This is the first entry in the series that will focus on underrated offense across the FBS landscape. North Texas has produced quality play but the consensus is underrating this group.
This might come across as a weird inclusion at first as they ranked 88th in EPA per play last season and 80th in success rate but things change, and Seth Littrell’s Mean Green has upside. Ranking first in players per game, the offense should have plenty of plays to support production if things break right. Additions in the transfer portal highlighted by Grant Gunnell could lead this offense to the next level in 2022.
Adding quarterback Grant Gunnell in the portal can make or break the season. AARP member Austin Aune has been competent for North Texas, but Gunnell gives the offense a ceiling we haven’t seen in Latrell’s tenure.
In 2021’s regular season, Aune ranked 109th among qualified quarterbacks in total EPA with -16.66. The loss of Jyaire Shorter hurt the passing offense but ultimately, Aune was holding the unit back. He started or played the majority of snaps in 11 games. In those games, he had more than 240 passing yards once and under 125 yards five times. His average of 181 yards in games, ranks among the worst in the nation for a team that isn’t primarily an option team. To add, Aune had only 9 touchdowns in these 11 games
Comparatively, Gunnell has been productive when starting despite limited reps up to this point. In his career, he’s had significant action in five games at a Power 5 level. In the matchups where he’s thrown more than 20 passes, he’s averaging 272 yards and 2 touchdowns per contest. Accomplished as a true freshman and sophomore, Gunnell also played a struggling Arizona team against quality defenses. In 2021, he was injured before the season for the Memphis Tigers, resulting in Seth Henigan’s breakout. It’s a small sample for Gunnell but it’s clear he represents upside for this offense.
Statistically, in his last full season as a starter, he posted a QBR of 62, which isn’t great but is still 15 points higher than Aune’s best year. He also has a career 66.5% completion percentage compared to Austin Aune’s 51.2% in 2021. Additionally, last season Aune posted one of the country’s worst adjusted yards per pass attempt at 5.99. In Gunnell’s largest sample, he posted a 7.99 yards per attempt. The offense is substantially limited by Aune’s inaccuracy but also his low yards per attempt. Pushing the ball downfield will be a priority with Gunnell at the helm.
Gunnell has transferred twice and while that’s traditionally a knock, it requires some advanced examination in this situation. Transferring from Arizona makes sense. The situation there wasn’t productive for any offensive player and with his track record, it was hard for Gunnell to find a better opportunity than one of the country’s premier Group of 5 programs in Memphis. Unfortunately, his injury before the season set him back, and despite an admittedly close battle in Spring, you can argue that Henigan was tabbed as the starter due to his Freshman All-American status and youth in the program.
If Gunnell does start the offense’s heavy rush rate, which ranked 116th in neutral game script pass rate last season, should be closer to average than heavily skewed. This still provides upside for the rushing game however as they ranked 9th in Power Success Rate and 47th in EPA per rush attempt.
The departure of DeAndre Torrey opens space for Oscar Adaway III to seize a larger role in the offense. Torrey posted 1,215 yards with 13 touchdowns as the lead back in this offense. Behind him, running backs contributed 55% of the carries, giving way to a multi-back rushing attack with a clear leader. Torrey’s production came on the back of a traditionally small market share. Even if we project a split heading into the season, if any back emerges as the primary option, we should see a fantasy relevant running back.
Assuming that Adaway steps back into the RB1 role has potential RB2 upside in fantasy. He’s operating behind an offensive line that returns four starters highlighted by All-Conference USA returning center Manase Mose. The rushing game was one of the few things working for North Texas early in the season so even if we see a lower rush rate, it should still be a huge part of the offense.
The outstanding question is the role Ikaika Ragsdale has in the offense. The second-leading rusher in 2021 and more efficient than Torrey at 5.3 yards per scarry, he has a legit case for an increased workload in the upcoming season. Ragsdale enters his third year as the clear second option. Adaway seized a substantial role in his second season and despite missing 2021, he is the more electric back. Per play, Adaway added 0.04 EPA while in 2021 Ragsdale only notched 0.01 per play. A small value points to the more explosive and valuable per-play rusher. Ragsdale is an excellent RB2 and if anything were to happen to Adaway, he likely becomes an immediate fantasy starter.
At receiver, Roderic Burns returns as the leader but they also get back Jyaire Shorter who was injured early in last season. Despite a bottom-15 pass rate, Burns still posted over 800 yards on 53 catches. Burns posted a 31% receiving yard market share in 2022, proving himself to be the true WR1 option. As a third-year receiver, this is above expectation, but he faces stiffer competition with the return of Jyaire Shorter in 2022.
Speaking of Shorter, his return muddles the offensive projections. The expected WR1 heading into the 2022 season, Shorter failed to stay healthy again. Over his four years in school, Shorter has played only 17 games with one season over three games. There are legitimate injury concerns that prevent us from projecting him as the leading receiver for the Mean Green. Shorter’s reputation rests on his 2019 season where he ranked third in receiving yards behind Jaelon Darden and Michael Lawrence. An explosive downfield receiver, Shorter has averaged 19.8 yards per reception.
Normalization of the neutral game script pass rate will elevate receiving production given the pace of the offense. One of these two will likely carve out a significant role and become a week-to-week starter at the position. My bet is on Burns who emerged as the WR1 last year in Shorter’s absence. The return of Shorter helps solidify the offense and the transfer of Jay Maclin provides a consistent WR3 threat the Mean Green have lacked in the last few years.
The tight end position is likely inconsequential for North Texas. Not to dig in on Jake Roberts and Christian Lee but this is an offense that likely won’t leverage the tight end position in 2022. Last season Jason Pirtle was the second leading target for the Mean Green but with Shorter returning and Maclin added in the portal, the tight end position will be less needed heading into this year.
Overall, I expect North Texas to outperform expectations based on its personnel and the lack of hype around the program. A solid addition at QB in Grant Gunnell will elevate the entire passing offense and the rushing game should be similar to last year’s dominant force. At receiver, this group is one of the better receiver corps in the SunBelt entering 2022. The combination of Roderic Burns and Jyaire Shorter could cause serious problems for defenses. The offense should take a step forward. Invest in the North Texas offense for the 2022 season.