Previewing North Texas

August 27, 2023143,091
The Weather:
The Bears find themselves in a rare road opener versus a Group of 5 program. This is the result of a late scheduling challenge in 2019 that allowed UNT to demand a return trip in order to fill Cal’s schedule gap.
The heat and humidity will be a factor, primarily because DATCU stadium is situated such that the home team is under shade in the afternoon while the visitors will be standing in the sun. The fact that this game has an afternoon kickoff is nearly criminal. As much for the fans as for the players. New UNT head coach Eric Morris has made a point of letting the press know that he believes the weather will be to the Mean Green’s advantage and sources tell us that even after ESPN and Cal agreed to push the kickoff into the evening, Morris vetoed the idea.
The UNT Offense:
This is a brand new staff and scheme as former UNT head coach Seth Litrell (who was arguably the most successful HC in the history of the program) was let go after failing to win a conference title. Litrell and his former OC Mike Bloesch (currently Cal’s run game coordinator and offensive line coach) set all kinds of records in Denton with an offense that was well-balanced between the run and the pass.
That may change under new HC Eric Morris, fresh off his debut season as the OC at Washington State where the Cougars offense finished 10th in the Pac-12 in yards per play in conference play (just behind Cal) and 7th in scoring in Pac-12 play. Morris, the former HC at FCS Incarnate Word, is known for his pass-centric offenses. The Cougars passed the ball nearly 60% of the time in 2022, though their leading rusher finished with a respectable 5.34 yards per carry average in conference play. It remains to be seen whether Morris will adapt his offense approach based on the Mean Green personnel.
In 2022, UNT ran the ball almost 60% of the time, finishing with the 2nd most efficient rushing attack in CUSA (They are now in the American Athletic Conference). And their strongest position group is arguably their tailbacks where they have four high-quality starters. Those four combined for 2400 yards and 19 TDs in 2022. Look out for small but shifty Ayo Adeyi and the bigger Ikaika Ragsdale. The offensive line is not particularly large or athletic but was very effective both in opening holes for their talented backs and for protecting their passer last season. And they boost a potential future NFL tackle in Febechi Nwaiwu. Everyone returns, though incoming Arkansas State transfer Ethan Miner has won the starting center job.
Similar to Cal, there was a tight battle for the starting QB position which was eventually won by former Abilene Christian starter, Stone Earle. Earle’s not big at 6’ but has a strong arm and quick feet (a decent runner but not a dynamic threat with his legs). He throws well on the run and is a bit more of a playmaker than his backup, transfer Chandler Rogers. The WR room is deep though it lost its best playmaker Jyaire Shorter (who Cal will face when it hosts Auburn) to the transfer portal. There’s not a ton of speed or size in the room, more solid route runners who can find green grass. One sign that the offense will be very different is that the TE room is thin and undersized, which is very different from what UNT did in 2022 with jumbo-sized receiving TE Var’keys Gumms and a host of strong blocking TEs including incoming Cal TE Asher Alberding.
Morris is likely to run what he’s comfortable with which is a pass-first offense that will look to leverage the deep RB room as both runners and receivers. The ball will get out quickly to avoid sacks and Earle should be effective in buying time in the pocket. Whether the OL can move the bigger Cal front six on run plays is a big question as is the ability for the Mean Green WRs to get open against the Bears’ capable secondary.
The UNT Defense:
On paper, this is the side of the ball with more questions. The Mean Green defense struggled in 2022 and lost their two best players, LB KD Davis to graduation and LB Larry Nixon to the transfer portal (another player Cal will see when they play Auburn). Under new DC Matt Caponi (former DB coach at Iowa State), the Mean Green will switch to a 3-3-5 scheme (familiar to Cal fans as what Rocky Long ran for years at San Diego State). That scheme helps defenses with less size and more speed match up better.
Caponi will be relying on a lot of new transfers along with two key DL returners. Edge Mazin Richards is an effective pass rusher and 5-11, 300 NG Roderick Brown is quick and disruptive. The LB crew will be inexperienced and again undersized. To put this in perspective, the tallest starter for UNT on defense is only 6’1. Cal will start only two players under 6’1 on its defense. What they are is quick and if Caponi can bring the fire and discipline that Iowa State has had the past few seasons, they may be scrappily effective.
An improvement would seem likely despite the losses and new faces after the Mean Green finished 113th nationally in 2022 in yards per play and 110th in scoring defense despite not playing a single Power 5 opponent. They were particularly poor against the run last season. That said, this is not a defense with a lot of proven, productive football players.
The Bears' biggest challenge will likely be the scheme. The 3-3-5 tries to beat larger blockers to the spot and clogs up the middle by having two DBs heavily involved in run support. It counts on those smaller defenders being capable tacklers in space. It can often take an offense a while to adjust to the 3-3-5 given the variety of blitzes it can bring and the number of solid pass coverage type athletes it can put into its zone. However, It is susceptible to seam routes, and off-tackle runs and can wear down as a game progresses.
It would be surprising to see UNT play a lot of man-to-man given the size and speed disadvantage it will have in its secondary. Instead, they will probably look to take away the run, assigning a spy on QB Jackson and playing a bend but not break style in its coverage packages.
Special Teams:
UNT will be breaking in a new PK and a new punter in 2023. Their return teams were near the bottom of CUSA in 2022 and their coverage teams were average.
In 2019 at home, Cal struggled to beat North Texas in a game where the Mean Green outgained the Bears. That UNT team was led by prolific QB Mason Fine, though his final year in Denton was disappointing as they went only 4-8 and their defense proved poor (Cal was their defensive performance of the year). That alone should caution Bear fans as should the heat and the first game in a new offensive scheme with a first-time starting QB. In almost every other respect, Cal will have distinct advantages: Depth of talent, size, athleticism, etc. It will be strength against strength when the UNT offense takes the field and a question mark vs. a question mark when the Bears have the ball.

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