At this time a year ago, Dan McCarney took a look at what he had to work with in his third season as the Mean Green’s coach and found a long list of certainties.
Zach Orr would anchor UNT’s defense at middle linebacker, while Marcus Trice would direct traffic from his safety spot. Wide receiver Brelan Chancellor and running back Brandin Byrd would drive UNT’s offense.
The big question was who would start at quarterback, but with two-year starter Derek Thompson returning, even that dilemma had a safe answer.
Nothing is as certain for UNT a year later as it heads into the beginning of fall practice this week. UNT’s players reported on Sunday and will go through their first workout today, when the Mean Green will begin the buildup toward its season opener on Aug. 30 at Texas.
McCarney told a room full of supporters last week that UNT has more questions to answer heading into that game than in any of his previous three years with the Mean Green.
UNT has just nine returning starters — fewer than any team in the country other than Utah State — following a breakout season that saw the Mean Green finish 9-4 and knock off UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
There are some key players among that nine, including preseason All-Conference USA guards Cyril Lemon and Mason Y’Barbo and a two-year starter in linebacker in Derek Akunne.
Outside of that trio of starters and a few other key players, UNT has more questions than answers.
“We have a whole bunch of positions right now where I don’t know,” McCarney said.
“Derek Akunne will start. Cyril Lemon will start. I have that figured out, but there are all kinds of positions on our team that are wide open. It’s not motivational. It’s not phony. Every coach and player on my team knows it. There are a lot of jobs open.”
The list of open spots includes the biggest one of all after the departure of Thompson, a three-year starter.
Thompson endured his share of criticism over the years, but finished with 7,447 passing yards.
Only UNT Hall of Famer Mitch Maher threw for more in program history.
The story line of how UNT will fare in replacing Thompson has seemingly taken on added importance with each passing month.
Thompson secured the job late in fall camp a year ago, held on to the spot, threw for 2,896 yards by the end of the season and was named the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
What made the story even bigger was that veteran backup Andrew McNulty, JUCO transfer Josh Greer and redshirt freshman Dajon Williams battled for the job throughout spring practice, which ended right where the Mean Green started.
UNT still hasn’t picked a starting quarterback, which raises a question: Does the Mean Green have a player running its offense that it can win with?
“The quarterback situation will be wide open,” McCarney said. “If someone would have taken the job, great. We don’t have that.”
UNT’s players have universally expressed confidence that the Mean Green will be fine at quarterback, no matter who wins the job.
“Those guys are working and are getting better every day, every week,” running back Antoinne Jimmerson said following UNT’s spring game. “Each scrimmage they got better. They are going to keep competing until we go and play Texas. We will figure out who is going to be the starter.”
What could be equally as important as the quarterback battle is the rebuilding project when it comes to UNT’s front seven on defense.
Six of the seven players listed as starters heading into the Heart of Dallas Bowl were seniors who graduated after last season.
Some of those players rank among the best players in recent UNT history.
Orr finished with 365 career tackles, a total that left him tied with Brad Kassell for third in program history.
Defensive ends Aaron Bellazin and Brandon McCoy, who finished ninth and 10th, respectively, in career sacks with 15.0 and 14.5, are also gone.
UNT is hoping a few veteran players who have played some as backups can fill the void.
“Every year you graduate guys and have new guys come in,” Akunne said. “It’s a new team every year. We are adjusting really well. Other guys are stepping up and doing more. [Sophomore linebacker] Fred Scott is a guy who is becoming someone younger guys can talk to.”
UNT is hoping those young players will pick up where the Mean Green’s veterans left off a year ago. McCarney credited those seniors with helping change the culture of the program.
The challenge is one UNT’s players believe they are ready to meet.
“We can’t continue to look at last season,” Lemon said. “We have to continue to get better.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.UNT FALL STORY LINESThe following are a few key story lines to follow during North Texas’ fall practice that begins today:
Who’s under center?
This is the obvious one. Career backup Andrew McNulty and JUCO transfer Josh Greer will rotate with the first and second teams and have a jump in the race to replace three-year starter Derek Thompson. Dajon Williams and Connor Means will rotate with the second and third teams. UNT seems no closer to picking a quarterback now than it was at the start of spring practice.
“We have 29 practices before Texas to find out who our guy is,” coach Dan McCarney said. “Then we have to find out who our No. 2 is and we had better have a third guy ready. Everyone is trying to take quarterbacks’ helmets off in college football. We had better have three that we trust and feel good about. It will be a good race come camp.”
What about UNT’s defense?
One of the big reasons UNT thrived last season was a defense that ranked eighth nationally in points allowed at 17.8 a game. UNT has just four starters back and cornerback James Jones missed all of spring practice following surgery on his intestine to correct an issue not related to football. Defensive coordinator John Skladany returns, but UNT lost three defensive assistants following last season. UNT has a whole lot of rebuilding to do and will begin camp with the opportunity to prove that last year wasn’t an aberration. UNT allowed at least 37 points in four of its last seven games in 2012.
Can UNT replace all its key seniors?
McCarney said following UNT’s win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day that the Mean Green’s seniors would be remembered forever because of their contributions to a historic season and the impact they made throughout their careers. The class was loaded with key contributors, including Thompson, wide receiver Brelan Chancellor, running back Brandin Byrd and safety Marcus Trice. The departure of those key players and several others is the reason McCarney said heading into fall drills that there are more starting jobs open this year than at any time during his tenure at UNT. The Mean Green must find a way to plug all of those holes.
— Brett Vito
UNT KEY PLAYERS
The following are a few players North Texas is depending on to come through as it opens fall practice:
Andrew McNulty/Josh Greer — UNT must find a replacement for three-year starting quarterback Derek Thompson. McNulty and Greer will rotate with the first team in practice and get the first opportunity to secure the job. McNulty has just 57 career pass attempts with 51 coming in the 2011 season. Greer transferred to UNT from Navarro JC and joined the team at the semester break
Fred Scott — The sophomore will get the first crack at replacing one of UNT’s all-time greats in linebacker Zach Orr. Scott posted 11 tackles in six games as a freshman and came out of spring practice listed as UNT’s starting middle linebacker.
Alexander Lincoln — The senior is one of UNT’s most experienced defensive linemen and was singled out as an emerging leader by coach Dan McCarney this summer. UNT will need Lincoln to help anchor a defensive line that is losing four seniors listed as starters heading into the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
— Brett Vito