Sunday, August 24, 2008

2008 North Texas preview

Todd Dodge had an outstanding career as a high school coach at Metroplex powerhouse Southlake Carroll, but his first year at the helm of the North Texas was anything but. The Mean Green could only manage two wins last season, and many of the ten losses - 10-79 to Oklahoma, 7-66 against Arkansas, 7-45 against Troy - were downright ugly. Dodge and his staff have a lot of work to do in order to return North Texas to its place as the Sun Belt's dominant team, and it may take another year before this team can truly become competitive again. But there is hope: there is legitimate talent on this team, and the defense can only improve.

If there was a success story for UNT last season, it was on the offensive side of the ball. The offense did an excellent job adjusting from the rather conservative playcalling of former coach Darrell Dickey to a more wide-open style favored by Dodge. Quarterback Giovanni Vizza had an excellent freshman outing, throwing for 2,388 yards and 17 touchdowns, and wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald caught 111 passes for 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns. There were rumblings of a quarterback controversy over the offseason when Todd Dodge's highly-recruited son, Riley, arrived on campus. For now, Vizza has been named the starting quarterback and indications are that Riley Dodge will redshirt. But don't be surprised if things change during the course of the season.

Other returning talent on offense includes wide receivers Sam Dibrell and Brock Strickler, and RB Micah Mosley, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season. The offensive line returns four starters, but their health is a concern and they need to do a better job protecting the quarterback than they did last season, when they gave up 39 sacks.

The offense, as productive as it was last season, has other areas where they need to improve as well. Better efficiency is a must; while the Mean Green could move the ball between the 20s, getting in the endzone was a different story and the Mean Green were only 77th in the nation in scoring offense, managing 24.8 points per game. One of the reasons the offense wasn't as productive as it could have been last fall is because they gave up 28 interceptions, the most in the nation. You can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win games, especially when your defense is as awful as UNT's was last season.

And just how awful was UNT's defense last year? Put it this way: the 2007 Mean Green had the worst defense in the worst conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision. The squad was 114th (out of 119 teams) in total defense and 119th (as in dead last) in scoring defense. They gave up a whopping 45.1 points per game, including 79 points to Oklahoma, 66 to Arkansas, 74 to Navy, 48 to Middle Tennessee, 45 to Troy, 45 to SMU... Eh, you get the idea.

Improving the defense was clearly an offseason concern and Todd Dodge took some positive steps in that regard. He brought back Gary DeLoach, who had spent the last five seasons at UCLA, for a second stint as UNT's defensive coordinator. DeLoach's first term at the defensive helm from, 2000 to 2002, was successful. The 2002 UNT defense, in fact, was third in the nation in scoring defense, ninth in total defense, and guaranteed UNT's first bowl victory in 56 years by intercepting Cincinnati five times in the New Orleans Bowl. In addition to a new defensive coach, North Texas also brought in a handful of JUCOs that should be ready to play immediately and hopefully make a difference.

The defense, for all its faults, is not completely bereft of talent. Linebacker Craig Robertson had 48 tackles and five interceptions last year and figures to be the squad's leader this fall. Another person to watch is Tobe Nwigwe, who started at linebacker two years ago but had some off-the-field issues that kept him sidelined most of last year. He needs to stay out of trouble this fall because his team is going to need his help.

The defensive line, which managed only 14 sacks last season, is going to be the biggest question mark heading into the fall; it doesn't help that DE Eddrick Gilmore, who had a promising season a year ago, left the team for personal reasons. While the secondary certainly didn't get much help in the way of a pash rush, but they didn't do themselves any favors by allowing 256.8 passing yards per game, either. The secondary will get immediate help in the form of JUCO transfers Kylee Hill and Adryan Adams, but two others, Navy transfer Glenn Garden and JUCO transfer Justin Edwards, unfortunately did not pan out.

The star of UNT's special teams squad has to be Truman Spencer, who punted a 41.6 yard average last season. JUCO transfer Jeremy Knott is expected to be an upgrade at place kicker. The Mean Green need to work on special teams coverage and returns this fall. Last season, North Texas ranked 75th in the nation in both punt return average and net punting average - not horrible, but not great - but were one of the worst teams in the nation in kickoff return average, at only 18.4 yards.

Media expectations for North Texas are low. Rivals has UNT ranked #115 out of 120 teams, College Football News puts UNT #113 out of 119 and foresees just a three-win season, while Sports Illustrated has the Mean Green ranked #112 out of 119 and expects them to end the season with a 3-9 overall record (2-5 and fifth place in the Sun Belt Conference). The big concern is that, even if the Mean Green do make improvements over the previous season, it's going to be covered up by a murderous schedule that includes only five home games and road contests against the likes of Kansas State and LSU.

There is hope for North Texas this season. The offense is going to be prolific. The defense is now being run by a proven coordinator and - let's face it - has nowhere to go but up from last season. Finally, Todd Dodge has a full season of experience as a FBS head coach under his belt now. But it's just going to take time for him to rebuild a program that barely had a pulse the last few seasons of dickey I think there will be some improvement over last fall's 2-10 record, and I think the team will clearly be better on defense this fall. But I also think it's too much to expect the Mean Green to have a winning record in 2008. If UNT fans can be patient for one more season, however, I think they'll be rewarded in 2009.

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