Same story, different season. The Mean Green are yet again entering the 2016 season with some uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position. The team will not return either of their top two quarterbacks from last season, however, they have added a few interesting pieces to the puzzle. Most interesting is Alec Morris, a graduate transfer from Alabama, who was picked up during this past recruiting cycle. Morris was a 3-star recruit out of high school and received power five offers. But that was four years ago, and he has yet to start a game at the NCAA level.
This year's spring game gave a small glimpse of what fans could see when the season comes around this fall. Morris was slotted as the starting QB and saw the majority of the playing time. Junior, Quinn Shanbour, held the second string quarterback position. The opinions vary, but it would be a difficult case to make that Shanbour and Morris did not closely compete with each other.
Although Morris appeared to be a decent option, he threw 2 interceptions and seemed to favor some receivers far more than others. At his best, he looked like a guy who could lead the team to a solid season. However, the consistency wasn't there for me to go all in on Morris.
Realistically a spring of practices and one intense scrimmage cannot perfectly indicate how well a player will actually play when game time comes. However, Shanbour was far more impressive during the spring than expected. He threw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in the spring game and flashed signs of his speed on a number of plays. The most notable advantage of his mechanics is his quick release. His ability to make a read and release the ball with exceptional speed will hopefully keep him competitive in this quarterback race. With Morris currently being assumed as the starter, the performance may have been Shanbour's "all or nothing" attempt to show what he's got.
At the end of the last season, running back Jeffrey Wilson was arguably the best offensive player on the roster. His ability to explode off of the line and make defenders miss in open field was a large part of the offensive production. With an impressive backup in Willy Ivery as well, the North Texas run game looked like it may have to make up for a shaky pass attack.
This year looks much different. With Ivery out of spring practices for off the field reasons, the running game lacks the extensive depth that it finished last season with. Likewise, the offensive style of Seth Littrell doesn't involve many hand-off runs. Rather than what we saw last season, Wilson will largely be used as a receiving back via swing and dump passes. He showed signs of struggle in the new system, only rushing for 7 yards and receiving for negative 2.
An offensive player that didn't seem to struggle is wide receiver Tee Goree. Fans have been itching to see Goree take the field on a consistent basis since he stepped on campus. After receiving for 141 yards and 1 touchdown, they should expect to see him out there as often as possible. Goree was accompanied by a pretty impressive looking receiving corps that included veterans like Turner Smiley and newcomers like Derris Prater. Whoever the quarterback ends up being at the start of the season will have a lot of help to succeed through the air.
For those of you that do not know much about the 2015 North Texas defense, they had more than their share of struggles. Which is why many fans may have been skeptical about how productive this year's defense would be. Fortunately, The defense that fans got to see throughout the spring was very impressive. New defensive coordinator, Mike Ekeler, showed his Georgia Bulldog background by throwing a number of different blitzes and keeping pressure high at all times. The 3-3-5 scheme shown during the spring game is certainly different than recent years, but this defense seems to have the personnel capable of pulling it off.
One of the most promising signs for the defense was the production of their young talent. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Sid Moore recorded 7 tackles and 3 sacks in the spring game. True freshman defensive end, Joseph Ozougwu, recorded 4 tackles and another 2 sacks. Their contribution only added to a team total of 10 sacks and 3 interceptions for a defense that looked to be playing with a bit more swagger than was seen in the last two seasons. If the Mean Green can keep up the intensity they could become a nightmare for Conference USA quarterbacks.
Special teams showed small signs of improvement as well. Trevor Moore looked similar to his old self during the spring game, hitting 4 of 6 field goals with a long of 43 yards. Moore struggled last season but had a stellar freshman year, setting the school record for field goal percentage. His contribution on special teams will be welcomed with open arms.
On one hand, North Texas looks like an improved team already. On the other hand, it's not very difficult to improve from where they left off last season. We'll see just how big of an improvement the squad can make on September 3rd against SMU.