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Football: UNT looking to show improvement in spring game

Profile image for By Brett Vito / Staff Writer
By Brett Vito / Staff Writer

A lot can change over the course of a few weeks and a dozen practices in college football, especially when it comes to spring drills.

There are no opponents to prepare for. No game looming in a few days.

It’s a nose-to-the-grindstone affair that can sharpen teams, even if the opportunity to gain the only proof of improvement that matters — wins on Saturdays — is still months away.

UNT coach Dan McCarney and his players say they believe they made a lot of progress this spring that will pay off in a few months, and they will offer a sneak preview during the Mean Green’s annual spring game at 2 p.m. today at Apogee Stadium.

“I have been waiting for this,” UNT receiver Darnell Smith said. “We need to show what we have to all our fans. It’s very important to finish on a strong note.”

UNT’s first- and third-team players will make up the Green Team, while the second- and fourth-team players will be the White Team, which will begin the game with a 21-0 lead.

The game will offer a final opportunity for several players to make headway in position battles that have raged all spring. The most intriguing of those battles heading into spring was at quarterback, where two-year starter Derek Thompson was set to be challenged by highly regarded transfer Brock Berglund and returning backup Andrew McNulty.

Thompson has solidified his position as UNT’s starter, while McNulty might be the Mean Green’s most improved offensive player. Berglund has struggled with a hamstring injury and missed more than a week of practice, putting him behind.

Walk-on Kaydon Kirby has grabbed the starting job at center but is still competing with JUCO transfer Shawn McKinney.

UNT also has had several battles going on in its secondary. Safeties Marcus Trice, Lairamie Lee and Louisville transfer Zed Evans have played well at times and earned the chance to be in the rotation next season.

Hilbert Jackson has played well throughout the spring at cornerback, where Zac Whitfield, JUCO transfer James Jones and walk-on Kenny Buyers also have seen time with the first team.

McCarney also has been pleased with the development of UNT’s offensive line, which has more players whom the coaching staff feels comfortable using in key situations.

“It’s a different world when it comes to the offensive line,” McCarney said. “When your head coach and your offensive line coach and maybe your offensive coordinator looked as good as some of the guys we had on our offensive line, it’s not good. We now have a solid two-deep. I look out there and feel a lot better because they look the part and are starting to play the part.”

That might be the most important aspect of the spring game, at least when it comes to what McCarney wants to see. He wants his team to look like one that can challenge for a bowl berth in its first season in Conference USA.

“You want to see execution,” McCarney said. “You want to see people coming out in the stands and have them see that this is going to be a fun team to watch. I want to see more playmakers. I want to see a team that executes and plays with a lot of energy and personality.”

UNT’s hopes for improved play on defense are based in part on the Mean Green entering its second season under coordinator John Skladany. UNT was in the process of adjusting to his new system a year ago.

UNT seems sure to have what will be its most decorated and interesting group of spectators on hand for today’s game. UNT will host its annual Athletic Hall of Fame induction and announce its All-Century Football Team in conjunction with the spring game.

The opportunity is one UNT’s coaches and players cherish.

“Everyone worked hard all winter to get ready for spring and worked hard all through practice,” linebacker Derek Akunne said. “It’s really important to finish well.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.