Mean Green Start Looking For Answers In Spring Football
Littrell And Staff Installing New Offense, Defense, And Standards
DENTON - Whether a program is reloading or rebuilding, spring football is a time of discovery, of beginning to answer the questions stemming from the previous season's victories, losses, and, particularly in college football, from its departures and arrivals.
Coming off a 1-11 season multiplies the number of questions. Coming off a 1-11 season and having a new coaching staff grows the number of questions - and the challenges - exponentially.
"Change is always hard," North Texas first-year head coach Seth Littrell said. "It is. Everywhere I've been, whether you're coming into a great situation or not-so-great situation, it's still change. You have to set your foundation, what your core values are and what your beliefs are. It's about building your group up to those core values and holding them to a high standard. They're starting to understand what our standards are on a daily basis.
"Not everyone wants to believe in those things, and a few have moved on," he added. "But there's definitely enough here where we can learn how to practice and be competitive."
The process of finding answers entered a new, accelerated phase last week when the Mean Green began spring practice, commencing five weeks of workouts that will culminate on April 23 with the Green-White spring game.
The first phase of discovery kicked off after the student-athletes returned to school from the Winter Break in mid January.
"Starting after the break, it began with our first eight weeks of players working with our strength staff," Littrell said. "Getting bigger, stronger and faster. I think overall everyone has responded pretty well to Zach (Womack, the strength and conditioning coach) and his staff. They've done an unbelievable job. Now we're on to our second phase, which is spring ball.
"Now it's time to go out and get more involved in football," Littrell added. "Start teaching schemes, what our concepts are, what our philosophies are, and about learning how to practice the right way."
While Womack's staff directed winter workouts, Littrell's staff had several weeks to get to know one another, to get to know their players, and to begin evaluating the roster that will make up the team when it opens the 2016 season on Sept. 3 against SMU.
It's a staff that has volumes of football experience - as players and as coaches - but little experience in the senior management positions. This is the first time for Littrell as head coach, for Mike Ekeler as defensive coordinator, and for Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator.
"Everybody starts somewhere," Littrell said. "I've been through the process before. My first coordinator job, I was 28- or 29-years old. It's change, it's different, but it's still coaching football. That's why you hire a great staff who truly hold the same core principals. I hired a great staff to let them do their job, and if they need to bounce ideas off me they definitely can do that. I have a staff I know I can lean on heavily."
That staff isn't just being counted on to coach this team, but also to install new offensive and defensive schemes.
"We've had an opportunity to meet with our guys and start installing before we got to spring ball," Littrell explained. "There's going to be some growing pains early, but as long as everybody's going out there and focussing, having high intensity and flying around, we'll get to where we need to be."
The installation of the Mean Green's defense falls to Littrell's new defensive staff, led by Ekeler, who has 13 years of experience at Georgia, USC, Indiana, Nebraska, LSU and Oklahoma, and co-defensive coordinator Troy Reffett, who was defensive coordinator at Louisiana-Monroe.
Each brings a different perspective to the mix. Ekeler's background is based more in the 3-4 defense, in which he worked at Georgia last year. Reffett has worked more in the 4-3 defense.
"The reason I wanted to match those two together is they're both great mentors and teachers and can both adjust, but what really helps our program is we can now adjust based on our personnel," Littrell said. "There's a lot of great schemes out there. The biggest thing I look for is guys that can adjust, that are smart enough to be able to adapt their schemes based on our strengths and weaknesses. That's exactly what we have.
"That's why I hired an unbelievable defensive staff. It's one of the best in the country. I'm extremely fortunate to be around these guys. They'll do an unbelievable job, I have no question."
On offense, Littrell is taking the lead role in installing his version of the spread offense, which was wildly successful and saw dramatic increases in production when Littrell ran it at Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina.
At North Texas, he's adapting his offense to an inherited roster that was built from a run-first emphasis.
"I've had to evolve and adjust my system everywhere I've been," Littrell said. "At North Carolina, we had a quarterback that ran the ball pretty well, and he was effective in the pass game because he ran the ball so well. In years past, I had a guy like Nick Foles at Arizona who was a more pro-style quarterback. You utilize their strengths in a different way, but your core concepts don't change."
Littrell makes it clear that no position is more important than quarteback.
"At the end of the day, you've got to build the offense around the quarterback," he explained. "If your quarterback doesn't go, your offense doesn't go. There are very few teams that can win without a truly great quarterback."
And no position is more of a blank slate this year for the Mean Green than quarterback. None of the QBs on the roster have ever taken a snap at North Texas, nor have they started a college game.
Of the candidates for the job, four are currently on the roster and going through spring practice: redshirt freshman Caleb Chumley, redshirt sophomore Connor Means, graduate transfer Alec Morris and junior Quinn Shanbour. In the fall, a fifth signal-caller will join the team when freshman Mason Fine arrives after finishing high school at Locust Grove in Oklahoma, where he threw for 13,081 yards and 166 touchdowns.
Morris, who played his high-school football at nearby Allen, Texas, comes to North Texas after earning two national championships at Alabama, where he was the Crimson Tide's third-string quarterback. He saw playing time in 2013 and 2014, then graduated in 2015 with a year of eligibility remaining and transferred to North Texas.
Despite Morris's impressive pedigree, Littrell isn't ready to name him as the favorite for the starter's job.
"He's just a little bit older, probably a little bit more experienced, even though it's not game experience," Littrell said. "More mature, but that doesn't make him the automatic starter. We've got to see who is able to get the ball into our playmakers' hands. We've got to have playmakers stand up, want the football and be dynamic."
The search for those playmakers began in the weight room and in early-morning workouts, but Littrell will be better able to gauge who his playmakers are likely to be now that the team is in helmets and will be in pads this week.
"I'll be able to anwer that a lot better in the next few weeks," he said.
As for finding leaders, that's a product of both nuture and nature.
"First, I want to establish great teammates," Littrell said. "You can't be a great leader unless you're a great teammate. Right now, we (the coaches) have to be the leaders, and that's not what you want moving into the fall and into next season. But leadership is something you teach, something you mentor, something you grow. But you've got to be a great teammate. The leaders will establish themselves."
One other question: what is the goal for the spring?
"To be more selfless, to be more disciplined, and more tough," Littrell said without hesitation. "Those are the core values I talk about every single day. It's about building and growing every single day, and getting better at those three things."