Commentary

It's win or else for UNT's Todd Dodge

Edict is to win now for the Mean Green, whose 2-10 season included several close calls

Updated: September 2, 2010, 4:08 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

DENTON, Texas -- When he opens the blinds in his office, Todd Dodge can watch the construction of North Texas' $78 million stadium, which will open next season.

It's proof of the program's potential. It's also a strong reminder of the sense of urgency for the Mean Green, who have followed up four straight Sun Belt championship seasons with five consecutive losing campaigns.

"We've got a chance to flip this whole thing in a two-year window," Dodge said. "I sure want to be a part of it.

"However, I understand what's been put before me and my staff and my players, and that's all right."

Athletic director Rick Villarreal made it plain and simple for Dodge, who is entering his fourth season at UNT after building Southlake Carroll into arguably the best dynasty in Texas high school football history. The Mean Green need a winning season for Dodge to keep his job.

"Six wins won't get it done," Dodge said.

There's not a trace of bitterness in his voice. Nor is there any fear. The edict is fine with him. It matches his expectations for the Mean Green.

Dodge firmly believes that seven or eight wins and a bowl trip are well within the Mean Green's grasp in the final season at rickety Fouts Field. And, yes, he's well aware that UNT has a 5-31 record during his tenure.

His perspective is that North Texas was not that far away last season despite its spot near the bottom of the Sun Belt standings.

The Mean Green finished 2-10 in 2009. The season was a failure. Dodge doesn't attempt to sugarcoat that fact.

But UNT was in position to win several more games. In fact, the Mean Green held leads in the fourth quarter of half of their losses. They lost those five games by a combined 21 points. A comeback effort in the season finale fell three points short. The hope is that the Mean Green grew from those painful experiences.

[+] EnlargeLance Dunbar
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesAll-Sun Belt tailback Lance Dunbar returns for the Mean Green, who need a winning season to keep their coach.

Inexperience certainly is no longer an excuse. UNT returns 19 starters. A unit that set a school record for total offense returns nine starters, headlined by All-Sun Belt tailback Lance Dunbar running behind four offensive linemen with more than 100 combined career starts. Ten starters return from a defense that allowed a dozen fewer points per game than the previous season but still needs to drastically improve. "We've got to make sure we're better. That's the thing," said Dodge, who attributes his motivation to a strong desire to win, not to saving his job. "Our players hold each other's feet to the fire on getting better."

There were some significant changes in the offseason for the Mean Green, who filled a few gaps by recruiting junior college players ready to contribute immediately.

The biggest changes involve the Dodge family. The storybook situation of a father calling plays for his quarterback son to execute, as the Dodges did during the coach's fourth and final undefeated season at Southlake Carroll, is done.

Redshirt sophomore Riley Dodge was forced to give up the starting quarterback job this offseason because of a damaged elbow, the result of several arm injuries in recent years. But he'll serve as "kind of the ultimate utility guy," according to his dad, playing a variety of receiver positions and on special teams and operating as the quarterback in UNT's version of the Wildcat formation for 10 to 12 snaps per game.

Nathan Tune, a redshirt senior who was a walk-on under the previous coaching regime, narrowly won a summer quarterback competition over sophomore Derek Thompson. The coaches gave the edge to Tune, who showed poise and guts while making his first career start against eventual national champion Alabama last season, based on experience.

The plan is to stick with Tune all season, but nothing is promised if he doesn't produce.

"I can't really worry about that," said the 6-foot-4, 226-pound Tune, who bulked up 30 pounds after completing 69 of 107 passes for 646 yards and five touchdowns last season. "I've got enough stuff to think about on the field."

Tune will have a new offensive coordinator calling the plays. Todd Dodge hired ex-South Florida offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Canales to handle tasks he'd done himself the previous three seasons, allowing him to take a more big-picture role. Canales' spread scheme shares the same principles as Dodge's system, but it uses more formations and relies more on tight ends and H-backs.

The additions of Canales and two other assistants completed an overhaul of Dodge's coaching staff, which originally was heavy on assistants who contributed to Southlake Carroll's success. Dodge says he has no regrets about being loyal to his high school assistants, but he acknowledges the experience of his current coaching staff should benefit UNT.

Dodge has built a staff with legitimate college credentials. He has built a roster with depth and experience and enough talent to compete in the Sun Belt.

Now, it's time to win.

"I think we're a very sharp and mentally tough football team now," Riley Dodge said. "Our motto this year has been, 'Just finish.'"

If UNT fails, his father's career as a college head coach will be finished.

Tim MacMahon is a reporter for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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