Daryl Mason has been down this road before during his time at North Texas. He’s heard the questions and acknowledges the doubts many have about the Mean Green’s defensive line heading into the 2014 season.
The senior defensive end heard from people who had the same feelings last year, when the Mean Green faced similar questions about losing key seniors and rebuilding with unproven players.
UNT wildly exceeded expectations a year ago, when the Mean Green’s defensive front was arguably the biggest surprise during a run to the Heart of Dallas Bowl and a 9-4 finish.
Mason expects nothing less than that same type of success this year.
“It’s the same thing as last year,” Mason said. “We lost four starters. Everyone thinks we are going to be the weak link. We are going to have to show people again that we are going to be the leaders of the defense.
“I like being the underdog.”
One can make a case that is just what UNT’s defensive line is heading into the heart of spring practice.
UNT lost starting defensive ends Brandon McCoy and Aaron Bellazin and starting tackles Ryan Boutwell and Richard Abbe, who finished off their final year of eligibility last season.
The quartet combined to start 90 games in their careers.
To make matters even more interesting, veteran defensive line coach Mike Nelson retired after leading UNT’s front during a season in which it exceeded expectations. Abbe was briefly dismissed from the team last summer, which added to the concerns UNT had after Boutwell and McCoy missed spring practice with injuries.
UNT’s core of four starters came back to be at their best in 2013, when they combined for 107 tackles, including 25 behind the line of scrimmage, and 19 sacks.
Bellazin was a second-team All-Conference USA selection, while Abbe received honorable mention.
UNT head coach Dan McCarney brought in former South Florida assistant Kevin Patrick to oversee a major rebuilding project this spring. How Patrick and a few veteran players like Mason fare in rebuilding UNT’s first line of defense will go a long way toward determining whether the Mean Green can build on its breakout season.
“As a coach, a player and a defensive lineman, you like challenges,” Patrick said. “It makes you grit your teeth and get after it. I am excited about it.”
Patrick is just starting to get a feel for the abilities of the players he has returning, including a few with some experience.
Mason made the sixth start of his career in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, while defensive tackle Alexander Lincoln has made seven starts. Add in the one start Chad Polk made at defensive end last season and UNT has three players with 14 starts — less than half of what McCoy (29) and Boutwell (30) had at the end of their time at UNT.
Patrick said that he likes the leadership traits Mason and Lincoln have shown and the potential of Polk and fellow defensive end Jarrian Roberts.
All of those players are going though the process of adapting to a new coach in Patrick and his approach after the departure of Nelson, who was on UNT’s staff for five years.
“The guys have welcomed me with open arms and are working their tails off,” Patrick said. “I can’t complain. They have made it easy on me and are a great group of guys. I am excited about it.”
UNT’s new-look defensive line will change in terms of players and strengths.
Abbe, who was listed at 320 pounds, provided UNT an anchor in the middle of its front. Bellazin and McCoy were listed at 265 and 257 pounds, respectively.
UNT has just one defensive lineman listed at more than 275 pounds in backup tackle Sir Calvin Wallace, who checks in at 293 pounds.
Mason and backup defensive end Malik Dilonga, who are listed at 253 and 251 pounds, respectively, are UNT’s only defensive ends listed at 240 or heavier.
UNT will rely less on size next season and more on speed and quickness.
“Overall we will be a lot quicker than we were in the past, but it’s going to be hard to measure up to that group that just left,” Patrick said.
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Sid Moore could be a big part of that plan to make the move to a smaller, quicker front.
Moore, who is listed at 6-1 and 252 pounds, made an impression throughout his redshirt freshman season in the fall and in the early stages of spring practice.
“Moore has been impressive the first few practices,” McCarney said. “We have a long way to go and so does he, but he is one of the most improved guys on our defense as far as size and conditioning, commitment, dedication and trying to do things right in the classroom and on the field.”
The way Moore has matured has put him in position to contend for playing time.
“He has talent,” McCarney said. “I noticed him in the winter and in the first three practices of spring. He has been trying to lead that unit as a redshirt freshman. That tells you something about him.”
Patrick called Moore one of the quickest defensive tackles he has seen in recent years.
That assessment is impressive considering Patrick spent eight seasons in two stints at USF, where he developed Jason Pierre-Paul, a first-round NFL draft pick, and George Selvie, who is with the Cowboys.
Moore is in a group of younger players whom UNT is hoping to develop to the point that they are ready to contribute when it opens the season at Texas.
“We have a lot of gray-area guys who we need to take it to the next level,” McCarney said. “We want to get back to having a rotation. We would like to get eight or nine ready for Texas instead of having four and getting pummeled in the fourth quarter like has happened here for so long.”
UNT’s defensive line has a long way to go before being ready to take on the Longhorns, but it believes it is making progress while adapting to a new coach.
“Coach is pushing us hard,” Mason said. “We are doing a lot of things we haven’t done before. We do more drills than we used to do with coach Nelly. We are working on using our hands and moving our feet. We are a lot better than when we started.”
UNT’s hope is that by the time it travels to Austin, Patrick will have the Mean Green’s line ready to exceed expectations that Mason and his teammates know are low now, just like they were a year ago.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.