When North Texas began spring practice a few weeks ago, there might not have been a batch of players who had more to prove than the Mean Green’s wide receivers.
UNT knew what it had returning in Brelan Chancellor, a senior-to-be who has been as consistent as anyone on the Mean Green’s offense, in addition to a contributor in Darnell Smith and a young player with potential in Carlos Harris.
That didn’t seem like much to head coach Dan McCarney, who singled out the group as one that had to improve if UNT is to post a breakout season.
Throw in the fact that UNT has a new wide receivers coach in Mike Grant, and the Mean Green had plenty to worry about.
As UNT prepares for its spring game on Saturday, McCarney says he feels a lot better about where the Mean Green stands, thanks to the rapid progress of a few key players.
“I like our wide receivers better now,” McCarney said. “There are more possible playmakers. We are more productive and consistent catching the ball. We have more guys who understand that when the ball is not thrown to them, get down the field and block.”
When UNT’s coaches looked back on last year, they didn’t feel like they had enough wide receivers who consistently made game-changing plays or did the little things right.
Chancellor certainly did, but he missed the last three games of the season with a broken collarbone after catching 25 passes for 450 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. Ivan Delgado led UNT with 42 catches for 570 yards but was lost to graduation.
Harris was a pleasant surprise, finishing with 19 receptions for 263 yards as a freshman — the only other returning wide receiver who finished in double figures in catches.
UNT’s coaches made developing a few other players to complement the receivers it had returning a priority this spring.
The process started with two key moves. First, UNT moved Grant from his previous assignment of coaching the Mean Green’s running backs to take over as the team’s wide receivers coach.
The switch put Grant in a familiar role. Coaching wide receivers was at least a part of his duties in his four previous coaching stops before joining the staff at UNT.
Grant coached wide receivers at Western Michigan (2008-10), Southern Miss (2007), Iowa State (1998-06) and James Madison (1997).
McCarney and Grant then let UNT’s wide receivers know that they had to improve quickly to make the type of impact the team needs. The Mean Green ranked seventh out of 10 teams in the Sun Belt Conference last season with an average of 219.9 passing yards per game.
Only South Alabama’s completion percentage of 54.3 was lower than UNT’s mark of 57.1 percent. UNT’s problems were not entirely the fault of the team’s wide receivers. Starting quarterback Derek Thompson struggled at times, but there was little doubt the group could improve.
UNT didn’t have a player rank among the top 10 in the Sun Belt in receptions per game or receiving yards per game. The Mean Green didn’t have a wide receiver among the 10 named to the All-Sun Belt team.
“Last year we struggled,” Smith said. “The coaches are putting pressure on us to step up to another level. Brelan and I are looking to make plays and lead by example. We need to contribute to this offense for it to be successful.”
Chancellor has made several plays throughout the spring, including catching a 25-yard touchdown pass from Thompson in UNT’s scrimmage on Saturday. Smith also has continued to play well and caught a 60-yard strike from Thompson in the scrimmage.
Smith continued to shine in practice Wednesday, catching a pair of touchdown passes from Thompson, and is solidly within a group of players who have put themselves in position to play in the fall.
McCarney singled out Chancellor, Smith, Harris, Carl Caldwell, Texas transfer Darius Terrell and Lynrick Pleasant as the wide receivers who have put themselves in position to play next season.
UNT is hoping a few more players will join that group by the time the Mean Green opens the season at home against Idaho on Aug. 31.
McCarney and Smith attributed the group’s improvement largely to Grant. UNT’s wide receivers frequently are the last group of players to leave the field after practice.
If one receiver misses a meeting or a class, the whole group has to pay the price, whether it is extra running or another form of punishment.
“The main thing with coach Grant is being disciplined and being accountable,” Smith said. “He holds everyone accountable and expects you to be perfect no matter if you are first or third on the depth chart.”
McCarney said that Grant is doing “a wonderful job” with the group while earning the players’ respect.
UNT is hoping that approach will pay off next season, when offensive coordinator Mike Canales plans to open up the Mean Green’s offense. UNT depended heavily on a talented group of tight ends and a power running game last year.
UNT will still pound the ball, but Canales said this spring that he wants to try to spread opponents out and throw the ball more often. UNT had just 13 completions to wide receivers that covered at least 30 yards last season.
One of UNT’s goals heading into the fall is to make more game-changing plays both offensively and defensively. UNT’s wide receivers will be a big part of that plan.
Thompson likes the way the group is coming together this spring.
“The depth on this team is unlike anything we have had since I have been here,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of personnel package we are in, we have guys out there who can make plays.”
Smith also can see the progress he and his fellow receivers are making.
“We still need to improve, but coach Grant has brought us to another level.,” Smith said. “We are a lot more confident.”
The strength of the group could be its depth. Chancellor is the headliner but has yet to post 500 yards receiving in a season.
The injury he suffered last year prevented him from getting there as a junior. Chancellor will have a good chance to reach the mark as a senior, but UNT is hoping it will be the depth the group possesses that makes a difference.
Harris has played well throughout the spring and could be ready to break out. Terrell also could be a difference maker for UNT as he continues to develop after transferring from Texas, where he played tight end.
Terrell just recently has started to show the speed and agility that helped him earn Parade All-America honors at DeSoto.
“I like the depth and competition better there than at any time that I have been here,” McCarney said. “I don’t know that there is a star there right now, but I like the depth and competition. There are some real quality guys there.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.