Making Mean Green Lemonade Out Of The Ruins Of The UNT Offense
Another week, another QB lost.
Army intimidated, frustrated, and eventually broke the leg of talented UNT sophomore QB Derek Thompson on Saturday. UNT was forced to go with last year's starter, Riley Dodge, for most of the game.
In a hugely discouraging moment for fans (and probably the players as well), the coaching staff appeared to throw their hands up in despair as they lost their 7th, 8th, and 9th players to likely season ending injuries.
Third team QB Riley Dodge looked rusty, timid, and without much strength for most of the game. He completed 8 out of 17 passes for a dreary 63 yards.
Only late in the game when UNT appeared to run the Todd Dodge spread (complete with gopher-like looks to the sidelines for instructions) for a few plays did Riley seem to show any competence. He completed 4 of 6 passes for 39 yards with 1 run for 8 yards and 2 sacks for -11 yards on UNT's final drive.
While it is entirely likely Riley Dodge would look a lot sharper with a week of reps as the starter, I think it is actually the wrong move for Todd Dodge and company.
Ultimately Riley's arm is shot. It was quite apparent vs. Army that his arm strength comes and goes and that he limits UNT's offense too much in the Canales system. Be it due to Canales not trusting Riley's arm deep or Riley not trusting it, the game creeps up to the line of scrimmage when Dodge is playing.
I have an alternate proposal that I think would help out UNT a lot more in the next few games.
What is needed
UNT needs an offensive identity.
Army and Rice have exposed how to attack the UNT defense. If a team runs on UNT consistently they can wear out the UNT defense at the the defensive end and outside linebacker spots.
For UNT to win, the Mean Green has to control the clock, keeping their defense off the field, their defensive ends from tiring out, and allowing their star DTs to come in fresh and play a big role in disrupting the opponent's running game. The UNT offense has to roll up first downs.
Their offensive identity needs to be that of a chain moving, clock chewing offense that occasionally breaks big touchdown runs.
Proven Assets available
UNT has an All-American RB in Lance Dunbar. He is the rare cutback runner who doesn't give up yardage angling for a better lane. He has elite game breaking ability, but is not a strong short yardage runner.
Backup RBs James Hamilton and Brandin Byrd are aggressive runners who finish their runs well. They are good short yardage runners.
UNT has 3 offensive linemen who were discussed as possible all-sunbelt players prior to the season in Tackles Victor Gill & Esteban Santiago, and Center turned Guard Kelvin Drake. They also have good proven players around them with good size in T/G Jeremy Bean, G Coleman Feeley, and G Matt Tomlinson, and C Aaron Fortenberry
UNT has a trio of good TEs in Draylen Ross (the big blocker), Jamize Alawale (the raw deep threat), and Conor Gilmartin-Donahue (the do it all guy).
Finally the team has a receiver for most situations. They have two raw burners at receiver who have occasional concentration lapses in Jamaal Jackson & Tyler Stradford, a slightly slower receiver with much better hands and concentration in Darius Carey, two reliable and polished receivers in Alex Lott and Breece Johnson, three hit or miss guys with a history of mistakes of varying degree in the tough Michael Outlaw, the speedy BJ Lewis (if he is healthy now), and occasional playmaker Willie Taylor, and last but definitely not least freshman Brelan Chancellor who's redshirt year was wisely burned by the staff vs. Army when Chris Bynes was injured. Chancellor is a very polished receiver for his age. Like Dunbar, he has ordinary speed for his position but has the same knack for running away from people.
I am sorry, this is still far more talent than all but the most elite teams in the Sun Belt. Does any team in the Sun Belt have a better trio of linemen and a better RB? Heck no!
Is UNT's receiving corps still in the top third of the Sun Belt ranks? Heck yes!
Is this UNT offense still more talented than last year's? Absolutely.
So you coaches quit your bellyaching, pull yourselves out of your tear-filled beers, and go with what you got.
Play personnel to optimize the talent on hand.
UNT has 3 QBs available to lead the ship. Last year's starter Riley Dodge, last year's third string QB Chase Baine, and freshman Derek Teegarden.
We can eliminate Teegarden. Although he looks pretty solid in his high school films, he is 17 lbs LIGHTER than Riley Dodge.
There is no sense in repeating the Riley Dodge fiasco and destroying this guy's body before it is ready to play FBS ball and endure that pounding.
I think the team should go with Chase Baine at QB with occasional spot work from Riley Dodge in the red zone.
It is certainly out of the box, but you have already lost your first and second string QBs and the difference between the third and fourth team QBs is not that pronounced. Riley Dodge is more polished and knowledgeable, but frankly Baine is more talented and likely far, far more durable at this point.
The facts are Dodge's arm is too limited at this point and he is not physical enough running the ball. He gets ragdolled. Compounding the problem Dodge seems to have lost a lot of the instinct of when to hold on to the ball and when to hand off. He has been keeping the ball a lot this year to poor results and when he has handed off his handoffs haven't been sharp.
Moreover, Dodge looked very timid playing against Army. UNT cannot afford that from their QB.
Like most freshmen starters in offenses where the QB owns the ball, Riley Dodge was a turnover machine in most games last year. I think in ordinary situations one would expect him to outgrow that with work, but he hasn't had a ton of work this off-season. The bad habits he developed getting pounded last year are still there.
Playing Riley Dodge every down is not a luxury the team can afford right now at the start of their run of more manageable games. This team will fall apart if Dodge has a 4+ turnover game against one of these teams.
Chase Bain is about 15 lbs heavier than Riley Dodge and appears to my vantage point 1-2 inches taller. He doesn't have any of the trauma screwing up his game that Dodge does.
Whatever QB UNT starts is going to have to run. He is going to have to take a pounding. That QB is going to have to run options with Lance Dunbar and roll outs.
Does the coaching staff really want to risk losing Dodge to another injury? Even another shoulder injury?
Given Riley Dodge's history it is unlikely he will last more than a game or two anyway as a full time starter behind a line that has lost confidence in it's ability to pass block at an elite level. I have long suspected that the move of Riley was in large part to allow the kid a full year to properly heal up and see what he is next year. You are just inviting the injury gods to permanently finish him as a QB to role him out there as a full time starter behind a line with shaken confidence after seeing two future NFL DEs in the first 3 weeks.
Riley Dodge is one of the greatest winners in Texas high school football history. He won his games at the 5A level, the highest level of play in Texas. He may not have the skills anymore to be an effective every down starter, but he still knows how to execute a game winning play under pressure.
At some point in the next 5 weeks there is a fairly good chance that UNT will be down by less than a touchdown with the game clock running down and Lance Dunbar or Tyler Stradford will break a big play that gets UNT to the 7 or 8 yardline.
When that occurs do you want Riley Dodge ready to fill in and play his accurate short yardage game, or do you want him standing next to the coaches with ice wrapped around his shoulder or in street clothes holding a clipboard?
This team needs Riley Dodge available for game winning situations and to play inside the 10 yard line if the situation merits it in the next 5 weeks. The coaching staff needs every possible edge to secure wins. They shouldn't start him if it diminishes the chances he will be available for those situations.
Plus, if Dodge were to start and to go down again, at that point UNT is going to have to run out Chase Baine anyway to finish out a game - and that would be a Chase Baine who would not have been given any reps!
That is just a recipe for another give away loss.
Getting Baine ready to go is a smart pre-emptive move.
Baine plays the game similarly to Riley Dodge, but is more physical and has a better, undamaged arm. Baine is 6'0" and 210 lbs. Baine plays the game like an option QB who has learned to pass well enough to be functional in a spread. He also plays with some moxy. The thicker Baine is far more likely to get a first down running the ball than Riley Dodge would be.
While I don't think Baine could be as accurate as Dodge, I do think he could complete 55% of his passes, throw a 35 yard pass with consistency, maybe run for 70 yards in a game without getting injured, show the strength to get a first down on a dive or QB sneak, and maintain a plus TD to turnover ratio. That I have seen he plays within his limits-like Nathan Tune.
Modifying the offense
With Tune and Thompson out, the value gained by all those snaps in the Canales offense over the off-season is largely lost.
Riley Dodge's skillset (and most of the offensive skilled players' skillsets) are not suited for the Canales offense. They have talent and speed, but largely lack the polish, attributes, and precision to make it function right. James Hamilton -more of a straight line runner- is more effective in the Canales offense than All-American Lance Dunbar. Jamaal Jackson and Tyler Stradford are fish on bicycles trying to run precise routes, work the sidelines, and hold on to passes.
Today, the Canales offense minimizes the best talents on the UNT offense. With reps and strength training that may not be the case next season, but it is this season - and this season is the one that matters.
On top of that as a fourth stringer Baine has probably had little work in the Canales offense, but he did get some in the old Dodge offense last year as a third stringer and occasional backup.
The Canales offense spreads teams horizontally with the run and the pass. Without a QB who can throw the ball 30 yards down the field, the defense squeezes forward, minimizing what the Canales offense can accomplish. Runner and receivers moving horizontal don't have the space to turn vertical and finish their runs and get stopped short of first downs. This team has to be a little more vertical in it's attack to get any benefit out of Stradford and Jackson.
That just isn't happening.
Additionally, and more importantly, the Canales offense limits Dunbar as a runner.
Regardless of who they go with, UNT effectively has to squeeze in an off-season of QB preparation into a week. You can't do that with an offense as complex as the Canales offense.
I think there is a crying need for both of UNT's offensive coaching minds to sit down with Riley Dodge and Chase Baine and come up with a short list of offensive plays that fit the two QB's and the team's skillsets.
Go through the Dodge and Canales playbooks and select the best handful of plays from both for the team to practice this week.
Watch the films of every TD Lance Dunbar scored last year and make sure those plays are in your truncated playbook and starred for heavy rotation.
Put together a skeleton list of plays short enough to allow the players to work on them and get them down in time for the next game.
In general, I would suggest running the Todd Dodge Gopher spread offense on most plays between the 20s and then shifting into a limited version of the Canales offense (with no shotgun plays) in short yardage and goalline situations as it is far better for those situations.
The plain facts are Canales has been unable to utilize Dunbar effectively in the Canales offense. Putting a TE on the field forces a CB off the field to be replaced by a safety or even a linebacker. That doesn't help Dunbar and frankly increase the odds of one of UNT's QBs getting knocked out of the game on a bootleg.
You can't afford that.
Dunbar is a non-red zone weapon. He can break a TD run from anywhere outside of the red zone at any minute. He is a huge threat and a great decoy.
He is only being used as a decoy this year. He has to be used more than he is in the Canales offense and more effectively. He is a huge reason UNT rolled up so many yards between the 20's last year. His ability to beat average to poor defenses is hugely needed now.
You have to get Dunbar going if this team is going to win. He has to carry this offense. He has to break some TD runs. Dunbar's skillset is much more effectively utilized out of the Dodge offense.
There can't be any sacred cows with everyones' jobs on the line. Canales needs to bite his tongue and take a perception hit for his boss. (Frankly this will make him a better OC down the road anyway.)
Baine can run the option with Dunbar as well if not better than Riley Dodge did last year. Baine is a similar runner but one with more power. He can handle the ball well in the handoffs. He is probably a little less likely to fumble than Riley Dodge as unlike Riley, Baine was weightlifting rather than being pounded into goo last year.
With the depth UNT has at receiver they can send 4 receivers down the field on every down if they want to try to clear space underneath for Dunbar to work. Baine has a good enough arm and is accurate enough to be somewhat credible as a passer.
The team can shift into the Canales offense in the red zone or in short yardage. In those scenarios, they can either throw underneath to Dunbar or bring in James Hamilton or Brandin Byrd - backs far more suited to running in the Canales offense and picking up short yardage.
Play selection goals.
UNT has to become more of a running team. Through 3 games they have run the ball 38 times per game (14 by QBs) and passed 35 times per game. They need to start focusing on moving the chains by running the ball to allow their defense a better chance to record stops and keep the team in games.
They need goals of having 60 rushes and 35 passes a game. Hitting something closer to 50 rushes per game and 30 passes (what UNT did vs. Clemson, a good BCS defense) would be good.
Nathan Tune had 15 carries vs. Clemson. I think Chase Baine can handle 10-15 carries.
I think in an average game for the next 5 weeks, the goal should be to generate a stat line line like this:
Dunbar 25 for 150 yards 1 TD
Baine 10 for 40 yards
Hamilton 7 for 35 yards 1 TD
Byrd 4 for 15 yards
Dodge 4 for 10 yards 1 TD
Baine 15 of 27 for 190 yards 1 TD O INTs
Dodge 2 for 3 for 10 yards and 1 TD O INTs
Carey 3 for 30 yards
Dunbar 3 for 30 yards
Chancellor 2 for 20 yards
Lott 2 for 15 yards
Lewis 2 for 20 yards
Jackson 2 for 15 yards
Johnson 1 for 8 yards 1 TD
Stratford 1 for 45 yards 1 TD
Outlaw 1 for 17 yards
That totals out to 250 yards rushing and 200 yards passing. If the coaching staff really focuses on making the strategy changes that are needed to get Dunbar going, I think the passing game, scoring, and time of possession will take care of itself.
These stats are not unreachable by any team with a good OL and a top RB. Dunbar consistently had games of this magnitude or better last year against average to poor defenses in the Sun Belt. This year he is just not getting the touches and is not being utilized well as a runner.
I think with the talent on hand and the marginal defenses coming up (I say marginal only in comparison to Clemson's defense), this can be a regularly achievable stat line goal.
Dunbar, the offensive line, and the defense can save Todd Dodge's job. Dodge needs to let them.
UNT's Coaching staff needs to be creative and visionary
...Two things they absolutely were not vs. Army.
UNT is sitting on a stack of offensive talent.
It is coached by two alleged offensive geniuses in Mike Canales and Todd Dodge.
It is time for the coaching staff to put away their preconceptions of what they thought the offense should look like this year, look at what they have, acknowledge what they need to win, and put this team's talent to optimal good use to meet those needs.
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