Brett Vito: Smith’s big game masks UNT’s deeper issues

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David Minton/DRC
University of North Texas junior wide receiver Darnell Smith (80) hangs on during a tackle by University of Houston junior defensive back Zach McMillian (10), Saturday, October 6, 2012, at John O'Quinn Field at Robertson Stadium in Houston, TX.

Darnell Smith sat with a microphone in front of him answering questions late Saturday night about all the plays he made for North Texas in a loss to Arkansas State.

On the surface, that seemed like a good turn of events.

Smith seems like a great guy, and the story of how he worked his way up through the ranks from unrecruited walk-on to playing a major role at wide receiver for a team playing at the top level of college football is a great tale.

It’s also a story that should scare the heck out of UNT.

The Mean Green has lacked playmaking ability all season, which is perhaps the biggest reason UNT came into its game against the Red Wolves averaging only 21.0 points a game.

The Mean Green didn’t even manage that total in a 37-19 loss to the Red Wolves.

“We have got to find a way to make some plays,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “At times, I thought we had opportunities to do that. We were either off on throws or didn’t make a catch we normally make, or we didn’t execute a route or our protection broke down.”

Bottom line: Teams need playmakers to make plays.

UNT has only a couple of guys who fit the bill and a surprising number of others trying to fill the void who just showed up and asked if they could play.

UNT’s leading receiver coming into its game against ASU was Ivan Delgado, while its third-leading rusher was Jeremy Brown.

Both were walk-ons.

UNT has gotten a lot of mileage out of a few players it recruited at the skill positions, including wide receiver Brelan Chancellor and running backs Brandin Byrd and Antoinne Jimmerson.

Jimmerson is an emerging star ASU shut down Saturday night when he managed only 35 yards on 13 carries. Even after an off night, Jimmerson still has rushed for 522 yards as a freshman, more than either Patrick Cobbs or Lance Dunbar, two of the best players UNT has ever had, posted their freshman years.

Chancellor is the best playmaker UNT has, but he was lost for the season with a broken collarbone he suffered in a loss to Middle Tennessee.

Byrd is a solid Sun Belt-level back.

We could argue all day if quarterback Derek Thompson is giving those players enough opportunities in the passing game. He’s not perfect, but he’s better than what UNT has had in a long, long time.

It still comes back to the bottom line. In the state of Texas, where running backs and receivers seem to grow on trees, it’s baffling that UNT has gotten to the point where this team clearly lacks the playmakers it needs to win and so many of its key players are walk-ons.

The fact that Smith has suddenly become so vital for UNT underscored that point for McCarney.

“He’s an unrecruited walk-on and all of a sudden he’s out there making plays on game days,” McCarney said. “That should inspire and motivate some guys on our team who are on scholarship and were recruited that did get opportunities and don’t do a damn thing for this football team. I would think a guy like Smith would motivate them.”

Freshman Carlos Harris is starting to emerge. He caught four passes for 52 yards and helped out in the return game, where Chancellor has excelled throughout his career.

“Carlos reminds me a lot of what Brelan was like when he first got here,” Thompson said earlier in the week.

UNT clearly misses Chancellor, and it doesn’t help that Derrick Teegarden, another slot receiver, is out for the year with broken finger that required surgery.

UNT managed to move the ball without them against ASU, posting 400 yards.

When it came time to make a play and get in the end zone, the Mean Green didn’t come up with the plays it needed.

“It doesn’t matter how well you move the ball from 20 to 20,” Thompson said. “When you get into the red zone, you have to score. It comes down to execution.”

Having athletes who can make the big play doesn’t hurt either.

ASU had several.

Julian Jones caught a 59-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Aplin, who also connected with Josh Jarboe on a 63-yard strike. Rocky Hayes scored on a 19-yard run and averaged 8.3 yards a carry.

UNT had only one play of more than 30 yards all night, a 34-yard pass from Thompson to Chris Bynes, a senior the Mean Green brought out of mothballs after losing Chancellor for the season.

Smith was the star of the night when it came to UNT’s running backs and receivers.

“It was my job,” Smith said of filling the void left by Chancellor’s absence. “I felt like I had to step up, make plays when my number was called and win my individual battle.”

Smith did that more than any other UNT player.

It was a great night for Smith, but it left McCarney and everyone else wondering how UNT got to the position it’s in, depending on players who weren’t major parts of the Mean Green’s plans when they arrived on campus.

Injuries can only explain so much, and McCarney acknowledged as much earlier in the week.

“We have to keep recruiting guys like Chancellor who can make guys miss and make plays in space,” McCarney said.

Chances are they are not just going to show up like Smith did.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com .

 


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