UNT faces challenge of rebuilding before opening season at Texas
John Skladany was talking about the state of North Texas’ defense during the late stages of spring practice just a few days ago.
The Mean Green’s defensive coordinator spoke about the potential of his young players and how important it would be for them to step in for a few cornerstones of UNT’s team that finished their careers in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“You just have to reload,” Skaldany said. “It happens to everyone. Eventually you are going to have to get new kids ready and put them in ballgames. That’s part of the business.”
It’s a challenge UNT faced in the spring and continues to work through as it heads into the quiet months of the summer, not just on defense but throughout its roster.
UNT began spring practice trying to pick a new quarterback, rebuild its defensive front seven, replace several of its key offensive playmakers, form a personality and find new leaders among its players.
The Mean Green didn’t come to a resolution on all of its key issues and still hasn’t picked a starting quarterback, but feels like it made progress throughout the spring.
“There is not one player in the room right now who is ready to beat Texas, but we can get there and should get there,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said after the Mean Green’s spring game. “I want them to get there, but we are not ready right now.”
The following is a look at the key challenges UNT faces and where the Mean Green stands after spring drills:
Selecting a quarterback
The race to take over for Heart of Dallas Bowl MVP Derek Thompson was unquestionably the story of spring practice.
There were plenty of twists and turns along the way before UNT concluded spring practice pretty much where it began, without knowing who would start in its season opener at Texas.
Career backup Andrew McNulty, JUCO transfer Josh Greer, redshirt freshman Dajon Williams and freshman Connor Means all began spring practice in the mix — and that’s where all but Means ended up following UNT’s spring game.
“If there was someone who pulled away with an amazing, unbelievable performance, they would be our starter. We didn’t see that,” McCarney said after the spring game. “But it’s not a conglomeration of mediocrity either. These guys are building, improving and working toward being guys we can win with.”
UNT cut Means from the race early in spring practice before offensive coordinator Mike Canales said the Mean Green was down to McNulty and Greer.
McNulty threw for 217 yards in the spring game, while Greer threw for 152. Williams missed the spring game with a sprained ankle.
The surprise came when McCarney said after the spring game that Williams was far too talented to eliminate from the race and still had a chance to win the job.
That statement muddied the waters a bit and left the Mean Green with a lot to work through in the summer and fall practice.
UNT’s staff will look to see how all three quarterbacks compete in the summer and in the couple of weeks of fall practice before it opens the season.
That plan worked out last year when Thompson won the job late in fall drills.
UNT is banking on a repeat, but the lack of experience among its three contenders and the unsettled nature of where the race wrapped up after the spring game is certainly a cause for concern.
Rebuilding on defense
Linebacker Derek Akunne is the only returning starter in UNT’s defensive front seven that was one of the Mean Green’s strengths last season.
The list of key players UNT lost on defense is a long and illustrious one and includes a pair of first-team All-Conference USA selections in linebacker Zach Orr and safety Marcus Trice. Add in linebacker Will Wright and key defensive linemen Richard Abbe and Aaron Bellazin, and UNT has a ton of holes to fill.
UNT came out of spring practice with an idea of who will fill some of those spots.
Akunne, who finished with 90 tackles in each of the last two seasons, should be an anchor along with Daryl Mason, who started four games at defensive end as a junior in 2013.
UNT should also be solid in the defensive backfield, where cornerbacks Kenny Buyers and James Jones return.
How UNT will fill the rest of its lineup could have a lot to do with how UNT’s season unfolds.
“We are working hard and are coming together,” defensive end Jarrian Roberts said. “It’s time to pick it up from where we left off last year.”
Roberts is just one of several backups UNT will depend on to fill starter roles next season.
Sophomore Fred Scott is in line to move into the void left by the graduation of Orr, who finished with 365 career tackles, a total that put him into a tie for third in school history with Brad Kassell.
Linebackers Sed Ellis and Jamal Marshall showed signs of progress in the spring, as did defensive lineman Sid Moore.
UNT felt better about how its rebuilding project is going after spring practice but still has questions to answer about how productive some of its young players moving into the starting lineup will be.
“We are a work in progress and have a lot of new faces,” Skladany said. “We are working hard and taking steps in the right direction. We have to keep cleaning up our fundamentals and work on reading our keys. We have got a long preseason to get us to where we need to be. We are getting there.”
UNT lost one of the best playmakers in addition to one of its most productive running backs in program history in wide receiver Brelan Chancellor and running back Brandin Byrd.
And that’s just for starters.
UNT also lost starting wide receiver Darnell Smith and Thompson, the quarterback who fed the ball to them all.
Chancellor finished with a school record 5,503 all-purpose yards, while Byrd finished eighth with 2,202 rushing yards.
UNT should be OK at running back with Antoinne Jimmerson returning and could receive a boost with the return of Reggie Pegram from a knee injury that ended his 2013 season. The Mean Green also has solid receivers back in Carlos Harris, Darius Terrell and Darvin Kidsy.
UNT has enough talent coming back to be solid, especially if freshman wide receiver Tee Goree lives up to high expectations.
Building an identity
UNT’s identity last year was tied largely to its senior class, one that McCarney said set the tone throughout its bowl season.
One of the Mean Green’s challenges during the spring, and the off-season in general, was forming a new personality and finding new leaders.
Orr was a three-time team captain, while Thompson was a three-year starter.
McCarney said he could see a personality begin to emerge as practice went on, partly due to the way Akunne filled the leadership void.
“As one of the few returning starters on defense, the young guys look to me,” Akunne said. “I have to take it upon myself to be vocal. Before, I wasn’t as vocal because we had other leaders. I am trying to lead more now.”
Much like UNT’s quarterback situation and its defense, Akunne’s move into a leadership role is a process that began in the spring and will continue over the next few months as the Mean Green prepares for its trip to Austin on Aug. 30.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter @brettvito.