North Texas began spring practice over most of the last decade trying to find its way out of an extended funk.
That all changed Tuesday, when UNT found itself facing a new challenge — building on a breakout season years in the making.
The Mean Green worked out for the first time this spring on Tuesday afternoon, the initial step in preparing for a season that offers UNT an opportunity to prove that it is more than a one-hit wonder.
UNT snapped an eight-year bowl drought last season, when the Mean Green finished 9-4 and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“The challenge ahead is this: Are we a real program, which means no matter who you lose or who gets injured or who graduates, the next group comes in and replaces them,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “Or do we just disappear off the college football landscape for another 10 years before we can have success again? We want to keep the edge and be really successful and have a program that people can be proud of.”
UNT will begin to find out over the next few weeks if it has what it needs to reach that goal, both from talent and continuity standpoints.
The Mean Green returns just nine starters and must replace several key players, including quarterback Derek Thompson, running back Brandin Byrd and wide receivers Brelan Chancellor and Darnell Smith on offense and linebacker Zach Orr and safety Marcus Trice on defense.
UNT’s coaches will know a lot more about the players who will fill those spots over the next few weeks leading up to the Mean Green’s spring game April 12.
UNT’s staff likes what it has seen so far from several young players and a few veterans who have waited for their turn to move into more prominent roles.
“I feel good about our talent,” defensive coordinator John Skladany said. “The last couple of weeks when we have been on the field for agility drills and running, we could see that the strength staff has done a good job getting the players bigger, faster and stronger. They are moving well.”
Skladany will have a defensive line with four new starters in the fall, not to mention a new middle linebacker after the departure of Orr, a team captain and the anchor of UNT’s defense.
UNT will look for Oregon transfer Anthony Wallace or Fred Scott to emerge and win the middle linebacker job in spring practice. Skladany is counting on a host of players to emerge and fill out a rotation along the defensive front.
McCarney named redshirt freshman defensive lineman Sid Moore as one of UNT’s potential breakout players.
UNT will have just as big of a challenge on the offensive side of the ball without Thompson, a three-year starter, not to mention Chancellor, one of the best all-around threats the Mean Green has featured in years.
Chancellor finished his career with a school-record 5,503 all-purpose yards.
“The kids are hungry. They really are,” offensive coordinator Mike Canales said. “That’s what has been fun about it — playing with the new toys that are out there.”
Skladany will have a whole host of new position coaches to adjust to as well as several new players. UNT defensive line coach Mike Nelson retired after last season, while safeties coach Noah Joseph and cornerbacks coach Ryan Walters left for Indiana and Memphis, respectively.
UNT brought in former South Florida assistant Kevin Patrick to coach its defensive line. Former Houston Texans assistant Perry Carter and Concordia (Mich.) assistant LaMarcus Hicks took over as UNT’s safeties coach and cornerbacks coach, respectively.
“It’s never easy as a head coach because you have to deal with transition, but we have some great guys who are coming in here,” McCarney said.
McCarney will be there to provide stability during the transition. UNT officials and McCarney have been working to finalize a five-year contract extension that school officials said should be in place in the next few days.
“I appreciate [UNT athletic director] Rick Villarreal and [UNT president] Neal Smatresk,” McCarney said. “What they did in putting a contract in place was show appreciation for changing the culture of this place and how we do it on the field and in the classroom. I appreciate the opportunity to stay here. I’m not looking to leave. I love this place, as do my coaches.”
McCarney says he has not only the coaches but also the culture in place to help UNT continue its rise as the Mean Green begins preparations for the fourth season of his tenure.
“These guys know what we expect, and there have been rewards for their efforts,” McCarney said. “They have seen what can happen if you believe, defy the odds, don’t worry about outside expectations and only worry about what happens on the inside. There is a tradition now of winning.”
The challenge now for UNT is building on that tradition.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.