DENTON, Texas – When Todd Dodge accepted the North Texas coaching job after the 2006 season, there were a number of transformations that needed to be made.
• Dodge needed to transform himself from a wildly successful high school coach at Southlake (Texas) Carroll to an equally successful college coach right up the road in Denton.
• He needed to transform a run-first, old-school offense that had characterized UNT football into a wide-open spread attack that had led to four state titles in five years.
• Dodge had to transform a North Texas program back into the program that dominated the Sun Belt in 2001-04.
• Finally, Dodge needed to transform his personnel.
As North Texas looks for a resurgence, it all begins on the recruiting trail, and that trail is comprised of much more than football and 40-yard dashes. In a rare peek into a recruiting war room, Dodge breaks down the challenges that face a coach looking to build a program and import a system.
"I'm going into my second year, and probably the biggest difference (between high school and college) is that you're so much more responsible for the college player than you are the high school player," he said. "The high school player has mom or dad. At the college level, at least half of your team is away from home and they're still 18 or 20 years old. Your assistant coach-to-player relationship is so much more crystallized."
Because of the magnified responsibility toward and for the players, an offensive lineman's classroom success, for instance, carries as much weight as his cut-blocking success. Beyond the transcripts, Dodge's high school background goes a long way toward getting a good feel for the character of the players he is recruiting.
"[Character] is a big focus," he said. "We're probably going to see video and transcript at about the same time, and we're going to evaluate those two things. And there aren't many kids that I can't pick up the phone and call and get a coach somewhere who can tell me about a kid's character."
That relationship with high school coaches, built through his years of coaching in Texas high schools, translates to finding talent, too, and what better place to look than in the Dallas Metroplex.
"About 50 percent of our recruiting classes we like to be from about a 30- to 40-mile radius of Denton (located just north of Dallas)," he said. "We take some Mississippi JUCOs, but I think it's a benefit recruiting Texas because there are a lot of good players here in the Dallas area."
In Dodge's first class in 2007, the Mean Green signed 18 prospects, with 17 from Texas. In February, North Texas signed 27 players, with 19 signees hailing from Texas.
More important than where these prospects were from is what they offer on the field. The two-tight end sets that were the staple of North Texas football are as foreign to the Dodge offense as the single wing. A new roster had to be built from the ground up.
"We sit down as a staff and … we're going to project our needs by saying, 'How many linebackers do we want to have constantly on the roster? How many quarterbacks?' " he said. "So we're going to go through there and we're going to try to keep that in place."
Though Dodge is an offense-minded coach, his approach to his first two classes wasn't necessarily to build the offense first and let the defense founder. Nevertheless, the offensive makeover was much more drastic than that of the defense.
"When I got here, there were only two wide receivers on scholarship and we line up four on every snap," he said. "So we signed six in the first recruiting class and we signed four in the second. Quarterback, we're always trying to keep four. Receiver, we're always trying to keep 12. That's kind of our magic number. Offensive line, it's 15."
With the numbers established and the big picture in place, the Mean Green staff went to work on finding the right talent for its system. As is the case with any staff, certain characteristics take precedent at certain positions.
"I think football is all relative, but we like one of our outside receivers to be kind of a speed guy, kind of a matchup guy either by speed or by size," Dodge said. "We like the other one to be more of a savvy route-running kind of guy. Our slot receivers, one of them is going to be arguably one of the top athletes on the team. The other one is going to be arguably in the top-five athletes but maybe a little bit bigger guy."
Quarterback, as always, is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Fortunately for Dodge, a player who fits his prototype to a "T" just happens to be his son, Riley Dodge, who spurned a Texas scholarship offer to sign with North Texas in February.
"At quarterback, we're not hung up on size," Todd Dodge said. "We want a guy who's a dual-threat guy. We want a guy who, first of all, is accurate. Second, we'd like our guy to contribute about 50 yards rushing on true quarterback runs.
"Offensive line – I think it's a philosophy of most people but it starts at tackle and moves in. If you get enough tackles, they can go to guard or center.
"Running back, we like to be very versatile. Obviously the first thing that we evaluate when we're looking at film is they're going to be a fabulous runner if they're going to be at the Division I level. They're going to stand out as a runner. We want a guy who we really feel, as we recruit him and get to know him, is unselfish and has character to be a guy who's going to really help us in protections and is going to be a guy who's got nice, sweet hands because we're going to throw to our running backs 30-35 times in a year."
Despite the personnel obstacles that Dodge faced in implementing his offense in 2007, North Texas broke single-season school records for total offense (4,901 yards) and passing yards (3,476) while outgaining its opponents in six of its contests.
Transformation takes time, but the Mean Green looks to be pointed in the right direction.