Hilbert Jackson charged up from his spot deep in North Texas’ secondary last week and knocked the ball away from Florida Atlantic wide receiver Alex Deleon, setting off a wild celebration on the Mean Green’s sideline.
The junior cornerback and his teammates jumped all over each other, secure in the knowledge they had just nailed down a 20-14 win with a solid defensive play in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Defensive coordinator John Skladany was right in the middle of that scrum, one he saw as another in a long line of small steps in reaching one of the biggest — and perhaps most important — goals UNT head coach Dan McCarney has set for the program.
The Mean Green is starting to rebuild its defense, a process that will continue Saturday, when UNT takes on one of its biggest challenges of the season in a game against pass-happy Houston.
“You want kids to be emotional, express themselves and look like they are having fun playing football,” Skladany said this week while looking back on UNT’s win over the Owls. “It brings the team along and brings the fans along when a team has some energy, some enthusiasm and some personality. That happens when you have success.”
UNT hasn’t enjoyed much success in a long time, at least not defensively.
The Mean Green finished sixth in the Sun Belt in scoring defense last season with an average of 30.7 points allowed a game, which might not sound all that impressive.
By recent standards, it was a huge step in the right direction.
The Mean Green finished dead last nationally in scoring defense in both 2007 and 2008.
UNT wasn’t quite that bad when McCarney took over the program after the 2010 season, but he still didn’t like what he saw.
One of the first topics McCarney hit on during his introductory news conference was how important he believed improving defensively was for UNT.
To reach that goal, McCarney said he felt like UNT would have to undergo a dramatic philosophical change in the way the program approached everything from recruiting, to coaching to the attitude of the team’s players and coaches.
“Defensively, there was no question about it,” McCarney said of the need for fundamental change. “Learn to play with some toughness, grit, fight, have heart, be relentless, show up and make plays.”
Hearing their new coach talk about the need for a philosophical shift was a wake-up call for UNT’s veteran defensive players.
“It was a change,” UNT defensive end Aaron Bellazin said. “Coach Mac is a defensive guy. Being the head coach, he’s going to look at defense more. It seemed like we always had the athletes but never clicked and become a unit.”
UNT’s identity before McCarney’s arrival was tied to former head coach Todd Dodge’s spread offense, one that sparked interest in the program and helped the Mean Green post some impressive offensive statistics.
Former UNT wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald led the nation in receptions with an average of 9.42 per game in 2008. The Mean Green also captured national attention when it played an epic shootout against Navy in 2007.
UNT scored 62 points at Fouts Field that day. Navy scored more and won 74-62.
That was the problem. UNT never translated those points into wins while getting away from its identity during some of the most successful eras in program history.
UNT was where the legend of “Mean” Joe Greene began, where Cedrick Hardman played before becoming one of the best defensive ends in the NFL in the 1970s, where a solid defense helped lead UNT to four straight bowl games in the early 2000s.
Even the nickname, Mean Green, was given to UNT’s defense during the 1960s, when Greene was wreaking havoc as a defensive tackle at Fouts Field.
UNT finished third nationally in scoring defense in 2002, when it allowed 14.8 points a game, but gradually lost its identity as an elite unit.
The Mean Green wants that identity back.
“The attitude has changed from recent years when the defense was terrible around here,” senior linebacker Jeremy Phillips said. “One of the main things coach McCarney talked about when he came in was getting our defense going and getting us to the point where we had an identity.”
The process hasn’t been easy, especially with the constant turnover UNT has experienced on its coaching staff.
Skladany is UNT’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons. McCarney did not retain Gary DeLoach when he took over the program and lost Clint Bowen after only one season. Bowen returned to coach at Kansas, his alma mater.
UNT also brought in Noah Joseph to coach the team’s safeties after Anthony Weaver left after one season for a job with the New York Jets.
McCarney and Skladany both credited Bowen for laying the foundation for UNT’s turnaround by having the Mean Green go back to the basics and improve in key areas, including tackling.
The changes UNT made in its strength and conditioning program under new strength coach Frank Wintrich were also critical.
“That’s as big a part of it as anything,” Skladany said. “The players are bigger, stronger, faster and are moving better.”
McCarney and UNT’s players credited Skladany with helping them capitalize on the improvement in the team’s size and speed.
Skladany was McCarney’s defensive coordinator for 11 years at Iowa State and served in the same capacity at Houston and Central Florida.
UNT caught a break when UCF coach George O’Leary fired Skladany after the 2011 season, despite the fact the Knights ranked ninth nationally in both scoring defense (18.3 points allowed per game) and total defense (303.3 yards allowed per game).
McCarney said the chemistry he shares with Skladany has been vital in UNT’s early-season improvement. So has Skladany’s proven ability as a coordinator.
“He really understands the game,” McCarney said. “It’s about dissecting offenses and finding a way to slow down or stop the best thing that offense does. If you can do that as a coordinator, you have a chance on Saturday. He does a great job of that and has really rallied the kids.”
UNT’s players have only worked with their new coordinator for a few months but have developed a rapport with him.
“He’s made a big difference,” Phillips said. “He’s really smart, knows what he’s doing and knows how to scheme [develop a game plan for] teams. Anything he tells me to do, I’ll do in a heartbeat.”
The results have been impressive so far.
UNT has forced a Sun Belt-high 11 turnovers and ranks second in both sacks (13) and scoring defense (22.2 points allowed a game).
Those totals are all the more impressive when one considers that UNT has faced LSU and Kansas State, teams ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, in The Associated Press Top 25.
“We’re definitely coming together,” Bellazin said. “We got together as a unit and focused on making this a championship defense.”
What is particularly encouraging for UNT is the majority of its defense should stay together for a while. Phillips and defensive end K.C. Obi are the only senior starters.
McCarney and Skladany say they are still in the early stages of building a defense that can live up to their expectations and have some key pieces to work with in young players like sophomore linebacker Derek Akunne and sophomore safety Lairamie Lee.
The Mean Green won’t have a handle on just how much its young defense has improved until it takes on some of the Sun Belt Conference’s top teams. UNT played well defensively in a 14-7 loss to Troy, a traditional league power, but has yet to face the teams that are widely considered to feature the elite offenses in the conference this year.
UNT still has games against Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette and Middle Tennessee coming up. All three are averaging more than 37 points a game.
This week’s game against Houston will also present a challenge. Cougars quarterback David Piland is averaging 350.3 passing yards a game, a total that ranks fifth nationally.
UNT feels good about its chances against Piland, Houston and the top teams in the Sun Belt due to the improvement it has made defensively but acknowledges it has a long way to go.
“We are playing with more confidence,” Skladany said. “It’s still early, but they are taking some steps in the right direction.”
That is just what McCarney wanted to see when he took over the program.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
North Texas has shown signs of getting back to playing solid defense. The following is a look at where UNT stands heading into a game at Houston:
Number of points UNT is allowing a game, a total that ranks second in the Sun Belt.
Number of times UNT has held an opponent to 14 or fewer points.
Turnovers UNT has forced, the top total in the Sun Belt.
Number of sacks UNT has posted, a total that ranks second in the Sun Belt.