When North Texas packed up and ventured down the road for its first appearance at Conference USA media day a year ago, it did so knowing that it would be something of an afterthought in its first season in the league.
To say that this season will mark a dramatic change might be something of an understatement.
When coach Dan McCarney, offensive lineman Cyril Lemon and linebacker Derek Akunne arrive at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Marriott, 8440 Freeport Parkway in Irving, for today’s unofficial season kickoff, they will be representing one of the league’s headline programs that arguably will be one of the main media day storylines.
UNT entered the 2013 season riding a string of eight consecutive losing seasons. A breakout 9-4 campaign that included a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl has elevated the Mean Green’s profile locally, nationally and in the league, at least if one judges by the preseason coaches poll.
UNT was picked to win C-USA’s West Division last week in the poll and had two players named to the preseason all-conference team in Lemon and fellow guard Mason Y’Barbo.
All one had to do to see how big a change that type of preseason respect represents is look back a year. UNT was picked to finish fifth out of seven teams in the West and didn’t have a player named to the preseason all-conference team.
The question now is how UNT will handle the pressure, which is sure to be a topic of conversation today when the Mean Green will reach one of the last offseason milestones before opening practice Aug. 5.
“Media day is an indication that the season is getting here,” McCarney said. “I say it every year. I’m honored to be one of only 128 Division I [FBS] head coaches. The best part is getting out there on Aug. 5, being with your guys and starting to build this football team.”
That process started in the spring but is far from complete. UNT still has plenty of questions to answer about its team:
Who starts at quarterback?
UNT faces no bigger question heading into the season than who will replace quarterback Derek Thompson.
The three-year starter threw for 7,447 yards and was named the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Career backup Andrew McNulty and JUCO transfer Josh Greer came out of spring practice listed as co-starters, but McCarney and offensive coordinator Mike Canales say redshirt freshman Dajon Williams still has a chance to compete for the job.
Having three players competing for the starting job heading into two-a-day practices is unusual for a college team.
How will UNT’s defensive front seven look?
UNT lost the core of a defense that ranked eighth nationally last season with an average of 17.8 points allowed and was hit especially hard by graduation up front.
Six of the seven players listed on UNT’s depth chart in its front seven heading into the bowl graduated, including all-conference linebacker Zach Orr, who posted a team-high 123 tackles.
Akunne returns after posting 90 tackles for the second straight year, but UNT has questions nearly everywhere else.
Linebacker Sed Ellis was indefinitely suspended after being arrested on theft charges stemming from an incident involving two televisions at a Denton Walmart. Ellis was listed as a co-starter at outside linebacker with Jamal Marshall following spring drills.
Malik Dilonga, a sophomore who has never played in a college game, is slated to start at one defensive end spot.
If one counts Marshall as a starter at outside linebacker, the six players who are slated to join Akunne in UNT’s starting defensive front finished with 61 total tackles last season.
Who are the Mean Green’s offensive playmakers?
Thompson is just one of the players UNT lost to graduation on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Brandin Byrd (1,075 rushing yards) and wide receivers Brelan Chancellor (792 receiving yards) and Darnell Smith (791 receiving yards) also are gone.
UNT has a few proven playmakers returning in wide receiver Carlos Harris and running backs Antoinne Jimmerson and Reggie Pegram, who missed the last five games of the 2013 season with an injury.
UNT has to hope that its veterans excel, Pegram returns to form and a few young players emerge. McCarney could provide some perspective on how UNT will handle those issues today.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.