Word came down yesterday that Todd Dodge had announced Riley Dodge was permanently moved to wide receiver due to chronic arm problems that have compromised his passing ability.
Along with Riley and Coach Dodge, I am absolutely devastated as a fan.
Riley Dodge is flat out one of my favorite members of the team because he is incredibly loyal.
For those of you who don't know the Riley Dodge story, Riley took Southlake to two state championship games in a row. He was the Texas 5-A (top level of play in Texas) Player of the Year. He had a scholarship offer to play for his favorite team, the University of Texas, but then his dad landed the head coaching job at UNT.
It would have reflected very poorly on Coach Dodge if Riley went to UT, so Riley sucked it up and turned his back on UT, taking the scholarship offer to UNT. Riley became devoted to UNT.
North Texas had a very good young starting QB in Giovanni Vizza. Riley's arrival split the team as QB controversies often do.
Riley played some WR to help the lack of talent and development at the spot, but was knocked out for the season. Following the season, Vizza left later citing general dissatisfaction in how many hits he took souring his love of the game. One would think the split locker room also hurt Vizza after he earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
He probably felt he would lose the job to Riley eventually because Riley is a much more instinctive runner... and the coach's son.
Last year, Riley took over at QB and had highs and lows in the job. He won the Sun Belt Player of the Week for his play against Western Kentucky, but he lacked the arm for deep passing and turned the ball over a lot as a runner.
And then there were the injuries.
Physically, Riley Dodge has had a brutal two-and-a-half year span. He has had two separated shoulders, a broken arm, a sprained ankle, and a concussion.
I was thrilled to read that Riley Dodge had spent the offseason working on his footwork and mechanics to allow him to get the most out of his arm in the coming season.
Almost as soon as spring practice opened, there was ominous talk of Riley having trouble with his arm, in spite of him throwing the deep ball better in the first few days. It sounded like he had not recovered from his surgery. His pass count was limited to try to get him through the spring.
Yesterday amounted to the other shoe falling for fans of Riley Dodge.
“Riley has had two major surgeries in two and a half years,” UNT head coach Todd Dodge said. “The residual effects to his elbow didn’t allow him to be able to do what he once did. We have to look at where he can contribute and that is as an athlete in our offense. It’s a full-time move.”
You can choose not to take this quote at face value. Perhaps Todd Dodge realized that he had pushed too hard. Perhaps he realized that his son had been physically ground down by Coach Dodge's efforts to get him on the field as quickly as possible-perhaps before he was physically strong enough to endure the beating.
Perhaps he felt that while Riley could potentially play at a level equal to those QBs backing him up, the chance of injury and another major surgery was simply more than Todd Dodge wanted his son to endure on his behalf.
Perhaps there was an element of saving face. Perhaps Riley's arm, which never appeared all that strong at UNT, was clearly deemed by offensive coordinator Mike Canales to have too little upside attached to a semi-fragile QB.
This move has to be absolutely brutal for both Todd and Riley Dodge. Riley was an extremely accurate passer, a very effective runner, knew the old offense inside and out, and had the instincts that great QB's do, but if the quote can be taken at face value (which is how I chose to take it), ultimately he no longer had the arm today to make all the passes.
One can guess that Offensive Coordinator Mike Canales had the very unhappy job of telling Coach Dodge that Riley's arm was shot or to confirm what Coach Dodge was seeing. Coach Dodge, to his credit, didn't deceive himself out of love towards his son. If Riley's arm was in fact shot, to play him would essentially be keeping two QBs who could make those throws off the field.
For any players (or fans) who doubt Dodge's willingness to put the best players on the field, this at least was a teachable moment for players and fans. Dodge is a much better coach than people credit him for being.
What lies ahead for UNT
Not nearly as bad of a situation as one would think for UNT.
Nathan Tune has really never been able to enter a year with a true legitimate shot at earning the starting job. Now the strong-armed stickman from Celina has a real shot to earn the starting job. Can he adjust his mindset?
I am hopeful it happens, but the 6'4" 206-lb Tune has to do his part. He has to take charge of the team and rally the troops. He has to own the job. He doesn't have to push, potentially making mistakes, he just has to play his game and provide the cool, calm veteran leadership his teammates need... starting yesterday.
Tune is a game competitor who had the unfortunate lot last season of starting in place of an injured Riley Dodge against the two best defenses UNT faced, Alabama and Troy. That really works in his favor this year. He won't see anything tougher than that this season.
Tune came in for an injured Riley Dodge in the opener last year against Ohio for his first collegiate play. After throwing an interception that was returned for a TD, he drove the team down the field for the tying score to send the game to overtime.
He finished the game 9 of 15 for 69 yards, but it should be noted he put two balls perfectly into Michael Outlaw's hands in the end zone that should have been caught for the game-winning score.
In his first start against Alabama, the coaching staff conceded the game and really protected Tune against the pass rush with short passing, but it doesn't change the fact that Tune played well.
Tune completed 16 of 23 (69 percent) for 126 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions or fumbles. Alabama was one of the top defenses in the nation and were motivated to make a point after playing quite poorly the week before. Alabama chewed up UNT's running game, limiting it to just 23 yards—seven of which Tune provided.
With no running game, Tune scored more against Alabama than Ol' Miss, South Carolina, or Mississippi State, and as much as Arkansas. Those are some strong passing offenses that also got the "A-game" from the eventual national champion's defense.
He next played in relief against Florida Atlantic with UNT down 27-19 and completed 13 of 17 (76.5 percent) for 126 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, rallying the team back into the game. UNT would score 40 points, but lose the game 44-40 in no small part due to a total loss of identity and confidence by the defense at that point in the season.
The next week he started against Troy and completed 22 of 33 for 267 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. If UNT presents any kind of running game against Troy's starters, Tune would probably have had them in that game. As it was, UNT could not run the ball until Troy put in their backups. Tune and Dunbar then powered UNT to 20 second-half points.
Finally, in the season finale, Tune came in with UNT down 14-0 in the first and Lance Dunbar held to four carries for negative two yards. With no complimentary running game, Tune struggled in the first half, but Dunbar and Tune got better after the half putting 20 points on the board and getting UNT to within 10 (30-20) with 8 minutes to go before being knocked out.
(It should also be noted that good feild position and a nice run by Dunbar had UNT in position for a 37 yard FG while Tune was in, which should have cut that lead to 7, but that FG attempt was blocked. While Tune didn't complete any passes on that drive, he didn't turn the ball over and that gets to the heart of what Tune offers.)
Tune finished the game with his worst stats of the year. He completed 9 of 19 for a measley 55 yards but he had 1 TD and no interceptions or fumbles.
That is pretty much the worst Tune will give you. As Army proved, you can win with that.
Tune doesn't get nearly enough credit. He finished the year with a higher passer rating than Riley Dodge and some very nice numbers, 69 of 107 (64.5 percent) for 646 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions, but that doesn't tell anywhere near the whole story.
UNT was a mistake-prone team last year. When Tune was in there, the team had very few turnovers. They just didn't make those mistakes when he was in the game.
Tune has a great high school resume although it is from a 2A school. He lead his team to a perfect 16-0 record and the 2A state title as a senior. His offense scored 46.1 points per game that year.
This is a guy who can run a high powered offense and not make mistakes. He proved it in high school and he proved it last year. A lot of fans don't like him because he doesn't push the envelope to make plays like Riley Dodge.
They argue he is a game manager. I'd say that may be true, but he has the skills to excel in this offense and be a really, really good game manager.
I love Tune. The kid plays within himself.
Now mind you, he is a much lesser talent playing at a lesser level, but as a passer he has the same kind of attributes Troy Aikman displayed in Dallas. He is accurate on short and midrange throws with the arm to go deeper, although we don't have enough film on him to see if he has deep accuracy. We do know he is the best on the team in that regard though and that has a lot of value on a team that is likely to start 3 receivers who run 4.5 or faster.
As a runner, he is not Riley Dodge, but he has some scoot.
Can he sense the pass and sidestep it? He did well enough at that last year to think the answer is probably yes. We do know this is a good player who faced one of the best and most talented defenses in the country last year without a running game and scored a TD. That in itself is pretty impressive. He might really blossom if given the chance.
And he is a senior. If Dodge wants to win this year, Tune is the smart play, but Tune has to earn it.
While I think Tune should be the starter, I am certainly not advocating giving him the job if he plays like crap in the new offense. I say give him the starting job unless he plays himself out of it.
Tune has been given a real run for what had been the backup spot by Derek Thompson. Thompson has NFL dimensions (6'4", 223) and has been praised as a runner this spring. He is a more polished runner than Tune, the kind of guy who could potentially pick up short yardage for this offense through physical running.
I like Thompson a lot too long term, but he represents a gamble this year.
If Tune gets this new offense, UNT is practically guaranteed a .500 record with him running a mistake-free offense with tons of talent around him and a defense which took a major step forward in the last month of the season and now off a strong recruiting season has the chance to start three-star recruits at 10 of the 11 starting spots.
If Tune starts, what you see with UNT (a team loaded with talent at every spot) is what you get. With the expected level of defensive improvement, that is probably good enough for 6 wins. Tune isn't likely to give many, if any, games away.
Thompson is far more likely to give you feast or famine results like Riley Dodge did last year. As much as his talent is exciting, I personally would have to see Tune totally implode or go down with an injury before I take the ball out of this particular kind of senior QB's hands in a make or break year.
Senior leadership afterall was a huge problem last year.
In time, Riley Dodge could be a pretty decent starting slot receiver, but this team is loaded at WR today. I think a far more likely progression is that Dodge is a 15-20 catch guy at absolute best this year and next year and then challenges and probably earns a starting role his senior year.
Prior to spring practice, I'd have suspected Jamaal Jackson, Darius Carey, and either Tyler Stradford or BJ Lewis would be our three starting WRs with the odd man out of that lot plus Micheal Outlaw and Alex Lott making up our second string.
I could see last year's spring practice sensation Benny Jones making a push for a rotation job. Since then, Grant Davis has emerged as this spring's suprise emergent wide receiver. Breece Johnson is another guy who could make a spot for himself as a red zone threat.
What I am trying to say is it is difficult to see Riley as even a second-teamer in today's receiving corps. He knows the offense, has good hands, and is polished, but the facts are he is not one of the faster or bigger receivers on the team.
Next year when Outlaw, Jackson, Lott, Jones, Jackson, and Johnson have graduated, I would fully expect Dodge to seal up at least the second team slot receiver job.
In Riley's senior year, after Stradford and Lewis have graduated and Dodge is stronger and faster, I can see him being a very effective starting slot receiver, and maybe an all-Sun Belt player.
Still, as one who thought Dodge might be UNT's version of Ty Detmer by his senior year, this is tough news to swallow.