There have been times this spring when North Texas coach Dan McCarney has had to stop and remind himself of just how long former Guyer standout John Schilleci has spent with the Mean Green.
The official tally is less than a year.
The time that has passed just seems a lot longer considering all that Schilleci has been through in only a few months with the Mean Green.
Schilleci earned a role as a special teams player almost immediately in the fall and has played at cornerback and safety this spring. That would be a lot for any freshman to handle.
The way Schilleci has tackled those challenges and a run of injuries in the Mean Green’s secondary has given him the chance to see time with UNT’s first-team defense the last few weeks.
That opportunity is one Schilleci will look to capitalize on during the Mean Green’s spring game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
“It opened up the door for me to play quite a bit, but it’s also sad,” Schilleci said of the injuries that have ravaged UNT’s secondary. “Those are all really good guys. They’re going to be back. In a way, them being out has helped me because I have gotten reps and learned the defense.”
There are few players on UNT’s roster who have been asked to learn more in a short time this spring than Schilleci. UNT moved Schilleci from safety to cornerback at the beginning of spring practice due to a series of injuries at that position, including James Jones, who is out for the spring following intestinal surgery.
UNT turned around and moved Schilleci back after a run of injuries at safety, including starting strong safety Lairamie Lee.
UNT has projected Schilleci as a safety since the Mean Green signed him out of Guyer and has been pleased with his progress.
“He’s been up and down, good and bad,” McCarney said. “It’s easy to say, ‘John, here’s what you need to do and you’re not doing it good enough.’ He’s still a freshman. I have to remind myself of that sometimes. He did play for us last year, help us win and lettered. My expectations for those young guys might be a little higher than they have for themselves sometimes. He is going to have a really good career and is back at home where he needs to be at safety.”
While Schilleci is back at what UNT feels is his natural position at the college level, the time he spent at cornerback this spring was far from a waste.
“Playing corner has helped me with the transition to safety because footwork is a big deal,” Schilleci said. “I feel more fluid, and I’m starting to learn the plays.”
Lee has helped Schilleci with that process this spring. The two often talk when Schilleci comes off the field.
“Lairamie Lee has been coaching me up a ton since I have been working with the first team,” Schilleci said. “He has taken me under his wing this last week.”
Lee and Marcus Trice started at safety for UNT last season, when Trice earned first-team All-Conference USA honors as a senior. Their presence left few opportunities for Schilleci to play on UNT’s defense.
UNT could have redshirted Schilleci but found a home for him on its special teams units instead.
“Playing last year got me used to the college game atmosphere,” Schilleci said. “It helped me get the jitters out. I will be used to it when I get a chance to play on defense.”
UNT’s players and coaches can see that experience paying off already for a player who came to the school with an impressive background. Schilleci started for Guyer and earned first-team all-district honors when the Wildcats won the 2012 state title.
That experience helped Schilleci contribute immediately on special teams in his freshman season at UNT. That experience has in turn helped prepare him to contribute this spring at two secondary positions.
“Schilleci has come a long way both as a boundary corner and as a safety,” cornerback Zac Whitfield said. “He has played both positions and has a lot of potential to help us out on defense.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.