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Sources: Ekeler, LeBlanc out at UNT

Profile image for By Brett Vito
By Brett Vito

Breakout season has teams raiding Littrell’s staff for new coaches

Seth Littrell appears to have captured the attention of the college football community by leading North Texas to a breakout season that culminated in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in his first season as Mean Green coach.

The way several of Littrell’s peers have raided his staff underscores the point. The latest hit came this week, when UNT lost two coaches to Power Five programs.

Multiple sources confirmed to the Denton Record-Chronicle over the last two days where UNT stands as far as which coaches are leaving the staff and the identities of the coaches who are set to replace them.

Defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc is leaving UNT to take over in the same capacity at Kentucky, while defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler is headed to North Carolina.

Those losses bring the total number of UNT assistants who have left to four — nearly half of the on-field staff. UNT previously lost offensive line coach Brad Davis to Florida. Special teams coordinator Tommy Perry and Littrell mutually agreed to part ways after last season.

UNT filled one of those openings this week when Cincinnati assistant Jeff Koonz agreed to join the Mean Green’s staff. The addition of Koonz has yet to be approved or announced by the university.

Littrell previously hired special teams coordinator Marty Biagi.

UNT still has an opening for an offensive line coach and is in the process of interviewing for that position. The program is in the early stages of searching for a defensive line coach.

“It’s a good sign that people want our coaches,” Littrell said. “We have great coaches who do a good job.”

One of those coaches will receive a promotion in the wake of UNT’s staff turnover. Co-defensive coordinator Troy Reffett will serve as the Mean Green’s sole defensive coordinator next season.

UNT was raided in the wake of a highly successful debut season under Littrell. The Mean Green capped their season with a 38-31 loss to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The bowl was just the second since the 2004 season for the Mean Green.

UNT finished 1-11 in the season before Littrell’s arrival.

The Mean Green’s players attributed their performance largely to Littrell and his staff.

“These coaches helped us get there,” UNT linebacker Joshua Wheeler said in the days leading up the bowl. “They told us that if we bought in we could ultimately get back to what UNT used to be with going to bowl games and winning them.

“We are going in the right direction.”

The challenge now for Littrell is restocking his staff after seeing three of his key coaches plucked away in the last few days.

LeBlanc only recently became involved with the Kentucky job, which could make the defensive line position harder to fill by the beginning of spring practice Feb. 27. UNT is further along in the process of landing an offensive line coach.

Ekeler and Reffett formed a highly successful partnership while running UNT’s defense, which allowed 32.6 points per game, down from 41.2 points in 2015.

Davis helped UNT make the transition from an offense based on a power running game to a spread attack. UNT used four different starting lineups on its offensive line and still increased its scoring average from 15.2 points to 24.8 points.

LeBlanc guided UNT’s defensive front in a season when the Mean Green made the move from a 4-3 alignment to 3-3-5. UNT finished with 26 sacks, up from 19 the year before.

Littrell spoke highly of Biagi, the only new assistant coach who has been officially announced by the school.

“He comes very highly recommended from people in the business that I have a great deal of respect for,” Litrrell said in a statement when Biagi was hired from Notre Dame. “He is a tireless recruiter who will hit the ground running. He will make us better.”

The question now is whether Littrell can quickly replace two more assistant coaches before the beginning of spring practice.

“It’s tough,” Littrell said. “You never want to lose coaches. You want stability and good coaches. We didn’t lose our coordinators, which will help. We are still going to run our systems and do what we do.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.