North Texas was still days away from capping a dream season with a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day when coach Dan McCarney started answering the question that suddenly has become a pressing topic for the Mean Green:
UNT rolled to a nine-win season and just its third bowl win behind a loaded senior class with 22 key players, including quarterback Derek Thompson and linebacker Zach Orr.
That leaves the Mean Green with plenty of holes to fill and questions to address heading into the offseason.
McCarney said before the Mean Green’s 36-14 win over the Rebels that he felt good about UNT’s ability to address those questions because of the foundation UNT has established.
“If you built it the right way and have a foundation with everyone understanding what the expectations are — don’t accept losing, do it the right way, make this program and your family proud with the way you carry yourself — then no matter who you lose or how many players graduate you still have a chance to have success,” McCarney said.
UNT has not posted back-to-back winning seasons since its four-year run as Sun Belt Conference champion from 2001-04. UNT will have a chance to break through and snap that streak next season, its second in Conference USA.
UNT (9-4) finished in a tie for second place in C-USA’s West Division with Texas-San Antonio this season at 6-2, just one game behind Rice.
The Mean Green beat the Owls at home to become bowl-eligible in one of its biggest victories of the season and won seven of its last eight games.
“The sky’s the limit,” McCarney said when asked where he could take the program. “That is one of the reasons I took this job.”
So what are the challenges UNT faces heading into the offseason? The following is where UNT will start:
Who’s UNT’s quarterback going forward?
Thompson endured his share of criticism and experienced ups and downs over three years as UNT’s starter, but came through in a big way as a senior.
Thompson threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns in Heart of Dallas Bowl while taking more than a few vicious hits.
Backup Andrew McNulty and freshman Dajon Williams combined to throw 12 passes in relief of Thompson all season.
Williams is highly regarded but played in just two games and missed practice time due to injuries. That lack of experience makes naming him the starter a risk.
UNT also has Kansas transfer Brock Berglund on the roster and added JUCO transfer Josh Greer and freshman Connor Means to the mix at the Christmas break.
UNT’s coaches will have to quickly whittle the possibilities to a manageable number of players who will see meaningful snaps in spring practice.
Who fills leadership void?
UNT depended heavily on its senior class, not only from a production standpoint but also a leadership perspective.
Orr was a three-time team captain and one of several players who provided a stabilizing influence for UNT, including Thompson and safety Marcus Trice.
“They did a great job,” sophomore cornerback Kenny Buyers said of UNT’s seniors in the days leading up to the bowl game. “Trice and Orr have been good leaders. The rest of the team has taken their mindset.”
UNT will have to find players to fill the leadership void those players left.
Offensive lineman Mason Y’Barbo and linebacker Derek Akunne are among a few veteran players who could step into larger leadership roles.
Can UNT reload on its defensive front?
The Mean Green’s defensive line was one of its biggest concerns heading into the 2013 season.
Four seniors met the challenge of addressing those concerns and made UNT’s defensive front a strength. UNT allowed just 120.5 rushing yards per game.
UNT now faces the challenge of trying to replace defensive ends Aaron Bellazin and Brandon McCoy, not to mention tackles Richard Abbe and Ryan Boutwell. Those four players combined to post 19 sacks and 25 tackles for loss while combining to make all but five of a possible 52 starts at the four defensive line spots this season.
Defensive end Daryl Mason started four games, including the bowl, and is UNT’s only returning defensive lineman with more than one start this season.
While UNT’s defensive front is the main concern, the departure of Orr and fellow senior linebacker Will Wright leaves UNT with just one returning starter in its defensive front seven — Akunne.
Who will be UNT’s playmakers on offense?
UNT relied heavily on former high school teammates Brelan Chancellor and Brandin Byrd, not to mention fellow senior Darnell Smith, to power its offense.
Byrd rushed for 1,075 yards, while Chancellor finished with 792 receiving yards and Smith 791 receiving yards.
Add Chancellor’s 123 rushing yards and Byrd’s 46 receiving yards, and the trio accounted for 2,827 yards — more than half of UNT’s total offensive output on the season.
UNT has some key players returning, including running back Antoinne Jimmerson and slot receiver Carlos Harris, but there is little doubt UNT will be looking for a new batch of playmakers to emerge this spring.
Can Mean Green close the deal in recruiting?
UNT has a solid batch of recruits slated to sign in February, including a few prospects who could make an immediate impact.
Wide receivers Tee Goree of Carthage and Fozale Davis of Dallas South Oak Cliff could play right away.
The question now is whether UNT will be able to hang on to the players it has committed and close out its class in the next few weeks by adding a final piece — likely a high school defensive lineman.
UNT has never had so much to sell, from a great home in Apogee Stadium and a spot in C-USA to the momentum it established in a breakout season.
Capitalizing on that momentum by signing a good recruiting class is just one of a few key tasks and questions UNT will look to address in the coming weeks.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.