One phase of North Texas’ offseason came to an end this week with a series of competitions that ranged from the serious — a tug-of-war between position groups — to a downright silly pie eating contest.
Head coach Dan McCarney couldn’t have been happier with how the Mean Green Olympics and the rest of the offseason workouts have gone as UNT prepares for the beginning of spring practice March 28.
“It has been a good winter,” McCarney said Thursday. “We have had good preparation [and] are ready to go and poised for a real good spring that will carry over from winter workouts. These kids are competing like crazy every day, whether it is offense versus defense, offensive line versus defensive line, wide receivers versus defensive backs or quarterbacks versus defensive backs in a tug-of-war. We had early-morning workouts every Wednesday at 6 a.m., and the last thing we do is have a tug-of-war. We are trying to teach them how important it is to compete to win and get the edge somehow. I am really proud of how we are working right now.”
UNT is entering its second spring practice under McCarney, who led the Mean Green to a 5-7 finish in his first season in Denton. UNT won as many games in McCarney’s first season as in its previous two years combined and posted its highest win total since winning the Sun Belt Conference title in 2004.
UNT has a lot of issues to address during spring workouts, from finding a new starting running back to replace Lance Dunbar, the school’s all-time leading rusher, to replacing the entire defensive secondary and adjusting to the scheme of new defensive coordinator John Skladany.
Skladany, who worked with McCarney at Iowa State, is UNT’s third defensive coordinator in three years.
UNT’s players say they feel confident in their ability to take on those issues after hammering Middle Tennessee 59-7 in the 2011 finale and going through an offseason program under the direction of strength coach Frank Wintrich.
UNT’s defense won its battle with the offense in a contest for offseason supremacy that went down to a final tug-of-war, while tight end Daniel Prior won the pie eating contest — a three-minute battle of hands-barred gluttony.
“We are looking forward to trying to put it together and improve off of last season heading into next year,” defensive lineman Ryan Boutwell said. “With how we finished last season and how much we have improved, that gives us a lot to build from.”
UNT has several key players returning, including starting quarterback Derek Thompson and middle linebacker Zach Orr, but also has plenty of challenges after losing a large senior class.
McCarney said one of the biggest questions he has is whether UNT can pick up where it left off.
“We lost 27 seniors,” McCarney said. “Not all of them were starters, but a lot of those guys played. Some young guys are going to have to step up.”
Mean Green adjusting to new coordinator
UNT’s defense will have a lot to learn this spring after a shakeup in the coaching staff.
Skladany took over for Clint Bowen, who left after one season to return to Kansas, his alma mater, where he previously coached. Bowen took over for Gary DeLoach, who was not retained when McCarney took over the program.
Noah Joseph also joined the staff as safeties coach after linebackers coach Anthony Weaver left for a job with the New York Jets after last season.
UNT’s coaches and players say the adjustment process is going well.
“We have all new defensive terminology,” McCarney said. “Even though the defense may not look that much different at times, it’s all new. The schemes carry over, but the terminology is completely different. It’s a matter of learning that. We are still allowed some time with the players in the offseason within NCAA rules. They have picked it up fast.”
Orr said learning the calls within the system has been the biggest adjustment.
“After having three defenses in three years, you have things that carry over,” Orr said. “About the only thing that is different is the terminology.”
Feldt to start out at guard
Arkansas transfer Cam Feldt will begin spring practice working at guard.
The former Pilot Point standout was recruited as a tackle out of high school and appeared to be a candidate to replace departing senior tackle Matt Tomlinson, especially with all four of UNT’s other offensive line starters returning.
McCarney said that a move to tackle is still a possibility, but UNT coaches believe Feldt might be a better fit at guard, where UNT has Cyril Lemon and Mason Y’Barbo returning.
UNT’s goal is to build depth along its offensive line.
“If we can get seven to nine guys we feel good about with Cyril coming back, we will have depth,” McCarney said. “We played five guys last year because we didn’t have depth.”
Byrd to start No. 1 at RB
Junior Brandin Byrd will get the first chance to step into the rather large shoes left by the departure of Dunbar, who rushed for 4,224 yards in his college career.
Byrd played sparingly behind Dunbar and fellow senior James Hamilton last year, finishing with 83 rushing yards.
“Byrd will be our No. 1 running back the opening day of spring ball, and may the best man win,” McCarney said. “We have always played two or three and always will, but we have to find out who the best one is.”
Jeremy Brown, Zac Whitfield and Antoinne Jimmerson also will compete for playing time.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .