North Texas and Texas State could be case studies in handling the portal era

Photos from Texas State/UNT Athletics | Edit by DCTF

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Texas State's GJ Kinne and North Texas's Eric Morris are the only two coaches in the state in their first year at their respective programs. But their language in press conferences and the overall outlook of their team's young seasons couldn't be more different.

Deion Sanders ruffled feathers nationally when he took over a 1–11 Colorado program and brought in 68 new scholarship players. But Kinne flew under the radar in San Marcos following the Coach Prime school of thought for a first-year head coach, signing 51 new scholarship players ahead of the 2023 season. Now circumstances were different in San Marcos as Kinne suffered more roster attrition with key players like Dalton Cooper and DeJordan Mask moving on to Power Five programs. Kinne brought in FCS All-American Nash Jones to fill in for Cooper and the likes of Joshua Eaton (Oklahoma) and Shawn Holton (UIW) to help polish up the secondary with Mask gone.

But in Texas State's season opener against Baylor, those new faces brought in carried the Bobcats to the program's first win against a Power Five school. Running back Ismail Mahdi, who came to Texas State in January from Houston Christian, caught a 10-yard touchdown and then busted a 65-yard touchdown run in the first quarter alone. Donerio Davenport, from Kilgore College, hauled a 27-yard touchdown from TJ Finley, an Auburn transfer who won Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week honors in his debut. On the defensive side, Incarnate Word transfer Holton picked off a pass from his safety spot.

"Maybe I knew what I was talking about when I was recruiting those guys," Kinne said with a sly smile after the game.

On Tuesday, Morris described his North Texas squad needing a "come to Jesus" moment. When he took over as head coach in Dec. 2022, Morris followed the more traditional, old-school approach for a new man on the job. It made sense to an extent. North Texas was the Conference-USA runners-up with a bowl-caliber roster, so Morris kept the backbone of former coach Seth Littrell's team and was selective in the transfer portal, signing 10 guys who he felt could make an impact in dire areas of need.

But North Texas is 0–2 on the young season and dead last in the FBS in yards allowed per game (598.5) and second-to-last in the FBS in points allowed per game (52).

“I thought it was a time for us, collectively as a team, that we have to reset what my vision of this program looks like," Morris said. "That falls on me, I know that. But our discipline, our trust in what we’re doing right now, isn’t working.”

The issue Morris now faces with keeping the backbone of the 2022 squad is that some of the most critical vertebrates left before the 2023 season.

The offense only had to deal with one significant loss in wide receiver Jyaire Shorter, who transferred to Auburn after posting 628 receiving yards and 11 scores. But the defense suffered severe attrition.The graduation of do-it-all KD Davis, the school's all-time leading tackler and the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, and Larry Nixon III's transfer to Auburn decimated the linebacker room. Cornerback DeShawn Gaddie was a bright spot last year with 61 tackles and 13 pass breakups, but he opted to transfer to Ole Miss.

Morris brought in two transfers to bolster the wide receiving corps. Texas Tech's Trey Cleveland is showing promise early, notching his first touchdown catch of the season last week against FIU, and Morris said they're looking to get former TCU wideout Blair Conwright more involved going forward. 

But North Texas didn't sign any transfers to alleviate the departures of Davis and Nixon III, instead opting to promote guys already in the program. Senior Kevin Wood is the unit's leader with double-digit starts in his career, but he's had just eight tackles this season as he battles to return to full health.

The Mean Green has also struggled to adapt to new defensive coordinator Matt Caponi's 3-3-5 scheme. They're last in the FBS, allowing 292 rushing yards a game partly because the defensive interior is smaller than ideal for only three down linemen. Just two guys in the rotation, Roderick Brown and Enoch Jackson, scratch 300 pounds and barely at that. The staff added UMass edge rusher Viczaril Alobwede, but he's been quiet, with three tackles in two games. Mazin Richards was First-Team All-CUSA last season as an outside linebacker who could blitz from the second level, but the 240-pounder is now lining up directly over offensive tackles and has only five tackles thus far.

UNLV transfer Phillip Hill has made some flash plays at safety with two pass breakups and one interception, but UNT now needs five defensive backs in the formation. They've given up 306.5 passing yards per game after facing California backup Ben Finley for most of the game and FIU true freshman Keyone Jenkins. And it's not like FIU and Cal have been offensive juggernauts this season. Cal followed up its 58-point performance with 10 points against Auburn. Before its game against UNT, FIU put up 14 points against Maine.

The offense has put up points but still needs to settle on a quarterback. Louisiana-Monroe transfer Chandler Rogers appeared to have the edge over incumbents Stoner Earle and Jace Ruder when Morris brought him in in January, but Earle surprised many when he won the starting nod in fall camp. Earle has shown flashes of big play potential, connecting on a few long balls to Ja'Mori Maclin in week one, but Rogers took the reins in week two and completed 73 percent of his passes for over 200 yards and two touchdowns.  The signal callers are platooning going into the season's third game. 

In contrast, Kinne signed Malik Hornsby from Arkansas to play quarterback at Texas State and then added Finley via the transfer portal in the summer when he needed more convincing the position was solidified. He's now passed for 509 yards in two contests, with 76.62 percent of those going to transfer wide receivers. The running game has been similarly transfer-heavy, with 63.56 percent of the 247 total yards gained from guys Kinne brought in this offseason. 

Most of Texas State's impact plays on defense have also come from transfers. Former West Viriginia safety Caleb Coleman and Utah State defensive tackle lead the Bobcats with three tackles for loss each. Transfer corners Kaleb Ford-Dement (Washington State) and Joshua Eaton (Oklahoma) sit atop the team leaderboard with two pass breakups.

While Morris is still wondering two weeks into the season if his players are bought into his way of doing things, Kinne knows his players are because they chose Texas State as their second college program. 

Running back Ismail Mahdi told reporters at a Sept. 5 press conference he chose to come to Texas State because he saw firsthand what Kinne and offensive coordinator Mack Leftwich could do when he faced them in the Southland Conference. Kinne and Leftwich's UIW team put up 73 points on Mahdi's Houston Christian team, and when the coaches met with Mahdi in the offseason, they wooed him over based on how they'd use him in the backfield. 

These transfers had to choose Texas State based on how they'd be put in positions to shine on the field and the program's identity. That meant every new athlete suiting up this season had to buy into Kinne's Take Back Texas trademark, just as every new Colorado player had to say yes to Deion Sanders's vision. At North Texas, the new vision was presented to them whether they wanted it or not.

“We’re on Take Back Texas all season, even if we’re not playing in Texas," safety Shawn Holton said. "We want to be the top school in Texas. We’re not just going to beat the neighboring schools, we’re trying to beat any school that passes our way. So Take Back Texas is really Take Back the Nation.”

While this isn't a reflection on how these two coaching tenures will turn out, you can look across the landscape of college football at schools like Nebraska (0-2) and Colorado for further examples. Kinne and Sanders' promising starts, could lend itself to being the blueprint to building a program in the transfer portal era of college football over the traditional means of Matt Rhule and Morris.

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