I struggled with writing this article because I do have a lot of respect for the coaching staff and the decision of who to start at QB is really best made as an internal decision by the staff with as little outside cheerleading as possible.
That said, I do think it is good to have the logic of all choices traced out somewhere, so you can make your own analysis of the benefits that starting each player offers.
There are arguments for each QB. I will admit to having a preference, based off my analysis. I happen to firmly believe the better arguments by a wide margin are for Nathan Tune to start, but with any competition, you have to look at what they do on the field first and foremost. Still, it is good to understand the ramifications.
Let's start with a breakdown of each QB.
Nathan Tune: The Known Commodity, the Game Manager
Thompson advocates try to paint the competition as a matchup between two totally unproven players. That is not intellectually honest.
Tune was effectively a part-time starter last year, playing in five games and starting and finishing the two games against the toughest competition on the schedule. He played in just under half the games on the schedule last year and put up a better QB rating than Riley Dodge.
Tune threw five TDs with two interceptions and one fumble lost last year.
I laid out a game-by-game breakdown of Tune's play last season in the Riley Dodge article.
Statistically, Tune had solid days in his two starts against Troy (148 QB rating) and Alabama (129 QB rating)—the two most talented defenses on the schedule last year.
His games in relief were quite good as well.
Against Ohio, he overcame an interception right after coming into the game and directed the offense pretty competently. There were no turnovers after that and Tune had two perfectly thrown game-winning passes dropped in the end zone.
Against Florida Atlantic he came in with UNT down 27-19 and lead UNT to outscore FAU 21-17 while he was in the game.
Against Arkansas State, Tune came in with the team down 14-0, and although it was not his strongest game, the team outscored the opposition 20-16 before Tune was knocked out with a separated shoulder.
While close misses don't equate to wins, he consistently took care of the ball, played well, and the offense played well with him on the field in spite of the offense not being in any way tailored for his skills.
That is a very respectable resume from last season, which suggests his high school resume is no fluke, either.
Tune carried his high school team to a 16-0 record, a 46.1 PPG scoring average, and a state championship in his senior year. He showed he can run a potent, mistake-free offense.
Derek Thompson: The Unknown Dripping with Potential, the Gunslinger
Thompson came in versus Arkansas State in the last game of the year and drove UNT right down the field for a TD on 3-for-3 passing.
His confidence is clearly much higher this year from that experience, a strong offseason, and (presumably) the confidence in Thompson and Tune by the coaching staff that the move of Riley Dodge to wide receiver suggests.
Thompson's high school highlights suggest his game looks a lot like Tim Tebow's. A lot of UNT fans have joined the Thompson camp off entusiasm over those highlights.
Thompson is a big guy at 6'4" and probably around 230 lbs now. He was a very effective runner in high school, consistently getting the ball upfield for nice gains when his receivers were covered. As a prospect he was reported to have 4.7 speed.
It is very reasonable to expect Thompson to be able to gain a few tough yards on the ground with some regularity. That would be a great complement to Dunbar, who is a big play runner but was lacking last year in tough yardage situation.
As a passer, Thompson shows a solid arm, much better than Riley Dodge's, but perhaps not as good as Tune's.
Thompson throws with a very high overhead release. That is great.
I am a little concerned whether he gets set in a firm base to throw from, though, as I did see him get unbalanced by a weak touch from defender in the spring game. Was that just a fluke, or a sign that he has something wrong with his footwork? I'll have to see more of him to reach a conclusion there.
Thompson does a good job of placing the ball comfortably ahead of his receivers over the middle. He oozes "gunslinger". One gets the feeling he would be perfectly content running those types of 20-40 yard pass plays over and over.
The "Keep Todd Dodge Employed" Part of the Season
The first eight games of the season are vitally important for UNT.
Sept. 4: at Clemson
Sept. 11: Rice
Sept. 18: at Army
Sept. 25: at Florida Atlantic
Oct. 2: Louisiana-Lafayette
Oct. 9: Arkansas State
Oct. 16: Florida International (Homecoming)
Oct. 30: at Western Kentucky
Nov. 6: Troy
Nov. 13: at Middle Tennessee
Nov. 20: at Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 27: Kansas State
Dodge and company absolutely need to go no worse than 5-3 in their first eight games to stay employed here. If Thompson blows one or two of those games that they need to win, the staff is probably gone.
Thompson hasn't played against elite BCS level talent and done OK like Tune has. Tune was consistently productive last year versus a variety of teams.
Thompson represents a gamble that Tune does not.
Most first year starters make a lot of mistakes by gambling when they shouldn't. That leads to big point swings and momentum changes. Riley Dodge was a perfect example of that last year (although a strong argument could be made that the coaching staff repeatedly asked him to do more than they should have and never worked out his obvious problem areas).
I don't think you can afford to subject what has been an emotionally fragile team in UNT's recent history to another progression of game-changing turnovers in this make-or-break year.
Thompson is far more likely to throw the big momentum-changing interception on UNT's side of the field or to fumble.
UNT is far more likely to be turnover prone like last season with him in. There is too much riding on the first two-thirds of the season to pass up consistently good QB play for likely inconsistent play.
"Flavor of the Week" Thinking
One of the prominent ideas for going with Thompson is that he is a new face.
It is foolish to make changes just because you want to see someone new. You either need to take a sizable step forward with a replacement or you want to play the guy who is least likely to hurt you with mistakes.
The problem with this argument is that there doesn't seem to be a sizable talent difference between the two.
The Future Benefits Argument
There is an argument that Thompson should be started as he has a higher ceiling than Tune due to his running ability and it would help his development in future years.
That logic is almost entirely based on future benefits. If Dodge is fired, who is to say the new coach likes Thompson? Maybe they won't get along. Maybe they have different philosophies. Maybe the new coach is an option guy and goes with Chase Bain or a new recruit. Or maybe Thompson suffers an injury that compomises his talent and his career like Riley did.
Then any benefit from playing Thompson is totally moot. Then anything you lose by starting him this season has been blown for no reason.
There is a lot of unnecessary risk with the idea of opening the season with Thompson.
We have no idea if Thompson is the kind of all-star talent who can step in and play at a top level, or if he is a standard good prospect who will make lots of mistakes his first year playing.
If you start Thompson and he isn't where he needs to be yet and he struggles, not only might that slow his development down the road, it could cost the staff a couple of winnable games. And there is not enough cushion to be able to risk that, in my opinion.
How does he respond if he spits the bit in the first couple of games and you have to bring in Tune? Does Thompson go into a shell? Does it affect his long term development? You don't have these questions if you run with Tune early.
The logical path says you start Tune unless he plays absolutely miserably in the new offense.
Now, with that said, Canales went with a young guy in Arizona and Dodge went with two here so far. None of those situations really worked out for them all that well, but that brain trust does hit me as guys who gamble on their feelings rather than generally play it safe and taking the odds.
Fall-back Positions: One of the Most Telling Arguments
The problem with starting Thompson is that he has to be great from day one to prevent an uprising and gunslingers are rarely good from day one. Gunslingers have to learn by experience what they cannot get away with at the college level.
Add in the fact that a proven competent game manager is sitting on the bench behind him and that the team probably has to win at least five of their first eight games, and the pressure on Thompson could be similar to what Head Coach Todd Dodge felt making the FG call versus Army last year.
You could see a similar Thompson vapor-lock and implosion.
Let's say you start Thompson against Clemson and he gets eaten alive by the superior speed of their secondary. Does that put a shaken Thompson on the field for Rice? Does is give future opponents a game plan on how to attack him?
Some have offered that you feed Tune to Clemson and let Thompson start the next week at Rice. Well, there are problems there as well. Based on Tune's history versus top-notch defenses at Alabama and Troy, it is entirely likely that Tune will show competent play. And with Canales' apparent willingness to go deep more and competence in deep play design, Tune may even throw a pair of TDs.
It might be pretty reasonable to expect Tune to complete 60 percent of his passes for 200 yards, two TDs and no interceptions or turnovers.
That is a pretty solid day against a good defense. Now as that logic goes, would you bench Tune and start Thompson after that?
Considering how Tune was utilized as a tackling dummy against tough opposition last year, Tune advocates on the team would likely take a lot of umbrage to Tune being used that way again this year. One week into the season you'd have a split team, right as your run of must-win games begins.
It just seems like very bad coaching logic.
Tune seems like the smart play in week one and, based off likely decent play versus Clemson, in future weeks.
It is very likely that if Canales and staff go with Tune, he is not likely to play himself out of the starting job. It's more likely that Thompson will need to play his way into the job by matching or exceeding Tune's level of play.
Frankly, that is a good scenario for UNT.
It seems very sensible to allow Tune to get the majority of the snaps in the first eight games at least, with Thompson coming in when opportunity allows to get experience against defenses that have not prepared for him.
If something unlikely happens, like Tune trying to make a lot of foolish plays and totally self-destructing in the first eight games, Thompson can come in as the team's savior. Regardless of how he plays in that scenario, he will have the whole team with him.
That is another better scenario for UNT.
If the team wins, say, six games out of the first eight, Dodge and Co. could potentially give Thompson the start against Kansas State and Troy, two of the toughest games on the schedule. This will give him good experience for next year and keep the slightly built Tune upright for a possible bowl game.
Again, things work out optimally for the coaching staff if Tune wins the job. They have much better options in that scenario.
Another Possibility for Effective QB Play: A Two-QB System
Platooning QBs almost never works because the reason for platooning is never clearly laid out to the players. Most coaches execute platooning based on "gut feelings".
Without clear reasons for the substitutions explained to the team, the players choose sides and spend time and energy that should be focused on the next opponent thinking and talking about who should play QB and which QB is being given a raw deal. It almost always turns into a QB controversy on teams flirting with losing records.
In general I don't like platooning QBs, but I think UNT could employ it to good effect this year. Both QBs offer somewhat complementary skills that could be smartly employed to overcome specific scenarios.
Tune is the rare combination of a very good game manager with the arm to go deep with some accuracy. When he is on the field, the offense doesn't turn the ball over much.
Thompson offers a short yardage rushing threat and a QB that would help cover up the comparative softness of Lance Dunbar in short yardage situations. (Keep in mind we could see a much tougher running Lance Dunbar next year. Last year he simply lacked the lower body strength, the technique to finish runs, and the determination to gain the extra yard when hit within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. All of that could change this year.) Pairing Dunbar with a bull of a hard running QB who runs north-south between the tackles is a pretty compelling strategy for piling up first downs.
I think an idealized rotation could have Tune taking the team from the kickoff and taking them up and down the field. Tune's superior ability to throw accurate bombs and short passing without turnovers would be well-utilized.
In short yardage situations on the opponent's side of the field and occasionally in favorable positions inside the 20, Thompson could come in to play QB, giving the team's running game a real boost in those situations.
Thompson's strengths, running and throwing a catchable, accurate 25-40 yard pass down the middle of the field, would be showcased while his likely weaknesses (turnovers in the UNT side of the field) would be moot.
Bringing in Thompson in those situations is a better solution than taking out a QB and bringing in Jeremi Mathis in the Wildcat set. (I'd still like to see the Mathis Wilcat in short yardage situations on UNT's side of the field though.)
That would put both QBs in a good position to succeed. It would eliminate the chances of Thompson serving up easy scores in the UNT side of the field, while allowing UNT to take advantage of his skills in short yardage situations and get him experience.
Considering neither of these guys thought they'd be playing at all, the QBs would be a lot more likely to sign on with it than most dueling QBs.
It would likely also help both stay healthy and, in case of an injury, UNT would be able to roll out a QB who isn't either totally rusty or totally inexperienced.
UNT fans look at Thompson as the long-term future. I agree with that, but I think you shouldn't compromise the short-term future to get there.
This is a workable potential plan, as it minimizes risk this year. And Thompson is going to be about the same QB next season if he throws 60 passes in crucial situations or 350 in all situations this year.
There Are Plenty of Options, But the Better Ones Involve Tune Starting
The best options for UNT likely involve Tune opening the season as the team's starter.
With that said, this quarterback duel is like any other open competition for a spot. If one player greatly outplays the other, that player should start.
Having watched these guys, I suspect the competition will be close until the decision is made. If that is the case, I hope I have laid out why starting Tune would make more sense in that scenario.
Regardless of who wins the job, I'll be out there cheering for the team and all UNT fans should be.