North Texas's ground-and-pound past is colliding with Eric Morris's pass-happy philosophy. The result could balance out.

Photo Courtesy of UNT Athletics | Edit by DCTF

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There's no question that North Texas head coach Eric Morris is a disciple of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense.

Morris spent four years playing wide receiver at Texas Tech under Leach, who affectionately donned him 'The Elf' for his 5-foot-8-inch frame. Then he served as offensive coordinator at his alma mater from 2014-17, learning from head coach Kliff Kingsbury and grooming quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But when he took his first head coaching job at Incarnate Word for the 2018 football season, it was time to implement his twist on Leach's signature aerial attack. And one game from his playing days still gnawed at him. 

Texas Tech was 10–0 in 2008, Morris's senior season, just a game removed from Michael Crabtree's catch to defeat No.1-ranked Texas in the waning seconds of a college football classic. The Red Raiders had the most prolific passing offense in the country, captained by quarterback Graham Harrell. They were in the thick of national championship game consideration entering a November 22 matchup with Oklahoma. The Sooners dashed those aspirations with a 65-21 thrashing. On paper, Harrell's 361 passing yards that night bested Heisman winner Sam Bradford's 304 yards, but Bradford only needed 19 attempts. Harrell had thrown the ball 55 times because Texas Tech could only muster 91 yards on the ground, while Oklahoma gashed the Red Raiders for 306 rushing yards. Texas Tech's passing game had carried them to an undefeated record, but it had no Plan B if the quarterback and receivers had an off night.

So Morris self-studied the college football landscape while at Incarnate Word. The 2019 National Champion LSU Tigers let quarterback Joe Burrow throw it around the yard, but they still rushed for nearly 185 yards per game. Clemson's 2016 and 2018 title teams put up 223 and 248 per game, respectively. Morris revealed what his tweak for Leach's Air Raid was at American Athletic Conference Media Days: running the football was essential to winning championships.

“I think that’s one transition I made when I became a head coach, is I really wanted to put an emphasis on running the football," Morris said. "I think that it creates a physicality, not only on game day but in practice to create that throughout your team. I think it’s key when you’re quarterback is off a game or two."

That's why he's confident his Air Raid philosophy can blend with a North Texas team built to run the football in 2023.  

Morris thought running back coach Patrick Cobbs was blowing smoke when he told him in an initial meeting that he had four backs he loved. But when the head coach saw them live, he realized his assistant was right. The Mean Green has rushed 44 times per game over the past three seasons. All four of their rushers have compiled over 1,000 yards in their college careers. Junior Ikaika Ragsdale is the presumed starter, but he'll rotate with Ayo Adeyi, who notched 7.2 yards per carry last season, Oscar Adaway III and Isaiah Johnson.

Morris hinted he'd adapt this season knowing he has the four horsemen of Denton in the backfield.

“As a play caller, that will be a little bit of a safety belt for me is knowing that I have those guys," Morris said. "We have a really experienced offensive line. So I definitely think you’ll see a little bit more in the run game from us.”

Morris brought two linemen to represent North Texas at media days, which he joked was a first for him. Jett Duncan started 14 games his sophomore year at right tackle and earned Second Team All-Conference USA honors, but he'll move to center this season where his 6-foot-1-inch, 279-pound build is more suited. He's one of four starters back on a unit that ranked fifth in the nation last season, giving up .75 sacks per game. Left guard Gabe Blair was a first-team all-conference pick last year, while his counterpart on the right, Febechi Nwaiwu, was All-Fresman Conference USA. Duncan's position switch means he's now the captain on the line.

"I think he’s kind of the leader of that group of offensive linemen," Morris said. "Which is a group I’m, quite frankly, most excited about coming back on our team.”

Morris has to run the ball more than in years past because he'll have to lean on that line and running back tandem while he figures out his starting quarterback. For the first time in his coaching career, three guys are still battling for the starting nod. Morris had junior Chandler Rogers, senior Jace Ruder and junior Stone Earle compete as live participants in the last two scrimmages. Although the idea of his quarterback getting popped raised his blood pressure, the coach liked how each responded and competed under pressure. He hopes to name a starter by the second scrimmage in fall camp.

But even amid uncertainty at the offense's most important position, the quarterbacks and other players have stepped up as leaders in Morris's first offseason. 

“He preaches a lot about leadership and I think he’s done a great job," Duncan said. "We have a leadership council now, which we didn’t have that last year. We’ve just brought guys together, our culture’s so much more different.”

There's a new era at North Texas at merging a ground-and-pound roster with a pass-happy head coach. The result might be the most balanced attack in years.

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