Jarrian Roberts watched carefully during his first two seasons at North Texas, picking up the tricks of the trade from some of the better defensive players in recent Mean Green history.
The sophomore defensive end saw how Aaron Bellazin perfected his pass rushing technique and how Brandon McCoy held the edge the last two seasons, including last year when Roberts earned a small amount of playing time.
UNT hopes that the lessons Roberts — and other young players like him — learned pay off heading into its season opener at Texas on Aug. 30.
The Mean Green’s run to the Heart of Dallas Bowl last season was powered largely by a veteran group of defensive players who made play after play while changing the course of games. There might not be a more important task heading into UNT’s encore season than finding players to fill those voids.
UNT’s coaches and players have talked about that challenge since the end of last season and are feeling better about meeting it as the days dwindle before their season opener.
“We are going to be young, but we are to be one of the baddest defenses around,” Roberts said. “We are going to come to practice every day, work hard and get the job done.”
Few teams played better defensively last season than UNT, which ranked eighth nationally with an average of 17.8 points allowed per game.
The challenge for UNT is that most of the players who made that performance possible were seniors, including linebacker Zach Orr and safety Marcus Trice, a pair of first-team All-Conference USA selections.
UNT coach Dan McCarney quickly rattled off a list of players who weren’t starters a year ago who could help soften the blow of those players’ departure, starting with safety Sheldon Wade.
“Wade is one of the most improved guys we have from spring to fall,” McCarney said. “If we were playing today, he would be starting in the secondary. He has to maintain that. We are going to continue evaluating, but he has had a really good camp.”
Wade is battling JUCO transfer Matthew Dash for a starting job at safety heading into his senior year. Several of the other players UNT is turning to in an effort to reload defensively are in the early stages of their careers. Many are competing for playing time on a defensive front that lost six of its seven starters to graduation.
McCarney said he has been pleased with the progress of outside linebackers Sed Ellis and Jamal Marshall. Fred Scott and Anthony Wallace, who are battling to take over for Orr at middle linebacker, also have made an impression on UNT’s coaches.
UNT has less experience on its defensive line than at perhaps any other position on its roster. McCarney has said all along that he plans to build an eight- or nine-man rotation on UNT’s defensive front.
The progress UNT has seen some young linemen — including freshman defensive end Tillman Johnson, sophomore defensive end Malik Dilonga and redshirt freshman tackle Sid Moore — make has the Mean Green feeling better about how its defense will shape up.
“We are getting our eyes on eight or nine defensive linemen we are going to play in that first game,” McCarney said. “I like what we are seeing there with the rotation. We talk about it and are getting close to getting to the point of being there with guys we trust.”
Those players are helping UNT jell as a unit. Linebacker Derek Akunne was a huge part of UNT’s development into a top defense last season and can see the progress the Mean Green is making toward putting together another standout unit.
“We are starting to build a personality as a defense,” Akunne said. “We can see that these guys can make plays that can help us win.”
Roberts is among those players. The former Clarksville standout posted two sacks in a season-opening win over Idaho and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in a win over Tulsa a year ago.
UNT will look to Roberts and a host of other young players to do a lot more to bolster its defense and feels good about their potential to deliver late in fall practice.
“I gained from the experience I got last year,” Roberts said. “I didn’t play a lot of snaps on defense, but being around the older guys helped me.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.