Back when North Texas coach Dan McCarney and trusted assistant John Skladany teamed up to resurrect the program at Iowa State in the late 1990s, putting a player like Chad Polk at defensive end likely would have never been an option.
The Cyclones play in the Big 12, where big running backs and even bigger offensive linemen were plodding their way to prominence.
Texas running back Ricky Williams rushed for 1,893 yards in 1997, when five players in the Big 12 rushed for at least 1,000 yards. There wasn’t a single receiver in the conference who managed 900 yards that year.
Times have changed with the rise of spread offenses and given players like Polk, a defensive end who is listed at 6 feet tall and just now has pushed his weight to 235 pounds, a chance to contribute.
More and more, it looks like that is exactly what Polk will do this season after making the transition from linebacker and carving out a role with UNT’s defensive ends this fall.
“It’s going wonderfully,” Polk said. “Playing defensive end is natural now. I played it in high school. They moved me down to help the team out. That is what I’m all about. I’m just trying to help the team.”
McCarney said Tuesday that Polk won’t be a starter but will have a role due to his quickness and tenacity.
UNT has settled on a rotation of players at defensive end that likely will include Aaron Bellazin, Jerrian Roberts, Brandon McCoy, Daryl Mason and Polk.
Each offers different strengths, from McCoy’s muscle to Bellazin’s ability as a pass rusher.
What Polk lacks in size, he hopes to make up for in other ways. Polk has packed on the pounds over the last few months but has maintained his speed and quickness.
UNT’s coaches say that Polk uses his hands well and is relentless — traits that have helped other undersized defensive linemen on the team, including tackle Ryan Boutwell, succeed on the college level.
“In spread football, you need speed and athleticism on the edge,” Skladany said. “The ends have to not only do a good job on the pass rush, they also have to cover the zone-read plays and quarterback option. The more athletic you can be and the better athletes you have out there, the better off you are.”
Polk knows that is what UNT’s coaches were thinking when they moved him to defensive end from outside linebacker, where he never carved out a role.
“I am undersized, so I have to be fast and use my hands,” Polk said. “I have to be effective in the pass rush. That is what they moved me to defensive end for.”
The position is one Polk and UNT’s coaches hope he grows into. Part of the process is growing physically.
UNT can provide its players three meals a day, plus a snack once fall practice begins. The Mean Green’s staff is making sure Polk takes advantage of that opportunity.
“Every time you turn around, Frank Wintrich is standing behind him making sure he is eating, drinking and taking care of himself,” McCarney said of UNT’s strength coach.
Despite those efforts, Polk is still undersized and motivated to prove that won’t prevent him from becoming an impact player this season.
“When I was playing in high school, everyone told me I am too small,” Polk said. “It put a big chip on my shoulder. I told myself that even though I am smaller I can go out and work harder.”
Thompson with first team
Quarterback Derek Thompson is taking the snaps with the first-team offense this week after a solid performance Saturday in UNT’s second scrimmage of fall practice.
McCarney said that freshman Dajon Williams is still in the mix for the starting job but that he, Andrew McNulty and Brock Berglund are all rotating with the second team.
“We are trying to sift through it and see who our best second, third and fourth quarterbacks are,” McCarney said. “Thompson has to keep coming on, which he has. He is having a good third week of camp.”
Thompson has started in each of the last two seasons and thrown for 4,551 yards with 26 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in his career.
Freshmen in line to play
Several freshmen are in position to play this season after solid showings in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Fred Scott is working with UNT’s second team at middle linebacker, while former Guyer standout John Schilleci also has carved out a role with the Mean Green.
“Schilleci is starting on two and maybe three special teams because of his athleticism and toughness,” McCarney said. “He may not play a lot at safety, but he will play.”
Wide receiver Darvin Kidsy also has worked his way into the mix for playing time.
“There is a really good chance he will play this year because of his emergence in the last week of practice and the scrimmage on Saturday,” McCarney said. “We have not made a final decision yet, but we are leaning toward that. He has had a good camp.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.