North Texas was in the midst of a breakout season when Dan McCarney stopped to talk about the impact the Mean Green’s success would make down the line.
UNT’s head coach knew interest among fans and boosters would jump immediately after the Mean Green’s first winning season since 2004, one it capped with a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
What the Mean Green would have to wait a little longer for was the all-important boost that would come on the recruiting front.
UNT fought for years to overcome a losing stigma that surrounded the program. The Mean Green’s 36-14 victory over the Rebels — just the third bowl win in school history — helped in that regard.
Unfortunately for UNT, that victory on New Year’s Day came too late for any real impact to be felt by signing day a few weeks later.
McCarney said the months leading up to signing day in 2015 would be when UNT could capitalize and improve its talent level.
That process will reach a critical point beginning today when UNT conducts the first in a series of 11 summer camps at Apogee Stadium.
The school has conducted summer camps for years but never has entered that key stretch in recruiting coming off a bowl win.
“There are 12 Division I [Football Bowl Subdivision] schools in the state of Texas, and everyone else in the country gets on planes and can get to DFW or Houston pretty easily,” McCarney said. “The world recruits the state of Texas. We have to give kids a reason to want to come to North Texas.”
UNT has been working toward that goal for years.
The addition of Apogee Stadium in 2011 helped. So did the Mean Green’s move to Conference USA from the Sun Belt last year.
The only question now is whether adding that elusive winning season and a bowl victory will have the impact UNT hopes in what could be a wild 241 days leading up to national signing day on Feb. 4.
UNT enters that period with just one player committed in Tyler John Tyler wide receiver Rodney Bendy and a host of questions to answer outside of what impact its breakout year will have on recruiting efforts.
The Mean Green has a new recruiting coordinator in Mike Grant and lost two of its key recruiting assistants after its bowl win when Noah Joseph — UNT’s former recruiting coordinator — and Ryan Walters left for Indiana and Memphis, respectively.
How UNT fares with a new lineup of assistants and a success story to sell over the next few months could go a long way toward determining whether its bowl win becomes an aberration or the norm for the program as its enters its fourth season under McCarney.
While UNT has just one player committed thus far, there are signs Grant has helped put the Mean Green in a good position.
Guyer coach John Walsh has a unique perspective when it comes to the perception of UNT’s program and can see the difference the bowl win has made already.
Walsh led Guyer to a second straight Class 4A Division I state title last season and oversees a program that is a treasure trove of talent — one located right across town from UNT, which is trying to establish a pipeline to the school.
UNT signed Guyer safety John Schilleci and saw him contribute on special teams as a freshman last season. This year, UNT is after Wildcats defensive lineman Carl Thompson and is in frequent contact with Walsh.
“The combination of the Heart of Dallas victory and the way coach Mac has been selling the program around town has made an impact on Guyer kids,” Walsh said. “It used to be my guys weren’t even entertaining North Texas. Now they’re asking, ‘Hey, is North Texas interested in me?’”
Selling the turnaround tale
Argyle offensive lineman Matt Hiter is among the Denton-area players UNT is pursuing and is a perfect example of the type of prospect the school is hoping to win over.
Hiter was a first-team All-District 10-3A selection as a junior and plays for a power program. Argyle is another school where UNT would like to establish a connection.
The Eagles won the Class 3A Division II state title last season and have sent players who grew up in UNT’s backyard to play for Arkansas, Texas Tech and Kansas State, among others, in the last few years. Picking off a few mid-major prospects from the school and other power programs in the area, including Guyer and Ryan, could dramatically change UNT’s talent level.
Hiter is just that type of player. His opinion of UNT changed dramatically following the bowl win.
“It made an impression that they went to a bowl,” Hiter said. “It caught our attention in Argyle. It’s awesome because they are so close to us.”
Hiter attended UNT’s junior day camp and swung by to watch the Mean Green’s spring game.
Arizona State, TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas State are among the other schools that are showing interest in Hiter, who Argyle coach Todd Rodgers says is the type of prospect that could make an impact for UNT.
“Matt’s a big, physical kid who is very young for his grade,” Rodgers said. “He will blossom into a large human being and has been a very good player for us. He has gained a lot of strength and has great explosion and length. All the attributes are there.”
Hiter is among dozens of prospects who have stopped by UNT over the last few months, either to see the Mean Green work out or to tour the campus.
Landing a class featuring the best of those players is a critical part of UNT’s plan to build on its bowl win. UNT’s 2014 senior class featured some of the best players in recent school history, including wide receiver Brelan Chancellor, linebacker Zach Orr and quarterback Derek Thompson.
Chancellor finished with a school-record 5,503 all-purpose yards in his career and was C-USA’s special teams player of the year. Orr, a first-team All-C-USA selection, recorded 365 career tackles, a total that tied him for third in school history with Brad Kassell, a member of the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame.
Thompson ranks second in school history with 7,447 career passing yards and was the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl. UNT also lost safety Marcus Trice, a first-team All-C-USA pick.
UNT has just nine starters returning.
The players UNT signs in February won’t help next season, but they will be a part of the Mean Green’s long-term future.
Hiter is just one of the players UNT is trying to convince that its bowl win is a sign of what is to come for the Mean Green.
Riley Daniel is pondering UNT’s pitch. The offensive lineman from Ringling, Okla., has scholarship offers from UNT and Tulsa, a successful program that was one of the Mean Green’s C-USA rivals last season before moving to the American Athletic Conference.
While he has yet to decide where he will play in college, Daniel has been impressed with what UNT’s coaches are telling him.
“They won a bowl game and have a lot of good things going on there,” Daniel said. “That win showed it.”
Sealing the deal on the road
The question for UNT now is whether McCarney and his staff can seal the deal and sign several key prospects like Hiter and Daniel.
The pressure will be on UNT’s assistants, and particularly Grant, to produce.
The former Nebraska quarterback has a background in recruiting beginning with his first stint in coaching as an assistant to the recruiting coordinator at his alma mater. Grant had wanted a chance to head up a school’s recruiting efforts ever since.
“I learned a lot that year on a much bigger level because Nebraska recruits nationwide,” Grant said shortly after taking over for Joseph. “I felt like an armchair quarterback here. Now I get a chance to ask the questions and develop the plan.”
McCarney cited Grant’s organizational skills as a reason he decided to give him that opportunity this spring as Grant prepares for his fourth season at UNT.
Grant describes himself a technology junkie and has tried to make better use of social media outlets like Twitter.
The players UNT is recruiting and their coaches have noticed the emphasis Grant and his fellow coaches have made in terms of improving the impression they make, both in person and through social media.
Rodgers said UNT offensive line coach Mike Simmonds is in the Argyle fieldhouse as much as NCAA rules permit and that his players see and hear more about UNT on Twitter and Facebook than they have in the past.
McCarney opened a Twitter account in March.
“The repetitiveness is distinctly different,” Rodgers said.
What will help UNT even more than repetition is the story it has to sell the players it is pursuing.
The process started the day after the Mean Green knocked off UNLV and will take on a new sense of urgency beginning today.
UNT has a bowl win to sell. The key now is continuing to build on its opportunity to do just that in the days leading up to national signing day.
“It only works if the coaches are bringing a bowl win up to players” said Damon Sayles, ESPN’s Big 12 recruiting analyst who has covered recruiting in Texas and the Southwest for three years. “Coaches are a lot like salesmen. They have to sell their product to the consumer. Kids know that North Texas did well last year. The bottom line is that they are going to have to sell themselves. They know that. They had a good 2014 class. Now they are trying to make the 2015 class something they can be proud of as well.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.