A Look Back
2007 was a predictably rough year for first-year head coach Todd Dodge. Not very many coaches have successfully made the transition from high school to college, and Dodge was no exception. Under the former Texas quarterback, the Mean Green finished with a 2-10 record. The North Texas defense gave up an average of 486 yards and 45.1 points per game. Even as the offense improved to 47th nationally in Dodge’s pass-happy offense, the defense simply gave up too much as North Texas’ opponents outscored them 541-298.
Still though, there were some bright spots in a season full of growing pains. A former walk-on by the name of Casey Fitzgerald caught Dodge’s attention in spring ball, and the unheralded junior went on to catch 111 passes for 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns. Fitzgerald was a shoe-in first team All-Sunbelt receiver, and earned honorable mention All-America. Only Texas Tech super freshman Michael Crabtree finished 2007 with more yards than Fitzgerald.
In addition, Dodge proved his offense could get the job done, even if his defense couldn’t. Freshman quarterback Giovanni Vizza emerged halfway through the season and threw for 2,388 yards with 17 touchdowns. He also finished third on the team in rushing with 511 yards and added two more scores on the ground. The Mean Green may not have won many games, but they sure provided some excitement, with a 74-62 loss to Navy in which Vizza threw for 478 yards and eight touchdowns, and a thrilling 27-26 win over Western Kentucky.
A Look Ahead
The priority for 2008 has to be improvement on defense, but don’t think for a second that Dodge won’t be tweaking that already-effective offense for the better. The 2008 squad returns eight starters on the offensive side of the ball.
Vizza’s efforts were enough to earn him Sunbelt Freshman of the Year, and the sophomore will be hoping to build on the success. He enters fall camp as the program’s starter, but there is plenty of noise in the system in the form of incoming freshman Riley Dodge.
Dodge, a three-star recruit, is not only a two-time Texas 5-A Offensive Player of the Year, but also the coach’s son. The true freshman quarterback boasts great mobility and a promising arm, and the North Texas faithful will be impatient to see what the younger Dodge can do, despite the experience Vizza brings to the table.
Dodge’s system is undoubtedly a pass-oriented attack, but the Mean Green will miss tailback Jamario Thomas and his 705 yards and eight touchdowns. Thomas was another in the recent string of successful North Texas tailbacks, and the burden will now switch to sophomore Micah Mosley. Mosley accounted for 479 yards and five touchdowns on just 94 carries this past season.
Much to the chagrin of opposing defenses, Casey Fitzgerald returns for his senior season after exploding onto the national scene. The 5-11 wide receiver will look to top his stellar 2007 campaign, and will surely be the focus of every defense he faces.
At the other receiver position, the Mean Green lost the reliable Brandon Jackson. Jackson finished his senior season with 784 yards and a 9.9 average, but only one touchdown. With Fitzgerald sure to earn some double teams, senior Brock Stickler must step up and produce in ’08. Stickler was North Texas’ third leading receiver in 2007, but totaled just 391 yards. Sophomore Sam Dibrell broke into the starting lineup last season, and will also have a role to play to keep the offense moving.
The offensive line needs to be the most improved unit if the Mean Green offense is to step forward. The line allowed 39 sacks in 12 games last season, not surprising since Dodge threw four underclassmen into the fire to start the season. After weathering the storm, junior center Kelvin Drake, sophomore tackle Matt Menard, junior guard Tyler Bailey, and sophomore guard Esteban Santiago are back to take some pressure off of Vizza. Redshirt freshman J.J. Johnson will take the vacant tackle spot, where the coaches have high hopes for him.
The bad news is that the defense lost five starters; the good news is that there’s nowhere to go but up.
Following the defensive disaster that was 2007, Dodge hired Gary DeLoach, a UCLA assistant coach and former North Texas defensive coordinator. As DC for the Mean Green from 2000-2002, DeLoach created a unit that finished in the top 10 nationally in defense for two straight years. Dodge hopes to recapture the magic of a Mean Green program that went bowling for four straight years. It won’t be easy, however, as this defense loses all four of its top tacklers from 2007.
The defensive line, like its offensive counterpart, is crucial to the defense’s improvement. While the O-line was busy allowing 39 sacks, the D-line totaled a pathetic 14. The line will be anchored by a pair of senior tackles, Joseph Miller and Isaac Brown, who combined for 63 tackles in 2007, not to mention Miller’s 3.5 sacks.
After losing 2007’s leading tackler Jeremiah Chapman, defensive end is perhaps the Mean Green’s greatest question mark. The coaching staff will hope for production from four unknowns. JUCO transfers Alonzo Horton (New Orleans native) and Mack Cole finished 2007 as two of the most decorated ends in the community college ranks. Already on the roster are Marquis Sykes and Sam Owusu-Hemeng, who are untested.
The linebacker position is going to take a major step down in 2008. No unit gets better by losing three senior starters, as Brandon Monroe, Derek Mendoza, and Maurice Holman all started 30-plus games.
Fortunately, Dodge found a player to build his 2008 defense around in Craig Robertson. Robertson took over Monroe’s job in week six and finished the season with 48 tackles and five interceptions. He is solid at the Mike position, but he’ll be joined by a relative unknown in sophomore AJ Penson. At the other outside spot is Tobe Nwige, who had an outstanding freshman season in 2006, but spent 2007 plagued with injuries.
The secondary has some experience to turn to, but the coaching staff will be looking for someone, anyone, to step up at safety.
Junior corner Antoine Bush could stake a claim (along with Robertson) for the title of best defensive player. Bush has played in all 24 of the Mean Green’s games since he joined the team, and has started all but one of those. He is gaining a reputation for reliability, as he notched 42 tackles and an interception in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
On the other side, senior corner Latif Nurudeen, who has spent most of his career as a contributor, will be expected to step into a leading role after tallying 30 tackles last season. If Nurudeen cannot step up, JUCO transfer Adryan Adams impressed the coaches in the spring and may be called upon.
Safety is the real weak spot. Junior Kartey Agbottah is the only safety on the roster with starting experience, as he notched 47 tackles and an interception last fall. Navy transfer Greg Garden sat out in 2007, but the sophomore may be the most talented player on the defense and won’t plan on sitting much longer.
Special teams are (hopefully) under control for the Mean Green. Truman Spencer returns for his third year as the team’s punter. The senior is currently on pace to set a school record for punt yards and number of punts. After an unimpressive 2007 campaign, freshman Thomas Moreland was replaced in the spring by JUCO transfer Jeremy Knott. Knott was an All-American kicker at Northeast Oklahoma A&M, and was consistently accurate from 40 yards and further in spring practice.
When North Texas Invades Tiger Stadium
Head for the exits people, Ohio State at Southern Cal is on! Saturday night in Tiger Stadium is always a fun time, but this game is going to be over before halftime. I’m sure it will be fun to watch the LSU running game tear through the Mean Green defense, but is it worth missing the biggest non-conference game of the season?
The Tiger’s objectives for this game are simple: keep everybody healthy, call some confidence-building touchdowns for whichever quarterback you’re throwing into the fire next week at Auburn, and run the clock out so everyone can get home before midnight.
The stats are against North Texas, despite their wide-open air attack. Since 2000, the Mean Green have played 19 games against BCS opponents. Their record? 1-18, with the lone win coming against Baylor.
If you were curious, they were waxed to the tune of 774 to 195 in those 19 games. North Texas’ last game in Death Valley was a 56-3 shellacking in 2005, in which a sophomore by the name of Matt Flynn went 7- for-7 for 139 yards and three touchdowns in garbage duty.
So maybe the most interesting thing about this game is, which backup is going to have his moment in the sun at the expense of the Mean Green?