As I sat working on my big annual preseason mega preview of UNT football, I was hit with an idea for a series of weekly articles that would pose the big question UNT faced for each of their upcoming games.
As history proves, I am absolutely garbage at predictions, so this hits me as a much better preview strategy.
How Exactly Is UNT Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach Going to Keep the Clemson Game in Reach?
Local scribe Brett Vito sat down with UNT Head Coach Todd Dodge and extracted the team's current two deep roster. What caught my eye was the defensive line depth chart.
DE: Brandon Akpunku, Aaron Bellazin
DE: K.C. Obi, Demario Dixon
DT: Kelvin Jackson, Brandon McCoy
DT: Shavod Atkinson, John Weber
For those of you unfamiliar with the players let me flesh this out for you a bit.
WDE: DE Brandon Akpunku 240 Jr., DE Aaron Bellazin 232 Fr.
SDE: DE K.C. Obi 240 So., DE Demario Dixon 260 Sr.
DT: DT Kelvin Jackson 310 Sr., DE Brandon McCoy 265 So.
DT: DT Shavod Atkinson 284 Sr., DE John Weber 274 Sr.
The team is apparently taking five players to play at the DT and DE spots. It looks like the fifth DE on the travel roster may be Jr. 229 Lb. JUCO DE Frank Gaines. That would have our average weight at DE for the game being 240 lbs.
Maybe that is just a representation of who worked the hardest to generate playing time. In general, I don't have problems with that. But I think the Clemson game may call for a better thought out player mix.
I am concerned as it looks a lot like DeLoach is trying to make this team as athletic as possible and to get as many pass rushers on the field as possible to force bad throws that our secondary can make plays on.
This is the same thing that was tried last year, but our secondary was entirely focused on taking down their men after the catch instead of challenging passes. The defensive line was playing with a press mentality and the secondary was focused on a bend, don't break philosophy.
The coaching staff sold out stopping the run for lighter personnel to create pressure and poorly thrown passes, but with no one in the secondary playing the ball, all you ended up with was a defense that didn't create any turnovers and couldn't stop the run for the first half of the season.
While UNT's staff has tried to really focus on generating more turnovers, I suspect any improvements in that area will come in the way of strips. With the possible exception of new starting CB Jr. Steven Ford, I don't think any of our starting defensive backs have an inherent inclination to play the ball for interceptions.
To me only Ford might fit in that ballhawk category. When I think of ballhawks on the roster my list begins with CB apparently turned backup safety Robbie Gordon and includes guys like starting OLB Jeremy Phillips, backup safeties Ryan Downing and Will Wright. Most of those guys probably aren't going to play much this game and may not even travel.
Then There Is Clemson's Identity
Clemson won one of the ACC's divisions last year behind a powerful running game lead by current NFL player C.J. Spiller.
They return six offensive starters including their starting QB Soph. Kyle Parker (55.6% 20TDs 12 INTs as a freshman starter) and four of their starting linemen, including both starting tackles.
One of their starting tackles, LT Chris Hairston (6-7/325 Sr.) was an All-ACC second team pick last year. The other, Landon Walker (6-6/305 Jr.), doesn't suck either.
They return two experienced backs with disturbing rushing averages against BCS AQ conference competition. Andre Ellington averaged 7.2 yards per carry last season. Jaime Harper averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
While it is true Clemson will be breaking in new receivers, it seems very unlikely that Clemson is likely to pass that much on UNT specifically. It also seems unlikely that if they did, UNT's undersized and unproven DEs would be able to beat those proven offensive tackles with any consistency.
Or if they succeeded in that, it seems unlikely that Clemson's experienced returning QB who has faced the best defenses in the ACC will melt under pressure from a bunch of 230 pounders.
Or if he did, it seems unlikely UNT's starting secondary which has no history of making plays on misthrown balls is going to make plays on those misthrown balls.
I question if this is a strategy that can work for this game. I question if this is a strategy that can keep a team in a game like this.
If UNT can stay close, they have a shot to win this game. Clemson is annually a good BCS AQ conference program, but this is not like UNT vs. the eventual national champions last season. Clemson may have good SEC level talent and depth, but Clemson has a longstanding tradition of sleepwalking through games. This is not like playing a Nick Saban coached team.
Talent, Depth of Talent, and BCS AQ programs
Football programs from BCS AQ conferences generally beat schools from lower level conferences. The reasons for that are fairly apparent if you think about it—they get better talent and more of it.
A good BCS level school (like Clemson) against a good non-BCS level FBS school (what we hope UNT will be) will have the characteristics of this game. Clemson has the slightly better starting talent but has much bigger and more talented depth than UNT.
Usually, the smaller conference team hangs around until halftime or the third quarter until their backups have to come in at which point suddenly their defense starts springing leaks and eventually the game ends as a 20+ point loss.
In these scenarios the key for the team with less talent is controlling the clock. This keeps your defensive starters fresh and allows you to play your defensive starters for as great a portion of the game as you can minimizing the size and talent difference and keeping the opponent in reach.
What Clemson Wants to Do
With Clemson returning four of five starting lineman and two very strong runners and having to replace their receivers, it seems very likely that Clemson will aim for a game plan that relies heavily on the run, reducing the pressure on their pass receivers.
Enter UNT with two 240 lb starting DEs.
Clemson will likely try to run outside on UNT all day.
As Clemson's two returning starters averaged 5-7 yards per carry last year against BCS AQ schools' defenses running behind mostly the same line, it seems fairly likely they will be able to average five yards a carry at least running outside on UNT if that is the Mean Green's strategy.
Even if UNT stops the first five drives without giving up more than say 13 points, they will likely have given up a number of 40-50+ yard extended drives. After the Tigers roll down the field the third or fourth time, UNT's starting defenders are going to need a break.
When that occurs you could see UNT lose 10 lbs at each end, 30 lbs on average at DE and another 25 on average at the OLB sports. I am certainly not trying to impugn the ability of UNT's backups, but size does play a role in the running game and defending the running game.
At that point you could see UNT giving up the big play and the game getting out of hand.
UNT Has the Attributes to Stay on the Field with a Good BCS AQ Team like Clemson
The offense has a good offensive line, a somewhat proven QB who has a history of avoiding turnovers, and a variety of skill players with a variety of attributes. We have an offensive scheme that can attack a lot of areas on the field in a lot of different ways. Clemson will be breaking in new linebackers and won't have any film to work from. We will likely attack the linebackers. We have the talent and scheme to do so, control the clock, and score points.
The question is can we slow them down on defense? Defensively the first thing a coordinator has to do in these types of games is locate areas where your starting talent might be able to beat their starting talent and generate some 3 and outs.
Securing short series gives your offense an ability to control the clock.
UNT's best returning defensive players overall from play to play may be S DaWaylon Cook, CB Royce Hill, and Craig Robertson, but let's be honest for a moment. At this point in their careers they have only proven to be solid and consistent players at the Sun Belt level, not game changing difference makers.
UNT does have two defensive starters who do have the talent to make big plays against good BCS AQ talent. UNT's starting defensive tackles Jackson and Atkinson have flashed big time potential. It is not difficult to imagine one of them occasionally beating a Clemson guard for a tackle for no gain or a loss forcing Clemson into a third and long where the attack approach has a reasonable chance of success.
The problem is if Clemson realizes they can pick up five or six yards on most downs running at our ends, it totally neutralizes Jackson and Atkinson's ability to impact the game.
UNT has to be able to control the run outside to allow Atkinson and Jackson to disrupt Clemson's game plan.
To me, for this game specifically, it means UNT needs more size.
Dodge As Overseer and the Travelling Roster
After last season I advocated Todd Dodge take a less hands-on role with the offense to allow him to maintain the perspective needed to oversee problem areas in all areas of the team.
Dodge appears to have independently arrived at the same conclusion and has largely turned the reigns of the offense over to new coordinator Mike Canales. This has allowed Dodge to clearly identify a number of trouble areas on this team already. Not Physical enough? Noted. Kicking team doing a poor job blocking? Noted. Kickers struggling? Noted.
This appears to be the very scenario that having Dodge overseeing would address.
What is the path to victory if UNT takes an undersized line to Clemson? Dodge needs to have his defensive staff justify this decision. If they can, fine. Go with it.
But UNT cannot afford to treat this game like an NFL preseason game and just go take their ass-whipping as they try out different pass rushing strategies and personnel mixes for their "real" first game against Rice.
This team needs something they can build off.
Clemson will take UNT lightly. There is an opportunity there.
If UNT can control Clemson's running game a little and keep the score down allowing the offense to keep the game close (say 31-26), UNT's players will have a ton of confidence coming home to play Rice in what sets up to be pretty close to a must win game.
If UNT goes to Clemson and they get dusted 58-19, give up 300 yards on the ground, and don't generate any turnovers, every player on the team is going to enter the Rice game with major doubts.
This is a great opportunity for Dodge to tell DeLoach, "Hey, I want Weber to get 20 plays at strong side DE, MCCoy a few plays at one of the end spots and Richard Abbe 20 plays at DT this week. Let’s think about bringing a Tevinn Cantly (if he can go), Ryan Boutwell, or Kyle White. Let’s see what they can do."
If one of these guys makes an impact, UNT will be in a MUCH, much stronger defensive position for the rest of the year. UNT knows they have a handful of pretty decent pass rushers—finding a run stuffing DE or DT...or two...would give the team a lot more flexibility and a lot more confidence for the rest of the season.
It is admittedly early to say conclusively what UNT's strategy defensively will be, but when the travel roster is announced we should have a good feel for what UNT will try to do defensively vs. Clemson. I think who makes the travel roster will do a lot to determine how UNT does this week. To me that makes it all up to Dodge and DeLoach.
And that is this week's big question.