It is hard not to be optimistic as a Mean Green football fan heading into 2010.
UNT is loaded with both talent and experience, something that has not been the case since before Head Coach Todd Dodge arrived on campus.
With above average Sun Belt talent on hand, the issue will come down to coaching this year.
There are generally three coordinators handling three units in football in the college level. To win with consistency, teams generally have to win two of the three areas...That means new offensive coordinator Mike Canales could be the determining factor in the Mean Green's football success in 2010.
Recruiting and the Sun Belt
Rosters in the Sun Belt are generally comprised almost entirely of players who were two- and three-star prospects. Between 2007 and 2010, the nine sunbelt schools combined to only sign 131 prospects on signing day that Rivals.com ranked as greater than two-star prospects.
96 of those 131 prospects landed at Troy, MTSU, FIU, and UNT. Only 35 of those prospects signed with ULM, ULL, FAU, WKU, and StAte.
Troy and MTSU are, of course, the elite programs of the Sun Belt. FIU and UNT both had big recruiting years this year somewhat narrowing the four-year talent gap with Troy and MTSU.
UNT had their best signing day in the Todd Dodge era this week, landing eight players in their 2010 recruiting class ranked three-star prospects by Rivals.com.
The UNT Defense and Gary DeLoach
In many ways, the impact this will have on the UNT defense could be profound.
UNT Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach was the architect of the defensive unit that would go on to propell UNT to 4 straight Sun Belt titles in the early part of the last decade. He's been a defensive coordinator for just under 20 years. He's coached in the NFL. He's coached in the Pac-10. He won a JUCO national title as a defensive coordinator in 1997.
He seems to know what he is doing, which makes the results of the last two seasons disappointing. DeLoach has not publically complained about the talent leading fans to think the talent has been there to win—the results simply haven't been there.
There is a line of thought pushed by Brett Vito in his Mean Green Blog that Deloach has seemed somewhat dissappointed in the talent and depth of talent he has had to work with since returning to UNT.
With the eight three-star recruits UNT landed this year, DeLoach now enters the 2010 season with 11 three star recruits on defense. He has the option of replacing every starter in his defensive back seven with a new three-star recruit.
In addition to returning nine defensive starters, he will have the option of starting a three-star recruit at nine of his 11 spots.
Just in terms of talent, that is very salty for the Sun Belt.
It seems pretty likely with upper echelon talents (for the Sun Belt) to execute his defense this year, UNT's defense will see another jump in effectiveness mirroring the improvement from 47.6 ppg in 2008 to 36.4 ppg in 2009. Considering the infusion of speed and talent, the large number of returning starters, and the defense's strong finish (allowing 28.8 ppg in the last four games of 2009), it does not seem that unlikely that the defense improves to the point where they are allowing say 25-27 ppg in 2010.
Special Teams get a bump but will likely continue to struggle
Special teams will be improved...afterall, they can hardly get much worse.
The failure of Todd Dodge to retain long time UNT special teams coach Eric Russell when Dodge took over has haunted the Dodge regime.
Many UNT fans feel Dodge gave the job to a "homey hookup" who was not qualified to handle the job. The coach who was in the position certainly did not dispell that impression. In 2008, UNT had the worst special teams in the nation and Dodge was forced to make a change.
In 2009, star running back coach Shelton Gandy was tasked with additionally taking on the special teams units. Gandy used an influx of talented faster athletes to dramatically improve the team's coverage and return units...but the special teams units were still pretty awful.
Kickoff returns were where the good news for UNT special teams started and ended in 2009.
Gandy did a very solid job in coordinating and coaching kick returns. Royce Hill was a very reliable and productive kick returner. He was joined by a star kick-returning talent in 4.4 speedster Jamaal Jackson. Together they helped UNT lead the Sun Belt in average per kick return.
UNT could and probably should be even better in that area next year. Jackson made a number of mistakes as a returner that Gandy should be able to correct if he is competent as a special teams coach. If UNT uses Jackson in that role again this year, he should be even better with solid coaching. UNT also landed a couple of recruits who might figure into the return game. Plus DB Ira Smith showed a lot as a kick returner last spring. He also has 4.4 speed and could figure in as well.
Punt returns were nothing to write home about, as UNT finished sixth in the Sun Belt with a 5.9 yard per return average. I was unimpressed with the coaching in this area. Again there are talents coming in who might figure in on punt returns.
Despite massive progress, the coverage units were still pretty awful last season. UNT cut their opponents' punt return average from their 2008 average of 13.1 to 11.4 and their opponents' kick returns from 31.0 to 21.7 yards per kick return.
To give perspective, UNT lead the Sun Belt in Kick returns with a 22.3 average, and FIU lead the league in punt returns with a 12.1 yard average.
Special teams looked merely below average for the Sun Belt until UNT suffered a run of field goals blocked up the middle of over a run of games. That really put UNT firmly at the bottom of the Sun Belt. Still, that was a major step up from 2008. And things should get better in 2010.
While there is a question of Gandy's competence as a special teams coach, and whether he should be splitting those responsibilities with Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach (former special teams coach at UCLA), the sheer number of speedy sure tacklers recruited should very much help the coverage units, even if they aren't the best coached units in the conference.
The seven three-star recruits who are scheduled to challenge for starting spots in the defensive back seven might figure in to the coverage units, too. Other recruits in this class like S Will Wright, ace special teams players like kick returner Brelan Chancellor (four TDs on Kickoff returns in high school), Blake Dunham (blocked kick in high school), and CB D'Leon McCord (best special team player on his JUCO team) should also dramatically improve the talent on hand for Gandy's units.
Punter Will Atterberry had his good and bad moments as a freshman.
Coach Todd Dodge praised the team's new Kicker Zachary Olen for the height he gets on his kickoffs. If that also translates into his field goals, that could potentially help with the blocked kicks issue, although there was a lot more wrong on those blocked kicks than the kicker.
It is likely that at minimum, coverage and returns will improve with this influx of talent putting the other units into better postions.
It is also likely that special teams will not consistently outperform UNT's opponent's units.
Which Brings Us to the Offense
Offense seems the big question.
Will UNT improve on offense this year?
UNT averaged a respectable 26.6 points per game last season in spite of having a number of issues.
The team could not complete long passes (third-worst yard per attempt in the Sun Belt). They committed a sun Belt worst 29 turnovers, putting the defense into bad situations and causing the young team to suffer disasterous emotional meltdowns in many games.
They had an inability to score in the red zone (fourth-worst in the Sun Belt) with 15.2 percent of their trips to the red zone not even yielding a FG attempt (third-worst in the Sun Belt).
They could not convert in short yardage (fifth in the Sun Belt in third-down conversions at 42.1 percent and eighth in fourth-down conversions at 30.8 percent).
And they collapsed down the stretch when they faced better defenses who solved the Mean Green offense and dictated terms to the Mean Green offense on how UNT could use Lance Dunbar. In the last four games of the season, UNT averaged 18.2 points per game.
Still, at the end of the day, 26 points per game is still pretty solid. UNT is returning 10 offensive starters from last season and has four starters back from an exceptional pass blocking offensive line.
They welcome back two of the Sun Belt's top four receivers from last season: speedsters Jamaal Jackson and Darius Carey, the Sun Belt's No. 2 rusher in RB Lance Dunbar, and QB Riley Dodge, a 67.7 percent passer who ran for 463 yards as a first-year starter. They have a wealth of experienced and talented backups like short yardage specialist Micah Mosley (ran for over 400 yards as a freshman before being overshadowed by Lance Dunbar and Cam Montgomery and forgotten by the coaching staff) and WR Breece Johnson (dominated in red zone opportunities at the highest level of Texas High school football).
If UNT simply ran the same offense as last year, they would be able to choose between filling the empty guard spot with a 2008 starter who was very solid, Coleman Feeley, or a 2009 three-star JUCO recruit in Jeremy Bean.
With UNT's growing strength program, it seems likely that the offensive line should get a little stronger and heavier. Hopefully that will translate into a more physical unit that is better at short yardage next year.
But there is more. Like the defense and special teams, the offense has a lot of new talent coming in so they could potentially be a lot better.
The team will be welcoming WRs Tyler Stratford, a physical No. 1-type receiver who transferred in from OU, and William Cole, a transfer from Oklahoma State. Stratford was three star recruit Rivals reported to have 4.41 speed. Cole, a relative of UNT legend "Mean" Joe Green, was a four-star recruit. He played QB in high school but was reportedly on the verge of earning a starting WR job at OSU when he blew out his knee. Cole reportedly had 4.54 speed before he blew out his knee.
The Mean Green will also have a lot of options at the newly featured tight-end position. Juco transfer WR/TE Christopher Bynes is a polished receiver who Todd Dodge said he though UNT would lose to a higher-profile school.
Jamize Olawale, a 237 lb JUCO transfer, is a more natural TE. He appears to have pretty good speed. Austin Fitzpatrick was a TE prospect Dodge outdueled FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger to land last year.
Finally Draylen Ross will be moving back to TE. Ross is a massive 6'4", 292 lbs athlete who played TE in 12 games for UNT as a true freshman, starting one game.
So the talent is definitely there for improvement. Just based on talent, UNT should be able to score say 26-30 points or more against most of the teams on its schedule next year. UNT has the talent to put points up on every team in the Sun Belt at minimum. Can Canales deliver on that talent?
At Arizona, the impression among Wildcat faithful seems to be that in spite of a very valid poor talent argument, Canales still underdelivered. They feel Canales installed an overly-complex offense that the players never mastered, but during games Canales would retreat back to very conservative and repetitive play calling. The end result was not pretty.
His opponents knew what was coming, and his players weren't good at executing the plays he called. The players had a lot of miscommunication, poorly thrown passes, false starts, and penalties—many of these areas in part a function of not being confident in one's ability to execute.
That I can see this is the first OC job where Canales's head coach has been in a win now or else situation. They will impliment the Canales offense in the spring, the players will need to know it by the fall and if they don't, everyone could lose their jobs.
There is no "well, we got close and we'll get it right in year 2 or 3."
Additionally, there are a lot of players who need a lot more time spent learning technique than learning plays and terminology.
Has Canales learned from his past? Will he recognize the time constraints at UNT? Will he scale down his playbook allowing the players a chance to get a good grasp of the offense at UNT? Will he focus on making sure his players are getting his concepts, perhaps even rethinking his standard presentation to make sure they get it?
There seems a very likely logical path for improvement on defense and on special teams. The same cannot be said for the offense. The offense hangs entirely on how efficient Canales is in installing it, how well it utilizes the talent on hand, how well he communicates his concepts, and how well he calls the games. It is all on Canales.
UNT's offense should be better than it was in 2009, but the disturbing truth is that it could be worse in 2010 if Canales doesn't learn from his past and take active steps to change. If he doesn't focus on making his offense digestable, things could go badly in Denton.
The offense could be a turnover and mistake prone anchor that drags the team down and kicks out their legs at crunch time.
If the offense is worse than last season, that could keep this team under .500 and cost this staff their jobs.
It seems very likely that will be the narrative of the upcoming season.
Will Canales deliver?