Monday morning is usually when the North Texas coaching staff begins putting together its offensive and defensive plans for the next game.
That changed this week, as UNT’s staff took some time out of its regular routine to take a long, hard look at how to improve its play on special teams.
The Mean Green has seen several signs of progress across the board early this season, from the way its running game has come together to the improvement quarterback Derek Thompson showed last week in the passing game.
The one area that has consistently lagged behind is the kicking game, where UNT struggled mightily last week in a loss to Kansas State.
UNT knows it will have to improve quickly if it wants to make a run at the Sun Belt Conference title, beginning with its league opener against Troy on Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
The Mean Green does not rank higher than sixth in the Sun Belt in any of the major special teams statistics and made several key mistakes against Kansas State.
“It was a major problem, issue and weaknesses of our football team in that loss to Kansas State,” head coach Dan McCarney said. “We are going to do everything we can to get it right this week.”
UNT gave up a 96-yard kickoff return after taking a 7-0 lead, had a field goal blocked, missed an extra point and started one drive at its 12-yard line after a short return out of the end zone. UNT also had a punt travel 15 yards when it was looking to pin the Wildcats deep in their own end of the field after being forced to punt from the Kansas State 40-yard line.
Those mistakes prompted UNT’s coaching staff to take a look at what it is doing from top to bottom in an area that was expected to be one of the Mean Green’s strengths.
Punter Will Atterberry was a preseason All-Sun Belt selection, while Zach Olen is in his third year kicking for UNT.
“There are three things you look at: Is it schemes? Is it personnel? Is it effort?” McCarney said. “I didn’t see any problem with effort when we broke it all down. I saw some obvious issues with personnel, where they just did a much better job in a one-on-one matchup, and there were some scheme things that we need to clean up.”
UNT’s problems are all the more surprising considering special teams has performed well under McCarney, who brought on veteran special teams coach Kent Riddle when he took over the program.
Riddle coached special teams at Colorado, Boise State and Army before coming to UNT, which fared well in several areas on special teams last year. The Mean Green ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt last season in net punting (39.1 yards an attempt).
McCarney usually selects a special teams captain for each game. UNT won’t have one this week because he decided no one deserved the honor.
“I trust and respect the heck out of Kent Riddle,” McCarney said. “He is really good at his craft. He takes it personally when we don’t do a good job, and we didn’t last week. We have to get it fixed in a hurry. That’s not easy when we have to line up and play in five days.”
Lewis lost for season
UNT will get one of its key defensive players back in time for its game against Troy and could have two others back as well.
Linebacker Chad Polk missed UNT’s loss to Kansas State but is expected to play against Troy.
UNT also could have defensive end Brandon McCoy and outside linebacker Jeremy Phillips back. Both missed UNT’s game against Kansas State with injuries.
McCarney does not reveal the nature of injuries unless they are season-ending.
That was the case with freshman running back Mark Lewis, who broke his leg in practice and will spend the season as a redshirt. Lewis has not played this year.
McCarney does not predetermine who will redshirt in case an injury forces him to play a freshman who had not previously played in a game.
Lewis had surgery and is expected to be back for spring practice.
Freshman defensive end Dutton Watson returned to practice Tuesday after recovering from an injury he suffered during two-a-days, but he also will redshirt.
Turnover margin key heading into Troy game
UNT didn’t win its game against Kansas State, but it did win the turnover battle 2-1, a trend McCarney said must continue in Sun Belt play.
UNT led the Sun Belt in turnover margin last year at plus-9 and is sitting in third place this year at plus-2.
Safety Marcus Trice made perhaps the defensive play of the game for UNT against the Wildcats when he stripped the ball from running back John Hubert at the Mean Green’s 3-yard line and fell on the ball.
Linebacker Will Wright later posted an interception.
Those plays helped offset a Thompson fumble that was recovered by Kansas State.
Troy is tied with South Alabama for the worst turnover margin in the Sun Belt at minus-5.
“We have to try to continue to stay up there among the top two teams in our conference in turnover margin,” McCarney said. “That is the real equalizer when you face a high-powered offense like we will on Saturday night.”
Quinn to serve as captain
Johnny Quinn, a member of the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame, will serve as the Mean Green’s honorary captain this week.
Quinn was UNT’s leading receiver in every season of his career from 2003-06. The former McKinney standout is now a member of the U.S. Olympic bobsled team.
“It’s pretty amazing to think that he led this university in receptions four straight years,” McCarney said. “I’m really honored to welcome Johnny back. I’ve gotten to know him since I took the job.”
UNT looks to rebound as SBC play begins
UNT will head into the Sun Belt season looking to bounce back after a rare home loss and an equally rare three-game winless streak.
UNT and Baylor finished in a scoreless tie Sept. 7. The Mean Green then lost to 16th-ranked Long Beach State, No. 7 Oklahoma State and TCU at home.
The Mean Green had not lost at home since falling to SMU on Sept. 17, 2010. UNT was riding a 17-game home unbeaten streak.
“We dominated play in the second half,” UNT head coach John Hedlund said of the Mean Green’s loss to TCU. “[TCU] bunkered in and played defensively. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t remember the last time we lost at home.”
UNT (5-3-1) will open league play with a match at Louisiana-Lafayette on Friday before traveling to Louisiana-Monroe on Sunday.
“We played one of our toughest nonconference schedules to date with a couple of nationally ranked teams and did quite well,” Hedlund said. “We are doing it with 11 or 12 freshmen on the team. The experience was good.”
UNT to head into Sun Belt play on roll
UNT will enter Sun Belt play riding a four-match winning streak after winning its last three matches in the Alabama State Invitational and posting a key win over Baylor at home Tuesday night.
UNT head coach Ken Murczek picked up his 50th career win over the weekend when the Mean Green swept Alabama State 25-14, 25-10, 25-14. Murczek reached the 50-win mark in his 85th match, a program record.
The previous record was set by Dolores Copeland, who founded the program.
The Mean Green swept Baylor 25-19, 25-22, 25-22 in its last pre-conference tuneup.
UNT will open Sun Belt play with a home match against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday before taking on Louisiana-Monroe on Sunday.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .