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CFF Targets - New HC brings new opportunities in Denton
New North Texas HC Eric Morris' air-raid system could unlock CFF value in the WRs and TEs in 2023
Texas is neither southern nor western. Texas is Texas.
- William Blakely
I like that quote from Blakely, and I think I understand what he means. Texas is not really part of the deep south from a cultural standpoint, and it is definitely not homogenous with the pacific coast. Some consider it to be apart of the ‘American Southwest’, others do not. No matter what you think of the state of Texas from a geographical or cultural perspective, one thing is definitively true: this is a state that loves its football.
One of the epicentres of Texas football is the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the northeast corridor of the state. Denton, TX (suburb of Dallas) is home to some of the best high school football programs in the entire country, including perennial powerhouse Ryan High, which coincidently was where (likely) future first round pick UGA freshman DT Bear Alexander played his junior season. LB Drew Sanders, a potential first-round pick this April, is an alumnus, as is CFF darling Texas Longhorn TE Jatavion Sanders. Some of you will recognize Ryan’s crosstown rival if you followed recruiting this past cycle, Guyer high school, as it was where two five-star prospects — QB Jackson Arnold (OU commit), and S Peyton Bowen (OU commit)— called home. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is an essential circuit of high school talent for many Group of Five (G5) and Power Five (P5) programs across the sport, with some (e.g., OU) historically relying heavily on the area to supply the majority of its roster.
When looking at the myriad of programs that secured commitments in Texas in 2023, one has to scroll far down the list to find the first North Texas pledge, Jayven Anderson, ranked 114th in Texas according to ON3. Anderson wasn’t even from the local area, as he played at Houston powerhouse North Shore High.
While the Denton area is as talent rich as they come, the Mean Green are often left picking last, hoping to pull value out of whatever’s left over from Texas, Texas A&M, OU etc. This is a developmental program; that is, their success is contingent on identifying under-recruited prospects and developing them into productive players at the collegiate level.
The 2020 roster included a shining example of this method, when under-recruited 5’8 170 pound WR Jaelon Darden (from Houston, ironically) launched himself into CFF stardom when he put up 74 receptions for 1190 yards and 19(!) TDs in 9 games. Darden’s outstanding season landed him on multiple NFL radars, as he would go on to be drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL draft. Neither Texas, nor Texas A&M (who’s rosters sported multiple four and five-star WRs) saw a WR drafted that year.
There have been few CFF assets from North Texas since, and the few that have been productive came from the RB position. Some took a chance on WR Jyaire Shorter in the 2021 offseason, WR Roderic Burns saw some early success in 2021; yet, there has not been a truly CFF-relevant WR donning the Kelly green and white since Darden.
Coaching & System
After multiple lame-duck seasons the administration decided in late 2022 that this program needed a facelift, and hired Washington State OC (2022) Eric Morris. You might recognize the name as he was the OC at Texas Tech during Patrick Mahomes’ tenure. Of the five seasons Morris spent calling plays in Lubbock (2013-2017), four of those saw a Red Raider catch over 1000 yards receiving (note: in 2013 it was a TE). In the single season that did not see a 1000-yard receiver the leading WR caught over 900 yards.
He then coached at the FCS program Incarnate Word (IW) from 2018 to 2021. Of the three full seasons he coached at IW (excluding the COVID season), only one season provided a 1000-yard receiver: 5’11 188 pound slot receiver Taylor Grimes. His lone season at Washington State was disappointing all-around, as QB Cameron Ward failed to live up to the pre-season hype. The Cougs WRs suffered as a consequence, and none of them came close to 1000 yards receiving.
Morris is a disciple of the legendary Mike Leach coaching tree, and that immediately catches my attention when scavenging for hidden CFF value. While QB intrigues me, I will focus this article on the WR room.
There are several WRs on the spring roster that offer intriguing upside. Returning senior WRs Burns and Shorter stand out immediately as the most productive returning players. 6’5 UGA transfer Tommy Bush catches the eye if for no other reason than the fact that he is a massive WR and transfers from an elite (some might say the most elite) program. As a longtime fan of the Birds, Ja’Mori Maclin is another that stands out as the cousin of former Eagle’s WR Jeremy Maclin. In addition to the WRs, there could be some hidden value at the TE position.
WR Roderic Burns - 5’9, 200
Burns is an afterthought at this point amongst the CFF crowd, as he had a flat 2022 season following an up-and-down campaign in 2021. He opened the 2021 season with two stellar performances of 23.4 and 26.1 (1-ppr) fantasy points, but would then only go over 20 points again once the rest of the season. He finished that season averaging 12.6 fantasy points per game (FPG) with 58 receptions (102 targets) 802 yards and 4 TDs.
In 2022, Burns would see his target share decrease, finishing with 40 receptions (on 62 targets) for 676 yards and one score. While his targets, receptions and yardage were solid, it is concerning that he rarely found the end zone. Those numbers are from the previous regime however, and it remains to be seen how he will be deployed in Morris’ attack. Morris’ last 1000-yard receiver was a 5’11 slot receiver, so at least there’s that in favour of Burns. This is a player that’s been productive in the past, so I think he’s worth keeping a stray eye on this offseason.
WR Jyaire Shorter - 6’2, 218
Apparently, all those TDs Burns wasn’t scoring last season were going to Shorter. Shorter secured 11 scores in 13 games — which, as a standalone stat paints a pretty picture for Shorter’s CFF profile. However, when looking at the bigger picture, Shorter only caught 23 passes (which makes the 11 scores all the more remarkable) and 628 yards. Shorter was targeted a total of 55 times, equivalent to just over four times a game.
It seems like Burns was the chain mover while Shorter was the TD merchant last season. With the new regime coming in for 2023, the roles are up in the air, and Shorter could benefit from an increase in target volume. 2022 was Shorter’s best campaign of his career thus far, averaging 11.7 FPG.
TE Var’Keyes Gumms - 6’2, 230
I’m starting to think the Mean Green recruiting staff are harbouring some serious anti-Dallas bias, as the starting TE Gumms is yet another Houston native on this squad. Gumms is a true sophomore who averaged 7.8 FPG in 2022. That average includes three games where he scored 1.7, 1.7, and 0 points. When evaluating the TE position, where productive players are often few and far between, a 7.8 average is not half bad. Gumms actually narrowly out-targeted Shorter with 56 targets, catching 34 of those for 458 yards and 5 TDs.
As mentioned above, Morris’ leading receiver in 2013 was TE Jace Amaro, who secured 106 passes for 1352 yards and 7 TDs, so there is a (perhaps out-dated) track record of CFF success at the position under Morris. Still, I think I’ve seen enough to where I’m comfortable putting Gumms in the ‘draftable’ category, and at the very least he’ll be on my shortlist of waiver wire adds for 2023.
If you’re new to CFF, you may be wondering what the point of having such a shortlist is in the offseason, or what it even means. The WW shortlist is a list of players that I feel I could draft but will likely not have enough space to do so in most leagues. This list is important as it can help me pull the trigger on a WW add quicker than my competitors. Kenneth Walker III, as an example, was at the top of my WW shortlist going into 2021, as I liked his profile a lot, but simply could not justify taking him over some of the other options at the time. When Mo Ibrahim tore his achilles vs. Ohio State in the Thursday night season opener, I dropped one of my spare WRs for KWIII the following morning. The rest is… well, I think we all know how that turned out.
I’m not suggesting Gumms is going to be a league winner (few are from the TE position), but I think his is a name worth monitoring as the season begins. As I mentioned in the article discussing Utah’s TEs, even players who score 10 FPG consistently from the TE position are of value in CFF. Gumms was not far off that mark already last season, 2023 could see a nice bump in his value.
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