this preview, the Mean Green secondary returns some players with significant experience. But they graduated both of their starting cornerbacks, 2 players who represented 11 of their 18 team interceptions last year and 24 of their 49 pass breakups.
The situation was critical enough they brought in Nick Harvey who had 13 career starts at Texas A&M before transferring to South Carolina and then missing most of his lone eligible year there with post concussion symptoms. Harvey, if healthy, should take one of the starting cornerback jobs. They also signed a Juco CB: Quinn Whitlock from Copiah-Lincoln CC.
Another Houston area product, junior Cam Johnson, is the most experienced returning cornerback. Johnson had 26 total tackles last year, appeared in all 13 games and started against UTEP. Sophomore Jordan Roberts is another cornerback who could be asked to fill a bigger role in 2019.
On the flip side, all 3 regular starters at safety last year return. The most disruptive player who returns is senior Khairi Muhammad who had 4 interceptions last year (best among returners) and 67 total tackles (also, best among returners).
The other returners are senior Taylor Robinson and junior Tyreke Davis. Robinson had 58 total tackles and 2 interceptions in 12 starts and Davis had 50 total tackles and an interception in 10 starts at Nickel.
The Mean Green Special Teams:
Before I go any further, you absolutely must watch this incredible punt return fake out UNT did last year for a touchdown as part of a beat down of Arkansas.
They lose one of the country’s best kickers last year: Cole Hedlund, who was a remarkable 19 of 22 on field goal attempts. Sophomore Ethan Mooney was the Mean Green’s primary kickoff specialist last year, which I guess makes him the favorite over fellow sophomore Zach Williams.
The owner of maybe the sweetest mullet in this preview series returns, senior Alvin Kenworthy the Mean Green’s primary punter. Kenworthy had a healthy 42.3 punt average/38.2 net to go along with 26 punts fair caught and 26 downed inside the opponents’ 20 yard line, which earned him Honorable Mention All-CUSA honors.
Last year’s top kick returner in both returns and average: DeAndre Torrey, returns. Torrey averaged 27.5 yards per return and had the Mean Green’s lone kick return TD last year. It’s a little less certain at punt returner, but Jaelon Darden led the team in yards per return with a 12.4 yard average in 5 returns.
Finally, the Mean Green return their primary long snapper: junior Nate Durham, who appeared in all 13 games last year. According to Pro Football Focus Durham had a snap accuracy of 93.3 on his 60 punt snaps and 97.4 on his 77 extra point/field goals. I only have a vague idea of what those stats mean, but it sounds good!
The Season Outlook:
You are what your record says, though if you look back at last year the Mean Green were at least somewhat 'glitchy' en route to their 9-4 final record. They had to cling on for dear life to beat a 1-11 UTEP team 27-24 in El Paso and were only up 20-17 at home vs Rice after 3 quarters in what ended up being a deceptive 41-17 win. 3 of their 9 wins last year were by only 3 points.
The non-conference schedule is also tougher this year with away games at Cal and SMU, plus hosting Houston. UNT could be just as good (or better) than last year and realistically be 1-3 in their non-conference games. But 3-1 is also possible given that SMU and Houston each are far from proven commodities in the preseason.
Also, the CUSA schedule sends UNT on the road to LA Tech and Southern Miss, who are usually tough on the road. If they can win one of those 2 road games, then Mean Green fan should feel good about their chances to get back to the CUSA title game.
Getting a tougher non-conference schedule with a new offensive scheme and a defense that’s trying to replace 5 all-conference caliber starters is keeping me from being too bullish on the Mean Green. They’ll be one of the best 3-4 CUSA teams, but I have a hard time seeing them improve upon what they did in 2018.
Matching Up with Houston:
Naturally I am concerned about what will still be a pretty inexperienced Cougar secondary going against a good passer like Mason Fine with most of his receiving corps back. By the same token though, I feel pretty confident D’Eriq King won’t have a problem throwing for plenty of yards against the inexperienced Mean Green corners.
I don’t feel like I am making too bold of a prediction in saying that this game will be the best match-up of sub-6 feet tall quarterbacks in college football this year.
The difference in this one, besides the obvious stuff (which team makes fewer mistakes, turnovers etc) I think will be which team is able to use the run game more effectively as a break from the pass. Tendency-wise I imagine both teams will be ‘pass-first’ by any definition, but I think this will be close and if either of these teams gets too one-dimensional I think that’ll be their downfall.
Getting away from the quantifiable, this will be a game UNT’s players are fired up to play. The chance to play Houston, believe it or not, is something quite meaningful for these Mean Green players. There’s no question they’ll come into this one highly motivated.
Now the question is: whether or not that hypothetical motivation and a big crowd in Denton will be enough to will the Mean Green to a statement win to close non-conference play?