Dan McCarney was walking around campus shortly after taking over as North Texas head coach before last season when he ran into one of his star defensive players.
Jeremy Phillips was coming off a season in which he won the Byron Gross Award given to the team’s top linebacker and was expected to start for the second straight year.
That news just about floored McCarney.
“He was 198 pounds,” McCarney said. “I asked him if he played safety and he said, ‘No, I’m a linebacker.’ I told him, ‘You don’t look like it. I hope you play like it.’”
Phillips always has played like it, and now looks the part after focusing on developing his body in UNT’s off-season strength and conditioning program.
Phillips checked in at 226 pounds this fall, making him perhaps the best example of the progress UNT’s players have made physically over the last few months. UNT’s coaching staff and players hope that development will make a big difference on the field this fall.
The list of players who made significant improvement in terms of size and conditioning is a long one and includes several players McCarney has mentioned specifically over the last few days.
Defensive end Daryl Mason packed on the pounds while boosting his weight from 210 pounds to 235, defensive lineman Austin Orr went from 235 pounds to 275, linebacker Chad Polk from 200 pounds to 225 and tight end Marcus Smith from 220 pounds to 240.
“That was a big emphasis for me,” Phillips said of UNT’s off-season conditioning program. “I needed to put on weight. The coaches helped me out a lot, and I did what I needed to do to put on weight and keep it on.”
UNT’s staff has made improving the physical attributes of the Mean Green’s roster as a whole a priority.
McCarney said UNT’s team was the worst he had ever seen from a physical standpoint when he arrived at the school. Those problems have been addressed through recruiting as well as conditioning under strength coach Frank Wintrich.
“Our football team has really bought into our off-season program and getting stronger, getting bigger and gaining weight, being more physical and giving us a chance to be a good Division I program,” McCarney said.
UNT’s players have bought into McCarney’s approach.
“Everyone is working hard,” UNT safety D.Q. Johnson said. “I can see all the defensive backs getting faster and the defensive linemen are having their bench marks go up. It’s going to help us a lot.”
Phillips could be among the players who benefit the most. The former Waller standout was a high school quarterback and has always struggled to put on weight.
The pounds seemed to melt off Phillips at times during the season while he played a taxing role as a starting linebacker. Phillips started three games his freshman season and was one of UNT’s top players as a sophomore, when he started all 12 of the Mean Green’s games and finished second on the team with 69 tackles.
Phillips was expected to be among UNT’s top defensive players again last year, but had what McCarney at the time called a “bad day at the office” in a Week 2 loss to Houston. He suffered a knee injury and broke a bone in his hand that day.
Phillips came back, played sparingly late in the season and finished with 21 tackles.
Phillips’ return to form and the progress he made physically in the off-season became all the more important for UNT when the team’s staff elected to have Mike Stojkovic sit out the season as a redshirt to deal with off-the-field issues.
Stojkovic finished with 48 tackles a year ago after taking over for Phillips. Without him, UNT has only two of its top 10 tacklers from a year ago returning.
Phillips said he is confident and ready to play a major role again, thanks largely to the physical gains he made in the off-season.
That added confidence is something several of UNT’s players and coaches have heading into their first workouts in full pads Friday.
“Evaluations are limited in shorts, but we have more athletes and are in good condition overall,” McCarney said. “We have more Division I guys on the team than we did last year, at least it looks like it. These guys can run and have some size to them.”
Feldt likely to redshirt
Freshman offensive lineman Boone Feldt is still suffering lingering neck and shoulder issues from injuries he suffered while playing in high school and is likely headed for a redshirt year.
McCarney sent Felt home to Hays on Tuesday to see his doctor.
Feldt was arguably the top recruit in UNT’s 2012 class. He was rated No. 17 among center prospects in the country by Rivals.com. If Feldt does end up redshirting, he will be the second member of UNT’s 2012 recruiting class forced to do so due to injury before the beginning of the season.
UNT lost incoming wide receiver Roderick Lancaster after he suffered a knee injury over the summer playing catch.
“Boone came in with neck and shoulder issues,” McCarney said. “We are going to send him back home so his doctors can evaluate him. He’s not ready to practice. We [Feldt’s coaches, parents and doctors] want to all be on the same page. We are almost positive he will redshirt. Hopefully, he won’t need any more surgery.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .