North Texas didn’t waste any time setting the tone for the remainder of spring practice on Saturday morning.
The air was still cool at the Darrell R. Dickey Practice Facility when UNT’s players gathered to start their first workout in pads and began pounding each other into the ground in Dan McCarney’s circle drill that boils down to basic hand-to-hand combat.
UNT wants to build toughness, something that began in McCarney’s first season as head coach and will continue as the Mean Green prepares for Year 2.
“It begins as soon as we step on the field with that circle drill in front of the whole football team, trying to see who’s tough, who’s physical, who will compete and who will win,” McCarney said. “There are no ties out here. Someone wins and someone loses every play. That is how we approach it.”
UNT won more of those battles than it used to last season, which was a big reason the Mean Green won more games than it used to — at least in the last few years. UNT finished 5-7, and is looking to build on that performance without a senior class of 23 players.
UNT has several young players who are in key spots heading into the heart of spring practice.
The challenge is to make sure those players have the same physical approach and toughness that made some of the departing seniors like Lance Dunbar and Matt Tomlinson successful.
“We have to develop the toughness and willingness to hit,” UNT defensive tackle Tevinn Cantly said. “We want to be the most physical team in the Sun Belt. That’s what wins games, especially for defenses. We were out there hitting today.”
UNT’s offense built a reputation for being a punishing, physical unit by the end of last season. The Mean Green finished the year with a 59-7 pounding of Middle Tennessee in which UNT rolled up 464 rushing yards. UNT threw the ball just seven times that night at Apogee Stadium.
The newcomers to the starting lineup who will replace players like Dunbar and Tomlinson are quickly learning what it takes to maintain that approach.
“[UNT offensive line coach Mike Simmonds] wants us to be mean and get after people,” UNT offensive lineman Aaron Fortenberry said. “It’s coming along. We have young guys who are starting to get that attitude.”
Those young players will have three more weeks of spring practice and two-a-days in the fall to prove that they have what McCarney is looking for during spring drills.
So far, UNT’s coaches like what they have seen.
“We see some development and we love it,” McCarney said. “This is a tough man’s game. There is no doubt about it.
“If you are physical and tough and compete, you have a real chance to help us,” McCarney said. “If you don’t, you don’t have a chance to get on the plane going with me to LSU.”
UNT’s first workout in pads was a key step in the process of finding out who will contribute by seeing who is willing to match McCarney’s standards for physical play.
“It was good to get out here and get going,” McCarney said of beginning the section of spring practice with players in pads. “We are a long ways away from being ready for LSU or anyone else, but we got a lot done.”
Orr likely done for spring
Austin Orr’s development as a defensive lineman hit another major roadblock on Saturday when the redshirt freshman dislocated his elbow.
Orr reached out to make a tackle in team drills, went down and was attended to by UNT’s trainers.
McCarney said that UNT’s doctors don’t think the injury will require surgery, but it will likely keep him out for the rest of spring practice.
Orr broke his ankle before last season jumping a fence playing Frisbee and spent the year as a redshirt. He missed several weeks of practice with the injury, stunting his growth as a player.
McCarney estimated that he sat out three quarters of UNT’s practices.
UNT had planned to move Orr, who 6-4 and now weighs 270 pounds from defensive end to defensive tackle this spring. He had spent time playing with the Mean Green’s second-team defense.
“Who needs more work than anyone out here?” McCarney said. “Austin Orr. Who has made more progress than anyone physically in terms of putting on weight? Austin Orr. We can’t wait to get him out here and coach him. It’s one of those things that happen. He got his arm extended and got hit.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.