Andrew McNulty settled in under center on his second series during North Texas’ first major scrimmage of spring practice on Saturday and slowly drove the Mean Green down the field.
The junior managed the offense, fed his running backs the ball and watched as Antoinne Jimmerson dove into the end zone at the end of a 14-play drive.
The drive was just what coach Dan McCarney and offensive coordinator Mike Canales wanted to see from their quarterbacks and particularly McNulty, who perhaps is under more pressure than anyone else as the Mean Green prepares for the 2014 season.
The Iowa native is locked in a three-way battle for the starting job entering his junior season at UNT and his fourth year at the school. The other two players in the hunt are sophomore Josh Greer and redshirt freshman Dajon Williams.
Simple math indicates that this spring could be McNulty’s best — and perhaps last — chance to grab the starting job with the Mean Green.
McNulty is well aware of that reality. He just isn’t thinking a whole lot about it.
“I am not concerned with this being my junior year,” McNulty said. “I know right now we are all competing for the job. I am going to do the best I can, keep my head in the playbook, watch film, do my job on the practice field and not worry about it.”
McNulty is focusing on his opportunity to take over for Derek Thompson, one of the most productive players in program history who also happens to be a close friend. Thompson finished his career as the second-leading passer in UNT history and was named the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl after leading the Mean Green past UNLV in his final game.
UNT’s search for a replacement has been arguably the biggest story of the spring.
“They all want to lead and win,” McCarney said of his quarterbacks. “They don’t want to stand around and signal. They want to play. I like them all. They all bring some strengths to the offense. I could see this going on for quite a while before we name a starter. If these guys remain healthy, it could go into August.”
McCarney and Canales said McNulty has responded well to the challenge.
“This is his chance,” Canales said. “He has been waiting in the wings. I told him the other day that he needs to do something. He has to earn the spot. He drove us down and scored on one of our first drives and moved the unit. That is what we want to see.”
McNulty put himself in an unusual situation when he signed with UNT out of Iowa City High School. McCarney played with McNulty’s father, Jim, at Iowa.
“I have known Andy since he was a baby,” McCarney said. “Does that affect anything on the depth chart? Absolutely not. Whoever is the most consistent, productive and tough, leads, moves the chains and doesn’t turn it over is going to play.”
UNT has yet to see one player emerge and claim the role. Canales said that all three of the contenders have seemingly moved into position to claim the job at different points of spring practice, but none has been able to string together enough solid practices to consistently stay at the top of the depth chart.
McNulty has by far the most experience. He scored the first touchdown in the history of Apogee Stadium and made one start when Thompson was hurt during his freshman year in 2011.
McNulty spent the 2012 season as a redshirt due to injury and played in eight games as Thompson’s backup last season.
That experience gives McNulty the experience and familiarity with UNT’s offense that are perhaps his biggest assets in the quarterback competition.
“I’m playing the best I have,” McNulty said. “I know the offense. That really helps me carry my game over. I know the reads and when to make the right throws. That helps me tremendously.”
McNulty also is well aware of the style of offense UNT likes to play. The Mean Green has emphasized a ball-control system and a power running game under McCarney.
“Our team goal is to not turn the ball over, score in the red zone and be efficient on third down,” McNulty said. “The big thing is to be smart with the ball. Don’t make dumb plays and execute. If we do that, hopefully we will win some games.”
UNT says McNulty can put the Mean Green in that position next season if he ends up winning the job.
“McNulty doesn’t have a super strong arm, but he has great respect and credibility from everyone in the program,” McCarney said. “He has a lot of intangibles from a leadership standpoint and a lot of toughness that you like to have at the quarterback position. He’s not great at any one thing, but he is good at a lot of things. He is active and can get out of the pocket. He’s not a sensational athlete, but he is a winner.”
Those traits have put McNulty in position to compete for the starting job this spring in what might be his final opportunity.
“There is a trust factor with McNulty among the players,” Canales said. “They know that he knows the system, will get us into good situations and not put us in bad spots. He is not bedazzling, but he is consistent. There is not that flash. He just does his job.”
Brown tears ACL again, leaving status in doubt
Quenton Brown has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second straight spring, McCarney confirmed after the scrimmage.
The former Eastern Arizona College standout transferred to UNT at the Christmas break a year ago and was expected to be a major contributor, but he tore his ACL in the first scrimmage of spring practice.
Brown rehabilitated that injury and came back to play in three games late in the 2013 season and finished with two tackles.
“He has been having issues with it off and on,” McCarney said. “He is going to have to have surgery again. We don’t know if he can get back. He wants to give it a shot.”
UNT defensive back Freddie Warner recovered from two ACL tears and is competing for a starting job at safety in spring practice.
“He understands the rehab and the commitment,” McCarney said of Brown. “Can he do what Freddie Warner has done? I sure hope so and believe he can.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.