North Texas improved its win total by four games going 5-8 in head coach Seth Littrell’s debut, and wound up in a bowl game thanks to the team’s APR scores. Now with a contract extension in hand, what do Littrell and the Mean Green have in mind for an encore? The offense continues to be a work in progress, especially the passing game, while the defense is hoping for more production from the line and linebackers in support of what should be a solid secondary. There are a lot of ifs when it comes to North Texas this fall, but there’s also plenty of reason to be hopeful that the Mean Green can continue to progress under Littrell.
Previewing North Texas Football’s Offense for 2017
North Texas made significant strides in coach Seth Littrell’s debut season, improving from 15.2 points per game in 2015 to 24.8 in ’16. But the Mean Green’s transition from a run-first offense to Littrell’s spread passing attack still has some hurdles ahead.
Quarterback Mason Fine showed some promise as a freshman, passing for 1,572 yards, six TDs and five interceptions in 10 games. But he must break in a mostly rebuilt receiving corps to get the air attack off the ground. Turner Smiley (33 receptions, 389 yards) is the only top-four target returning from last season, so inexperienced wide receivers must step into larger roles. Expect Kelvin Smith to catch more passes at H-back, and North Texas hopes lauded junior college transfer Jalen Guyton can become a standout quickly.
North Texas wants to throw the ball, but its best offensive weapon is senior running back Jeffery Wilson, who has rushed for 1,990 yards in his three-year career despite not playing a complete season yet because of injuries. Wilson’s health and the play of the line will be major factors in the offense’s evolution. Last season, only five teams in FBS allowed more sacks (43) than the Mean Green. They hope the hiring of new offensive line coach Chuck Langston changes that.
Previewing North Texas Football’s Defense for 2017
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There was similar progress on defense, as the Mean Green improved from 41.3 points allowed per game in 2015 to 32.6 last season, but that’s still far from where North Texas wants to be. Troy Reffett, previously co-defensive coordinator, takes over full-time play-calling duties in Year 2 of the 3-3-5 scheme.
It’s a safe bet that the secondary will be strong, but coaches believe the line will make the largest jump from last season despite the graduation of numerous defensive ends. An offseason reshuffle could help fill the void, with athletic interior linemen and physical linebackers moving to end. Roderick Young, Andy Flusche and T.J. Tauaalo are good building blocks on the line, and Kansas State transfer Bryce English should make an early impact. Linebackers E.J. Ejiya, Joshua Wheeler and Brandon Garner combined for 17 tackles for a loss last season, and that number should rise in Reffett’s more aggressive style.
If the front six can improve, it will only aid an experienced secondary, which ranked second in Conference USA in both passing defense and interceptions (14) in 2016. Safety Kishawn McClain, an All-C-USA selection, is perhaps the team’s best player after posting a team-high 91 tackles and three interceptions last season. At cornerback, Nate Brooks led the team with four interceptions, and Eric Jenkins had a pair of pick-sixes.
Previewing North Texas Football’s Specialists for 2017
Trevor Moore is a solid kicker, making 9-of-13 field goals last season. But in the past two years, he has made only 2-of-10 from 40 yards or more, so his range is limited. Austin McGehee will be the new punter. He previously played at Purdue and punted at Fullerton (Calif.) College last season.
Littrell pulled off quite a turnaround, going from 1–11 in 2015 to 5–8 and an appearance in the Heart of Dallas bowl in his first season. He was rewarded with a new five-year contract in the offseason, but there is more incremental work ahead.
If Wilson avoids injury and carries the ground game, it should allow the passing attack to develop. If Reffett’s re-tooling of the front six on defense yields more pressure to support a talented secondary, the unit will take the next step. Neither of those outcomes is guaranteed, but 2016 progress suggests more to come under Littrell. If North Texas can win a couple of non-conference games, another bowl bid should be within reach.
National Ranking: 108
C-USA West Prediction: 4
(Kishawn McClain photo courtesy of North Texas Athletics/Rick Yeatts)