At the time, the injury Zach Orr suffered late last season seemed like one of those turn of events that had no bright side.
UNT still had a chance to become bowl-eligible with three games left in the season when the Mean Green’s leading tackler and team captain was lost for the year.
UNT didn’t quite make it to 6-6 without Orr, coming up a game short.
The silver lining was the experience that Derek Akunne gained while Orr watched from the sideline. The sophomore was thrust into the lineup and made 13 of his 20 tackles in the final three games of the season, including seven in a loss to Western Kentucky.
“Those last two games gave me a lot of experience,” Akunne said. “I saw how fast the game is. It helped me coming into this season.”
UNT is a lot deeper now because of the events that unfolded after Orr was injured in a loss to Arkansas State.
Orr has recovered and will be back at his middle linebacker spot for UNT’s season opener at LSU on Sept. 1. Senior Jeremy Phillips and junior Will Wright are expected to start at the outside linebacker spots, while Akunne will at least be a key backup, if not starting in place of Wright.
The emergence of Akunne has been especially important with Mike Stojkovic headed for a redshirt season to deal with off-the-field issues. Stojkovic started nine games in 2011 after Phillips suffered a knee injury.
McCarney said UNT essentially has four starters for its three linebacker spots, thanks to the emergence of Akunne.
“There is no drop-off right now,” McCarney said. “That is a credit to him, the improvement and consistency he has shown in camp. Those starts and that time made a difference.”
Akunne began making the adjustment to playing on the college level early last season when he saw time on special teams and briefly at linebacker when Orr needed a break.
Starting was a different situation. Akunne needed some time to become comfortable.
“After a while, it started slowing down,” Akunne said. “The Troy game, I got that first tackle and became more confident.”
Akunne’s versatility makes him particularly valuable. At 6-foot and 238 pounds, he is big enough to hold up at middle linebacker but is also quick enough to chase down running backs on the perimeter or cover them out of the backfield.
“Derek is really athletic and fast,” said Orr, who singled Akunne out as one of the young players who has excelled during fall practice.
Akunne said he is looking forward to the opportunity to play against LSU, even though it won’t be his first time to play against a Southeastern Conference team. He posted one of his 2 1/2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season at Alabama, when he was still backing up Orr.
Akunne will have a chance to build on that performance at LSU. It’s an opportunity he will have largely because of the way he played while filling in for arguably the Mean Green’s top defensive player last season.
“It was a big opportunity for him, and he made the most of it, playing solid football,” McCarney said of the starts Akunne made. “He looks better now than he did at any time last season. He is a future star.”
McCarney: Iowa transfer will play right away
Iowa transfer John Chelf will be eligible to play for UNT this season, McCarney said Friday.
Chelf spent two seasons with the Hawkeyes.
McCarney credited offensive line coach Mike Simmonds for guiding Chelf through the transfer process and making sure that he will be eligible.
The addition of Chelf will improve UNT’s depth at wide receiver, one of the Mean Green’s key areas of concern heading into the season.
The top three backups on UNT’s depth chart heading into fall practice have one catch combined in their careers.
“He is doing a real good job for us,” McCarney said. “He will be on the plane with us to LSU. He won’t start, but he will play in that first game. He has earned it. There is no question he gives us some depth. I like him a lot.”
Payton impresses during speech to Mean Green
Suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton made an impression on UNT’s players Thursday night when he spoke at the team’s Champions Day, an event to commemorate the end of preseason practice.
Payton has been suspended for the season by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the Saints’ bounty scandal.
“He did a fabulous job,” McCarney said. “I contacted him out of the blue and asked him if he would be a part of champions night for us. He had a great message. ‘Smelling greatness’ was kind of the title of it. He talked from the heart and did a fantastic job. He talked about where he started with the Saints, how bad they had been, how far they have come and how they did it.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.