In a team’s ideal world, Austin Orr and Dutton Watson would be entirely off the radar at this point in their careers at North Texas.
Orr has just one season’s worth of experience, during which he didn’t experience much of anything due to a series of injuries, while Watson sat on the sideline as a redshirt.
The plan would be for UNT to bring both along slowly. That isn’t a possibility now, thanks to a series of events that no one could have foreseen.
Freshman backup tackle Dylan McDorman was forced to give up football due to shoulder injuries, then defensive end Quenton Brown tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, putting him out for at least the first half of the 2013 season.
The loss of Brown caused UNT’s coaches to lean toward playing defensive tackle Ryan Boutwell more at defensive end in the fall. UNT won’t get a chance to see how that lineup looks until then because Boutwell also is out for the spring with an injury.
By the time all those dominoes fell, Orr and Watson become awfully important for UNT, which also lost starting tackle Tevinn Cantly to graduation at the end of the 2012 season. Orr and Watson are now projected to be backup defensive tackles behind starters Richard Abbe and Alexander Lincoln when the Mean Green opens the season at home against Idaho on Aug. 31.
“I can’t put into words how important the development of those guys [Orr and Watson] is,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “Then throw in [Sir Calvin] Wallace and [Mustafa] Haboul. Those guys who haven’t played much or played at all have to step up. They can have a really positive or negative effect on our team. We are pushing them hard. We are not satisfied with where they are right now. They have to get a lot better.”
UNT will have a substantially better chance to make its first season in Conference USA a successful one if it can develop some depth along its defensive front. Reaching that goal has been a challenge for UNT over the last several years, especially when it comes to the interior of its defensive line.
McCarney has said that finding players capable of playing defensive tackle at the college level is one of the toughest challenges for any program.
The progress shown by Abbe and Lincoln, a converted defensive end, has given UNT hope that it could have a solid pair of players to build around.
The challenge now for UNT is quickly developing players like Watson and Orr, who didn’t post a tackle last season as a freshman, to back them up.
“This is my first year in the system,” Orr said. “I’m starting to get the hang of it. We have to find enough guys to have depth. We have to learn the best that we can and get the most reps that we can.”
That shouldn’t be a problem, not with the way McCarney has put an emphasis on developing the defensive linemen he has on hand. UNT signed two defensive linemen in its last class — Brown and Van defensive tackle Sydrick Moore, who could be a long-term project.
Moore was listed at 267 pounds when he signed with UNT and might not be ready to play as a freshman.
“We are keeping the accelerator down on all those defensive linemen,” McCarney said. “We are not close to where we need to be at. There are some positive strides that are being made, but those guys who haven’t played need to step up.”
Orr and Watson spent the last few months preparing for what now appears to be a vital spring. How they handle the challenges they face could have a big impact on UNT next season.
Orr knew that he needed to put on weight if he wanted to contribute and has been happy with his progress.
“I was playing end and was 245,” Orr said. “Now I am 275 to 280. I am getting used to carrying the weight and am getting stronger so that I can take on double-teams and be ready for the fall.”
Orr and Watson have gotten plenty of attention, not only from McCarney and defensive line coach Mike Nelson, but from UNT’s veteran defensive tackles as well.
Abbe will be a senior in the fall and has been a mainstay for UNT over the last few years. He started four games in 2012.
“We are going to depend on Orr and Watson a lot,” Abbe said. “We are trying to teach them to be strong, stay in their gap and learn what they need to do. Hopefully we can depend on them on game day.
“They are doing well. They are making mistakes, but they are learning from them.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.