Iowa football look ahead: Up-and-coming coach, Air Raid offense working for North Texas

UNT coach Seth Littrell had the Mean Green in a bowl a year after 1-11

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Seth Littrell probably is one of those coaches you’ll want to get to know.

North Texas finished 117th nationally in total offense last season. The Mean Green were 89th in total defense. It ranked 99th in scoring and 96th in scoring defense. They ranked 82nd in turnovers, 104th in time of possession and 121st in sacks allowed.

Despite all of those underwhelming numbers, North Texas managed a 5-8 finish that included an overtime defeat to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. (OK, what was a five-win team doing in a bowl game? North Texas’ sterling APR gave it a boost to fill a bowl spot, for better or worse.)

The Green finished 5-8 and finished 3-5 in the Conference USA West Division. This doesn’t sound particularly uplifting, but consider: Last year was Littrell’s first in Denton. The 5-8 is a year removed from a 1-11 finish in Dan McCarney’s final season at UNT (the former Iowa State coach was fired in October 2015).

Littrell agreed to a new five-year deal in May. The contract includes a base salary of $900,000 with incentives that will make Littrell one of the highest-paid coaches in Conference USA and push him past the $1 million mark in salary and incentives for the 2018 season.

Seth Littrell? Where have you heard that name before?

Littrell played fullback at Oklahoma. He also was an offensive assistant there under Washington State coach Mike Leach and former Indiana coach and now Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. He coached tight ends in 2014-15 for Larry Fedora at North Carolina. It seems a little off that a former college fullback is so steeped in the Air Raid, but that’s Littrell’s offense.

Former Texas Tech record-setting QB Graham Harrell is Littrell’s offensive coordinator. Expect Iowa’s young secondary to get a workout.

What about 2017?: Sophomore Mason Fine returns at quarterback. The Locust Grove, Okla., native received two scholarship offers out of high school, North Texas and Austin Peay. Last season, Fine split time and completed 59.4 percent of his passes with six TDs and five interceptions. He missed the final three games of 2016 with a shoulder injury.

Fine earned a spot on the Conference USA all-freshman team.

UNT lost three of its top four wide receivers from last year. Sophomore Jalen Guyton, a transfer from Trinity Valley Community College, has consistently made plays through fall camp. Still, the Green lost five of their top seven pass catchers from 2016. That’ll take some time to figure out.

Senior Jeffery Wilson (6-0, 194) rushed for 936 yards last season and is 11th on the school’s career rushing list with 1,990 yards. He also rushed for 14 TDs and caught 29 passes for 247 yards and another TD.

The Green signed five offensive linemen in the 2017 recruiting class and are hoping to get a contribution from that group this season. Any help would be appreciated, at least in pass protection. The Green allowed 43 sacks last year, 120th in the FBS.

And the defense: Maybe Littrell makes the mid-major jump at some point. And maybe so does defensive coordinator Troy Reffett.

When improvement is sometimes hard to see, you use numbers to support your theory. Here’s some for the Green’s defense in its first season under Reffett: UNT held opponents to 8.7 points per game fewer than the 2015 UNT defense. That turnaround in scoring defense was the 13th-best mark in the country. Also, the Green improved from 120th to 89th in total defense.

UNT has a talented secondary returning and linebacker Joshua Wheeler. It could have a solid rotation on the defensive line, but sophomore defensive tackle Bryce English, a transfer from Kansas State, suffered a broken foot in mid-August and will be out several weeks. English was on course to start at nose tackle in the Mean Green’s 3-3-5 scheme.

Hawkeyes Look Ahead

Sept. 16 vs. North Texas

Time: 2:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

Week before: at Iowa State

Week after: Big Ten opener vs. Penn State at Kinnick, Sept. 23

On the horizon: at Michigan State, Sept. 30

North Texas Mean Green

Coach: Seth Littrell (5-8, second season at North Texas)

Depth Chart

2016 record: 5-8, 3-5 in the Conference USA West Division

Scoring offense: 24.8 points per game (12th in CUSA, T-97th nationally)

Total offense: 341.8 yards per game (13th CUSA, 117th nationally)

Scoring defense: 32.6 points allowed per game (5th CUSA, 96th nationally)

Total defense: 439.8 yards allowed per game (8th CUSA, 89th nationally)

Series: Hawkeyes lead 1-0

Last meeting: Iowa beat the Mean Green 62-16 at Kinnick in 2015. The crowd of 56,041 at Kinnick Stadium was the smallest since 54,471 showed up for Buffalo in 2003.

Forget that. Why isn’t this the FryFest game? Hayden Fry came to Iowa City and turned 19 years of nonwinning football into a mythic stretch at Iowa, ending the 13-year stranglehold Ohio State and Michigan had on the Rose Bowl.

Before Iowa, Fry, as head coach and athletics director, turned around the North Texas program, compiling a 40–23–3 record over six seasons (1973–1978). In his final four seasons, North Texas had winning records, including a 10–1 mark in 1977 and a 9–2 record in 1978.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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