Before we excoriate Seth Littrell and his team’s performance last night on CBS Sports, we should mention that Skip Holtz and Louisiana Tech looked good. The Dawgs, supposing they had a good QB instead of merely two ‘okay’ ones, would have won this thing by 50. Instead, with an offensive line that has seen better days, and a month’s worth of rust, they got the job done against the league’s worst defense.
Good on them. Tech being solid in the West division is not really news. The story, on twitter and in the message boards, is that North Texas looks bad. At various points the play calling, the decision-making (going for it here? kicking it there?), and coaching (lots of discipline errors) look poor and were in question. Oh, and people were praising the seemingly NFL-bound Jaelon Darden, who scored three times and looked un-tackle-able.
Weren’t They Good?
North Texas went 9-5 in 2017, Littrell’s second year and lost in the New Orleans Bowl to Troy. FAU dominated both matchups and things were looking up with sophomore Mason Fine clearly the best QB on the team, and perhaps in the entire league. North Texas went 9-4 in 2018, starting the season out amazingly well, but dropping a crucial home game against Louisiana Tech at home (that blocked field goal!) and then blowing a lead at Legion Field in Birmingham later that year.
For North Texas fans, there were always some quibbles despite the good times. Here we wrote about how good they were for a stretch there in 2018, but how precarious it was. The defense was surprisingly good — better than we predicted they would be. The offense was nice, but not doing things as consistently as we would expect. Those would be running themes in the program since.
After those linebackers — Brandon Garner, EJ Ejiya — and corners — Kemon Hall, and Nate Brooks — left, NT was suddenly bad on defense. The turnovers dried up, the pass rush was non-existent, and the defenders were getting beat deep. Former DC Troy Reffet liked to bring pressure and when it worked, Ejiya and Garner were making plays. When it didn’t, it looked bad as you might expect.
North Texas limped to a 4-8 season in 2019, Mason Fine’s senior year. The lowlights were losses to Houston, SMU, Charlotte, Tech, and Rice. New (then) and former (now) OC Bodie Reeder’s offense had Mason Fine frustrated 1. North Texas looked much like the offense we see in 2020 — big overall numbers, but more boom-and-bust.
Seth Littrell had mentioned that he wanted to be more aggressive on offense “not take the safe option” so often, and if that meant more interceptions? Cool. It would mean more TDs, too. It all worked to a poor 2019, both coordinators not retained, and Seth Littrell hiring Clint Bowen to be less predictable defensively and Littrell himself would take the reins on offense.
North Texas went from a defense struggling to execute to a defense that looks confused and struggling to execute. Last night the younger players got time, a converted WR was making plays in the secondary. It was a problem that was noticed early in the season: secondary getting beat easily and outran.
All the while NT has recruited in the top-5 of the conference. The Murphy twins, who last night were roasted for being “bad practice players” have found new life as edge rushers, something sorely needed. In a hat tip to Troy Reffet, he probably saw that in them when he was recruiting them. EJ Ejiya led the team in sacks and seeing the Murphys fly in for the same makes me see the vision.
NT has had to find gems at corner from transfers — Eric Jenkins, Kemon Hall — but missed in the last couple of seasons. They’ve similarly missed along the defensive line. Clint Bowen has not gotten his guys playing fast, with confidence, and with discipline. There are too many mistakes — guys leaving their position to make a better play somewhere else and leaving their area exposed to attack.
Is He On A Hot Seat?
Seth Littrell has done well at NT. He has presided over the best offensive stretch in North Texas history. It would be a reactionary move to simply hire the hottest DC you can afford to replace him. The recruiting talent is still coming in, and there is evidence that tweaks will do the job. Maybe a veteran, former head coach to be the QB coach/offensive assistant to help run things while Seth Littrell thinks more about the overall direction. Maybe that person is the defensive coach and leads that side.
It very well could be what we originally suspected this season: this is a rebuild year and there were always going to be embarrassments.
As a coach you build and use up good will by winning. A coach’s first bowl-bound season builds up yea high, and the subsequent one produces diminishing returns. Similarly, the first losing season is met with understanding, and the subsequent ones double. Littrell used up a lot of good will with his poor 2019 season and his firings of the coordinators left him with few cards to play. In many ways this is encapsulated in the yo-yoing of the two quarterbacks. Against UTSA he pulled Bean for Aune, then Aune for Bean. No new ideas.
He already took the coordinator reigns after firing the last one. If he moves back into the CEO role, he can’t surely think it will be cool to simply drop back into the play-calling mode, right?
Beyond that, the money does not look right. He was extended and the buyout raised in anticipation of him taking a P5 job. This is a pandemic and times are tight. Whereas the stadium was being sold out just a year ago, it is empty as the virus rages and people are staying away. It is not smart to buy out a guy and pay his replacement similar money with little payoff coming.
Spitballing: Who Would Replace Him?
Wren Baker surely has a short list to hand over to the search firms to begin with. Littrell nearly took the Mississippi State job three summers ago, and was in discussions with K-State two summers ago. While it would be vogue to simply start at a reactionary hire, based on Baker’s hire of Grant McCasland, and resume of smart choices over his administrative career, I think NT will be in good hands were he to make a switch.
Random names I have seen: Tom Herman after he is dropped from UT. Graham Harrell in a triumphant return 2. The OC/DC du jour. High school coaches on the come up. There is not Urban Meyer:: Tom Herman thing happening here.