There were times a year ago when Joshua Wheeler felt a little lost when it came to what North Texas was doing defensively.
The linebacker certainly wasn’t the only one.
The Mean Green were running an entirely new scheme under Troy Reffett and Mike Ekeler, a pair of defensive coordinators who had just walked in the door at the Mean Green Athletic Center before the beginning of spring practice.
Those changes make the tweaks the Mean Green are undergoing this spring — following another staff switch — seem minor. Reffett took over as UNT’s full-time defensive coordinator after Ekeler left to join the staff at North Carolina.
UNT used Reffett’s system with a three-man defensive front last season and is only making a few minor adjustments for 2017.
“We have become more comfortable with it,” said Wheeler, a senior. “Last year, we were introduced to it and played through it a little. This spring we look pretty solid in what we are doing. We are going to build on that.”
UNT got off to a great start in the system last season, when the Mean Green allowed 32.6 points per game. That total wasn’t what UNT had hoped for, but it was a significant drop from the 41.2 points it allowed in 2015.
Seth Littrell took over as UNT’s head coach before the 2016 season and hired Reffett and Ekeler to run his defense.
UNT is hoping to take another significant step forward this season.
There was some question as to how UNT would try to reach that goal with Reffett solely in charge of the Mean Green’s defense.
The longtime defensive coordinator will tweak a few aspects of UNT’s scheme but is more concerned about the way the Mean Green run it.
“The thing that we have to really focus on is our execution,” Reffett said. “We are not changing the scheme. It’s the same thing I have been running for 12 years. It’s the execution of the scheme and how we are supposed to be hitting our moments and pressures that is the concern. We are focusing on being more physical. I don’t think we were very physical as a defense at all last year.”
UNT spent last season fitting the players it had into a scheme they were not recruited to play. The Mean Green ran a defense with a four-man front throughout former coach Dan McCarney’s tenure.
Reffett’s scheme is most effective when he has a stout nose tackle, bigger defensive ends and athletic players at linebacker and safety.
UNT’s personnel fit the scheme better heading into the 2017 season. Wheeler made the adjustment to playing linebacker last year after earning NJCAA All-America honorable mention at defensive end at Tyler Junior College.
UNT also has bigger defensive linemen who are a better fit for a scheme with a three-man front, including Kansas State transfer Bryce English. The 305-pound sophomore will be in the rotation at nose tackle.
Roderick Young is 294 pounds and athletic enough to play defensive end, where Andy Flusche also will see time. Flusche is listed at 259 pounds.
“We are two-deep with quality players on the defensive line who are better suited to what we want to do than the guys we had last year just because they are a little thicker and stronger,” Reffett said. “What they bring to the table really fits the scheme better. They don’t have the experience the guys did last year, but experience only takes you so far. You still have to have the bodies with the right makeup to execute the scheme.”
The challenge for UNT is continuing to adapt to the system and becoming more comfortable in it. The Mean Green are much further into that adjustment process this spring than they were a year ago.
“It will absolutely help to be in the second year in the system,” Littrell said. “That always helps, but at the same time we have to understand it’s still about putting guys in the best position to be successful and not asking them to do things they can’t do.”
UNT still has concerns. Depth at linebacker is at the top of the list, where the Mean Green don’t have much experience behind Wheeler, Brandon Garner and E.J. Ejiya, who are projected to start.
The Mean Green feel good about how they are handling those challenges.
“Reffett has done a great job the last couple of days on the tweaks that he has made,” Littrell said. “We will continue to settle in and get a feel for what we want.”
Wheeler is looking forward to seeing how the Mean Green come together under Reffett the rest of the spring.
“Reffett is fun,” Wheeler said. “He wants to turn everyone loose and let us go play ball. We are not the biggest, but we are going to play fast and hard.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.