Time is running short for North Texas when it comes to preparation for its season opener at LSU in less than two weeks.
That’s what made the Mean Green’s final full scrimmage of fall practice Saturday at Apogee Stadium so important — and such an encouraging sign for UNT’s defense.
The Mean Green has shown signs of improving on the defensive side of the ball throughout the fall and continued to play well in a workout that head coach Dan McCarney described as critical to the team’s progress late in two-a-day practices.
Freshman safety David Busby returned an interception 67 yards for a touchdown to highlight an approximately 100-play scrimmage that UNT’s defense controlled most of the way.
“The last scrimmage, you want to see it all come together,” linebacker Jeremy Phillips said. “You want to see people running to the ball, being physical, doing their assignments and making plays. We saw a little bit of all that today.”
McCarney has emphasized being physical, creating turnovers and making big plays throughout the offseason.
UNT’s defense had that opportunity late in the scrimmage when the team worked on several situations, including third down, red zone plays, goal-line situations, 2-point conversions and the two-minute drill.
McCarney said UNT’s defense controlled those situations.
“We collapsed the pocket better, tackled better, broke on some balls and got our hands on balls in the air,” McCarney said. “Busby had a big, big play returning an interception for a touchdown in the two-minute drill. There is no question he will play this year.”
UNT is hoping that some of the young players who made an impact during the scrimmage will help the unit develop a personality.
The Mean Green has been known for a series of top running backs, including Lance Dunbar and Jamario Thomas, and for the spread passing attack that former head coach Todd Dodge brought to UNT in 2007.
What UNT hasn’t been known for since the early 2000s is its defense. UNT gave up 30.7 points per game last season.
Developing a personality and some unit pride is part of the plan to address that problem.
“Everyone’s intensity is higher than it used to be,” Phillips said. “Coach McCarney wants to see us have some personality and celebrate after big plays. He doesn’t want us to be lackadaisical.”
The change is just one adjustment UNT is making this fall, and it isn’t the biggest one. UNT’s defense is still getting used to working under new coordinator John Skladany.
The progress UNT made during the scrimmage was a good sign, especially with LSU looming Sept. 1.
The Tigers lost to Alabama in last season’s national championship game and opened at No. 1 in the USA Today coaches poll. The Tigers were ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll released Saturday, after star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team.
“Every day we have so much to do,” McCarney said. “When you are playing against the No. 1 team in the country, against all that talent and coach [Les] Miles, the urgency I have is off the charts. I come in every day and see things that we need to get better at.”
Improving on defense is on that list. And while that task is far from complete, McCarney and his players say they believe they are a little closer to being ready for the Tigers after Saturday’s scrimmage.
Chancellor: Offense still needs work
UNT’s offense came up with a few big plays during Saturday’s scrimmage, but not nearly enough to satisfy McCarney or wide receiver Brelan Chancellor.
Brandin Byrd and Jeremy Brown both posted 70-yard touchdown runs, while redshirt freshman tight end Cooper Jones caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Andrew McNulty.
“We should have come out and had a better scrimmage and done better as far as knowing our assignments and playing physical football,” said Chancellor, one of the veteran leaders of UNT’s offense. “It didn’t come together the way we hoped. We were not physical enough. We have to pick it up.”
Marcus Trice and Laramie Lee have secured the starting safety spots heading into the final two weeks of practice before UNT’s season opener. Busby and Mike Marshall are pushing for playing time. … UNT is still evaluating its cornerbacks, McCarney said. Hilbert Jackson and Zac Whitfield are at the top of the depth chart. Devante Davis will play as a true freshman.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com.