Dan McCarney spoke this week of the long nights he and his assistant coaches spend in the office trying to discover any tiny adjustment they can make to give North Texas an advantage.
Those nights became a lot longer, not to mention busier, for UNT’s head coach early this week when the Mean Green staff began to consider arguably the biggest in-season adjustment they could have possibly encountered this season.
Somehow, some way, UNT must find a way to replace Brelan Chancellor heading into its homecoming game Saturday against Arkansas State.
Filling the void created by losing one player might not sound like that big of a deal, especially not a 5-9, 183-pound slot receiver.
For UNT it is a big deal — a very big deal.
There might not be a more valuable player on the Mean Green’s roster or one who fills more roles than Chancellor, who broke his collarbone in the first quarter of UNT’s loss to Middle Tennessee on Saturday.
Chancellor is UNT’s second-leading receiver, its fourth-leading rusher, its top punt returner and its best kick returner.
Add it all together and Chancellor is producing 120.8 all-purpose yards a game, a total that is skewed by the fact he only posted 32 yards against MTSU before being lost for the year.
Heading into that game, Chancellor was averaging 133.4 yards a game and had scored a team-high seven touchdowns, a total running back Antoinne Jimmerson matched later against the Blue Raiders.
No one else on UNT’s roster is posting more than 83 all-purpose yards a game.
“We have to challenge the rest of the guys who sit in that same position room,” McCarney said. “We need someone to step up and be a shining star and not disappear. That is what these guys have to do. We are not bringing anyone from defense to offense or taking the redshirt off anyone.”
That leaves a handful of players at a position that has been decimated by injuries and suspensions to step forward at a time when UNT’s back is clearly to the wall.
The Mean Green (3-5, 2-2 Sun Belt) might be out of the conference title chase and is teetering on the edge of seeing its hopes to earn a bowl bid completely extinguished. UNT, which hasn’t won back-to-back games since 2004, will have to go at least 3-1 down the stretch to get to 6-6, the low-water mark to become bowl-eligible.
Not only has UNT lost Chancellor, it will also be without fellow slot receiver Derrick Teegarden, who is out for the season with a broken finger. Ivan Delgado, the Mean Green’s leading receiver, is coming off a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
“The next guy has to step up,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “We can’t sit there and sulk. We need guys to step into that role. We are going to mix and match and see what works best for us.”
For UNT, the bottom line is that Chancellor is one of the few players on its roster with the dynamic speed and athletic ability to make a big play.
UNT has posted 32 plays of at least 20 yards this season. Chancellor has nine of those plays, despite missing nearly all of last week’s game. No one else on UNT’s roster has more than seven plays of 20 yards or more.
It’s that game-changing ability that attracted the attention of opposing defenses. It’s what UNT will miss most about Chancellor.
“Brelan has speed and athletic ability and can make someone miss in space,” McCarney said. “The game of college football is so often played in space now. Space can make athletes make bad athletes look bad. Really good athletes can make good athletes look bad.
“That’s what Brelan brings. He brings confidence, stability and big-play potential.”
UNT will have to find a way to replace that big-play ability in several areas. Perhaps the most important void will be at wide receiver.
The Mean Green has three players who have combined to post five 100-yard receiving games this season. Chancellor recorded three of those 100-yard games.
UNT’s options to replace Chancellor are limited, especially following the loss of Teegarden.
Freshman Carlos Harris is listed as a starter heading into UNT’s game against ASU along with Delgado and Chris Bynes.
Bynes was expected to play a major role after leading UNT last season with five touchdown catches, tying with Chancellor for the team lead in receptions with 37 and finishing second in receiving yards with 442. The senior has started four games but went three straight games without a reception before catching four for 50 yards after Chancellor went down last week.
Harris has just two receptions on the year.
UNT has been a run-first team for years. Chancellor was one of the players who could make defenses pay for stacking the line of scrimmage.
“We know that we are losing someone with dynamic ability and experience at that position, but at the same time we have people who will be able to step up and make those plays,” said Lynrick Pleasant, a junior with three catches on the year who could see his role expand. “The coaches always tell us that you never know what is going to happen. You always have to be ready to perform when your number is called.”
Running back Jeremy Brown saw some time at slot receiver against MTSU and likely will line up at that spot at times against ASU.
UNT’s tight ends also present an option.
“We have a good corps of tight ends that we can flex out,” Thompson said. “We also need Delgado and Bynes to step up on the outside.”
Some of those same players also will play roles in filling the void in the return game, where Chancellor often has been at his best. He set school records in each of the last two years for total kickoff return yards, posting 1,094 yards last year.
Chancellor has only had 18 opportunities to return kickoffs this season and has yet to post a return of longer than 29 yards, but still has been productive while posting 351 yards. UNT has returned just six punts all season, with Chancellor picking up 10 yards on five of those returns in addition to calling for several fair catches.
Harris likely will have an opportunity to return punts, while UNT also will turn to running backs to return kicks.
Thompson said he can see some of the same attributes in Harris that he saw in Chancellor early in his career.
“That is why you develop a young guy like Carlos,” Bynes said. “You always prepare for the worst and the best.”
The loss of Chancellor was clearly the former.
How UNT responds will go a long way toward determining whether it can make a run late in the season or if the Mean Green ends up posting an eighth straight losing season.
“We lost one of our great playmakers, but it’s a chance for someone to step up,” Pleasant said. “We are all supposed to be Division I wide receivers. We have to be able to help whenever and wherever the coaches need us on the field.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
CHANCELLOR’S IMPACT BY THE NUMBERS
All-purpose yards Chancellor is averaging a game. No other UNT player is averaging more than 82.8
Receiving touchdowns Chancellor has posted on the the season out of UNT’s nine in eight games
Chancellor’s rank among UNT players in caches (25) and receiving yards (450), which trail only Ivan Delgado
Chancellor’s return yards on the season, a total that includes 351 yardsout of UNT’s 446 on kickoffs