North Texas had barely begun its first scrimmage of spring practice on Saturday when freshman linebacker Michael Stojkovic snatched a tipped pass out of the air and scampered 30 yards for a touchdown.
The play turned out to be a sign of what was to come on a solid day for UNT's much-maligned defense.
UNT forced six turnovers and scored four defensive touchdowns during a 114-play workout at the Darrell R. Dickey Practice Facility.
Head coach Dan McCarney wasn't ready to declare all the problems that have plagued the Mean Green's defense the last few years over. What he and his players were willing to say is that they took a step in the right direction.
"We are making progress, but still have a long way to go," UNT cornerback D'Leon McCord said. "We are out there forcing turnovers and making plays. We are starting to see more of that. Everyone's confidence is growing."
Safety Ryan Downing retuned an interception for a touchdown and defensive end Aaron Bellazin fell on a fumble in the end zone for another touchdown. Linebacker Jeremy Phillips had perhaps the biggest defensive play of the day, scooping up a fumble and returning it 60 yards for UNT's final defensive touchdown of the day.
"Six defensive turnovers and four defensive touchdowns -- I love it from a defensive standpoint," McCarney said. "That is probably more big plays than they made in 12 games last year."
UNT finished fourth in the Sun Belt Conference last season in scoring defense with an average of 29.7 points allowed a game, but finished 114 th out of 120 teams nationally in tackles for loss with an average of 4.08 a game and tied for 108th with 15 turnovers forced.
"The defense has been so beaten down," McCarney said. "You love to see them start to rise up, build a little personality and attitude and start to make plays. We still have a long way to go. We couldn't buy a sack last year. We didn't get a lot of sacks today, but we are starting to collapse the pocket and are getting pressure. Now we have to convert them into sacks."
UNT's players were pleased with their progress, especially since new defensive coordinator Clint Bowen has barely had time to install his new scheme.
"We feel like we are going to be better," Phillips said. "We are doing a lot of things defensively and are confusing our offense. Good teams have good defenses. We gave up 30 points a game last year. You don't win when you do that."
UNT's defense gave up very few big plays, and most of them were posted by the Mean Green's top offensive players. Derek Thompson connected with Darius Carey on a pair of touchdown passes, including one that covered 60 yards.
Those plays were the exceptions on a day UNT's defense controlled the action.
"It was a good day," Phillips said. "We forced a few turnovers. I am sure we had quite a few mental mistakes, but that is going to happen because coach just put his defense in. We have to get better. We trust the coaches and are giving good effort."
Y'Barbo making a positive impression on line
Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Mason Y'Barbo had an opportunity to work with UNT's first- and second-team offenses at guard and center and took advantage of his opportunity.
"Y'Barbo is showing a lot," McCarney said. "He's a dark-alley guy. If you go down a dark alley, you want him with you. We all want a little taller guy, but I am glad he is on this team. He will fight you all day long. He will play a lot of football here."
Y'Barbo, who is listed at 6-2, saw additional playing time partly because Coleman Feeley missed most of practice due to injury. Feeley started the last thee games of the 2010 season.
McCarney said Feeley is not seriously hurt and just needs some time to work his way back to being in condition.
Walk-on running back turns heads in scrimmage
Jeremy Brown, a former Whitewright standout, turned some heads during UNT's scrimmage.
Brown signed with Abilene Christian out of high school before leaving the school and walking on with the Mean Green this fall. He scored twice during the scrimmage, once on an impressive 40-yard run.
"We are trying to give him an opportunity," McCarney said. "Every time we get him in scrimmages and live situations, he makes plays. I love his feet and his quickness. He has the same look in his eyes all the time. If he keeps doing that, he will play at North Texas. He is doing it against some good kids."
Brown said he decided to leave ACU and enroll at UNT because he needed to be closer to home. He has four years of eligibility remaining.
"I hope I get a chance," Brown said. "I want to do whatever I can to help the team."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com.