During his first three seasons at North Texas, coach Dan McCarney talked about establishing a culture of excellence, one that would help the Mean Green break through for its first winning season and its first bowl game since 2004.
The theme has changed for the Mean Green this spring.
UNT has dealt with a series of injury issues and faced the challenge of trying to replace a host of key defensive players, not to mention the always difficult process of finding a new quarterback.
UNT has a long way to go to complete some of those tasks heading into its annual spring game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
The comforting aspect of facing those challenges for McCarney is the feeling that he has finally established the culture he has long desired within the program.
“I don’t know if at any place that I have ever been that you feel good in the spring,” McCarney said. “There are so many pieces missing right now from an injury standpoint, and we have a long way to go from a development standpoint. The things I feel good about are that the standards and expectations are there. The players know what my expectations are on a daily basis. There is a better understanding. That helps.”
McCarney and his players credited the foundation that they finally have in place for helping the Mean Green finish 9-4 and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
They will find out just how much that base helped them during a springtime of change on Saturday in their spring game — a key point in the buildup to UNT’s 2014 opener Aug. 30 at Texas.
UNT will split its squad in half with first- and third-team players forming one team that will be coached by defensive line coach Kevin Patrick. The second- and fourth-team players will form the second team, to be coached by offensive line coach Mike Simmonds.
Simmonds’ team will begin the game with a 21-point lead.
There will be a host of new players in key positions on both teams after the graduation of starting quarterback Derek Thompson, not to mention all but one of UNT’s starters in its defensive front seven.
“It is going to tell us where we are heading into the fall and what we need to work on as a defense and as a football team,” cornerback Zac Whitfield said.
While UNT expects to learn a lot from the game, the number of players it will be missing will limit what the Mean Green can take from the contest.
UNT has numerous key players in its defensive secondary out, including starting cornerback James Jones, who had intestinal surgery to correct an issue not related to football. Safety Lairamie Lee also has been out this spring.
UNT could be without third-string quarterback Dajon Williams. The redshirt freshman sprained his ankle during Saturday’s scrimmage and missed Tuesday’s practice.
Williams had fallen to the third team after Andrew McNulty and junior college transfer Josh Greer distinguished themselves in the quarterback race.
The two are expected to continue their battle for the starting job in the spring game.
“Josh and Andrew are definitely our top two guys based on the first six full or half scrimmages and the first few weeks of spring ball,” McCarney said. “Is it over? No, of course not. We still have a couple more practices, the spring game this week and 29 practices in the fall. I would be surprised if we name a starter at the end of spring ball for who is going to be our guy at Texas.”
McCarney credited McNulty and Greer for being students of the game and spending time away from the field working to improve their understanding of UNT’s offense.
McCarney also mentioned a series of other players who have either emerged as potential playmakers or impressed in spring practice, including wide receivers Carlos Harris, Darvin Kidsy and Darius Terrell.
Running back Erick Evans has worked his way up to second on the depth chart, while linebackers Sed Ellis and Jamal Marshall also have made an impression. Defensive end Malik Dilonga has worked his way into a larger role.
Each of those players will have a chance to continue solid springs in a spring game McCarney hopes to make into an event that will draw the largest spring crowd in program history. McCarney will have as many as 10 honorary coaches and will announce the names of a few walk-ons he is putting on scholarship during the game.
McCarney talked about the momentum the program has following its bowl win and how he could sense it when he appeared at a series of events over the last few weeks.
“There is a real obligation and responsibility with the guys on this team to live up to what we’ve built, the standards that we have set and the success that we just had,” McCarney said.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.