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Maintaining success at North Texas is hard, but Seth Littrell’s doing just that

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No one has jumped from North Texas to a power conference head coaching gig in nearly 40 years. With another strong year or two, Littrell will probably end that streak.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at North Texas Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

You can win in Denton, but you probably won’t win for long there.

  • When Darrell Dickey took over in 1998, it took him five years to produce a genuinely good team. He went to four straight New Orleans Bowls — the modern model for sustained success in Denton — but had already begun to slide. In his last two seasons, he went 5-18.
  • After Dickey’s replacement, Texas high school legend Todd Dodge, crashed and burned (UNT went 8-40 in his four seasons), it was up to Dan McCarney to pick up the pieces. It took him only three years to surge to 9-4, but he couldn’t maintain the success, and in his last two seasons, UNT went 5-19.

McCarney’s coaching career was basically over when he left Denton. Dodge was back in the high school ranks within a year or so of his departure. Dickey spent the last decade as a mid-major offensive coordinator or co-coordinator, which is what he was before UNT as well.

You have to go back nearly four decades to find a time when someone went from North Texas head coach to something bigger.

  • Jerry Moore went just 11-11 in 1979-80 but, combined with his success as a Tom Osborne assistant at Nebraska, managed to land the Texas Tech job in 1981. (He didn’t fare well there but, starting in 1989, became a coaching legend at Appalachian State.)
  • Hayden Fry played things perfectly. Fired after a 7-4 season at SMU, Fry rehabilitated in Denton. He won 33 games from 1975-78 and got UNT to as high as 16th in the coaches’ poll during a brilliant 1977. He parlayed this into two decades as Iowa head coach.

That Littrell took this job, then, was a bit of a risk. The draw is easy to describe — you’re barely 30 miles from Dallas (where hundreds of potential FBS prospects live), Apogee Stadium is nice and rather new, Denton has an In-N-Out Burger* — but evidence of success has been hard to come by.

Littrell has already thrived. After inheriting a 1-11 team, he has won 14 games, with two bowl bids and a division title, in his first two years.

He’s not blowing away the field from a recruiting perspective; per the 247Sports Composite, UNT’s signing classes ranked just eighth in C-USA in 2018 and 11th in 2017. But the former Oklahoma fullback and Mark Mangino, Mike Leach, and Kevin Wilson protege didn’t need long to begin establishing offensive success.

After averaging just 23.8 points per game in his first 10 games, the Mean Green have averaged 34.2 since. They were held under 29 points just three times in 14 games last year and topped 40 six times. And they did so with a sophomore throwing primarily to freshmen and sophomores. His offense actually has experience this year, which should be terrifying for C-USA defenses.

Granted, the defense could still use some work. The Mean Green had an average Def. S&P+ ranking of 109th in McCarney’s last two seasons and have improved only to an average of 96th. But with a top-30 offense, you can afford shootouts.

* That’s a draw for me, anyway, even if In-N-Out is no Shake Shack.

Offense

2017 North Texas offensive radar

Littrell’s offensive success is also Graham Harrell’s success. The 32-year-old former Texas Tech quarterback came to Denton and figured out how to turn playing success into coaching success.

After a few years of backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Harrell moved from Oklahoma State quality control coach to Washington State receivers coach (under Leach) to UNT OC. He could tell you all the ways in which his philosophy differs from that of Leach, but the footprint is similar: spread opponents out, throw more than the national average, and wreck opponents with efficiency.

2017 North Texas offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Within C-USA, only FAU had a more efficient offense than UNT’s, and that’s a staggering statement considering the personnel in the passing game. Turnover in the receiving corps is generally a harbinger of regression, and the Mean Green had to replace four of their top six WRs from 2016.

But with three sophomores leading the way (slot receiver Michael Lawrence and wideouts Rico Bussey Jr. and Jalen Guyton combined to catch 158 passes for 2,271 yards and 20 touchdowns), plus three other freshmen or sophomores catching at least 18 passes, North Texas improved from 122nd to 36th in Passing S&P+.

Lawrence is one of the best possession men in the country. Of the 92 FBS players targeted at least 85 times last year, his plus-24.5 percent marginal efficiency was the best.

NCAA Football: Army at North Texas
Michael Lawrence
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

A product of Sweetwater (Tex.), Lawrence walked on at UNT, and in 2017 he offered an efficiency outlet that hadn’t existed.

The run game helped. Harrell leaned on it at least a smidge more (UNT’s run rate increased from just 53 percent to 54 on standard downs but from 27 percent to 32 on passing downs) and was rewarded. Despite missing the last three games, Jeffery Wilson rushed for 1,215 yards. And in his absence, then-freshman Nic Smith held the fort, at least for a while. He rushed 26 times for 178 yards in a win over Rice but was limited to just 69 in 20 carries against FAU and Troy to finish.

Smith didn’t flash the same level of explosiveness as Wilson or fellow sophomore-to-be Evan Johnson, but it appears he’ll get the first crack at replacing Wilson all the same.

Running behind a line that returns four of last year’s starters and six guys with at least 11 career starts will help. Center Sosaia Mose, left guard Elex Woodworth, and left tackle Jordan Murray are all back from a line that improved dramatically, in both run blocking and pass protection.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Rice
Mason Fine (6) and Nic Smith (21)
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If either Smith, Johnson, Anthony Wyche, or JUCO transfer DeAndre Torrey can do a Wilson impression, then UNT will have an outstanding base of efficiency for Fine, who has already thrown for more than 5,600 career yards. And when you’ve got that in your back pocket, you can take some shots. While Lawrence did a lot of the dirty work nearer the line, Bussey and Guyton averaged 15.1 yards per catch with above-average marginal efficiency and excellent marginal explosiveness.

That trio will account for a majority of UNT’s receptions if healthy, but there’s still a chance for sophomore slot and star return man Jaelon Darden, tight end Kelvin Smith, three-star redshirt freshman Greg White, or three-star true freshmen Jyaire Shorter or Austin Ogunmakin to carve out a role. This is a deep corps.

With two more years like 2017, Fine could finish with more than 13,000 career yards — not quite Harrell’s 15,793, but still top-20 all-time.

Defense

2017 North Texas defensive radar

To his credit, coordinator Troy Reffett has indeed engineered improvement. An average Def. S&P+ ranking of 96.5 is better than what he inherited. But despite returning a chunk of his 2016 contributors, his Mean Green defense fell from 93rd to 100th last fall.

  • UNT vs. SMU, FAU (twice), Army, and Troy (1-4): 52.6 points per game | 7.9 yards per play | 11.4 percent average percentile performance (~top 115)
  • UNT vs. everyone else (8-1): 25.2 points per game | 4.8 yards per play | 63.2 percent average percentile performance (~top 50)

The Mean Green gave up nearly as many yards (2,926) in those five games as they did in the other nine (3,114). They handled other decent offenses (Iowa, Southern Miss) reasonably well but had no answers for SMU, FAU, Army, or Troy.

Will we see another step forward in 2018? It’s hard to guarantee it.

North Texas could start seven or eight seniors, which generally foretells improvement, but depth could be a major concern in the front seven, where Reffett is a couple of injuries away from dipping heavily into the 2017 or 2018 recruiting classes.

The line returns three of its top four tacklers (positive spin) but also loses four of its top seven (negative spin). After senior tackles Roderick Young and Ulaisi Tauaalo and junior end LaDarius Hamilton, the leading returning tackler is sophomore end Dion Novil, who had 2.5 last year.

Littrell signed two JUCO transfers (end Darrian McMillan and tackle Tuulau Saafi) to shore up depth a bit, and Kansas State transfer Bryce English could finally be ready to contribute after sitting out his first two years at UNT (one per transfer rules, the other because of a camp injury). But if they aren’t all ready to go, I’m not sure who will be.

The linebacking corps does bring back seniors E.J. Ejiya and Brandon Garner, who combined for 18.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and 18 percent of the team’s havoc plays in 2017. But with two other starters gone, sophomore Joe Ozougwu (who made five of his 13.5 tackles behind the line), JUCO transfer Tim Faison, and at least one youngster will need to step up. Redshirt freshman Kody Fulp has been a spring standout so far, but spring just began, obviously.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Atlantic
E.J. Ejiya (22)
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If the front seven holds up, the secondary should be solid. UNT held opponents to a 55.1 percent completion rate (27th in FBS), albeit with quite a few big plays mixed in, and of the 10 DBs to record at least seven tackles last year, eight return. Corner Kemon Hall led the way from a havoc perspective (one TFL, one interception, eight breakups, one forced fumble), and nickel back Ashton Preston thrived near the line of scrimmage with 4.5 TFLs.

Littrell has signed 17 three-star athletes in the last two classes, and five of them have been defensive backs. If one or two crack the rotation, that could only be considered a good thing.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at North Texas
Kemon Hall
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams did UNT a lot of favors, and they mostly came from two guys. Kicker Trevor Moore not only made all of his PATs and under-40-yard field goals, but he made nine of 11 beyond 40 as well. As soon as they entered the opponent’s 30 or 35, the Mean Green were almost guaranteed at least three points.

Moore is gone, however, and could be replaced by Arkansas graduate transfer Cole Hedlund.

Jaelon Darden’s back, though. The slot receiver averaged 11.9 yards per punt return as a freshman, which could pay off handsomely if, you know, UNT forces a few more punts this year.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep SMU 74 -0.2 50%
8-Sep Incarnate Word NR 42.2 99%
15-Sep at Arkansas 52 -9.9 28%
22-Sep at Liberty 115 5.7 63%
29-Sep Louisiana Tech 70 -0.7 48%
6-Nov at UTEP 130 14.2 79%
13-Oct Southern Miss 94 4.9 61%
20-Oct at UAB 91 -1.1 47%
27-Oct Rice 128 15.1 81%
10-Nov at Old Dominion 114 5.4 62%
17-Nov Florida Atlantic 31 -9.8 29%
24-Nov at UTSA 104 2.2 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 86
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 35 / 118
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.6 (102)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 99 / 106
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -11 / -8.6
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 70% (80%, 59%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.8 (1.2)

Thanks to the thinned-out defense, S&P+ is only lukewarm on UNT in 2018. The offense is projected to again rank in the Off. S&P+ top 35 -- and it’s such a young unit that it will return almost everyone from that top-35 unit in 2019 as well. But it’s all about how many stops the Mean Green can make. For much of last season, that wasn’t a major issue. But when it was a problem, it was a crippling one.

The schedule features a lot of dead weight, which all but guarantees a third bowl trip in three years. UNT faces likely losses at Arkansas and against FAU but is given a 47 percent win probability or greater in each of the other 10 games, six of which are against teams projected 104th or worse.

Both the non-conference and conference portions of the schedule start with huge home tossups -- SMU in Week 1, then Louisiana Tech in Week 5. Win those two, and the Mean Green are potentially on their way toward double-digit wins in Littrell’s third season. Lose both, and coming anywhere close to last year’s success will be nearly impossible.

Either way, Littrell is in position to do something that hasn’t been done in Denton in nearly 40 years.

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