The hunt for a new starting quarterback has been the talk of the first week of North Texas fall practice, and rightly so.
UNT must find a way to replace a three-year starter in Derek Thompson and appears to be ready to pick from a pair of players in Andrew McNulty and Josh Greer, who have one start between them.
That’s just the beginning for UNT when it comes to position battles.
There also is the matter of finding a middle linebacker to replace Zach Orr, a right tackle to replace LaChris Anyiam and new players to fill out the depth chart at tight end.
UNT moved a little closer to making some of those decisions Saturday during its first scrimmage of fall practice at the Darrell R. Dickey Football Practice Facility. The Mean Green ran 124 plays and got through a workout that was closed to the media without any major injuries.
Coach Dan McCarney described what he saw as encouraging, despite some typical early-camp struggles.
“I really like the work ethic of this team,” McCarney said. “It was sloppy overall, about like you would expect. There were some highs, some lows, some good, some bad.”
McNulty, who started in 2011 in a loss to Tulsa, and Greer, a mid-term JUCO transfer, once again rotated with the first-team offense.
“There is no question McNulty and Greer are the top two guys right now,” McCarney said. “Both of them are doing a good job of leading and are making very few mistakes. Neither one of them turned the ball over today.”
UNT must replace not only the general of its offense, but also the leader of its defense following the departure of Orr. UNT’s former middle linebacker is in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens.
Fred Scott is in position to take over but is being pushed by Anthony Wallace, who transferred from Oregon.
“Anthony Wallace is a much improved player, one of our most improved from the spring,” McCarney said. “He looks like a different player. He made up his mind coming out of the spring that he wants to be a real player. There is a good battle going with him and [Fred] Scott.”
UNT also is searching for a safety to replace Marcus Trice, who signed with the Chicago Bears after his senior season.
Senior Sheldon Wade came into fall practice in position to win the job, but he is being pushed by JUCO transfer Matthew Dash, a late signee.
“I feel good about both of them,” said senior safety Lairamie Lee, who likely will play beside the winner of the competition in UNT’s secondary. “They come out every day, work and try to get better.”
McCarney has stated since he arrived at UNT that he wants to rotate players on the defensive line. What he has seen in practice has convinced him that UNT is in position to reach that goal.
Freshman defensive end Tillman Johnson is expected to be part of UNT’s rotation after just a few days of camp, while freshman tackle T.J. Tauaalo also could see playing time.
“We will rotate as many or more than we did last year on the defensive line,” McCarney said. “Those guys have to earn the trust and the playing time. I am full speed ahead on playing a lot of guys. I don’t think we have anyone who should be out there 50 or 60 plays right now. That is not a bad thing.”
McCarney said outside linebackers Sed Ellis and Jamal Marshall are playing well in the early stages of fall practice, which could give UNT depth at a position where it lost Will Wright and Orr. UNT is considering playing freshman linebacker Jalen Montgomery this season.
The performance of junior tight end Marcus Smith also has been encouraging. The former San Antonio Warren standout has picked up where he left off after spring practice and is in position to start at a spot where UNT lost both of the players on its depth chart last year in seniors Daniel Prior and Drew Miller.
UNT has yet to decide how it will line up at a few other key spots along its offensive front. The Mean Green moved guard Cyril Lemon to tackle in spring practice. The hope was that he would be able to move back to guard by the time UNT opens the season and be replaced at tackle by Ryan Rentfro. The other option is to leave Lemon at tackle and start Shawn McKinney at guard.
UNT’s coaches like their options after an initial look during Saturday’s scrimmage, but are in no hurry to make a decision, not with Lemon, guard Mason Y’Barbo, tackle Antonio Johnson and center Kaydon Kirby locked into the lineup.
“We are in constant rotation on the offensive line to find out who our best five guys are,” McCarney said. “We are going to have five really good offensive lineman, and [we] know who four of them are going to be. The question is who the fifth will be.”
UNT is no closer to making that decision, but did make some progress in terms of what its lineup and rotation will look like following the scrimmage.
“It went well,” cornerback Kenny Buyers said. “We made some mental errors and had some penalties. We have to focus and be more disciplined, but I am not too worried about it.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.