2022 G5 Preview: Which Half Of The 2021 Season Is North Texas Returning?
The Mean Green had two very different 2021 seasons. Which one can we expect more of in 2022?
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As North Texas put the finishing touches on a disastrous collapse against Liberty on Oct. 23, it sure looked like head coach Seth Littrell’s time in Denton was rapidly dwindling. The Mean Green had just dropped their sixth game in a row, moving them to 1-6 on the season, 0-3 in C-USA play with only one close game in the bunch, and 0-6 against all FBS foes, claiming only one win in the first week of the season against Northwestern State.
Within this one game, North Texas had also squandered what looked like its best opportunity yet to finally snap that slump. It led 20-7 with less than two minutes to play in the first half, and 26-14 halfway through the third quarter. Liberty quarterback Malik Willis even missed much of the first half, which only made it worse when the Flames drove down the field behind backup quarterback Jonathan Bennett to cut the deficit to just one score before the end of the half, taking less than 40 seconds off the clock in the process.
With Willis back in the fold, Liberty scored the final three touchdowns of the game, claiming a 35-26 lead with 11:19 remaining. After putting up 26 points in the first 38 minutes of play, North Texas found zero in the final 22, despite outgaining its foes by more than 100 yards. It was a nightmare, but it was only the latest in what had been an increasingly nightmarish series of seasons for Littrell, once the bell of the G5 ball projected to make his leap up to a bigger job sooner than later back in 2017 and 2018.
Then, he and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell built one of the best offenses in the country around quarterback Mason Fine, qualifying for the C-USA title game in 2017 and fielding what was probably an even better team in 2018 as the defense caught up, though close league losses kept it from repeating as champions in the West – UNT did beat the brakes off of Arkansas, though.
At the same time, Kansas, Kansas State and Texas Tech all entered into coaching searches and took turns poking through Littrell’s resume. He didn’t show a whole lot of interest in Kansas, understandably, but was reportedly among the top candidates for each of the latter two jobs. He neared the finish line with Kansas State, but questions about freedom to hire his own staff spooked him away. Texas Tech, which seemed like the best possible fit, went instead with Matt Wells.
Though it was a surprise that Littrell didn’t make the leap, there was no reason to think that he couldn’t down the road. His entire staff was slated to return, as was Fine, the crown jewel of the offense. North Texas had found a defensive formula for success with Troy Reffett running the show a year prior, and he was set to return too. The C-USA West was without an obvious power.
Everything was set up for Littrell to rattle off another big season – maybe even a title run – and then make a move, perhaps even to a better job, one that would allow him to carry his whole staff with him. Arkansas looked primed to open after the season way ahead of time, and after their coaches jumped to bigger jobs, Baylor and Mississippi State joined it – all three jobs that would have fit the Littrell profile.
Then, Kliff Kingsbury reneged on his deal to become the offensive coordinator at USC so that he could take over as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Looking for someone else from that tree to build out an air raid system in Los Angeles, Clay Helton got the next best thing, grabbing Harrell very late in the cycle and forcing North Texas into a change on the fly.
He grabbed Bodie Reeder away from Eastern Washington in mid-February.
It… didn’t work. Reeder’s showing wasn’t a disaster or anything, but the offense took a step back as Fine’s volume dipped, which wouldn’t have been anywhere near as big a deal had the defense not immediately returned to the garbage can. North Texas surrendered nearly 33 points per contest and lost eight games, with four of five one-score matchups going against the Mean Green. It’s rare to see every single part of a team regress to the mean at once in the way that North Texas did in 2019.
With Fine departing, the last two years have seen Littrell attempting to emerge from the woods. He fired Reeder and nabbed Mike Bloesch from Tulsa, teaming him up with passing game coordinator Tommy Mainord, a mainstay of the Littell era. Reffett was whisked away too, traded in for Clint Bowen, who has spent more time coaching at Kansas than any human being ever should.
As you may expect, it didn’t work. The offense actually rebounded slightly, but the defense dropped below its already low standards set the year prior, and North Texas went 4-6. None of the six losses were especially competitive.
This isn’t exactly a new picture in college football, and it’s not very hard to see where it was headed. Still lacking for an obvious answer at quarterback and without any obvious answers on defense, North Texas stumbled through its first seven games of the 2021 season, suffering four blowouts, a one-score loss to Louisiana Tech that wasn’t that close until a furious final frame comeback, and the Liberty game detailed above. It emerged without any more answers than it had entered with, and Littrell was all but fired in the court of public opinion. Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde wrote on Nov. 1 that “barring a miracle month, North Texas is going to fire Seth Littrell.”
At that point, Littrell had claimed one more win, but the point stood because it came in overtime against Rice. Not exactly a breakthrough.
Naturally, North Texas rattled off four more wins, capped with a blowout of then-unbeaten No. 15 UTSA to close the season and qualify for a bowl game, Littrell’s fifth in six years, which gives him ownership over half of all the bowl bid seasons in program history. He was retained, by the skin of his teeth, and Forde was cast into the depths of hell.
As North Texas enters 2022, any prognostication really has to start and end with a full audit of what in the hell just happened in Denton.
Littrell’s theory, as you may expect, centers around every coaching buzzword he could conjure on the spot.
“You don’t win down the stretch after a start like we had if you don’t have a great culture,” Littrell said. “If you don’t have a bunch of guys who love each other and want to compete with each other and leadership, you can’t win.”
Another, more cynical newsletter might posit that North Texas played six FBS teams that finished the season 41-35 in those first seven games – including two C-USA teams that finished in the top four of the league, one of the best teams in the American and an SEC team – and five teams that went 27-36 to end the regular season. That its success was just a matter of scheduling quirks.
It’s probably a bit of both. North Texas did face the brunt of its schedule to open the season, and it did get to play FIU, Rice and Southern Miss in the back end of the year.
That’s going to yield some weird results for most teams and has a pretty good chance of leading to this exact thing. But the split wasn’t completely even, so it’s not fair to say that was the only cause. North Texas lost to a bad Louisiana Tech squad in the first half of the season, just like it upended a pair of good teams (one really good one, even) in UTEP and UTSA to end the year. North Texas had scheduling help down the stretch, but it did also improve, inarguably so.
The question, then, is how it improved, and how sustainable that improvement is heading into 2022.
For the former, the answers are pretty easy. For the latter, projection is… trickier. North Texas improved at the end of the season because it found an identity, albeit the exact opposite one from what it did in the early Littrell years. Unable to find a quarterback it can really trust, North Texas stopped throwing the ball around so much and locked in on what developed into a really awesome rushing attack. The Mean Green averaged 38 passes per game in September, 28.8 in October and 23.8 in November while rushing 45.5, 49.3 and 56.0 times per game in those same months. When it did throw, it did so for larger plays. When it ran, there were bigger holes to hit. A wildly inefficient offense became extremely efficient.
At the same time, new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s 4-2-5 look clicked into place. Opposing passing attacks collapsed, rushing attack faltered. North Texas still surrendered a ton of big plays – more than almost anyone in the conference – especially through the air, but it became nearly impossible to sustain drives.
The Mean Green didn’t create a ton of huge plays of their own, they just leaned on a very good group of linebackers to make plays within three yards of the line of scrimmage on the ground, and on tight coverage within about 15 yards. The talent wasn’t enough to do much beyond that, but North Texas sold out to force opponents beat it consistently with passes over the top. Largely, they couldn’t do it.
There’s positive and negative news to take from that. On the former side, a good running game and an efficient defense is much more reliable as a foundation than big plays on either side of the ball. It’s harder to grind out yards and to get consistent stops than it is to generate a couple huge plays, it requires more effort and, frankly, better coaching.
On the latter, North Texas is losing critical pieces from both the running game and the front seven.
Halfback Deandre Torrey is off to the NFL after rushing for more than 1200 yards and excellent right tackle Jacob Brammer is in the transfer portal, breaking up an offensive line that combined for all but two starts in 2021.
On the other side, defensive end Grayson Murphy and brother Gabriel – a linebacker/edge hybrid – are in the portal too. Grayson’s backup, Kam Hill, graduates, as do starting nose guard Dion Novil and defensive tackle Caleb Colvin on the line – all four starters and one reserve, who accounted for 160 tackles, 38 TFL and 21 sacks. EAGLE (safety/linebacker) Tyreke Davis and safety Makyle Sanders are gone too.
That’s it, though. The rest of the offensive line returns – good for 103 combined career starts – with second-team all-C-USA center Manase Mose leading the efforts. Kaci Moreka, who claimed those two starts outside of the core group, is back to take over for Brammer if he can beat out New Mexico transfer Leke Asenuga.
Behind them, Ayo Adeyi, Isaiah Johnson and Ikaika Ragsdale return at halfback, all of whom had at least 80 carries and 350 yards. They combined for 266 carries, 1,389 yards and 16 touchdowns, which is actually a little bit better than the pace Torrey was on.
None of them really separated themselves as a true No. 1 back – Adeyi is electric in space but was stuffed a bit too often, Johnson and Ragsdale are more power oriented – but that might not matter, because projected 2021 starter Oscar Adaway III is back too after he tore his ACL in spring ball. He rushed 99 times for 572 yards in 2020 and is absolutely top-back quality if he’s fully healthy. If not, a really good rotation replicating roughly what North Texas did on the ground last year is not at all out of the question.
Austin Aune returns at quarterback with a pair of transfers in Louisiana Tech’s JD Head and Abeline Christian’s Stone Earle transferring in to compete for the job. Aune’s ceiling isn’t especially high and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him seriously pushed this season (Jace Ruder is here too but looks a lot like a career backup), though I’d guess he earns the job this season and then Head and Earle compete in earnest to be the QB of the future here next season.
Whoever gets the nod will have the core receiver room of Roderic Burns, Bryson Jackson and Damon Ward Jr. all back, as well as six other guys who either saw snaps in 2021 with North Texas or, in Jay Maclin’s case, are transferring in from a P5 program (the brother of Jeremy, he played originally at Missouri). It’s hard to see North Texas going back to the passing attack as the focal point of its offense after the way 2021 ended, though. If it can be, this is a running team now.
And on defense, the Mean Green almost certainly wants to maintain that identity. It just needs to find an all new line first. The inside, with Roderick Brown and Enoch Jackson returning, is easier to have confidence in. Both are big-time athletes with plenty of snaps under their belts. The outside spots are completely up in the air.
In the secondary, Sean-Thomas Faulkner played almost as much as Davis did and can slide right into his spot, while returning safety DeShawn Gaddie can hopefully help to bring along a new starter in Sanders’ spot (likely Keelan Crosby, who had seven tackles). John Davis Jr., Ridge Texada and Quinn Whitlock all return in the outside corner spots, though improvement there in the big-play defense wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world and doesn’t feel especially far-fetched to expect.
Once again, Bennett can build around three of the best linebackers in the C-USA with middle linebacker KD Davis and weakside standouts Larry Nixon III and Kevin Wood. I can’t overstate it here, these guys are fucking phenomenal. They’re outstanding. Dixon had 120 tackles, 15.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks in 2021, his third consecutive year as the leader tackler in Denton. He was a first-team all-league pick last year. There is not a more fun linebacker to watch in this league, and if anyone is even close, it’s the two next to him.
Like with the offense, if North Texas can fill those gaps and pick up right where it left off, it gladly will. That may not be seamless from the jump, but it’s not hard at all to envision if a few new contributors hit in the way that their predecessors did when they were pushed into bigger roles. If the best case scenario does click, the Mean Green could very well be right in it for West contention like they was in the first act of Littrell’s tenure, albeit it with a brand new identity and, unfortunately (for them) a true power to get through in UTSA.