North Texas began fall practice Monday talking a lot about change, just as it has since the end of a milestone season.
Several of the standouts who helped lead the Mean Green to a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl were long since gone when UNT’s returning players sprinted onto the field at the Darrell R. Dickey Football Practice Facility.
UNT coach Dan McCarney took time out for one of his long-standing traditions before heading out to begin addressing all those changes and challenges.
McCarney picked up the phone and called Hayden Fry.
“I talk to coach Fry every year before my first practice,” McCarney said. “I said, ‘Coach, guess what? Thirty-five years ago you and I got together. How time flies.’ I have not lost one bit of energy, excitement or love of the game. I said, ‘I sure enjoyed it with you and hope that I can go out and enjoy it with my guys today.’ It was great to talk to him. I love him.”
What pleased McCarney most after he finished that yearly call was that his players seemed to share that love of the game as they continue the process of moving on from last season’s memorable run to the third bowl win in program history.
UNT opened camp with four players contending to take over for bowl MVP Derek Thompson at quarterback and even more trying to work their way into what will be a rebuild rotation on the defensive line.
The Mean Green will need weeks to come close to addressing those issues before opening the season Aug. 30 at Texas.
What McCarney and his players were happy about was the hunger and enthusiasm they showed on the first day of camp. That drive is one the Mean Green believes will help the team address its most pressing issues.
“If it wasn’t our best first day, it was surely one of them since I have been here, which means the retention was good and that the coaches have done a good job with the new guys and getting them up to speed,” McCarney said.
The secret now for UNT is maintaining that drive as it enters the grind of fall camp.
Few realize how big that challenge can be more than UNT senior offensive linemen Mason Y’Barbo and Antonio Johnson. Both liked what they saw on the first day of drills.
“The first day is always exciting,” Y’Barbo said. “Everyone is ready coming off the summer and is amped up. It’s fun to be out there, at least for a little while.”
UNT’s players and coaches say they can build on their first day in camp largely because of the work the team put in over the summer. McCarney credited strength coach Frank Wintrich for ensuring that the Mean Green’s players were in shape and ready to get to work.
McCarney said there were only a handful of players who were not in shape and struggled on opening day. All of those players reported in the last few weeks and did not go through summer drills.
UNT’s coaches work with Wintrich to ensure that the drills the Mean Green’s players perform during the summer prepare them specifically for what the staff wants to see on the field in the fall.
McCarney said it’s far too early for UNT’s coaches to have any better idea of who will start at quarterback or contribute at wide receiver than they did at the end of spring practice.
UNT still has a long road to travel. What the made the Mean Green feel better about the first step in that journey was the way its players handled practice.
“There is always a lot of enthusiasm on the first day,” Johnson said. “The question is if there will be enthusiasm on day 80 or during bowl week.
“For the first day, I felt good about it.”
So did McCarney after starting his 16th year as a head coach like he began so many before — by calling Fry to talk a little about the upcoming season and the ones they enjoyed in the past.
While UNT didn’t have many issues in terms of players showing up in proper condition, Derek Akunne missed part of practice after becoming ill. McCarney said the senior linebacker likely had a case of stomach flu or food poisoning and should not have any issues going forward.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.