When Dan McCarney looked back on a summer full of tough practices in the sun and thought a little about what transpired in North Texas’ season-opening loss to LSU, he couldn’t help but be a little amazed at how it all worked out for the Mean Green’s defensive line.
Defensive end Brandon McCoy and lineman Tevinn Cantly made it through all those workouts without so much as tweaking an ankle.
They lasted only a few plays against LSU before going down with injuries, forcing UNT to change its plans once again when it comes to a defensive front that has taken more than its share of hits since the end of last season.
UNT was forced to play without starting defensive tackle Ryan Boutwell in its season opener after he tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights over the summer.
The Mean Green will get Boutwell back this week but will head into its game against Texas Southern facing the possibility that both McCoy and Cantly could be out.
“He feels really good,” McCarney said of Boutwell. “We don’t have anyone on this team that plays with a better motor than Ryan Boutwell. It’s really good to have him back.”
McCoy and Cantly started throughout last season and showed signs during fall practice that they could be ready to improve dramatically this year.
UNT was expected to lean on a defensive front returning three starters in McCoy, Boutwell and Cantly. The Mean Green has only one other returning defensive starter available heading into its game against TSU in linebacker Zach Orr.
“McCoy may be one of the one or two most improved players on our team from last spring,” McCarney said. “Cantly is playing better than at any time he did last season. You pull them out of the lineup, it hurts, but that is why we have 85 scholarships. Those other guys need to step it up. We are going to keep the pressure on them. We don’t want them standing around eating chicken. You need to earn your scholarship.”
UNT had players fill the void that was left when McCoy and Cantly were lost against LSU. Alexander Lincoln came off the bench to post four tackles, while Aaron Bellazin produced one of the Mean Green’s biggest plays of the night when he grabbed Zach Mettenberger deep in the Tigers’ backfield.
LSU’s quarterback threw the ball away and was flagged for intentional grounding, resulting in a 17-yard penalty. Bellazin was credited with a sack on the play.
Bellazin already was in a three-player rotation at defensive end with McCoy and K.C. Obi. UNT was still productive after McCoy went out of the game thanks to that rotation.
Obi finished with six tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage.
“Injuries happen,” Bellazin said. “If your number is called, you have to step up and execute.”
UNT still has plenty of room for improvement after giving up 316 rushing yards and allowing LSU to have two players eclipse the 100-yard mark. Kenny Hilliard finished with 141 yards on an average of 10.8 yards a carry, while Alfred Blue added 123 yards.
Despite those numbers, UNT showed it has a little more depth on its defensive front this season, which has been an emphasis for McCarney since he arrived before last season.
McCarney: UNT’s attitude shows improvement
McCarney saw a dramatic difference in the way his players reacted to a lopsided loss to a Southeastern Conference power Saturday after the Mean Green fell at LSU.
UNT lost 41-0 last season to eventual national champion Alabama. McCarney was upset by the way the loss did not bother some of his players, who he said were far too boisterous on the bus after the game.
“It’s a different world and a different team,” McCarney said. “There is so much more maturity about this team now. I like the way this team responded. You should bleed inside. That should be the feeling. If it hurts that much, you can keep moving forward and improving this program. We will. We have a team now that can’t stand losing.”
McCarney could see that will to win even after LSU blitzed the Mean Green early on. LSU held UNT to 22 yards in the first quarter and led 24-0 before the Mean Green showed some signs of life.
“There was grit, determination and toughness,” McCarney said of his team. “I didn’t sense a bad look in anyone’s eyes, that they were giving in to adversity or that they were intimidated because it’s LSU. But at the end of the day a 27-point loss is a 27-point loss. It’s unacceptable.”
Greene to serve as captain
McCarney announced Tuesday that Joe Greene, a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame, will serve as an honorary captain for the Mean Green’s season opener against Texas Southern.
“There is not a person in the history of the game that means more to college football and the NFL than “Mean” Joe Greene,” McCarney said. “We will honor him. It will be neat to have him as part of our program this weekend.”
Kennedy, Thomas lead Hall of Fame class
Defensive lineman Brandon Kennedy and running back Jamario Thomas, two of the players who helped lead UNT to four straight Sun Belt titles from 2001-04, highlighted a five-man UNT Athletic Hall of Fame class announced by the school Tuesday.
Kennedy was the Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2002 and 2003.
Thomas won the national rushing title as a freshman in 2004, when he rushed for 1,801 yards.
Walter Chapman, a defensive lineman who played for UNT in the mid-1970s; Ron Linscomb, a track standout from the 1960s; and C Dan Smith, a member of 1959 Missouri Valley Conference championship team who went on to become a UNT regent and an influential booster, round out the class.
UNT rolls into key stretch
UNT will head into a series of key matches with a spotless record after winning its only game last week.
UNT hammered Texas Southern 6-0 and then saw its match against Grambling canceled due to poor weather conditions.
The win over TSU sends the Mean Green into a home match against Baylor on Sunday with a perfect 5-0 record and the confidence that goes along with scoring six goals in a single game.
The Mean Green will follow up its match with Baylor with a neutral-site match against Long Beach State in College Station.
“Just to get out there and get players to make and understand their runs and create opportunities on goal was good for us,” UNT head coach John Hedlund said of the TSU match. “Some of them are going in now, which is nice to see. Hopefully we can keep it going this weekend against two quality teams.”
UNT already has knocked off Houston this season despite going through an adjustment period after losing six key players to graduation.
“I feel like it’s all starting to fall into place,” UNT goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine said. “Everyone has their rough start. You have to figure out a new system and get used to new players. You just have to keep working. That’s what we are doing.”
UNT comes home with momentum on its side
UNT will return home to play host to its second tournament this season with momentum on its side, despite falling at Texas Tech on Monday.
The Mean Green (7-2) has won back-to-back tournaments for the first time in school history. UNT won the North Texas Invitational and the IUPUI Hampton Inn Invitational.
“We have made some really big strides,” UNT head coach Ken Murczek said. “I’m really happy to be 7-2.”
Freshman outside hitter Carnae Dillard was named the MVP of the IUPUI tournament Sunday.
Murczek said Dillard has developed to the point where he never had to take her off the floor, no matter where she lines up in UNT’s rotation.
He also credited Courtney Windham with helping fuel UNT’s solid start.
The Mean Green will look to build on that start this weekend when it hosts the Mean Green Invitational.
“We were fortunate to be able to start at home for four matches, go on the road for five and then be able to come back home for another tournament,” Murczek said. “It’s a good feeling.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .