North Texas football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Mean Green, best players and season prediction.
Few FBS programs needed a fresh outlook and new leadership more than North Texas. The Mean Green hopes to have found its change agent in Seth Littrell.
North Texas located rock bottom in 2015, winning once in an end-to-end disaster marked by weekly blowout losses. It was a sudden implosion for the program that won nine games and the Heart of Dallas Bowl just two years earlier under then-third-year head coach Dan McCarney.
But McCarney couldn’t sustain his brief bout of prosperity, as the Mean Green reverted back to a familiar pattern of erratic offensive behavior, particularly behind center. Enter Littrell, the 37-year-old with a proven track record for supercharging offensive attacks and a familiarity with the territory from his days as an Oklahoma running back.
Littrell has a tough challenge ahead, as he looks to use Denton as a stepping stone back to a Power Five program at some point down the road. But it’s not an impossible challenge.
Yes, the Mean Green is stuck in a prolonged funk, with that 9-4 campaign in 2013 popping out as the school’s lone winning season of the last 11 years. And the 2015 collapse marked the first time since 1957 that North Texas failed to produce a first or second-team all-conference performer, so the new regime has inherited a rather bare cupboard.
But when your backyard is the DFW, your home building is only five years old and your new leader is an offensive innovator, the timetable for progress need not be three or four years. Give Littrell another recruiting class and more time to install his philosophies, and he could have North Texas flirting with .500 in 2017.
In 2016, though, the Mean Green will continue to struggle.
North Texas flat-out lacks the talent to compete at a high level, even in Conference USA’s weaker West half. Absolutely nothing went right a year ago, and the defense will once again be among the thinnest in the league. If the Mean Green surprises an opponent or two, it’ll likely be on the back of an offense returning its top playmaker, RB Jeffrey Wilson, and adding former Alabama QB Alec Morris to direct the revamped system.
The Mean Green bottomed out a year ago. It was painful for everyone who played—or rooted—for the program. However, it was also a cleansing of sorts that resulted in the hiring of a young coordinator with a high ceiling. Littrell needs time, and he’ll get it, but this is the kind of mess that could have a very different outlook in a couple of years.
What You Need to Know About the North Texas Offense
Seth Littrell is ushering in an offensive overhaul, and not a moment too soon. The first-year head coach has successfully installed high-powered, up-tempo attacks wherever he’s been, most recently at North Carolina. And while he’s a long way from Tobacco Road, both in terms of distance and talent pool, he’ll immediately impact the Mean Green in 2016. .
It’ll help having RB Jeffrey Wilson and Alabama transfer QB Alec Morris in the backfield. Morris figures to be major upgrade behind center, but how much will depend on the performance of his receivers and his offensive line. North Texas is extremely light on proven targets now that Carlos Harris and Marcus Smith have graduated, a problem for a system designed to spread the ball around. .
The O-line is the other glaring unknown in Denton. After struggling in 2015, the unit is banking on the emergence of backups and newcomers, like former Texas Tech RT Trey Keenan and RG T.J. Henson, a Trinity Valley (Tex.) Community College import.
Biggest Key To The Offense
APB for wide receivers. The first phase of Seth Littrell’s fast-paced spread offense was completed in the spring to mixed receivers. Among the concerns heading into the summer is who’ll be on the receiving end of Alec Morris’ passes. The Mean Green needs an emergence of capable pass-catchers, and junior Turner Smiley is the only holdover who caught at least 25 passes a season ago. There’s hope that sophomore Tee Goree, a former three-star recruit who had Power Five offers, can bloom into a true No. 1 this fall.
What You Need to Know About the North Texas Defense
The offense in Denton is in bad shape. The D is worse. Much worse. Coordinators Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett have accepted one of the toughest overhauls in the FBS, taking over a defense that allowed more than 41 points per game in 2015. .
And since not a single star returns, the staff must coach up what it inherited to see any kind of improvement. The Mean Green will employ a 3-3-5 alignment that inserts a nickel back into the lineup to support a charitable pass defense. .
More realistically, though, North Texas will have to crank up the pass rush to truly support corners Nate Brooks and Chad Davis. There is hope that the front seven can become more disruptive off the edge. .
Malik Dilonga is pushing the team’s top returning pass rusher, Jarrian Roberts, a hopeful indication the team will be deeper at defensive end. .
Plus, former end Josh Wheeler, a speed guy, is in the process of making a successful transition to outside linebacker.
Biggest Key To The Defense
Settling on the 3-3-5. Co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett flirted with a 3-4 base alignment in the spring before deciding that the pass defense will benefit from the presence of a nickel back. Handling the role of the fifth DB will be either Ashton Preston or Calvin Minor, who was arrested in mid-April for marijuana possession. North Texas needs to shore up the pass defense after allowing 8.5 yards per attempt in 2015.
North Texas Will Be Far Better If …
the offensive line winds up being the team’s biggest surprise of 2016. The O-line is a major concern, especially as it adjusts to a new pace and a new set of responsibilities. The unit’s best player, C Kaydon Kirby, has left the team for personal reasons, forcing veteran Sam Rice inside from guard. If North Texas has any chance of competing this fall, it’s incumbent upon the blockers to protect the team’s two best assets, QB Alec Morris and RB Jeffrey Wilson.
Best Offensive Player
Junior RB Jeffrey Wilson. In a cauldron of uncertainty, Wilson is one of the precious few offensive players the new staff can count upon. In two seasons, he’s averaging more than five yards a carry, a feat considering the mediocrity of the supporting staff surrounding him. Sure, the Mean Green is going to throw the ball more this season, but a change in philosophy should create even more space for the big-play Wilson, as well as budding backup Willy Ivery.
Best Defensive Player
Senior DE Jarrian Roberts. A year after leading the team in tackles for loss and sacks, Roberts is getting a challenge from fellow senior Malik Dilonga. And that’s good news for the Mean Green and its new staff, because the more the merrier when it comes to edge rushers. Roberts gets off the snap in a hurry and plays with a good motor, the cornerstones of his ability to disrupt plays in the backfield.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Senior QB Alec Morris. North Texas has landed a veteran quarterback who spent most of his career on Nick Saban’s Alabama team. Morris was not brought to Denton to be a game manager. He’s expected to be a difference-maker, both in terms of his maturity and know-how as well as his strong arm. Morris is a dramatic upgrade at the position for the Mean Green, and a good fit for a new staff that plans to air it out significantly more than in recent years.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Mean Green is building a head of steam in the final month of the season. Throw the records out at this point of the reclamation project under Seth Littrell. While anything is possible, North Texas doesn’t figure to be bowl-bound after winning one game in a demoralizing 2015 campaign. Instead, this team needs to show by the second half of the year that the offense is beginning to gel, new skill guys are emerging and the defense has the hint of a pulse that can be carried into 2017.
Nov. 19 vs. Southern Miss. Consistent with the theory that the final month of the season will be the best barometer of North Texas, beating the Eagles in the home finale would give the locals a much-needed injection of hope. Outgun Southern Miss, which engineered its own rebirth last season, and it’ll serve as a compelling talking point Seth Littrell can use on the recruiting trail and during the long months of offseason conditioning.
2015 Fun Stats
– Points per game: North Texas 41.2 – Opponents 15.2
– Third-down%: North Texas 33% – Opponents 52%
– Red-zone touchdown%: North Texas 46% – Opponents 73%