Bye week analysis: Mean Green secondary not living up to high expectations

Bye week analysis: Mean Green secondary not living up to high expectations

Bye week analysis: Mean Green secondary not living up to high expectations
October 05
00:08 2017

On the season’s opening night against Lamar University, North Texas held a 31-7 lead with about five minutes left in the second quarter.

Lamar quarterback Darrel Colbert Jr. dropped back from his own 32-yard line looking for anything open down the field, and just as the pocket was about to collapse he found what he was looking for. Wide receiver Martell Hawthorne had torched Mean Green junior cornerback Nate Brooks.

Hawthorne caught the ball 42 yards down the field and practically walked into the end zone from there.

At the time, it did not seem like a big deal as North Texas went on to win the game 59-14. But the early secondary struggles only foreshadowed a more severe problem. The secondary has had issues defending the deep ball five games into the year and that’s been pointed to by coaches as the Achilles heel of the defense at times. 

“It’s not that the [opposing receivers] are bigger, stronger or faster,” sophomore safety Khairi Muhammad said. “We just need to play smarter football. If we play smarter football we’ll be successful.”

Failing to play smart has been the recurring theme of a unit that had the only two preseason First-Team All-Conference USA selections on the team in Brooks and senior safety Kishawn McClain. Defensive coordinator and safeties coach Troy Reffett saw these preseason accolades and said they may have played a role in the early miscues in the secondary.

“I think what happened was these guys were built up so much by everybody, but us,” Reffett said. “The media built them up like we were going to have a great secondary, and I think they lived off that instead of coming out here and going to work and trying to get better.”

North Texas is one of just five FBS teams in the country that has allowed 14 or more passing touchdowns this season. Only Oregon State (15) and East Carolina (16) have given up more touchdowns through the air, and those teams have a combined record of 2-8.

While the linebackers and even the defensive line are not without some blame in allowing opposing quarterbacks to make big plays, the secondary has had several blown coverages or mental mistakes that have caused problems down the field. 

Through five games, opposing quarterbacks are completing just 50.3 percent of their passes.

While that number is solid, breaking it down in terms of yardage per completion is more troubling. 

Of the 94 passes completed against North Texas, 21 have gone for at least 15 yards. Of those plays, 14 have gained more than 25 yards, and six of those have gone for 50 or more.

The most glaring of those mistakes came against the University of Alabama at Birmingham when Brooks bit on not one, but two hitch-and-go routes that went for a touchdown. As a result, he was benched in favor of Eric Jenkins and did not start the following game against the University of Southern Mississippi.

“[It’s] just understanding football,” head coach Seth Littrell said. “You’re not going to pick off many hitch routes. We have to get back to the basic fundamentals. We have some guys doing some really good things, but we have to play with all 11 and can’t be greedy.”

Of the 14 passing touchdowns allowed, seven have been for at least 35 yards and four of those have been touchdowns of 57 yards or more. 

And those just account for the completed passes. Against Iowa, quarterback Nate Stanley missed two deep throws to wide open receivers on the sidelines on back-to-back plays.

While the defense has gone man-to-man plenty of times, there were plenty of cases when the safety was late on his help to a wideout like this play against SMU.

Mistakes like these show Reffett an undisciplined secondary – but not one lacking talent. 

“They’re all playing very greedy,” Reffett said. “Trying to make every play instead of just making the plays they’re supposed to. They’re taking risks and taking chances on plays they’re not supposed to.”

Senior Eric Jenkins has done a good job stepping in over the last two games, making the small plays Reffett is referring to. In the second half of the UAB game, he made a few key plays on long passes to show what he is capable of.

“He did his job,” Reffett said. “He had three pass breakups on three deep balls, just because he did what he was coached to do. When these guys are back there screwing up, they’re not doing what they’re coached to do, they’re doing their own thing – and 90 percent of the time, their thing doesn’t work.”

The silver lining in the struggles is the group knows most of its mistakes can be cleaned up. The bye week should help with that, as the Mean Green prepare for a pivotal Oct. 14 showdown against the University of Texas at San Antonio.

With seven games left in the season, the coaches and players know the talent is there for them to turn it around. Now they just have to go to work and execute.

“We just need to play smarter football and get our alignment and our assignments right,” Muhammad said. “Get in the film room a little more and know what’s coming, [so we can] anticipate, and we’ll have a great season.”

Featured Image: North Texas junior cornerback Nate Brooks (9) lunes up in the secondary during a game against Southern Methodist University earlier this season. Courtesy | Mean Green Athletics

About Author

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune is the Senior Sports Writer for the North Texas Daily, covering football and men's basketball.

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