North Texas: Which Mike Canales Will Coach the Offense Next Season?

Tobi WritesAnalyst IFebruary 2, 2010

It has taken a few days for me to reach some early conclusions on the hiring of UNT's new offensive coordinator, Mike Canales. Canales has been a very poor offensive coordinator at the University of Arizona and an average to above average offensive coach at South Florida. Which Mike Canales can we expect at North Texas?

The hiring works for Todd Dodge.

On the one hand, I am thrilled that Todd Dodge has apparently chosen to remove himself from the role of de facto offensive coordinator. 

To be a successful head coach, one has to have enough distance from what the staff is doing. Most coaches cannot do that while simultaneously serving as a coordinator. 

Dodge clearly struggled with that.

Too many times in the Dodge era that internal critique of problem areas did not happen and corrective action was delayed. This move will allow Dodge to work on timely critiques of his staff and players and to get those problems corrected—hopefully in time for the next game.

It also allows Dodge to clearly evalutate his offensive coordinator's work with no built in bias.

Additionally, it will allow Dodge to work on areas in which he is weak as a collegiate head coach.

It is a very smart move to hire an experienced, proven offensive coordinator to free Dodge from that day-to-day and game day minutia.

Whether it pays huge benefits for UNT this year or not, it will pay big benefits for Todd Dodge and his career down the road.

Now...is Mike Canales the proven OC this team needs? That is a little less clear.


Canales has an exceptional pedigree. He was a graduate assistant at BYU during the Lavell Edwards days and worked as an offensive assistant on Edwards' staff when Norm Chow was there and Ty Detmer was a freshman.

Canales did his time at the DII level and landed the OC job at USF, which he held from 1996 to 2000.

He took the job as passing game coordinator and QB coach at North Carolina State, where he played a major role in developing future NFL Pro Bowl QB Phillip Rivers.

When Rivers went to the NFL, Canales took a job as the receivers coach with the Jets, and under his watch Santana Moss caught 74 passes and became a Pro Bowl alternate.

Mike Stoops of Arizona was looking for an offensive coordinator and bit on Canales, who had developed quite a reputation as an offensive coach. Canales was the OC for three years at Arizona, working with QB Willie Tuitama before resigning to take a position as QB Coach and passing game coordinator at USF. After two years in that position, he was promoted to OC.

He has learned from some of the greatest offensive minds (Edwards & Chow) in the college game and has shown that he knows enough to be a somewhat successful position coach in college and the NFL. Additionally, Canales has worked with top QB prospects (Detmer, Rivers, Tuitama, Groethe).

His pedigree is great.  He can drop names with the best of them, but his history has some big red flags.

Potential trouble areas

The highlights of Canales's career came when he wasn't in charge of an offense. His years as an offensive coordinator were not his best.

That is troubling.

Some coaches are simply not well-suited for jobs of great responsibility. Knowing more about offensive theory and techniques is not the same as being a great offensive coordinator or head coach.

Canales is an exceptional resource, but in past he may have lacked the developed skill set of an exceptional coordinator.

Canales talks a good game. He can easily point out problems in a game, but his offenses over the last few years have experienced an abundance of failures. 

There is an old saying, "Don't tell me about the storm; Bring the ships in." Fans, alumni, and boosters don't have a lot of patience and explantions of failures only go so far in Texas.

A top offensive coordinator really demands better execution than Canales's offenses have shown.

After Canales left Arizona the offense (and QB Tuitama) exploded under OC Sonny Dykes.  Sonny Dykes was a coordinator at Texas Tech who learned Mike Leach's very effective but somewhat simplistic spread system and is a customer of the Tony Franklin System Seminar.  (A copywrighted spread offense playbook and consulting service offered by MTSU's offensive coordinator Tony Franklin - the point being Sonny Dykes is likely a better coach than an offensive mind whereas the opposite might be true of Canales.) 

Was Canales a drag on Tuitama's development? Tuitama was advertised as a prospect who really picked up offensive philosophy and coaching quickly.  Former Cal Head coach Roger Theder who privately tutored Tuitama said, "Tuitama is in another echelon. Physically, he can throw with anybody in the NFL right now. It's a matter of him learning the offense. When you work with him, you say something to him and he's like a sponge."

Now was that just a guy trying to get his protege a look?  Probably not.  Even if it was overstated, guys like Theder don't want to say something like that if it totally isn't true as it kills their credibility. Was Tuitama's understanding of offensive concepts due in part to his time with Canales?  Did Canales provide him with a solid basis for success or was it always there and Canales simply spend far too much time on irrelevant plays in his time at UA and his UA staff did not spend enough time on player development? Or were Canales's failures at UA due exclusively to a lack fo personnel to execute the offense?

With Tuitama's alleged sponge-like learning ability, that the complexity of the offense was considered an issue raises very large concerns and a number of questions.

In 2006, Canales was an offensive coordinator in the Pac-10.  In 2009, he was an offensive coordinator in the Big East.  Today, he is an offensive coordinator in the Sun Belt.

UNT may very well be proven lucky to have landed an all-star OC, but Canales's career is not trending in the right direction. 

Is that just bad luck?

What Arizona Fans think of Canales

I am quite lucky to have a brother-in-law who is a foamingly rabid University of Arizona booster. I asked him about Canales in his days at UA.

"Canales was horrible. They used to show him up in the booth calling the plays and he looked panicked and disheveled.  He looked like a deer in headlights; totally in over his head. Eventually they had to have Dana Dimmel (the running game coordinator) replace him calling the plays and that turned around the offense a bit."

He advised that while Arizona did not have a ton of talent when Canales walked in the door, the fairly dramatic turnaround when Dimmel started calling the plays pointed to a Canales being a very weak coordinator.

He went on to say the players considered the offense overly and unneccessarily complex, but that as Canales was such a "wonderful person" by all accounts (his words), the players were sad to see him go.  They all wanted him to succeed at UA.

He advised as a fan some of his biggest dissappointments was that in spite of the complexity of the offense the play calling was numbingly simplistic. In his opinion, it appeared that Canales would get into the game and freeze up.

Canales's offense's best finish in Arizona was 84th in the nation in yards.

"We were much better once Canales was gone and we brought in Sonny Dykes." he went on to say.

(He finished by throwing in, "Canales might be OK at a place like UNT."  That might have been a shot at UNT or a general feeling that Canales may have matured or improved in his time at USF.  I wasn't really sure.)

I went back and asked him for clarification and he advised that while Canales may have learned a lot in the last 3 years, he'd be "very suprised" if Canales is a successful play calling OC at UNT.

My brother-in-law was not the only UA fan to habour some hard feelings against Canales.  I went looking for forums that dealt specifically with Canales's work in his time at UA and found a couple of threads with the following disturbing comments:


"Canales might be a "theoritical" offensive genius. Perhaps is great in practice and teaching players the game. It is apparant he is a horrible game day coach. His play calling lacks any innovation. His playcalling does not attack the weakness of the defense or highlight the offence and its strengths, granted those strengths can be debated. Adjustments are no where to be found on game day, which is a huge minus.

The defence plays with passion and fun, our offence are like robots stuck behind a wall unable to break free. Canales needs to be a teacher and not a coach which comes close to the plays on game day." - "Von Cub"  10-01-2006

"Cubix, Tui (QB Tuitara) has been overthrowing receivers ALL YEAR LONG. Sorry, but he has.

I even asked in a different thread if anyone had a clue as to why this was. Does he just not "step into" his throws? Is his release point off? It's happened so much this season that I've began wondering if it was mechanical and not mental.

I dunno what it is, just tired of seeing it. I don't mean just on deep passes either, he does it on short passes too."   - "piece of meat" 10-01-2006

"The play calling did change a lttle, but the results were frustratingly the same. So maybe we're talking about execution. Maybe we're talking about 3rd and 20 something multiple times. Maybe we're talking about an offensive line that has our backs getting hit in the backfield, our QB running for his life and getting sacked who knows how many times(Isay who knows because some of those sacks are Tui's fault), holding and false starts multiple times on every drive. Maybe we're talking about an offense that has a habit of moving backwards.

The offense is not crisp or disciplined. Is this because of lack of confidence, conditioning, understanding? No matter what it is this falls squarely on the shoulders of the coaches, specifically the OC." - "Phylek" 10-01-2006

"Another issue people sem to forget is the lack of development and occasional regression of individual players under Canales' watch especially the QBs. Tuitama spent the whole summer with Canales and for some reason has seemingly gotten worse nor could Canales ever improve Heavner or Kovalchek. Chris Henry has had three years with this staff and is largely the same mess he was under Mackovic. Let's also not forget Canales and company never got anything out of Mike Bell save an occasional game against a terrible defense. Like 2004, the WRs still can't catch if they manage to get open which is rare. And the list could go on and on..." "MTFC" 10-01-2006

"...Lastly, when you think about being offensive coordinator as Canales' JOB and not something he just does on Saturday nights you realize that he has a whole week to tweek things Tui, the receivers, the line, everyone on the offense is doing. When you think that he has had week after week to fix little things that would help our offense in a big way you think, "Wow! they made the same mistakes as last week and the week before." get someone that can teach and improve." "Ibroughtsexybak" 10-01-2006

"If you won't pick on Canales, who do you blame for:.....

The false starts
The delay of games on offense
The dropped passes
The illegal formations
The fumbles
The questionable playcalling
The points scored by the Utah defense
The 3 points & 94 yards we had at halftime

These types of things happen at every program now and then, but at Arizona they happen EVERY FREAKING GAME!!!! How many more excuses will we have to make for Canales? I heard everything last season: he needs some time, his players need to adapt to the systems, etc.

What has changed this year? I saw the same crap that cost us games last year happening tonight. TWICE we couldn't get a play off on the first play of the drive! That is freaking inexcusable. Wasn't Canales a former WR coach in the NFL? How come none of our WRs can catch passes? His merry-do-round of QBs isn't helping either. You can't continually blame your offensive ineptitude of your QBs inexperience when you bench them anytime they do something wrong. Canales is working on his 5th QB in less than 2 years, what does that tell you about his ability to develop QBs?

Vickers, Bell, Jefferson, Steptoe, Henry, Harris, pick any Arizona offensive player you want, how many of them have gotten better under Canales? I seriously question this guys ability to develop offensive players. It saddens me to think how good we could be with even a mediocre OC." - "Ghost of Tom Bobo"

...and that is just from the first two threads I found.

(Some may find this unfair to Coach Canales, but I looked for these comments because when fans are unhappy is when they take the time to explain what exactly they are seeing and don't like.  It is the details that are important.  How did the offense fail?  It is not so much the fact that they didn't like Canales that is noteworthy or surprising - UA's offense really struggled under him and the buck stopped with the OC. I wanted to know what the people who followed that team ferverishly saw as the problem areas of that offense and that is what you can extract from those pages.)

Other criticisms levied at Coach Canales included extremely un-aggressive and uninspired play calling, an overly complex offense, and an inability to get players to perform to their potential.

Still, sometimes things just don't go well. Injuries could have played a role or as my brother-in-law suggested, the talent at UA could really capped the amount of success Canales could have in a strong conference like the Pac-10.

And maybe he just learned from his experiences and got better at USF.

His second go-around at USF

Canales was lucky enough to return to USF in the Matt Grothe era. Canales has compared Riley Dodge to Grothe and it is not a bad comparison. Grothe was less injury prone and had a better arm, but their games are not dissimilar.

One of the more disturbing elements of those similarities is the fact that Grothe had turnover problems as well. The year prior to Canales's arrival, Grothe threw 14 INTs as a freshman. The next two years under Canales, who was the passing game coordinator and QB coach, Grothe again threw 14 INTs each season.

South Florida's offense was pretty pedestrian in 2006. 

In 2007 he came in as the passing coordinator and the offense sprang to life, jumping from 23.0 ppg to 34.7 ppg.

The team was not able to maintain that scoring excellence, but was still a prolific offense, gaining a number of yards in 2008.

Canales was promoted to OC in 2009 and entered the year with a number of goals, including improving the running game and cutting down on Grothe's turnovers.

USF made a number of big plays early, indicating that Canales was successfully stretching his opponents vertically and putting his players into positions where they could make big plays. In the articles I have tracked down, they seem to note a quantitative difference in USF making big plays all season long in 2009 vs. their performance in 2008 when Canales was only the passing game coordinator.

In 2009, USF lost Grothe to a career ending injury after 3 games and well before the start of Big East play.  Still Grothe was on track to throw 8 interceptions for the year.

In spite of having to break in a new QB, USF finished a respectable 62nd in total yards, a mere seven spots behind UNT.  USF had a couple of stinker games on offense behind the new QB - one of which the head coach took the blame for the offense's struggles- but was generally solid.

(The biggest red flag there for me was that after USF got smoked by Rutgers 49-16 in Tampa in 2008,  Canales worked hard to correct the problems over the offseason.  USF and Rutgers have a fair bit of bad blood for schools that have only been playing a few years, and former USF coach Jim Leavitt clearly took the home blowout personally. USF entered the game in 2009 ranked 23rd in the nation, with a good deal of confidence and got shut out 31-0.  That seems like a coach getting owned and as a UNT fan, I've seen enough of that lately.)

USF did increase their rushing total a bit from the previous year in spite of the QB change, and finished the season 8-5.

Still, fan reaction to Canales was a mixed bag—at times quite harsh.

The raw numbers

I tracked down the raw numbers.  In many ways this is somewhat unfair as it does nothing to discuss the situation at Arizona in terms of personnel.  UA was a lousy running team.  Did the team lack key components like offensive linemen or a good runner?

It is difficult to make an offense work when you can't run the ball.

Was it just bad luck that he couldn't land the right personnel or was the talent there and it was just a lack of skill coordinating the offense? Was he able to see weak areas clearly and recruit the right personnel that Sonny Dykes was later able to utitilize?  None of the stats tell that story.  Perhaps other Arizona and USF fans will submit their opinions on Canales.

year - school -pos. -  rank -ave. yds - ave. rush yds - ave. pass yds - ave points

2009 - USF  -   OC  -  62 - 365.6 - 170.9 - 214.3 - 26.5
2008 - USF  - PC/QB -  30 - 405.0 - 165.4 - 258.2 - 27.6
2007 - USF  - PC/QB -  32 - 431.7 - 185.0 - 246.7 - 34.7
2006 -  UA  -   OC  - 113 - 273.6 -  84.2 - 189.4 - 16.6
2005 -  UA  -   OC  -  84 - 364.1 - 122.0 - 242.1 - 22.9
2004 -  UA  -   OC  - 114 - 304.3 - 118.4 - 185.9 - 14.9

(Numbers pulled from espn.com)

In 2002, NCSU averaged 392 yards, 247.7 via the pass and 145 via the run.  In 2001, NCSU averaged 358 yards, 247 via the pass and 111 via the run.

(Numbers pulled from the USF Mike Canales Bio)

Canales on Canales, his offense, his role, and UNT's problem areas

In a phone interview with Brett Vito of the Denton Record-Chronicle, Canales put out a number of interesting statements. Per Vito in the article, "Canales described his offense as a version of the West Coast offense that will use a dual-threat quarterback and employ the tight end in the passing game."

Canales stressed that he had "big game" winning experiences, implying that Canales felt those experiences would be of great benefit to the team and staff and were a selling point for his resume.

On the very positive side, Canales accurately acknowledged the two biggest problem areas with last year's offense—short yardage and deep passing—and gave general overviews on how he hoped to address those issues.

“I knew that third and short has been a problem. We want to be creative and be able to bring in the heavy package. We pushed getting the ball down the field through play action or quarterback movement at South Florida and will do the same here.”

Canales also expressed optimism that he would be able to work with the existing offensive staff.

“I will work well with the guys (assistant coaches) who are there."

Curiously, his next comments with regards to working with the staff were some of the more interesting ones in the article as they get into the expectations of Dodge and Canales and perhaps why Canales was chosen for the job.

"I am here to teach. If I see something that we need to tweak, I will do it, but it is not always my way. I don’t have an ego.”

Will he be able to teach AND coordinate?

Part of the problem UNT had with their old offensive coordinator appeared to be an inability to handle two very demanding jobs with two entirely different skill set requirements. 

Riley Dodge needed a lot of attention to his footwork, mechanics, execution, and timing. The younger Dodge clearly knew the game, but his fundamentals and execution needed a lot of work.

He needed a lot of attention and teaching from a good QB coach.

At the same time the offense had big problems, struggling in the red zone and short yardage situations. Good defenses could dictate how many carries UNT could give to it's star RB Lance Dunbar.  Playcalling and game plans often fell short.

The offense needs heavy attention and the offensive staff needs constructive criticism and creative solutions from the offensive coordinator.

With no malice meant, it was apparently too much for the coach who had those responsibilities to successfully balance. Perhaps some of the problem areas could have been delegated to other position coaches. Perhaps someone else in that role could have come up with solutions for the team's offensive problem areas.

Regardless, neither job was filled adequately last season.

This year there is no question that the coach who will fill those roles will be much more knowledgeable in how to address those issues...but will he be any better at balancing those two jobs?

Will he acknowledge the time contraints?

According to Dodge, Canales will be implementing his offense.  That means he will impliment a new offense and terminology in the sprirng and the players will have to master it by the fall.  Depending on how complex he goes, that could really cut into much needed technique work at a number of positions.

That I can tell from his resume, Canales has never had a job where his boss had so little job security.  This isn't a position where Canales can blow it the first year or two and then figure things out in the third year.

Guarded Optimism

Once Todd Dodge decided to go with a proven collegiate offensive coordinator, considering UNT's budget there were two ways this hire was likely to go.

Dodge would either hire someone with a ton of experience and success as an OC and/or Head Coach at the DII or FCS level or he would hire someone who had OC experience at the FBS level, but found himself unemployed with few suitors based on a modest amount of success.

With all respect to Canales, he is in that latter category.

That said, it does not look like a truly bad hire. Canales's past suggests he has every skill the UNT OC/QB coach job requires.

When USF re-hired Canales, Leavitt said, "He’s a great coach and a great recruiter.”  While that is the only comment I could find on Canales's ability to recruit, it is easy to believe with that resume and the comments from above.  More to the point no one ever made that claim about our last OC, so in that regard it can be considered a definite upgrade.

That is not an insignificant area to gain an advantage in the Sun Belt.

He is clearly very well educated in the passing game but values a strong running game.  That is what Todd Dodge said was looking for in an offensive coordinator.  Canales appears to be seen as a peer to defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach and a resource to the offensive position coaches.

Canales's history suggests that he may need to tweak or outright change some of his ideas and methodology a bit to be a successful offensive coordinator, but I think UNT would have that with anyone they brought in.

His history suggests that while he has had moments where he has proven to be a top QB coach, that should not be expected with the added responsibility of being an OC.  I personally feel that Canales would be best served to really focus his time on the QB coach job to try to iron out Riley Dodge's issues, but I am not expecting his focus to be there this year.

I'd love to see Canales task RB Coach Shelton Gandy with improving Riley Dodge's ball security when running the ball while he works to install the new, presumably more complex, offense.

Based on the comments from fans at Canales's last two stops, play calling may very well occasionally boggle the mind this year under Canales and may leave a lot to be desired, but that is no different from what UNT went through last year.  I think Mean Green fans can take that at this point as long as there are only 3 or 4 really bad offensive games. 

There is a lot there to suggest Canales won't be able to outcoach a talent mismatch.  I personally can live with losses to Troy, MTSU, and the SEC bodybag game as long as the offensive staff keeps the team in the other games.

If in-game playcalling meltdowns are in fact an issue with him, I hope he might do what the San Francisco 49ers did back in the day and script their first 35 plays or so to make sure the game plan is implimented and to set the tone for the game.  It seems like good methodology anyway as the players get to run through the first 35 plays of the game in sequence in practice and even more so if there is something to those claims of stress induced meltdowns.

Having a cheat sheet of potential big plays on hand might be helpful too.

It might also make sense to begin with a scaled back offense and focus on execution over variety.

Canales does seem to be a guy who will run the ball in short yardage.  Maybe his time in Arizona has helped him recognize the importance of a strong running game.

Hopefully those short yardage running plays won't be QB bootlegs out of the shotgun. If he fixes that alone, he would be seen as a big improvement by the UNT fan base.

Dodge is turning over the offense to Canales.  The team will run Canales's version of the spread offense, reportedly one that utilizes a TE.

So which Canales did we hire?

My gut feeling is we hired the average-to-good Mike Canales.

Canales has the background and knowledge to make this work. 

He's walking into a team loaded with above-average Sun Belt talent and most of the first and second string returnees intact.

For now UNT fans will have to hope that is enough.

As by all accounts Canales is apparently a standup guy, I am hoping for a good run for him.

Canales greatly impressed Brett Vito with his polish and apparent knowledge of the game. Vito felt very confident in Canales's competence and has called the hire a "home run", which is quite a strong endorsement from a reporter who is frequently accused of being overly pessimistic of the program. 

While the hire does allow a chance for improvement in a lot of areas over last year, I am less enamored with it. 

Sticking with the baseball analogy, let's call our last OC a single.  The play calling and offensive problem solving may have been quite poor, but at least the execution was mostly solid with very few penalties.

I think this hire is a probably a double, with a reasonable chance of being stretched into a triple if the coaching staff focuses on being very opportunistic and efficient with it's time.


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