Derek Thompson could sense that something had changed, not only in himself but also in his teammates in the past few months, as they worked their way through North Texas’ offseason conditioning program.
UNT’s starting quarterback could feel a higher level of energy and excitement, not to mention a feeling that this could be the year UNT finally breaks through to post a winning season, a goal that has eluded the Mean Green throughout his career.
“There is not a doubt in my mind,” Thompson said of UNT having a chance to break through this fall. “The attitude every single day makes me feel that way. Last summer it was really hard to come to workouts. It was 100 degrees and it’s 15 degrees hotter on that turf. There are guys here this year who are excited. There is a lot of energy.
“People are getting bigger and stronger and are doing what it takes to be successful. When Saturdays come this fall, we will be ready to step on the field and go.”
The process of preparing for a season-opening game against Idaho on Aug. 31 will reach a critical point today when UNT’s players officially report. The Mean Green’s first practice and annual media day will take place Monday.
The first workout of fall practice essentially will mark the beginning of one of the more highly anticipated seasons in recent UNT history.
The Mean Green made the move to Conference USA over the summer and will have its first shot at making a statement in a league that will include Texas rivals Rice, UTEP and Texas-San Antonio.
This season also will be the last shot for more than a dozen key seniors on UNT’s roster — including Thompson, linebacker Zach Orr and wide receiver Brelan Chancellor — to post a winning season and play in a bowl game.
It’s hard to imagine there being a better time for UNT to break out of a funk that has seen the Mean Green suffer through eight straight losing seasons.
The presence of those veteran players has given UNT confidence heading into fall workouts.
“I feel really good about where this team is at,” Orr said. “You look at the seniors with Brelan Chancellor, Brandin Byrd, Will Wright, Hilbert Jackson, Richard Abbe and Derek Thompson — we’ve all been playing for a long time. We feel like we are going to be the class to change this thing around. A lot of us have been multi-year starters. It’s up to us to lead this team. We are putting all the pressure on the seniors. When there is a big play to be made, we expect a senior to make it.”
Several of UNT’s veteran players have been in critical situations and come through in the past, which is a comforting feeling for the Mean Green as it prepares for the start of practice.
Orr earned second-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors last season when he finished with 108 tackles. Chancellor posted a career-high five touchdown catches in just eight games before breaking his collarbone.
While UNT has several key players back, there is little doubt there are still holes to fill and problems to address.
The Mean Green lacked playmakers on offense and lost its best lineman in center Aaron Fortenberry to graduation.
UNT also has question marks on defense, where it lost its most productive lineman in senior K.C. Obi and then saw potential replacement Quenton Brown tear the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in spring practice.
UNT’s secondary struggled at times last season but returns all four of its starters.
It’s the presence of so many veterans on the roster that has UNT head coach Dan McCarney and his players feeling good about the 2013 season as the Mean Green’s players report today.
“We have a chance to be much improved this year,” McCarney said. “Going into the season, we have guys at every position who have at least played. That helps.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
KEY QUESTIONS FOR FALL PRACTICE
The following is a look at some of the key questions North Texas faces as it begins fall practice Monday:
Can UNT’s offense improve?
UNT averaged just 20.9 points per game last season. That total was partly due to injuries to several key players, including wide receiver Brelan Chancellor and running back Antoinne Jimmerson, but the Mean Green must improve to compete in Conference USA.
Will Derek Thompson break out?
Head coach Dan McCarney has said the competition for the starting quarterback job is open heading into the fall, but Thompson appears to be the odds-on favorite to start. Can he improve on a 14-touchdown, 14-interception performance a year ago?
Are UNT’s transfers difference makers?
UNT is betting heavily on a series of transfers to come through this year, including running back Reggie Pegram (Purdue), wide receiver Darius Terrell (Texas) and tight end Chris Loving (Blinn College). UNT will need those players and a host of others to contribute.
Will new playmakers emerge on defense?
UNT finished with 11 interceptions and 19 sacks last season but lost one of its biggest playmakers in defensive end K.C. Obi. Zach Orr has made a host of big plays. Safety Marcus Trice, cornerback Zac Whitfield and linebacker Derek Akunne also have made their share of critical plays. UNT needs each member of that trio to continue to improve and also needs new playmakers to emerge.
What happens at wide receiver?
UNT has one potentially elite player in C-USA in Chancellor, a slot receiver with speed and quickness. Former walk-on Darnell Smith and Carlos Harris both contributed last season. UNT needs both to continue to improve and for Terrell to give the Mean Green an outside threat.
Is UNT’s defense on the right track?
UNT gave up at least 37 points in three of its last five games and cracked late in a 25-24 season-ending loss to Western Kentucky. The Mean Green gave up two late scores after Jonathan Dowling returned an interception for a touchdown to spark the Hilltopper rally.
— Brett Vito