In the heat of the summer, when the temperature soared into triple digits and times were at their toughest during workouts, Aaron Bellazin kept reminding his fellow North Texas defensive linemen about the perception of how they would impact the Mean Green’s season.
UNT had a veteran quarterback in Derek Thompson, a stable of good running backs, a veteran offensive line and potentially one of the best linebackers in Conference USA in Zach Orr.
What it didn’t have was a lot of certainty on its defensive front.
Defensive end Brandon McCoy and defensive tackle Ryan Boutwell missed spring practice with injuries, while Richard Abbe, the anchor of UNT’s defensive front, was suspended most of the summer after he was charged with DWI.
Those players were part of a unit that lost its best player in end K.C. Obi to graduation following last season, when the Mean Green’s line was considered average at best.
“During summer workouts I reminded the guys that people said we were the weakest link,” said Bellazin, the fourth starter on UNT’s line. “I wanted them to think about that while we were working out to make them train harder.
“That was an extra boost for everyone.”
The payoff for that extra effort is coming quickly now for UNT, which had the weekend off after beating UTEP on Nov. 9 to improve to 7-3.
The Mean Green posted eight sacks in its win over the Miners, tying the school record set in a win over Texas in 2002. UNT’s defensive linemen were in on seven of those sacks, including one in which Bellazin and Orr teamed up to drag down UTEP quarterback Mack Leftwich.
That performance came on the heels of a 28-16 win over Rice in which the defensive line played a key role in an epic goal-line stand. The Owls ran eight plays inside of UNT’s 6-yard line, thanks to a holding call in the end zone on fourth down, but never cracked the goal line.
UNT’s defensive line played a key role in that stand, forming what seemed like an impenetrable wall right in front of the end zone. McCoy cut down quarterback Taylor McHargue at the goal line on the second play of the series and the defensive front occupied Rice’s line the rest of the way. The Mean Green’s linebackers and defensive backs were able to make play after play in the series because the line didn’t bend, let alone break.
“The whole defense played really well,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said after the UTEP game. “It started up front.”
The impact of UNT’s defensive line is becoming more and more apparent each week.
Bellazin headed into the weekend leading C-USA in sacks with 7.5 and ranked third in tackles for loss with 11.
UNT ranked second in the league in rushing defense with an average of 119.5 yards allowed a game and led the conference in scoring defense at 18.6 points allowed a game before Saturday’s games.
Orr and safety Marcus Trice have been the headline players for UNT’s defense throughout the season and have often overshadowed the play of their teammates up front.
“The defensive line is the most overlooked unit on our team,” Orr said. “They are a big reason we are having success defensively. They are getting pressure on the quarterback and holding up against the run. The game they had with the eight sacks just shows the hard work they have put in throughout the off-season and shows what kind of unit they are.”
The group might be the most colorful on the team in addition to being among the most productive.
McCoy, 28, is a former member of the U.S. Army; Abbe is a West Texas native who can normally be found wearing a Cowboy hat; Bellazin is a slightly undersized end at 6-foot-2; and tackle Ryan Boutwell somehow finds a way to hold up in the middle at 248 pounds.
Bellazin said each player in the line has a different strength. The way those players complement each other has made the Mean Green effective.
Being overlooked at times has also served as motivation.
UNT didn’t have a defensive lineman named to the preseason all-conference team, although it could have one on the postseason team if Bellazin continues to thrive.
“That is what drives me [being overlooked],” Bellazin said. “I play with a chip on my shoulder every Saturday. I feel like I have a lot to prove. That is why I go out there and play the way I do. I don’t know why everyone overlooks me. I wish I knew. That is what makes me strive to play hard every weekend, to show that I can play.”
UNT’s entire defensive line has found similar motivation since this summer when the group felt like it was underestimated.
“We took it personally,” Abbe said. “Anything you hear negatively you try to turn it into positive energy for the team. We used that to put a chip on our shoulder. We always thought we are better than what people thought. Last year we thought we were better than what we showed. This year we are actually showing it.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.