Improvement and progress can sometimes be a difficult assessment. The obvious measuring stick for success in any football program is wins and losses. In that respect, the 2007 version of North Texas football didn’t meet the objective that was set by fans and coaches alike. Those who follow North Texas closely, however, will espouse the notion that Mean Green football made tremendous strides in Todd Dodge’s first year as head coach.
There were probably some unrealistic expectations placed on Dodge by fans who had witnessed his unprecedented success at nearby Southlake Carroll High School. After all, in the five years before becoming the head coach at North Texas, Dodge had only experienced defeat one time. And while there was an optimistic outlook on how his high school success would translate at the collegiate level, history was not on his side. Of the five coaches before him that made the jump directly from high school to major college football programs, only one had a winning record in his first year. Legendary Ohio State head coach Paul Brown went 6-1-1 in 1941 - his first year with the Buckeyes after a successful high school career at Massillon (Ohio) High School.
Many of the improvements were blatantly obvious. Dodge had an immediate impact on the offense, which showed a dramatic advancement in nearly every statistical category. North Texas improved from being ranked 117th in the nation in total offense during the 2006 season, to 47th in the nation in 2007. Scoring offense also climbed in the national rankings, going from 115th in 2006 to 77th in 2007. The season before Dodge arrived, the North Texas offense had 153 first downs. In his first year directing the offense, Dodge helped the Mean Green improve to 258 first downs.
If offensive production was the only factor in a team’s success, the North Texas faithful would be feeling pretty triumphant falling the 2007 season. The Mean Green offense out-gained its opponent six times, but only won one of those games. The 4,901 yards of total offense by North Texas in 2007 was the most in North Texas history and the 298 points was the 10th-most in North Texas history.
The defense, however, didn’t keep pace. North Texas finished last in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 45.1 points per game. The Mean Green allowed three opponents to score more than 60 points, which had only happened five times in the history of the program prior to last year. The two times that North Texas held its opponent below 30 points, it won the game. It was a tall order for a young offense learning a new system to match its opponents scoring production. Dodge recognized the problem and offered a solution in the way of Gary DeLoach. DeLoach was hired as the Mean Green’s defensive coordinator in late January with the hopes of restoring the success that he had while leading the North Texas defense from 2000-2002. In his last year at North Texas before taking a job as an assistant coach at UCLA, DeLoach had North Texas ranked No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense and No. 9 in the nation in total defense. In four of his five years at UCLA, his defensive unit ranked in the top 50 nationally.
The 2007 North Texas offense was led by many players who weren’t even on the radar for postseason awards coming into the season. Former walk-on wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald was a hidden gem for Dodge’s passing attack. In his first season as a starter, Fitzgerald broke nearly every North Texas single-season receiving record and earned first team all-conference and honorable mention All-America honors. Center Kelvin Drake was also a first time starter in 2007 and finished the season as a second team all-conference performer. True freshman quarterback Giovanni Vizza didn’t earn the starting nod until the fifth game of the season, but still managed to become the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year.
The offense will return eight starters from 2007 and all eight should benefit tremendously from having played a year in Dodge’s system. Former All-America running back Jamario Thomas is gone, as is honorable mention all-conference wide receiver Brandon Jackson. While both had an impact in 2007, they both shared time with underclassmen that will now have invaluable game experience. The Mean Green also returns four of five offensive linemen from last season.
The defensive holes left by departing seniors are a little more impactful. Two-time all-conference selection Jeremiah Chapman was a three-year starter at defensive end while linebackers Derek Mendoza and Maurice Holman both started more than 30 games in their careers. Safety Aaron Weathers was also a three-year starter and was a staple in the defensive secondary for North Texas. In all, the Mean Green returns six defensive starters, including honorable mention all-conference linebacker Craig Robertson who led the team with six interceptions last year.
Dodge’s relationships with area high school coaches have paid off, gauging by the caliber of his first two recruiting classes. As many as nine true freshmen were in the two deep from his initial signing class of 2007. His 2008 signing class has been mentioned among the best ever at North Texas and ESPN ranked this year’s group in the top seven of non-BCS schools. The 2008 class is made up of six players ranked among the top 100 players in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and 12 players who earned either first team all-state or first team all-district honors.
North Texas will face a challenging, yet exciting schedule in 2008. The Mean Green will open the season at Kansas State, which finished the 2007 season with a 5-7 record. North Texas will host Tulsa in its home-opener Sept. 6 before playing at defending national champion LSU Sept. 13.
The Mean Green will also travel to Houston to take on Rice in the renewal of a regional rivalry that has been dormant for 20 years. Sun Belt Conference games at home will feature Florida International on Oct. 4, Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 11, Troy on Oct. 25 and Arkansas State on Nov. 29. Three of North Texas’ four non-conference road games will be within a 500 mile radius, which continues the trend of scheduling regionally-based opponents.
Dodge knew there would be some early tribulations when he decided to make true freshman Giovanni Vizza the starter only four games into the season. In his first four games, Vizza had nine interceptions with seven touchdowns and an efficiency rating of 112.7. In his last four games, Vizza improved his efficiency rating to 124.2 and had nine touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.
His eight games as a starter were enough to make Sun Belt coaches realize his ability as they voted him as the conference Freshman of the Year following the season. His eight touchdown passes against Navy broke the NCAA single-game record for freshmen. His 2,388 passing yards in 2007 was the most ever by a North Texas freshman and the sixth-most by a quarterback of any classification.
Dodge made a point to work with Vizza during the spring to improve his accuracy. Knowing that he will be the top quarterback heading into fall camp, Vizza received a lot of personal attention from the head coach, which he wasn’t afforded prior to last season.
Daniel Meager will be back for his senior season after spending the last three years as a part-time starter. Meager will be the most valuable and experienced backup quarterback in the Sun Belt Conference with 20 career starts to his credit. Meager has helped in the development of Nathan Tune who was a redshirt freshman in 2007. According to Dodge, Tune progressed enough throughout the spring that he will battle Meager for the top backup job heading into fall camp.
The steady hands of Matt Phillips will also return for North Texas as the longtime field goal and PAT holder will be back for his senior season. In all, North Texas will have three quarterbacks on its roster who have been starters at one time during their career.
North Texas faithful are also eagerly awaiting the arrival of highly-touted recruit Riley Dodge. The son of the head coach is perhaps the most anticipated freshman in North Texas football history after a standout career at Southlake Carroll High School where he was named the Texas 5A Offensive Player of the Year as both a junior and senior. The younger Dodge will have to work his way up the depth chart during two-a-days, as he will come in on the bottom rung.
The Mean Green was very green on the offensive line last year, with two sophomores and two redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup. While North Texas will benefit from returning four of its five starters up front, only two of those starters had the added benefit of participating in spring practice.
Starting center Kelvin Drake and starting tackle Matt Menard both nursed injuries that will kept them out of spring practice, but both are expected to be 100 percent by the start of fall practice. Also on the sideline for spring ball was Chad Rose who has been a part time starter at both guard and center during his three years at North Texas.
Returning starters Tyler Bailey and Esteban Santiago got a lot of action during spring while their line-mates were out with injuries. The coaching staff also had a great opportunity to develop young, inexperienced linemen during the spring, which they think will pay dividends during the fall. Drake was a second team all-conference center in 2007 and will again be the leader of the offensive line. He made the adjustment from snapping under center to shotgun seamlessly and graded out as the top offensive linemen despite playing with a severely sprained ankle the last part of the season. Mendard and Santiago started every game for North Texas last year and improved dramatically in their first season in the lineup.
Bailey and Rose shared time starting at left guard last year and both are versatile players that can play multiple positions on the line. Bailey worked at both guard and tackle during the spring, trying the fill the void of his injured teammates. Victor Gill got plenty of action at tackle during spring ball after converting from tight end last season. Bryan Glass took most of the snaps at center with Drake out for the spring. Glass has spent his three years at North Texas as a backup seeing limited time in 2006 and 2007.
Freshman J.J. Johnson redshirted in 2007, but received most of his reps during the spring with the first team offense. Johnson was recruited as a center but the coaches want to see if he can work into the depth chart at guard as well. Matt Tomlinson is a big body that worked at tackle in the spring and will be trying to earn a spot on the depth chart heading into the fall. Freshmen Troy Kokjohn and Jacob Kaiser also saw a lot of action this spring which should help them fill in the depth during the fall.
The top four leading rushers in North Texas history all made their careers in the last 10 years, including Ja’Quay Wilburn (1997-2000), Kevin Galbreath (2001-02), Patrick Cobbs (2001-05) and Jamario Thomas (2004-07). While Dodge doesn’t employ the type of running game that will churn out the nation’s top rusher, he doesn’t downplay the importance of a credible running game. In 2007, the combination of Jamario Thomas and true freshman Micah Mosely combined for 1,127 yards.
Dodge thinks Mosely can be a 1,000-yard back in each of his last three years, which would put him in the elite company mentioned above. Mosely had 461 yards and five touchdowns while playing in all 12 games as a true freshman last year. Mosely will be tested by Cam Montgomery who was a highly-regarded junior college transfer in 2007 but spent last fall battling injuries. Montgomery had a breakout spring in which he showed he is fully recovered from his injury. Montgomery was awarded a medical redshirt for his injuries last fall and will still have two years of eligibility. If he can carry over his performance from the spring, Dodge will have a tough, but pleasant decision to make in deciding who will be the workhorse in the backfield.
Kerona Henderson also saw a lot of action during the spring, and will try to find his place on the depth chart this fall. Henderson is a converted fullback who has the advantage of being in the program for the last four years. True freshmen Lance Dunbar and Jeremi Mathis are joining the team this fall after both were rated among the best high school backs in Texas last season.
Heading into the 2007 season, Todd Dodge hoped to find a few good receivers to help take the load off of senior Brandon Jackson. What he found was a former walk-on who was looking for the chance to showcase his ability in Dodge’s new spread offense. In his first two years at North Texas, Casey Fitzgerald spent the majority of his time on the scout team, buried on the depth chart at a position that was often over-looked in a run-based offense. Prior to 2007, Fitzgerald had played in 11 games in two years, totaling five catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns. After seeing him in practice leading up to the 2007 season, Dodge predicted big things for Fitzgerald. Even Dodge didn’t know it would be this big.
Fitzgerald broke every single-season receiving record at North Texas, catching 111 passes for 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns. He finished the season ranked No. 3 in the nation in receptions per game and No. 4 in yards per game. He was a first team all-conference selection and an honorable mention All-America selection by several organizations. He ranks second only to Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech as the top returning receiver in the nation in 2008 and will be the main focus of every defense that North Texas faces during his senior season.
Brock Stickler will also be a senior in 2008 after developing as big target at inside receiver last year. Stickler had 37 receptions for 391 yards and two touchdowns and is expected to flourish after having a full year to learn the offense. As a true freshman last year, it took Sam Dibrell nine games to break into the starting lineup, but after securing the position, he never looked back. Dibrell led the team in receiving against Middle Tennessee in the eighth game of the year and started every game after that finishing the season with 28 catches for 377 yards and two touchdowns.
Freshmen B.J. Lewis and Breece Johnson also saw time on the field last year and both are expected to see a lot more game time in 2008. There will be an interesting battle at outside receiver between freshman Sam Roberson and senior Roderick Johnson. Roberson spent the 2007 polishing his skills on the scout team while Johnson is a former walk-on that showed tremendous improvement throughout the fall and spring.
Freshmen Evan Walker and Alex Lott will also compete to make an impact at slot receiver. The primary difference at wide receiver this year compared to last year is experience. Going into the 2007 season, Jackson was the only returner with quality game experience. This year there will be at least four receivers who have earned valuable time on the field. Spring practice helped the younger guys gain valuable experience with the first team offense and it helped Dodge begin to develop a depth chart heading into fall practice. North Texas also signed four wide receivers in its 2008 signing class that come highly-regarded.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of having new defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach here this spring was that it allowed him to perform a hard evaluation of the returning talent. What he saw on the defensive line was great quality, but not great quantity.
First off, DeLoach will be charged with finding replacements for all-conference defensive end Jeremiah Chapman and two-year starter Montey Stevenson. oseph Miller and Issac Thomas shared time as a starter at defensive tackle and both are back in 2008. Miller got a lot of reps during spring practice as Thomas was sidelined with an injury that has him out until the beginning of fall practice. If healthy, those two should be staples at the tackle spots.
Spring practice helped fill in some of the depth at defensive tackle, but that depth is made up of four or five players who have little to no game experience. Jonathan Stewart is the most experienced of the backups, playing in 10 games during his first two years at North Texas. Junior Charlie Brown came to North Texas as a tight end, but made the switch to defensive line when Dodge arrived. Brown has added over 40 pounds since joining the Mean Green and now has a full season behind him of learning a new position.
DeLoach also likes Jesse DeSoto who spent his first year at North Texas as a redshirt. Sophomore Kail Krider has shown steady improvement and will also figure into the depth chart at tackle. Dodge and DeLoach are also excited about the return of Draylen Ross, who redshirted in 2007 and is also making the transition from tight end to defensive tackle. Ross was a huge tight end as a true freshman in 2006, and has filled in nicely to his 6-3, 290 pound frame. At defensive end, North Texas relying heavily upon the credentials of two junior college transfers. Alonzo Horton was ranked among the top 100 junior college prospects after a standout career at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Mack Cole III was a late pickup for North Texas out of Fort Scott Community College, where he was an all-conference performer in the talent-filled Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference.
Without having either of these two in the spring, DeLoach was able to get a good look at Ryan Davenport, Kyle Russo and Marquis Sykes. Davenport is coming off an injury, but had a solid spring and should be in the two-deep. Russo redshirted as a true freshman last fall, but looked great at times in practice. If he can pick up where he left off, he will see plenty of action this fall. Sykes saw a lot of action during the spring and will be in the mix to fill out the depth chart.
DeLoach will also have the services of Sam Owusu-Hemeng who has been in the program for two years, but has not made it on the field yet. Owusu-Hemeng has the talent to create great competition and could find his way on the field if he stays healthy. With this many new and inexperienced faces on the defensive line DeLoach is hoping that the group can come together during two-a-days and bond into a solid unit. He believes the talent is there, they just need to find the right combination to maximize their potential.
At first glance it might appear that the Mean Green would be in trouble with the departure of three senior linebackers who collectively started 90 games over the last four years. Maurice Holman, Derek Mendoza and Brandon Monroe were all three-year starters and all had over 190 career tackles. In helping to secure the future, Dodge knew that some of his younger linebackers would have to get quality game experience in 2007. What he didn’t know is that a redshirt freshman would be the surprise of the defense.
Craig Robertson started the season behind Monroe on the depth chart, but by game six he was a starter and by the end of the season he was an all-conference selection. Robertson led the team with five interceptions and finished sixth on the team with 48 tackles. Robertson will be the only returning starter among the linebackers, but there are four others who have played extensively during their time.
Tobe Nwigwe has the ability to be one of the top middle linebackers in the league, but he spent the 2007 season battling off-the-field issues. Nwigwe started 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2006 and he has high expectations from the coaching staff in 2008. There will be an interesting battle at the outside linebacker position opposite of Robertson this spring. A.J. Penson was a backup playing as a true freshman last year and he will battle Steve Warren who spent the 2007 season taking a medical redshirt. Warren is a converted safety who has gained more than 30 pounds of muscle since coming to North Texas in 2005. He has two years of eligibility remaining and will make a strong case for a starting spot on the outside.
Colt Mahan is another versatile athlete who has played both inside and outside linebacker in his time at North Texas. Mahan will see plenty of action in his senior year and will battle Nwigwe for a starting spot at middle. Battling to earn a spot on the two deep at outside will also be freshmen Marquese Davis and Bron Hager. Justin Padron will work at the inside linebacker position behind Nwigwe and Mahan as the team begins fall practice.
Experience will not be prevalent at the safety position for North Texas in 2008. Kartey Agbottah is the only returning starter and the only returning player with extensive experience. Agbottah started eight games as a sophomore in 2007, finishing the year with 47 tackles and one interception. Agbottah helped secure his spot in the lineup with a good spring, but his backfield mate will be a highly contested battle heading into the fall.
Junior college transfer Kylee Hill participated in spring practice and made his way up the depth chart. Hill is a physical safety that the coaches think will head into fall practice as the guy to beat out as the other starter. Pushing Hill will be Germaine Dawson, who is a converted linebacker. Dawson also adds a physical presence in the backfield that the coaches like.
Navy transfer Greg Garden spent the 2007 season redshirting and got a hard look during the spring. Garden will likely head into the fall behind Agbottah on the depth chart, but will definitely keep him on his toes. Dodge and DeLoach think that the safety position will be one of the most interesting battles as they fill out the depth chart this fall. Dodge also recruited heavily for the safety position and has as many as four incoming freshmen who will contend for a spot on the two-deep.
Some might refer to Antoine Bush as Old Dependable. Although he will only be a junior in 2008, Bush has started 23 of 24 games and played in all 24 since his freshman year. While he didn’t lead the team in interceptions or finish among the top three tacklers, Bush has been a reliable fixture for the Mean Green at cornerback for two years. He had 42 tackles and one interception as a freshman and earned his consistency moniker as a sophomore with... you guessed it, 42 tackles and one interception. Bush will be the leader of the entire defense in 2008 as he has started more games in his career than any current Mean Green defender.
Opposite of Bush, DeLoach hopes to see continued improvement from Latif Nurudeen who was in and out of the starting lineup last year. The coaches believe Nurudeen has the physical tools to be successful and should be aided by the change in defensive philosophy under DeLoach this year. Nurudeen had 30 tackles as a junior last season.
Junior college transfer Adryan Adams made an immediate impact when he made his debut during spring practice this year. Adams and Nurudeen will head into the fall in a very close race to be the other starter. Chris Neal contributed on special teams as a redshirt freshman and he will battle converted wide receiver Arthur Stubblefield to help fill out the two-deep as fall practice begins. Dodge also recruited the cornerback position heavily and hopes that there will be some true freshmen to accept the challenge of competing for playing time.
For as much certainty as North Texas has in the punting game, there is equally as much uncertainty in the place kicking game. Senior punter Truman Spencer is a three-year starter and is on pace to break the North Texas career record for both punts and punting yards. Spencer was a second team all-conference selection as a sophomore and will be a strong candidate for all-conference accolades again this year.
Last year, the place kicking duties fell to true freshman Thomas Moreland, who made 8-of-15 field goals, with a long of 37 yards. He was 0-of-2 beyond 40 yards and 8-of-13 between 20 and 37 yards. During spring practice, Moreland was supplanted by junior college transfer Jeremy Knott. Knott earned second team All-America honors at Northeast Oklahoma A&M and will give North Texas an added weapon with a strong leg that was consistently accurate from beyond 40 yards in the spring.
The punt and kick return teams were intensely evaluated last spring after the Mean Green finished last in the Sun Belt Conference in kickoff return average and near the bottom in punt return average. There were some nice surprises during spring practice, including the emergence of Jamel Jackson who is a walk-on wide receiver that had several eye-opening returns in practice. Dodge also believes that the 2008 recruiting class has several candidates that could immediately bolster the return game.