With the season over after a disappointing 2-10 finish and the postseason review by the AD complete, it is time for a postseason evaluation of the 2009 Mean Green football team.
For the most part, I have kept the same format that I used in the preseason preview.
QB Riley Dodge was about what you'd expect from a player with his astounding resume pushed into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman. "Consistently inconsistent," one might say, but really he just didn't adjust well to the speed of the college game. I put a lot of that on coaching.
All season long, UNT's only deep-passing plays were to Micheal Outlaw. This was an ill-conceived deep-passing game strategy that I discuss in detail in the WR section, but the long and short of it is it didn't work all year long.
Really the QBs were not given a good shot to make big plays.
Dodge himself was generally a very good passer who completed an eye popping 67% of his passes this year, but he really struggled on deep passes. His arm is somewhat weak, but Ty Detmer had a much weaker arm and won the Heisman.
Dodge's problems with his deep passes came down to who he was throwing to, him not getting his feet properly set on deep passes, and him getting the ball off late.
The receiver earmarked as the team's deep threat ran poor routes on deep passes and showed little ability to adjust to a poorly thrown ball. That didn't help either.
Most of UNT's deep-passing plays were slow developing and Dodge waited for his man to get open before throwing the ball. That works in high school where DBs with 4.5 speed are rare, but in college, that is a late pass and a risky one.
Now were the plays designed this way (poorly thought out) or was this something that Dodge needed to get better about? I can't say whether this was a problem the offensive coordinator should have addressed through redesigning plays or the QB coach through training Dodge to get the ball off earlier.
Additionally Dodge would often not be set properly to step into the throw on deep passes, cheating his passes of all zip, making them float, and then fall short. DBs had time to recover and make plays on the ball.
Dodge's issues with deep passing were a problem early in the season and remained a problem all year long.
As a runner, Dodge was very good --- much better than he has been given credit for being. He's a real threat who ran for 564 yards and 5 TDs. He doesn't have great speed, size, power, or moves, but he really understands how to run. He picked up a ton of first downs down the stretch and really impressed.
Dodge did fumble the ball too much, though.
Too many times he was caught trying to do to much and coughed up the ball. This area should improve with coaching, maturity, and experience.
Dodge did miss a couple of games due to injuries and was frequently knocked out of games. It should be noted again that he was a redshirt freshman. As he gets older and adds more muscle, the injuries will likely become less frequent.
I have said before that it is not out of the question that Riley Dodge could become a more mobile Ty Detmer before his career is up at UNT. After his first season as a starter, I think he is on track.
Backup QB and strong-armed stick figure Nathan Tune played well all season long. As a passer, the Junior hurler sometimes outperformed Riley, but the team seemed to noticably lose steam when Riley Dodge was out. As a runner, he was not nearly as good, although still competent. He makes good decisions with the ball and is the kind of backup every FBS school would want—a guy who is pretty good at everything, well respected, and a game competitor.
Based on their play, it appears the coaching the QBs received left a lot to be desired. Riley Dodge made a number of mistakes all year long that were technique issues.
Those were never corrected by Todd Ford, his position coach, who also held the title offensive coordinator.
Dodge's interceptions at the start of the year were caused by the same problems as his interceptions at the end of the year. The same deep passes to Outlaw that didn't work vs. Ohio were still being run vs. Army.
That is an example of a coach trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
As a position coach, your responsibility is to straighten out mechanical issues. That was not done.
As an offensive coordinator, your job is to put your players into the best position to make plays, tailor the game plans to attack opponents' weaknesses, call smart plays designed to reach goals for that game, develop a scoring philosophy for a game, and sell it to your players; and make mid-game adjustments to add plays that you think might work and eliminate plays that are not working.
While there were games where a coherent, sensible game plan appeared to be in place, it generally was forgotten by the end of the second quarter.
Halftime adjustments were ineffective.
The team frequently bogged down late in the season outside the red zone, as the coaching staff took deep shots at the end zone instead of relying on Dodge and Dunbar to continue to chip away at the defenses.
The play-calling frequently ended scoring drives late in the season.
The team clearly needed some kind of deep passing threat. If your QB couldn't deliver it, then a good offensive coordinator would have incorporated halfback passing options. The fact that this coordinator did not, speaks volumes about his inexperience, tunnel vision, and lack of creativity.
The play-calling was so bad at times that Riley Dodge and Lance Dunbar both had their hands on their hips, looking at the sidelines in disbelief. Was it Head Coach Todd Dodge or Todd Ford making those calls? Hard to say. Todd Dodge clearly made some of them, but based on the whole picture, I am not prepared to cut Ford a break.
The coaching staff spent months over the offseason turning RB Cam Montgomery into a receiving threat. To screw him to the bench in the last six games was just asinine. He was the best combination of speed and power on the roster.
Even if Dunbar had outpaced Montgomery, Montgomery was at worst your fourth best player at the skilled positions and probably your second-best big-play threat. He should have played some in the slot and spotted Dunbar, especially vs. good run defenses.
Player Grade: B
Coaching Grade: F
The running game was the strongest area of the offense, rolling for 2,223 yards, but it had some notable problems.
It was absolute garbage in short-yardage situations.
Senior Cam Montgomery began the season as the team's starting RB. He was a power rusher with good straight-line speed, once through the line of scrimmage. He had a great games vs. Ball State and a good one vs. Ohio.
After two weeks, he looked like he might be an All-Sun Belt First-Team RB.
Then, he ran into a motivated Alabama squad. Dodge and staff rightly protected the upright-running Montgomery, limiting him to seven carries. The following week, Montgomery was absolutely shut down by Middle Tennessee, who keyed on him. He was limited to -1 yard on 10 carries in a game where Lance Dunbar emerged. Montgomery was never heard from again.
Dunbar had a great season and is a tremendous fit for this offense. If he gets 20 carries in this offense, at least one will go for 50 yards. He made first team all Sun Belt after emassing 1378 yards at 6.9 yards per carry with 16 TDs in only 8 starts. He also made the Phil Steele Sun Belt First Team.
As good as the Sophomore Dunbar is, he could get better. He needs more lower body strength and needs to work on finishing off his runs. In some of the later games vs. more disciplined run defenses, Dunbar was controlled because he couldn't get the extra yard after contact.
Dunbar still got his big runs, but on the carries that weren't big runs, he was bottled up for a lot of two-yard gains, putting the offense in long-yardage situations. To avoid putting the offense into those situations, the coaching staff was forced to reduce his carries a bit down the stretch.
If he can turn those runs into consistent 3 and 4 yard runs, defenses will not be able to dictate a reduction of his carries. He'd be an unstoppable force at that point.
Redshirt Freshman Jeremi Mathis had a few nice carries running the ball as a power back, including one out of the Wildcat set, as did Sophomore converted CB James Hamilton as a change of pace back.
Junior Micah Mosley, a big back who has averaged 4.9 yards-per-carry for his career and ran for 461 yards as a freshman, was a forgotten man in the rotation. He got on the field as a blocker and ran a few routes, but only had three carries all year.
Shelton Gandy is a very good running back coach, but one has to wonder about the thought process behind this running game.This team struggled to pick up short yardage all year, as Montgomery and Mosely sat on the bench. That was just stupid, and if Gandy didn't act as the power RBs' advocates in short-yardage situations, he frankly wasn't maximizing this team's talents.
The lack of time given to the Wildcat set was also disappointing. I only recall it being used once, and UNT scored a TD. It appeared to be the team's best short-yardage set AND it protected Riley Dodge. Gandy should have raised Cain to get that into the game plan each week.
Player Grade: A
Coaching Grade: C
The receivers were generally competent but not dominant. They moved the chains, but due to a lack of strength across the board, didn't break as many plays as one would hope and struggled mightily in the red zone.
Junior JUCO transfer Jamaal Jackson lead the team and the conference in receptions with 71. He was an effective slot receiver who showed real big-play ability at times. He made the all-Sun Belt second team and the Phil Steele Sun Belt first team.
Darius Carey started the season as one of many WRs not trusted by the staff to serve as a primary receiveing option on a play but earned their respect throughout the year finishing as the team's #2 receiver and making the the Phil Steele Sun Belt third team.
He caught 57 passes in the slot as a true freshman (tied for third in the Sun Belt). He has very good speed, quickness, and hands. He may be the most natural receiver in the starting unit and may be the most exciting.
Both Carey (4.5) and Jackson (4.4) have game breaking speed, although it was never utilized in the deep passing game.
Junior JUCO transfer Michael Outlaw caught 41 passes. He was poorly utilized as the team's only deep threat. He struggles to run convincing routes, has trouble adjusting to inaccurate passes, and is not a natural receiver ...ie. he lacks sure hands when he as to adjust at all to make a catch. Exactly not the type of reciever that a smart team designates as their sole deep threat.
He is a much more effective receiver over the middle. He doesn't get intimidated and will hold on to the ball in contact. He should have been played in the slot.
Sophomore BJ Lewis missed some time at the start of the season, but emerged as a real threat in the MTSU game, where he carried UNT back into the game. He started the last nine games but was sorely underutilized, only catching 21 passes. He led the team in yards-per-catch and looked like the real deal as a deep threat and red zone target, even if Carey and Jackson are faster.
Junior Alex Lott caught 22 passes and was generally a very solid and effective backup slot receiver.
Raw doesn't begin to describe Freshman Forrest Rucker. He really shouldn't have been on the field this year. His routes are poor and often lazy, his hands marginal, and his focus questionable. He caught seven passes this year and had a lot more thrown his way.
Sophomore Sam Roberson never really panned out this year. I personally hope the team might move him to DB to counter tall WRs. Roberson was an ace ballhawking defensive back in high school ---he had 8 INTs one year --- and UNT really needs the help there, but the general feeling I get from the paper is that Roberson might be done with the university.
Kevin Dickerson was absolutely wasted as a senior, catching only six passes. He was a very natural and reliable receiver who should have seen more time on the field, especially early in the year.
I didn't see any of juniors Bennie Jones or Breece Johnson and they didn't catch any passes. That was disappointing.
Jones was a big hit in spring practices. Johnson was actually described as "uncoverable" in practice by Todd Dodge at one point, but I guess he lacks the speed the UNT coaches foam at the mouth over. It would have been nice to see Johnson in some red zone situations as he is a beast in the red zone and our starting foursome sucked in that area.
WR Coach Clayton George has to take the blame for all of the deep passes to Outlaw. The team probably threw 80 passes to him this year. I would guess that at least 12 of Riley Dodge's INTs were on passes to Outlaw.
The team would have done far better to move Outlaw inside and put either Carey or Johnson outside. Both are more natural receivers, run more convincing routes, and would have done better adjusting to misthrown balls.
Even splitting the passes to outside receivers evenly—say 50 to Outlaw and 50 to Lewis—would have yielded much better results, as Lewis is actually quite a good fit in that role.
The WR coach should be pointing this out. It was a big deal and it festered all season. That was my chief complaint with George.
I would have liked to see more of Dickerson early when Lewis was out and more of Jones and Johnson throughout the year, but I think giving most of the passes to the starters was a good move overall as the team enters next year with proven starters.
Player Grade: B-
Coaching Grade: B-
Graduating Senior Bryant Seidle was a competent blocker in short yardage. That's really all you can say about the position.
Hopefully the staff will investigate using giant former high school TE and soon to be 5th year senior Draylen Ross as the short yardage blocking TE next season.
Player Grade: C
The OL was grossly overrated this year. No doubt they were a superior pass blocking unit yeilding only 12 sacks (best in the sun belt) on 385 attempts, but their inability to pick up short yardage negated that.
Junior T Esteban Santiago was a beast. He is, in my opinion, the most underrated OL in the Sun Belt. He plays with fire, strength, and good technique. He made the all-conference second team and the Phil Steele Sun Belt first team and they were well deserved honors. He provided the line with a spine. It didn't matter who he was up against, he was going to try to kick that dude's ass.
He brought the only attitude the offense had this year. I remember seeing him get thrown out of one game (the ULM game?) and remember thinking, "Well, that's it. This offense is done. They are not climbing back into this game." and it was. They were flat soft the rest of the game.
There was a general soft attitude on the line once you got past Santiago that frankly was embarrassing. He was the team's lone butt-kicker on offense.
Junior T Victor Gill is a great blind side pass protector but was still a little light in the running game. He made the Phil Steele all-Sun Belt third team.
Junior G Kevin Drake and senior G Tyler Bailey were good pass blockers but were somewhat disappointing in the running game. The same could be said of sophomore C J.J. Johnson.
Drake was powerful skillfull center 2 years ago, but the coaches love Johnson's ability to call blocking at the center spot, so he was moved to guard. Drake showed a lot less as a guard. I would have liked to have seen more fire from him, even if he was competent in pass protection. After his past awards, I think most UNT fans hoped he would be UNT's best lineman this year.
Big Gabe Hollivay was a forgotten man in his senior season after a tough off-season battle with Drake for the starting guard spot, as was sophomore Coleman Feeley, a starter at guard in 2008.
Sophomore Matt Tomlinson and Junior Jeremy Bean did play and had their moments.
This year's line was obviously constructed to keep Riley Dodge upright --- quite a defensible strategy --- and they did a very good job of that, but there was no reason to screw the teams' larger linemen to the bench—especially when it became apparent that short-yardage conversions was a big problem.
It might have made a lot of sense to have a short-yardage platoon come in for short-yardage sets as the roster is full of large bodies on the OL who don't play.
One would hope that if Riley Dodge grows into less of a delicate flower next year, the coaching staff will not be so myopic about pass protection. This team needs more players who will kick someone's ass until the whistle is blown on their OL.
Player Grade: B
Coaching Grade: B-
This year's defensive line was a dramatic improvement over last season's. All season long they pushed the pocket back, putting some pressure on opposing QBs and generating rushed passes --- even if sacks were rare (only 12 all season --- 2nd worst in the Sun Belt).
(To have good sack numbers you have to have players with explosiveness at the end of the play. Generally, you should look for guys who have actually put up good sack totals in the past, because they have proven they have the ability turn the corner and use some power and/or speed to finish. There is a real knack to it. When you lack those guys, you tend to have pressure but no sacks --- like UNT had this season. One wonders what the numbers would have looked like if HS sack king Kyle Russo --12 sacks as a HS JR and 21 sacks as a HS SR --- hadn't left.)
While very weak vs. the rush in the season's first half, once Eddrick Gilmore moved to DE in the second half of the season the run play on the DL improved and the team was actually able to flush opposing QBs from the pocket.
(The statistics don't show much of an improvement because the team continued to fall asleep on defense at regular intervals in the season's second half allowing big plays. Watching the games you could see a qualitative difference when the team was focused. Short yardage was not a gimme for opponents and most running plays were stopped with a 3 yard gain or less. UNT had several defensive stops in the games down the stretch where they had few in the games that preceeded.)
Gilmore, a senior, was the team's best defensive lineman this year but was played at DT for the first half of the season. In the spring when it was unclear that UNT would be able to land DT help, Gilmore was moved to help at DT.
He was the only defensive lineman we had the year before who could hold his position and was competent vs. the run, so at that point, it made sense.
After UNT landed decorated JUCO DTs Shavood Atkinson and Kevin Jackson, it made much less sense.
After a barrage of criticism from media and fans alike, the coaches finally relented at midseason and Gilmore returned to DE, where he was the team's best defensive player and the apparrent defensive leader on the field down the stretch. He personally ended up with 3 sacks on the year.
In addition to being strong vs. the run, Gilmore was the only defensive end who could switch between a speed rush and a power rush, disrupting opposing QBs' pocket of protection.
Here's hoping that pro scouts will check out the film on him in the second half of the season. Gilmore made several big plays and regularly stepped up his game in the fourth quarter. I do think he is a pro prospect, although maybe not an NFL one.
Gilmore is the kind of guy who could be an AFL, CFL, or UFL all-star. He isn't an athlete who has to be taught to play. He has the knack for making plays at the DE position that the really good pro starting DEs have.
Sophomore Brandon Akpunku showed signs of being an elite but undersized speed pass rusher in his first year recording 5.5 sacks, even though he lacks the size and bulk for the position. His sack total landed him a spot on the Phil Steele all-Sun Belt second team.
He really never should have been an every-down player, but the coaching staff loved his fire and made him one early in the year. When they later made him more of a spot pass rusher, the run defense improved, but Akpunku didn't play as well. There may have been a lack of focus and maturity there. He lost his cool several times drawing flags after "the demotion."
He is a good and fiery player who has a shot to become UNT's version of a Charles Haley. He is only the size of a small linebacker, but plays bigger and much, much tougher than his size.
Freshman KC Obi showed signs that he might be a solid defensive end by his senior year. He, too, was hugely undersized ---even smaller than Akpunku --- but he played the run with better technique than Akpunku.
As a pass rusher, he doesn't have the explosion of Akpunku and has no power rush, but does have reasonable speed.
Sam Owusu-Hemmeng, a Junior DE who had talent but never really seemed to have focus earlier in his career, put on a clinic at the end of the fall preseason practices and forced his way into the starting lineup. He started for the first half of the season until he incurred the wrath of the coaching staff, and he too was banished to the bench for the rest of the season, in his case in favor of Gilmore.
He was larger than Obi and Akpunku, but still a bit undersized, especially for the strong side. He showed good speed as a perimeter rusher, but generally he only made plays as a pass rusher when the QB fled the pocket and Owusu-Hemeng could run away from the tackle and after the QB.
At 242 lbs, he never should have been the starting strong side DE, but all things considered he wasn't a train wreck there --- merely substandard. If he squares his problems with the staff, I could see him beating out Obi as the run down defensive end on the weak side next year and having a good season.
Tevinn Cantly was a disappointment for most of the year. In the spring, the redshirt freshman Cantly emerged as the starting strong side DE. By game one, he had fallen behind Owusu-Hemeng, as the coaching staff tried to get more speed on the field.
When Cantly did play at DE, he looked a bit lost playing in space.
When the coaching staff moved Gilmore back to DE, they moved Cantly to DT and a whole different Cantly emerged. He played quite well down the stretch at DT and really helped the team's run defense.
Juco transfer John Weber didn't play due to injuries. The coaching staff has tried to redshirt the junior, giving him two more years to play. He could be Gilmore's replacement at the strong side DE. At 6-3 and 288 lbs with a good history of getting to the QB (8.5 sacks in his last JUCO year), he is a nice prospect.
For most of the season, Junior Shavod Atkinson was the main constant on the defensive line. He played well vs. the run and at times showed top level talent as a power rusher. His techniques in the pass rush looked weak at times and he appeared to carrying about 5-7 lbs of extra fat that limited his stamina.
He seemed to tire out a little more quickly than he should have. If he improves his conditioning in the offseason and works on his pass rushing techniques, he could take his game up to an NFL-prospect level.
Junior Kelvin Jackson may actually be more talented than Atkinson. He was on and off the field due to injuries and uneven play. He too was generally solid against the run, but carried about 10 lbs of excess weight. He also has some stamina issues.
It would have been ideal if the coaching staff could have played both Atkinson and Jackson together all season long. They really played well together, but with their conditioning, it was just not possible. The staff apparently made the decision to try to always have one of them on the field to anchor the line.
Jackson seems less compact and explosive than Atkinson but flashed much better pass rush potential, flashing some speed and quickness. I really like Jackson a lot, but he has to have the same kind of offseason as Atkinson to really reach his potential.
Redshirt Junior Draylen Ross looks like an NFL DE but was pretty marginal playing DT. At best, he played like a fourth DT on a Sun Belt team. He is a tall muscular player, who should be having an impact on the game. He started and played a lot, but didn't produce much.
Shorter interior linemen were able to get leverage on him regularly and seal him off. In the pass rush, he lacked the leverage to power rush shorter interior linemen and in the cramped middle of the line couldn't get his feet moving to get by his man.
He looked like a fish out of water at DT.
Hopefully, the staff won't waste this guy's final year having him play DT again. To me, it is the Gilmore situation all over again. (Ross was a star DE/TE in high school—two positions where UNT needs help and it doesn't seem a stretch to say Ross has the body type and physical tools to excell.)
Junior DT Jesse Desoto was dramatically improved before succumbing to injury. He was OK vs. the run and pass. He played at a fourth or fifth DT level, even though he is still a little undersized.
With more strength training and further technique work, he could be poised for a strong senior year, where he becomes a good, solid rotation DT for a good defense.
Over the course of the season, DL coach Mike Wilson figured out how to get the most out of these players and pulled his grade up from the depths. There was no question the defensive line played with much better technique this year.
That said, not moving Gilmore back to DE from game one may have been the factor that stopped this defense from becoming one of the better defenses in the Sun Belt. That really was inexcusable. It would have been very intersting to see how many sacks this team could have rolled up with a run down package of Gilmore on the strong side and Owusu-Hemeng on the weak side and a passing down combo of Russo on the strong side and Akpunku on the weak side. Alas, it was not to be.
It is generally your best move to play your players where they can best deliver.
Gilmore was potentially an all-conference DE. Phil Steele's Sun Belt guide actually had him on one of the pre-season all-sunbelt teams. A lot of people in the sports media who follow football and the sunbelt saw Gilmore for what he was and wrote about it before the season. Still Gilmore had to spent half the season as the team's third or fourth DT.
Everyone saw it but the coaching staff. It was the most asked question about the team for half of the season. There is no reason for that kind of coaching arrogance and bullheadedness. You have to take your home runs where you have them.
Additionally, You have to ding them for the Russo loss as clearly it was one the team could not afford. It was a shock when he left the program after playing well down the strech in 2008. It has remained a bit of a mystery as to why he left as the stated reasons for him leaving ring false.
People have theorized on it and what they have come up with makes more sense even though it paints all parties in an unfavorable light. This is certainly not gospel and even if it is dead on accurate, we will never know as no one will ever confirm it, because no one looks good if it is true.
Here is what may have occurred.
In the described chronology, Wilson felt Russo got lazy/was not showing enough progress and demoted him to third string in the spring behind unproven and far less talented players to light a fire under his butt. There is much of this that suggests "new position coach establishing that he is the authority".
Russo felt like it was BS and he did what young guys sometimes do and tried improper means to make his point, rather than trying re-earning the PT on the field. If this is the nut of it, Russo looks a bit like a spoiled rich kid who thought he should have been given the benefit of the doubt based on prior accomplishments and the fact that he went with Dodge over other offers.
He may have tried to use what leverage he had (whether it was connections with Dodge or the threat of transferring) to make a point. Todd Dodge who couldn't afford to potentially have a true believer South Lake guy being a clubhouse lawyer and undermining the team and the coaching staff all year.
There is also the favoritism argument. Russo may have effectively had a rougher time because Riley Dodge had an easy time. Making Russo really earn it may have in essence become the "proof" that Southlake players weren't being shown favortism.
Managing personalities is not a strength of Dodges' and so much was depending on DL play that he could not afford to have Wilson undermined. He called Russo's bluff. Russo freaked out and felt he had to leave to save face. No one won.
It is hard to fault Dodge and the staff too much on their handling of it, beyond putting the kid on third team in the first place. He was probably the third best DE on the roster and one of the DE's better than him --- Gilmore --- was playing DT at the time. That WAS over the top. They'd have gotten the desired effect by making Russo second team ---close enough to starting to taste it --- and giving him clear instruction on what was needed to become first team. I think you can throw some blame at Wilson for not pushing the right buttons.
Rich kids often don't respond to things the way everyone else does. Russo was a good talent lost for stupid reasons. Rich kids do need to have their buttons pushed from time to time just like poor kids, but sometimes you have to be a little better at reading your players and pushing the right buttons for them. Wilson as an experienced coach probably has been through this kind of thing before and should have handled it better.
I fully admit there is a ton of speculation in this, so as far that goes feel free to take it or leave it.
I am only docking Wilson for what we know. He inherited a 6-3 240 lb starting sophomore DE who ran a 4.7 and racked up 34 sacks in 2 years in high school and lost him within a couple months of taking the job.
Player Grade: C+
Coaching Grade: C-
The team was disappointing vs. both the run and pass for the first half of the season, and the LBs have to take a lot of the blame for that.
They needed to be the heart of the defense early on and only Tobe Nwigwe delivered. The resurgence on defense in the second half coincided with Jeremy Phillips moving into the starting lineup at OLB, the shuffling of the DL personnel, and weaker offensive opponents.
Senior Tobe Nwigwe was the headliner in the offseason, and he had a pretty good season until injuries took him out, but he didn't play as well as he did last season. With NFL talent, he is a guy who can make the eye-popping big play. He had improved line play in front of him this year keeping offensive linemen off of him but was not consistently in the right place vs. the run.
Nwigwe was still the team's only defensive big play guy for the first half of the season. He seems to lack the head for the game to be a MLB, but has the instincts married to size, athleticism, and explosion to be a good ILB.
I am reminded of the Saints with Vaughn Johnson and Sam Mills. Mills made all the regular run stuffs and Johnson would occasionally chip in a big play. I don't know that Nwigwe has top-level NFL-starting talent, but he is the same kind of guy as Johnson.
After Nwigwe went down, former starting OLB A.J. Penson stepped into the starting lineup at MLB and played well. Penson, a Junior, was a poor playmaker at OLB, but was very solid in the middle.
He can't cover like Nwigwe could, but was better at diagnosing the run correctly consistently. He played a role in the team's improvement vs. the run in the season's second half.
He is a smaller player than Nwigwe, but is a pretty solid middle linebacker. He is a player you can win with at that position.
Junior Craig Robertson, a former All-Sun Belt pick, had a decent but unspectacular year. He made tackles, was disciplined, and was generally in the right place, but made next to no big plays. In that regard, he had a disappointing year.
He was passed over in the regular all-Sun Belt awards, but was named second team in the Phil Steele all-Sun Belt team.
Senior Kylie Hill, a converted safety, manned the other outside spot until injuries took him down. He was learning a new position and also didn't make any big plays.
Redshirt Freshman Jeremy Phillips stepped into the position after Hill went down and made a number of big plays. Despite his excellent instincts and understanding of the game, he is still a work in progress. He really needs to add some size and strength (hopefully without losing speed) and work on his tackling over the offseason to become the player he can be.
At the end of the day, you have to say that more than any other position, these guys didn't play up to their potential.
The defense needed a really big year from the LBs in terms of drive ending plays and didn't get it. Further UNT was the worst team in the Sun Belt in generating turnovers.
UNT started the season with two former All-Sun Belt players and a former MVP of the defensive secondary starting at linebacker behind a much better defensive line. That trio should have been able to eat up the short passing game. To deliver what they did was beyond disappointing.
Certainly, defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach can be cut some slack as the MLBs he worked with were at least solid all year and he did turn the defense around in the season's second half with a focus on improved run defense that cut about 10 points off the point allowed vs. their season average, but the fact that OLB Coach David Rausch had two of the best four players from last year's defense and got no big plays out of them and got the best play from the player who worked with him the least, speaks volumes.
Rausch has to do a much better job next year of teaching his charges what keys or clues to look for from each opponent in order to anticipate play opportunities.
Player Grade: C-
MLB/DC Coaching Grade: B-
OLB Coaching Grade: F
UNT staff sold out to stop the pass first this year. To stop the pass you need some pressure in the form of UNT pass rushers near the QB and have defensive backs who put pressure on the QB to place the ball correctly on their passes or risk having it intercepted.
I think UNT was at least somewhat competent in the first area, but failed miserably in the latter. Opposing QBs were able to lay the passes out there in the general vicinity of their receivers and know that their receiver would catch them or they would fall incomplete. There was very little threat of UNT's pass defenders making a play on the ball. That makes the plays a QB and a receiver have to make much easier than if they are constantly worried about ball placement to avoid interceptions.
It dramatically reduces the frequency of stops.
UNT's defensive backs were coached to play it safe and focus on getting their receivers down. Teams will pass on you with impunity if there are no ramifactions on heavy passing. Furthermore, that philosophy just doesn't work with a defense that is designed to stop the pass first.
I look at that and scratch my head about the defensive philosophy with which the team entered the season. It doesn't seem conceptually sound or coherent. It seems like UNT was trying to mix two philosophies that were incompatible.
Unless you commit whole heartedly to stuffing the run as UNT started to do late in the season, you cannot succeed with any regularity with that status quo in your secondary.
With the possible exceptions of the first and last games, opposing QBs clearly did not feel any concerns putting the ball in play against UNT's defensive backs.
Despite loads of experience returning and the lineup being populated specifically to stop the pass, the secondary was a huge problem again this year --- one that was somewhat statistically masked by games against the atrocious passing offenses of Army (87 yards), ULL (122), and FIU (85) (in the 9 other games UNT gave up an average of 256 passing yards per game) and the coaching staff's decision to roll over vs. the run for most of the year to get more pass rushing speed on the field.
(Most teams didn't throw as much as they could have vs. UNT as UNT was very easy to run on for most of the season.)
Several QBs had their way with this secondary, throwing multiple TDs with no interceptions. I think one could argue UNT's secondary got the better of Ball State's, Army's, and Arkansas State's QBs.
Ball State's QB was a freshman first year starter who completed 52.75 of his passes this season for a QB rating of 96. He was winless as the team's starting Qb and did not start their last 5 games.
Army's starting QB is a runner first. He threw a grand total of 3 TD passes this year and only posted a 103 QB rating. Based on his low season TD total and the fact that UNT didn't intercept him, it might very well be argued that UNT's secondary didn't get the better of him either. He played his usual game.
Arkansas State started a freshman in his 4th or 5th start against UNT. He had a season rating of 126, but he did unquestionably have his worst day against UNT, throwing 3 interceptions.
The other 9 teams' QBs outplayed UNT's secondary. It is tough to spin that.
The coaches worked hard with the players on tackling, and the one positive you could reach was that tackling was vastly improved. UNT's secondary players have become much more disciplined and are fairly good tacklers against opposing wideouts. Rather than seeing WRs catch 25-yard passes and then beat their men for 70-yard TDs like last season, this year the DBs tackled those guys after the 25-yard catch.
Still, it would have been nice to see these talented and experienced players break up passes on a consistent basis and go for the interception every once in a while. The team generated only 7 Interceptions all year --- third worst in the Sun Belt --- and that was with 3 INTs in the last game! Yes, through 11 games the team had 4 Interceptions.
Sophomore CB Royce Hill is beloved by the local media, who consider him one of the Sun Belt's better cornerbacks.
At this point in Hill's career, that is a damning comment on the state of cornerbacks in the Sun Belt. (After much consideration, I still don't buy the idea that he is one of the better CBs in the Sun Belt. Not yet.)
Hill WAS dramatically better than he was as a freshman. He generally was near his man and tackled the guy after he made the catch this year. That is really all you can say about Royce Hill's play this year.
He was repeatedly beaten for TDs, sometimes for multiple TDs in games. That is not something you should say about a star CB.
With luck, Hill will get more confident in attacking the pass when he has good position in the future. He is nowhere near a shut down CB today, but the talent is very obviously there. The media love for him drives me nuts, but I do hope Hill becomes our Troy Vincent sometime soon.
Senior CB Adryan Adams was a similar player. I thought he was a little better than Hill. He did occasionally break up a pass although he was again pretty obviously coached to get his man down rather than try to break up plays.
Junior CB Robbie Gordon started vs. Ball State in UNT's secondary's best game vs. the pass all year. Of the three, he was probably the most likely to make a play on the ball.
Hopefully, he won't be buried on the bench next year as the coaching staff chases speed.
Junior Ira Smith was very good at one safety and I seem to recall he being on the feild almost all of the time, but the team seemed to have something of a revolving door at the other slot, especially in the latter half of the season.
Luckily, all three of the players who saw time there showed talent.
DeWaylon Cook may have been the best cover man of the three and played heavily in the first half of the season, but Darien Williams and John Shorter were better vs. the run. Cook would ultimately make the Phil Steele all-Sun Belt second team even though like Akpunku and Robertson, he was snubbed in the regular Sun Belt team voting.
The cornerbacks were a huge disappointment this year in their total lack of instinct going for the ball, but the safeties were quite good overall, even tough they really didn't play the ball much either.
It should be noted that UNT employs a coach for safeties and a coach for CBs. Recruiter extraordinaire Chuck Peterson coaches the safeties, and Carleton Buckels coaches the CBs.
I was impressed by the tackling of all DB backs and the general improved discipline, but Buckels really needs to work with the corners on breaking on the ball. There were a lot of errant passes thrown against UNT's defense, but only 7 Interceptions and only 5 by the secondary.
Player grade: C-
CB Coaching Grade: C-
S Coaching Grade: B
Special teams were dramatically improved this year. UNT was not the worst in the country in this area, but, sadly, they were still among the worst.
At least three losses may have been due to special team breakdowns. The team had several blocked kicks based on collapses in the middle of the line. That is hugely unacceptable.
Punt returners were badly coached, repeatedly making 180-degree turns rather than embracing north/south running. (Sharp directional changes almost always leads to clipping calls --- it is almost never the correct thing to do on a punt return. More subtle cuts while you are working your way upfeild are the way to do it.)
The team discovered an elite kick returner talent in Jamaal Jackson (perhaps the best in the Sun Belt), but apparently very little coaching time was given to him to teach him how to be competent at the job. The team reverted to Royce Hill late in the year. Hill is a solid returner, not a great one.
The coverage teams were average at best.
There is no way Shelton Gandy should be coming back as UNT's special teams coach this year. Even if Dodge needs to pay a proven ace special teams cash out of his pocket next season, it needs to get done. There were simply too many areas where the special teams failed.
Gandy is a very good running backs coach and a top recruiter, but not nearly as good of a special teams coach.
Players grade: D
Coaches grade: D-
I'd like to give Todd Dodge a better grade than I did, but at 2-10 with many of the same issues that have haunted him all throughout his career as UNT's head coach, I really can't.
The only reason he didn't get an F is that he didn't lost the team this year.
He continued to lose talents like Russo in the off-season. Recruiting is a problem here. Dodge can't afford to continue to lose guys who can help his team win.
He needs to lay down the law with his staff that he wants his top 2-3 at each spot back next year. Assistants should be held accountable for retention of players at the top of the depth chart. No stupid head games.
The assistants need to make the players feel like even if they aren't starting they are getting a fair shake and that the coaches are working as hard as they can to make them all the best players they can be.
I think guys like Sam Roberson need a little TLC or at least an understanding ear from the position coaches if that will keep them. This team can't afford to continue to bleed good talent.
I'd like to see a guy like Buckels put a hard recruit on Roberson to get him to agree to play corner next year.
It is even difficult for an admitted Todd Dodge advocate like myself to defend Dodge from the standard criticisms of him having a "high school" coaching philosophy this year.
At the start of the season, Coach Dodge really undercut the odds of him having a breakthrough season by effectively gelding his senior class. He already had a very small group of seniors. Coach Dodge decided when competition for a slot was close to play underclassmen.
This is regular high school approach to turning around a program. You sell out a weak senior class to give you a larger more experienced senior class next year that might help you win.
It is a trade off. You write off this year with the hope that next year's class will break through. Once they win, everyone becomes more confident about the program and you don't have to do that.
It can work in college too. Teams can play freshmen loaded lineups and grow into a mature team. Idaho started a lot of sophomores and Freshmen in Robb Akey's first year and they broke through in their third year.
The problem is that UNT obviously had the talent to compete last season. They were in 6 games that they ended up losing. 8 wins was possible with the talent on hand.
The problem all year long was a lack of player leadership. It didn't have to be that way.
If Coach Dodge had taken the opposite tact and given his seniors the edge, he could have had a much tougher minded team with a pronounced sense of urgency in winning now. Starting Gilmore at strongside DE, Montgomery at HB, Gabe Hollivay and Tyler Bailey at the guards, Tobe Nwigwe at MLB, Adryan Adams at CB, and Dickerson at Lewis's outside slot (at least early on while Lewis was out) could likely have created a spine in the team that frankly was missing all year.
They could have thrown some passes at the experienced and refined Dickerson early on when the other receivers were still a bit lost. He is the kind of guy who might have been a pretty effective punt returner. Even a guy like Montgomery who lost his job could have been tasked with something else important --- like being the team's designated short yardage back and occasional slot receiver. Gilmore and Nwigwe could have been tasked with making sure the team played the run consistently with fire. Hollivay and Bailey could have been tasked with making sure the team got movement in short yardage. Dodge could have put important problem areas into the hands of his seniors, but he chose not to use them.
Having players on the field who see their time running out and demand their best and their teammates' best now gives your younger players someone to look up to for leadership. It gives the team player leadership that can rattle cages with authority.
How much authority did Gilmore carry with him as a 3rd DT? As much as he did as the team's best DL? How much authority did guys like Hollivay and Montgomery have sitting on the bench?
Dodge gutted the team of leadership. It lead to the frequent loss of focus every time UNT got out to a 10 point lead. It lead to the games where the team sleepwalked on to the field.
It almost cost the entire staff their jobs and may turn out to bite Coach Dodge in the butt next year.
Would he have been better off for next season with maybe 3-4 fewer young starters and a team that won 4-6 games? I think he would have. The large senior class should hopefully help the odds of this team winning next season, but Dodge still has to make this team believe it can win.
After all the "we will win" chants this season, it would have been a smarter move to chase the wins relentlessly this season, taking every advantage. Now they have created a little credibility gap there with the current players.
There were a number of other issues. Several coaches had very bad years. Dodge probably should have fired Ford and Rausch after the season and a new special teams coach is still a pressing need. The plain facts are the players played well enough to be in games and that several coach under-delivered and really hurt the team.
I respect Dodge's loyalty in retaining his whole staff, but I question how much is loyalty, and how much is him resisting outside pressure? Taking it a step further, how much is arrogance? We are all given to it.
Sometimes you need to give your coaches cold, hard evaluations. Are those still coming?
I certainly hope that he has harshly critiqued his staff and advised each of them of his findings. I am sure Dodge feels like he triumphed over outside intervention by convincing the University to retain all of his staff, but I hope Dodge doesn't cheat his staff out of a critical review that could help them provide their players with better coaching.
I hope Dodge hasn't effectively taken a sledgehammer to his staff's chances by protecting guys who didn't deserve to be protected. A lot of the guys on this staff have done good jobs and don't deserve to be dragged down by others who can't do their jobs.
With bowl eligibility on the line and a stretch of games your team felt were quite winnable, UNT's defense stepped up and its offense collapsed, despite having arguably the best running back in the Sun Belt at its disposal and a very competent collection of offensive talent.
All season long the offense was shut down when plays had to be made.
That is either on the offensive coordinator or, if the head coach calls many of the plays as Dodge does, that is on the head coach.
One of the two, if not both, really blew it. I would put most of that on Ford because as far as I can see he did a crap job in both of his areas of responsibility, but Dodge did play a role there as well.
Against Army, Dodge toyed with going for it on 4th-and-5 at the end of the game. He called two timeouts before calling for the FG that was ultimately blocked.
That progression should be a wakeup call.
Going for it on 4th-and-5 from field-goal range with a three-point lead against a team your defense had controlled all game showed desperation and a lack of confidence in his players. Dodge should never have even considered it.
You immediately kick the FG and make Army go the length of the field on your defense.
Dodge called a timeout, sent in a play that didn't get run—perhaps due to players on the offense having no faith in it or due to slow delivery from the staff—he called another timeout to prevent a delay of game and decided to go for the FG.
Then, Army blocked it.
Maybe they don't block it if not for the timeouts. Maybe they are too gassed or don't get set or focused properly.
Dodge is under extreme pressure, whether he admits it to himself or not. That was it getting the better of him.
Dodge needs someone further from the fire making those calls or at least the play-to-play calls to keep him fresher for the big calls. It makes no sense to put the most stressed individual in charge of the most important part of game management.
Frankly, in Dodge's shoes, George would be my OC for next year and Ford just the QB coach ... if I absolutely was going to retain the whole staff. Dodge has a very solid offensive scheme, but I haven't seen anything that suggests Ford is ready to be an OC at the collegiate level yet.
The biggest failing I see in Dodge is a lack of oversight on his staff.
If Dodge believes in his staff, he should set guidelines in which they must operate (put your players in the best situation for them to succeed would be my rule #1), then invest almost total authority in the assistants, only wrangling them in when they are totally off the tracks.
Dodge currently is so deeply enmeshed in the role of offensive coordinator that he loses sight of things that should be raising the red flag for him. Is his need to call plays ego or a lack of trust in his coordinator? Either read is indefensible.
If it is ego, he is hurting the team because his play calling removes him from the role of weekly corrector of bad staff decisions. If it is due to a lack of trust in the coordinator, Dodge is masking a problem that should be corrected.
And there were a lot of situations like that this year.
There is no way that UNT should have had numerous kicks blocked right up the middle over a series of games. The head coach should have caught that and had the special teams coach fix it after the first game.
There is no way UNT should have the exact same problems throwing deep in Week 11 that they had in Week 2. The head coach should have caught that and had the QB coach and OC fix the issue.
There is no way that the team's best defender should be pushed out of a position of need to be a glorified backup for half the season. The head coach should have put a stop to that by Week 2.
There is no way a team should enter the season with a stop the pass first defensive philosophy while the secondary coaches are coaching the players to play prevent. This was mindblowing to me. I get the feeling that Dodge may have wanted a stop the pass first defense anticipating high offensive scoring, but DeLoach and the staff may have backgrounds in stopping the run first and hoping the passing game makes mistakes.
This team needs a coherent defensive strategy. The defensive coordinator needs to do what he knows how to do. (The Dallas Cowboys made the same mistake a few years back trying to turn 4-3 coach Mike Zimmer into a 3-4 Defensive Coordinator. It failed miserably. Zimmer has since been a great defensive coordinator running the 4-3 at Atlanta and Cinncinati.)
There is no way such poor halftime adjustments should take place every week. The head coach should have held his staff much more accountable at eliminating what wasn't working and adding at least three to four plays or tweaks that should work at the half.
There is no way such a long run of mediocre game plans should be viewed as acceptable. The head coach should demand more creativity and aggressiveness.
There is no way game plans should not include scoring philosophies that are shared with the players. In games that scoring looks tough, players should be emotionally prepared for FGs and the play calling should be designed to rack up FGs. The coach should be insisting the offensive coordinator prep the players better for the realities of the opponent to prevent the team from emotionally crashing when decisions are made to kick field goals instead of going for first downs or TDs.
This team finished with a Sun Belt worst -14 takeaway to turnover ratio. They were the worst in the sunbelt in generating turnovers with only 15 all year and the worst in giving the ball away with 29 giveaways (including a league worst 17 interceptions). A head coach should be looking at those numbers all season long and should pick up on that and make changes well before midseason.
There is no way this team should not have been able to pick up tough yards with the talent on hand. They could not even effectively run a QB sneak. Even after they found a workable and sensible short yardage solution in their wildcat set, the staff mothballed it. The head coach needed to look every harshly at short yardage failures and did not, possibly due to taking umbrage to the implied criticism of his short yardage concepts.
Great coaches do not have sacred cows.
The changes due to constant evaluation should be happening all the time—every week, not six weeks down the road.
Dodge sucks at all of this because he has his head buried in play calling and other things that he enjoys about being a head coach. He can't get any perspective on a timely basis being that intertwined with the minutia.
He needs to get better at the things he doesn't enjoy about being a head coach—including being the final authority.
If Dodge truly trusts his staff, he needs to invest more responsibility in them and then hold them accountable.
Let them coach the players. Let him focus on coaching the staff and quickly calling bullshit on their largely indefensible poor decisions and if need be firing assistants.
This team has enough talent that just an off-season of weight lifting and technique improvement could get them to have a shot at 9 wins, but if Dodge doesn't improve as a head coach and force his assistants get better and to do a better job, this team won't break 500.
Dodge needs to find a way to make some change his methodology that he can tolerate to gain better perspective. This will allow him to be a better head coach.