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UNT postseason questions series: No. 1 — Will the Mean Green's defense improve?

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas wrapped up its season just a few days ago in the New Orleans Bowl, where the Mean Green fell to Troy.

And that can mean only one thing. It's time for the annual postseason questions series.

But first, let's set the table.

UNT's season didn't end the way the Mean Green hoped. UNT was blown out in  consecutive games. Florida Atlantic hammered the Mean Green 41-17 in the Conference USA title game before Troy ran past UNT 50-30 in the New Orleans Bowl.

Those two games left a sour taste in people's mouths, but the fact of the matter is UNT accomplished a ton in the second season of Seth Littrell's tenure. The Mean Green won the C-USA West Division title and finished 9-5. 

UNT has only won nine games in a season seven times in program history. 

The 2017 season was a huge success and UNT has a lot to be excited about moving forward. Quarterback Mason Fine returns for his junior season after being named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year, recruiting has picked up and the Mean Green have several other good players returning.

With that being said, there are issues UNT must address. That's what this series is about, looking at those issues.

There is none bigger than the performance of UNT's defense, which comes in No. 1 on our list.

UNT made tremendous strides defensively in Littrell's first season when co-coordinators Troy Reffett and Mike Ekeler helped the Mean Green reduce the number of points the Mean Green allowed per game by 8.7.

UNT still allowed 32.6 points per game, but looked dramatically better than it did under Chris Cosh the previous year.

The expectation was that UNT would continue to improve in 2017, despite some losses in the offseason. Ekeler left for North Carolina and the Mean Green lost linebackers Cortney Finney and Fred Scott, safety James Gray and three key defensive ends to graduation.

Reffett took over as UNT's sole coordinator and inherited a defense that didn't add much in the way of immediate impact players outside of cornerback Kemon Hall. The Itawamba Community College graduate was a wire-to-wire starter.

The expectation was that UNT would improve because of the experience its players gained in the 3-3-5 system. The Mean Green's personnel were also supposed to be a better fit for the scheme, even after UNT lost nose tackle Bryce English for the season to a foot injury in preseason practice. That was a huge blow.

UNT had its moments, despite losing English. The Mean Green's defense allowed just a field goal in a win over UTEP and a touchdown in a win over Rice, but struggled overall.

Here's a look at the numbers:

Category 2017 2016
Points allowed 35.0 32.6
Rushing yards allowed 202.5 239.5
Passing yards allowed 228.9 200.2
Total yards allowed 431.4 439.8

UNT improved dramatically in the number of rushing yards it allowed per game, despite playing Army, one of the nation's most productive teams when it comes to running the ball. UNT took a step back in terms of pass defense, but still ended up reducing the number of yards it allowed per game.

The Mean Green's problem was it struggled against good teams and gave up at least 40 points in six games.

The question now is if UNT can bounce back and improve in 2018.

It's not a guarantee considering the number of key players the Mean Green are losing to graduation. 

Safety Kishawn McClain was a staple of UNT's defense for years and finished second on the team with 96 tackles as a senior. Linebacker Joshua Wheeler was among UNT's biggest playmakers. Cornerback Eric Jenkins, defensive ends Andy Flusche and Tillman Johnson, safety Dee Baulkman and linebacker Colton McDonald all contributed in their final seasons at UNT.

The good news for the Mean Green is some of their most productive players are back, including linebacker E.J. Ejiya. UNT's best defensive player pulled off the rare feat of leading the Mean Green in tackles (108), tackles for loss (12.0) and sacks (7.0).

Safety Khairi Muhammad finished with 94 tackles in his first season as a starter, while Roderick Young was solid in the middle while finishing with 48 tackles and 8 quarterback hurries.

UNT has some good young players it either redshirted or used sparingly as backups to add to that core, including cornerback Cameron Johnson and safety Makyle Sanders. The Mean Green also went for the JUCO quick fix on its defensive line by signing Darrian McMillan and Josh Sa'afi.

Highly regarded freshmen safeties Reggie Williams and Jaxon Gibbs and linebacker Kevyon Davis could also make an impact early.

The question is if those additions and the experience UNT's returning players gained will help it turn the tide and be more effective against top competition.

There is no bigger issue for UNT heading into the 2018 season.

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya (22) tackles Lamar quarterback Darrel Colbert Jr.  at Apogee Stadium this season. Ejiya will be one of UNT's key returners next fall. (Jeff Woo/DRC)