North Texas turned a corner Tuesday while preparing for its season opener against LSU.
The days of hammering on each other and focusing on what went right or wrong are over. UNT’s focus now is less on its own strengths and weaknesses and more on the Tigers and one of the bigger challenges the Mean Green has faced in several years.
UNT will take on the No. 3 Tigers, fresh off an appearance in the national title game, in its Sept. 1 season opener at Tiger Stadium.
That game at LSU, which is No. 1 in the USA Today coaches poll, was never far from the minds of UNT’s players, but there was no denying that the feeling at practice changed once the team began focusing on its opener.
“It’s real exciting,” linebacker Zach Orr said. “For spring ball and the first two weeks of fall practice, we have been going against each other. Now we are scouting another team. That is the most exciting part of football — scouting another team and planning what to do. It re-energized us. The guys are pumped up. We are less than two weeks away from playing.”
UNT’s coaches and players believe they are much better prepared for the challenge of taking on the Tigers after a productive first two weeks of practice. The Mean Green sorted out several position battles and got a handle on how prepared the members of its recruiting class are to contribute this season.
“There is more competition at North Texas than I imagine there has been in a long time, definitely since I have gotten here,” second-year head coach Dan McCarney said. “That is healthy.”
McCarney said UNT will continue to evaluate players and where they fit in over the last few days before the opener.
Starting quarterback Derek Thompson entered fall practice with arguably as secure a hold on his job as anyone on the roster. He still felt the pressure of competition and saw the impact it had, both on him and the players around him.
“The competition level overall made us a better football team,” Thompson said. “Every drill there were points for the defense and points for the offense. We tried to win every drill. The coaches were keeping count every play. That helped us as an offense, and I know it helped our defense.”
Orr also could sense the heightened level of competition on the defensive side of the ball, where UNT is rebuilding after losing several key players following last season.
“It was very competitive,” Orr said. “It helped us a lot as a team.”
The higher level of competition was good for several players individually.
Thompson named tackle LaChris Anyiam as one of the players who has improved the most during fall camp. Anyiam is competing with Coleman Feeley for the starting job at right tackle.
Orr singled out his backup Derek Akunne as one of the players who has improved the most. Akunne isn’t expected to bump Orr from UNT’s lineup, but he could challenge for a starting job at outside linebacker.
“Derek is really athletic and fast,” Orr said. “He can play any linebacker position.”
McCarney named safety David Busby and offensive lineman Connor Trussell as two of the younger players who have stood out. Busby will play this season, while Trussell’s status on the depth chart at one of UNT’s deepest positions is still up in the air.
UNT’s players spent the offseason battling for spots in the lineup. That competition will continue for the next few weeks, but there is little doubt UNT has turned its attention in another direction.
Beginning this week, UNT’s focus will be on preparing for LSU after what the Mean Green’s coaches and players described as a productive two weeks of intense competition.
“There is no doubt we are a better football team,” Thompson said. “The passion of every single day and the desire to get better every single day made us better. It’s a point of pride.”
Not counting on Pegram
UNT has yet to hear anything official from the NCAA on running back Reggie Pegram’s appeal for immediate eligibility after transferring from Purdue, but is heading into the last few days before its opener at LSU assuming that he will have to sit out this season.
Pegram, a former Dallas Madison standout, rushed for 109 yards on 22 carries at Purdue in 2011.
The 5-9, 210-pound running back is a cousin of both UNT Athletic Hall of Fame running back Erric Pegram and Brandon Kennedy, a two-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.
Pegram has two years of eligibility remaining at UNT.
“We are really glad he is here,” McCarney said. “We have seen enough of him. He will play at North Texas. Our stable of running backs will be healthy for years to come. You talk about a back who will get down and be violent at the point of contact — that’s him.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .