The second weekend scrimmage of the spring started off terribly for North Texas’ defense when Darnell Smith caught a heave downfield from Derek Thompson and coasted into the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown.
How UNT reacted to that blow might have been the best aspect of what transpired Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
UNT’s defense didn’t fold. It regrouped and turned in its best all-around performance of the spring during a 111-play workout.
“Defensively, as the scrimmage wore on, the momentum shifted,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “We were playing with attitude, tenacity and intensity. I thought our defense grew up and improved today. We know we have some guys missing, but it’s not about who is out of the lineup. It’s about who is in the lineup, performing and playing good football. Who can we trust? Whom do we respect as football players on game day? Those are the evaluations we are trying to make.”
Several members of UNT’s defense made a case that they can be among those players, including Chad Polk. The converted linebacker posted two sacks during the scrimmage and forced a fumble on one of them.
Cornerbacks Hilbert Jackson and Kenny Buyers recorded interceptions, while linebacker Robert Lewis and safety Zed Evans recovered fumbles.
Redshirt freshman lineman Sir Calvin Wallace had his best day at UNT and posted a tackle for a loss. Safety Marcus Trice also had a tackle for a loss after coming up in run support from the secondary, while redshirt freshman defensive lineman Dutton Watson recorded a sack.
UNT is leaning on those players more than expected this spring with several key players, including defensive ends Brandon McCoy and Daryl Mason and defensive tackle Ryan Boutwell, out of the lineup due to injury.
“That was one of our better scrimmages defensively,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “There were a lot of big hits, big plays and turnovers. We have worked on a turnover circuit this spring. We were able to get a lot of those today.”
Orr and McCarney credited UNT’s performance to the comfort level the Mean Green’s defensive players are settling into under coordinator John Skladany. UNT is entering its second season working with Skadany after changing coordinators in each of the previous three seasons.
“It’s good to see guys stepping up and making plays,” Orr said. “A lot of it has to do with knowing the scheme. This is the first time we have come into the spring with the same defense and not having to learn something new. That helps a lot. Guys are more comfortable and are playing fast. The whole team is really excited. Everyone knows what they are doing out there.”
Polk said he is feeling more comfortable with what he is doing on the field and can sense that his teammates feel the same way. That comfort level has led to UNT making fewer mistakes.
“We have nailed down our keys and are reading the defense better,” Polk said. “We are trying to not make mental mistakes, especially in close games. We are doing everything we can to have a better defense.”
UNT lost two games by seven points or less last season and could look back on a few key mistakes that prevented it from pulling them out.
McCarney was particularly pleased with the way UNT’s defense responded when he put it in a tough situation. UNT’s defense began one series defending its own goal line with the offense at the 2.
UNT’s defense won several of those segments. Jackson’s interception came on a deflected pass in the end zone.
McCarney attributed much of UNT’s success to the play of Orr and fellow linebackers Will Wright and Derek Akunne.
“Those three linebackers are playing really well,” McCarney sad. “Will Wright is playing the best he has since we have been here. We know what we are going to get from Zach Orr, and that is outstanding play all the time. Derek Akunne is clearly one of our most improved players, which doesn’t surprise me considering he played five games as a freshman and gets better all the time. I really like the way those guys are playing.”
The same could be said of UNT’s defense on a day McCarney said the Mean Green clearly took a step forward.
“Overall defensively, we were sound, we were tough, we were relentless,” McCarney said. “We put them in segments where there are winners and losers, and clearly the defense won a lot of those segments.”
UNT defensive end Jarrian Roberts injured his left knee in practice. McCarney said afterward that the injury was not serious and he should be back in practice next week. ... Running back Antoinne Jimmerson missed UNT’s scrimmage with a sprained ankle that has kept him out of practice for several days.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.