IRVING — At this time a year ago, North Texas felt pretty secure when it came to a few aspects of its team.
Linebacker Zach Orr, running back Brandin Byrd and wide receiver Brelan Chancellor all seemed to be locks to start. And while Derek Thompson didn’t nail down the starting quarterback job until right before the Mean Green’s season opener, he had two years of experience as a starter under his belt heading into his senior year.
UNT will have a little less certainty when it opens fall practice Aug. 5 in advance of its Aug. 30 season opener at Texas, especially at skill positions. What coach Dan McCarney and his players have come to believe over the last few weeks is that while UNT doesn’t have as many proven commodities, it does have several options at a few key positions and players who are growing into their new roles.
That is true both on the field and off it.
“Every year you have guys who graduate and leave,” senior linebacker Derek Akunne said at Conference USA’s annual media day on Wednesday at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Marriott. “It’s a new team every year. There are different personalities. We are adjusting to it.
“Without Zach Orr, Marcus Trice and Brandon McCoy, we have less experience. It’s a challenge for me to be a leader. It’s exciting.”
What has been particularly pleasing for McCarney is the number of players who are emerging as leaders late in their careers and filling the considerable void left by what he has described as a landmark senior class.
That group helped lead UNT to a 9-4 season and a victory over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, just the third bowl win in program history.
McCarney singled out senior defensive lineman Alexander Lincoln, junior cornerback Kenny Buyers and junior wide receiver Carlos Harris as players who are emerging in leadership roles.
“Alexander Lincoln has never been a leader and he has been one of the best leaders we have had in the spring, the summer and going into camp,” McCarney said. “Kenny Buyers is a heck of a player and a former walk-on that everyone tried to pick on and go after last year and all he did was respond, play his tail off and become a leader. Carlos Harris is showing leadership qualities.”
What might be even more encouraging is the way a few players have shown signs that they could be ready to fill the void left by a few key senior starters on the field.
“We are going to camp with seven running backs,” McCarney said. “Antoinne Jimmerson has a lot of work to do to be our No. 1 guy. Reggie Pegram looks like a million bucks and Rex Rollins might be in the best shape of any running back on our team.”
Jimmerson rushed for 446 yards last season and is the heir apparent after Byrd graduated. Pegram rushed for 338 yards in eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
McCarney was also pleased with the development of his linebackers who will step in for Orr in the middle of UNT’s defense, including Fred Scott.
“We don’t have a guy we can leave out there at Mike linebacker like we did with Zach Orr,” McCarney said. “If we need two or three guys to man that position, so what? We won’t flinch. We will be fine.”
Quarterback spot wide open
UNT will enter fall practice with four quarterbacks receiving snaps in what will be one of the most watched position battles of fall practice.
Andrew McNulty and Josh Greer will begin drills at the top of the depth chart with Dajon Williams and Connor Means not too far behind in the race.
“The quarterback situation will be wide open,” McCarney said. “If someone would have taken the job [in spring practice], great. We don’t have that. Josh Greer and Andrew McNulty have the edge and will be rolling with the ones and twos [first and second teams]. Dajon Williams and Conner Means will be rolling with the twos and threes [second and third teams]. I don’t know who will roll out there against Texas.”
McCarney said that Means hasn’t been ruled out as a potential starter. Neither has Williams, an intriguing talent who stayed in the race right up until Thompson won the job in the days leading up to UNT’s season opener a year ago.
“Williams needs to grow and mature,” McCarney said. “Every now and then we see a flash of Seneca Wallace, who was a great player for me at Iowa State.
“We have 29 practices before Texas to find out who our guy is.”
Two UNT players remain suspended
Linebacker Sed Ellis and tight end Chris Loving both remain suspended from team activities after being charged with theft following an incident involving a pair of televisions at a Denton Walmart this month.
“I’m evaluating their behavior, their commitment and their academics on a day-to-day basis,” McCarney said. “If they continue to do what they should, they can be reinstated.”
McCarney said he could make a decision on the status of both players before the opening of two-a-day practices.
Status as favorite doesn’t make difference for UNT
UNT was picked to win C-USA’s West Division in the league’s preseason poll, which was a dramatic change from a year ago.
The Mean Green was picked to finish fifth in the West Division in its first season in the league. UNT received a whole lot more attention at media day as a result of being a favorite in its second year in the conference.
McCarney and his players said during their time in the spotlight that being a preseason favorite won’t affect the Mean Green.
“It doesn’t make a big difference,” UNT offensive lineman Cyril Lemon said. “It does put a target on our back and makes us think about it a little more. We still have to be hungry and take the approach that we are the underdog.”
McCarney did his best to downplay UNT’s status as a preseason favorite. UNT returns just nine starters.
“Rice is the defending champion,” McCarney said. “You are the defending champion until someone moves you out of there, and Texas-San Antonio has more returning starters than anyone in the country. There is only one team that has fewer starters back than we do in Utah State.”
UTSA has 19 starters back from a team that finished 7-5.
Former UNT player making an impression at FAU
Former UNT linebacker Chris Hurd has made a quick impression in his first season as the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator at Florida Atlantic, one of the Mean Green’s C-USA rivals.
“Chris was one of those guys in our profession who clearly deserved a shot to be a full-time coach,” FAU coach Charlie Partridge said. “He relates with kids and does a nice job in recruiting.”
Hurd was the 2003 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and was a graduate assistant at UNT before going to work as an assistant coach at Cisco College, Tennessee and Arkansas before landing at FAU.
UNT will host the Owls on Nov. 8.