Last year I advocated North Texas Head Coach Todd Dodge bringing in an offensive coordinator to take full ownership of the offense - the thought being that that would free up Dodge to be able to distance himself from the day to day offensive minutia to be able to more quickly identify problems so they don't linger and cost the team more games unnecessarily. Dodge would free himself to be the overseer of the team.
I doubt Todd Dodge reads Bleacher Reports or any other sources of UNT editorials, but after his old offensive coordinator left, Dodge appeared to independently arrive at the same conclusion. He has an OC who runs the show and Dodge has been able to sit back and identify trouble areas.
After watching the players' gutty performance vs. Rice come up short due to coaching decisions, I think it is time for timely action from the overseer.
I have come up with a series of suggestions designed to allow the most effective changes possible in the shortest time frame. These are suggestions that hopefully can improve the team's chances of winning the next 6 games.
Suggestion 1: Special Teams - It appears it may be time to relieve Shelton Gandy of some or all of his duties in that area
Shelton Gandy is a great RB coach. I think at this point there is enough film out there to reach the conclusion he is a below average as a part time special teams coach. Perhaps as many have suggested the job is too big these days to be done on a part time basis.
Gandy had been able to put together a good kick return unit last year, but those players weren't returning kicks vs. Rice. Not other special teams unit has worked at an above average level in the Gandy tenure.
UNT's special teams’ failure played a big role in UNT losing against Rice. It cost UNT numerous games last season. Dodge simply cannot afford to lose games the next 6 weeks over special teams’ breakdowns.
(A bit of an aside. Dodge has probably lost 4-5 games in his tenure at UNT over poor special teams play. It isn't much of a stretch to say if Dodge had the foresight to retain special teams ace coach Eric Russell when he walked in the door, UNT probably would have had extremely good special teams play rather than extremely bad special teams play the last few years. Where bad special teams play has cost UNT 4-5 games over the Dodge era, it seems logical the opposite could have allowed UNT to steal 4-5 games they had no business stealing. Hugely speculative, but how different would Dodge be perceived if his record was 15-23 today instead of 5-33?)
UNT has a proven above average part time special teams coach in Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach. He ran special teams and defensive backs for UCLA during his UNT hiatus. There is little reason to believe DeLoach absolutely cannot handle some additional special teams responsibilities.
Like Offensive Coordinator Mike Canales, DeLoach is one of the highest paid assistants on the team. Unlike Canales, DeLoach has proven he can coordinate competent special teams play. I do not see anyone else on the staff that has a proven record as an average or better special team's coach.
Considering how much DeLoach is earning (a lot as far as UNT salaries go), he should be fielding a greater share of the responsibility for this teams' successes and failures. Giving him that added responsibility assures that he does.
Suggestion 2: Special Teams - Starters should not automatically be excused from special teams.
UNT cannot afford it. If DeLoach runs the show, maybe Dodge can excuse #1 CB Royce Hill as a favor to DeLoach, because the defense would have to change everything they are trying to do without him or Steven Ford, but that is it.
Jackson is probably the best kick returner in the Sun Belt. Not playing him is crazy.
UNT cannot afford to have kicks & punts blocked. If you have to play all your starters to get it done, it probably needs to happen.
It may seem like overkill, but at this point UNT needs their special teams issues solved. Today... before it costs the team another game.
Suggestion 3: Running Game - A rule for Canales "When In doubt, Dunbar."
There is no disputing Canales has been a net positive so far, but on the same token there is no overlooking the fact he doesn't get Lance Dunbar the ball enough as a runner.
Dunbar got 23 carries vs. Clemson and 17 vs. Rice. Dunbar made some All-American lists. He needs more carries. I personally feel the magic number is 25 carries. I feel like if you don't get him 25 carries and you lose, it is on you. Canales is wisely working Dunbar into the passing game, but that doesn't make up for carries.
Dunbar needs more carries in the third and fourth quarter specifically. He is most dangerous when a defense gets a little fatigued.
I also think the coaching staff would be wise to watch the film of Dunbar last season and take a closer look at what worked last year. Some of the plays they are running seem more appropriate for a straight line runner with some strength than for Dunbar, the rare cutback guy who doesn't run backwards much.
With a QB with fewer than 10 passes on his resume coming in, Canales would be wise to start relying on and entrusting the offense to Dunbar.
Suggestion 4: Running Game - Take another hard look at the offensive line
Last week Dodge said they were running with Leppo because he is a smart player who makes the calls well and the team doesn't want to mess with their continuity.
Dodge may want to look at the Rice game film and see if there are too many concessions that had to be made in terms of what UNT needs to do from here on out to allow that.
Let me spell out what I am saying here.
With Thompson and Dunbar being the running game, does it make sense to put your best run blockers in the middle of the line? I think it might.
You have a power runner in Thompson and cutback runner with decent but not great speed who looks to get upfield as soon as possible in Dunbar. That hits me as more of a north/south running game than the east/west running game that appears more natively a part of the Canales offense.
Kelvin Drake was not just an OK center 2 years ago. He was a very good one. He has the power that few centers have. I think I am safe in saying UNT does not have a better run blocking option at center, while they might have some pretty good options at guard. UNT could play him at center and move Bean into the open guard spot. Or move Esteban Santiago inside if the films suggest the weight is too much of an issue vs. pass rushers and start Bean at tackle.
Would that improve the running game? Would it allow the team to pick up the 2 yard gains on third and fourth downs that have been their Achilles heel in the Dunbar era?
With the UNT injury situation the way it is, it makes a lot of sense to look at the offensive line in terms of "what would help Lance Dunbar the most?" and whatever it is...go with that.
Suggestion 5: Passing Game - Thompson is not Nathan Tune, so the passing game will need to change its focus
With Tune in there the offense could throw all the sideline passes and know the ball would generally be placed to avoid INTs. Thompson is going to play it differently. He is going to play to make plays and will put some balls out there that can easily be picked off. It will be high risk, high reward play.
I think along those lines it makes sense to reduce the number of passing plays designed for short gains. Or run Riley Dodge for a series or three to work those areas if they need to be worked. If Riley isn't throwing mid to deep passes, he is not a big interception risk at all.
Keeping Thompson's pass count in the 20-30 range would dramatically decrease an opponent's ability to victimize the kid over his inexperience. If Thompson is throwing 40 passes a game there is a pretty good chance for multiple interception, confidence eroding, nightmare games. Utilizing Dunbar more to decrease the pass count and lure the defense in closer is the smart thing to do.
Suggestion 6: Passing Game - The Riley Dodge factor
Thompson's north /south running style is an ideal compliment to Dunbar's running style. Thompson is ideally suited to the short yardage situations where the coaching staff had planned to employ Dodge.
It could make a great deal of sense to change the utilization of Riley Dodge now. Now it would appear to make more sense giving Dodge a series here or there to work a team via short passes and perimeter running - areas where I would not say Thompson is strong.
t would play better to the fans. Bringing Riley Dodge in tough situations opens the door for him to fail more than he succeeds, thereby turning the fans against him and painting his utilization as nepotism. Giving the fans more reasons to dislike Todd Dodge only creates a negativity that can make it harder for the players to get on a winning roll.
Giving Riley a series or two where you run things entirely different from Thompson's bread and butter would make a lot of sense to the UNT fans who have no axe to grind with Todd Dodge.
Suggestions 7: Passing Game - Utilizing Wide Receivers better
UNT's receiving aces Darius Carey, Jamaal Jackson, and Tyler Stradford has a lousy night against Rice. They had maybe 8 drops combined.
That is not likely to happen again this season, but it does open the door to something for consideration.
A lot of these drops were these guys trying to work the sideline.
Jackson and Stradford are burners with OK, not great hands or concentration. Why not have them running their post plays or across the middle where in general they get a pass that comes in at a good angle that they can catch in full stride and they don't have to do a lot of adjusting to catch or worrying about their feet. Those kinds of passes are Thompson's bread and butter anyway and he throws a very catchable pass on those plays. (With Thompson in there, you can utilize them and the somewhat slower BJ Lewis -4.53 speed - and much slower Michael Outlaw - 4.65 speed - in that fashion to great effectiveness.) The Cowboys' passing offense from Turner to Zampese to Garrett has utilized their wide receivers in a similar way to create space for their running game.
If UNT wants to work the sidelines, short, or underneath, the staff has guys like Chris Bynes, Alex Lott, and Breece Johnson who are extremely good technicians with reliable hands and good concentration.
It shouldn't be a rule, but it would make sense as something to keep in mind with game plan development.
Suggestion 8: Defensive line - finding a strong side DE and more depth on the DL
It is hard to imagine Obi and Akpunku playing much better than they did against Rice vs. the run. They were able to bottle up the Rice starter, but as the game went on they wore down with the rest of the defense. When Rice started running with their backup runner, a less skilled back who didn't give up any yardage angling for a big run, rice began to consistently gain 3-5 yards a carry.
That's the problem. I think you have just seen the ceiling for Obi and Akpunku this year utilized as they are currently being used. They can side off a block and help drag down a back from behind to prevent a big gain, but they can't beat a lineman like the DTs can holding their position and stuffing a run for no gain. In spite of a fair push by Jackson and Atkinson up the middle, both DEs were ineffective edge rushers.
Obi has historically needed a great push in the middle to allow him to get to the QB. While it was promising to see him dig down deep and put an absolutely fierce power rush on to record a key sack towards the game's end, he was not effective as a pass rusher for most of the game because he lacks power.
Akpunku, I believe, was absolutely gassed from playing his butt off vs. the run and didn't rush the passer like he has shown he can.
Both of these guys have very bright futures, but we are talking at their senior year weight. I understand rewarding their hard work, but at the end of the day UNT is still starting two DEs who probably only weigh 240 with rolls of quarters in their pockets.
We don't have quite enough disruption up the middle for them to be effective. Like last year we need a power rusher at DE to make the pass rush work.
In the rice game the 260 lb Demario Dixon saw a fair number of snaps in relief of Obi and was pretty solid, but Akpunku had less relief and his backup Frank Gaines did not look ready.
That I could see, starting DTs Shavod Atkinson and Kelvin Jackson played almost every snap at DT. It is of course great to see their improved stamina, but it also suggests there may be a lack of confidence in the two DE's backing them up. If you combine the two issues you can see a pattern that will cause these kinds of late game erosions more often than not.
There is more than enough talent to properly stock both positions, but it looks like the movement of John Weber and Brandon McCoy to DT has effectively shortened your bench dramatically.
It might make a world of sense to have OBI and Akpunu again split the weakside end spot and use Weber, McCoy, and Dixon at the strong side DE. If Weber and McCoy can credibly stuff the run well enough to be second team DTs, surely they can stuff the run at DE. Tevinn Cantly can be the third DT if he's healthy enough.
It could even make sense to even give Draylen Ross, a former high school DE who spent the last two seasons as a DT, a series at the strong side end spot to eat up some plays.
UNT has Army next. Generating a pass rush is not going to matter much agaisnt them and fatigue will kill your chances, so why not see what Weber and McCoy can do at their native spots? This is a perfect game to try this out.
Suggestion 9: Linebackers - See if you can find some pass rushers
The sliding of Akpunku to OLB and Atkinson to DE in a 3/4 is a pretty cool change of pace, but what does it really accomplish to have your best pass rusher flailing about in coverage? I think Akpunku needs to be moving forward even if he is playing LB. It makes a ton more sense to think of it as a 3/1/3 instead of a 3/4. Allowing him to more or less find the weak spot on a delayed blitz or attacking right off the back of another lineman would make a ton more sense.
Additionally it might make a lot of sense to see about replacing Penson on passing downs with a blitzing LB. Penson is a remarkably competent run stuffer, but he is invisible in pass defense. It looks like the team tried a lot of the backups in game one, but I saw a lot less substitution in game two.
Zach Orr, Julian Herron and Forlando Jackson all look like guys who could get to the QB on a blitz or delayed LB blitz.
Suggestion 10: Defensive backfield - get Robbie Gordon on the field at CB
There seems a great likelihood that none of UNT's CBs, once you get by Ford and Hill, are more than guys who can tackle a receiver after a catch. D'Leon McCord may be the best of that lot, but UNT will still end up with DaWaylon Cook and and a CB getting beat for 20 and 30 yard gains.
Rice just wrote a manual on how to attack UNT's defense for the next 6 games with the talent utilized as it is currently. It spells out how to wear down UNT with a running game and how to attack them with the pass.
As that is the case, why not take advantage of that conventional wisdom? Why not start Robbie Gordon at CB? He is the team's best ballhawk by far and looked ok at CB last season. If they are going to throw at that CB spot anyway and UNT is going to need help from Cook, why not dramatically increase the odds of a turnover being generated? UNT already has Cook to clean up (make the tackle) if the ball is caught.
At 0-2 it is time for some oversight
These are my suggestions. Hopefully at least some of them might also seem logical to Coach Dodge.