The first few weeks of fall practice represent one of the grand opportunities in the world of college football.
Seniors have long since departed and at least a few jobs are typically up for grabs as the days dwindle before teams’ season openers.
That is certainly the case this fall at North Texas, where Turner Smiley is among a handful of wide receivers who are capitalizing early in camp.
UNT lost one of its best all-around skill position players of recent years in wide receiver Brelan Chancellor, not to mention a second starter in Darnell Smith.
Their departure left a huge hole to fill — 123 receptions and 1,583 yards, to be exact.
Smiley is showing signs in the early stages of what could be a long competition leading up to the Mean Green’s season-opener on Aug. 30 at Texas that he could be emerging to help fill that void.
“Turner is young, but is not brand new,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “He is showing up already. We like him. He is doing some really positive things. He has to. It’s time. He got through that redshirt year. It’s time to step up. I like what he is doing. He has been very consistent the first four days making plays.”
UNT offensive coordinator Mike Canales has mentioned Smiley consistently in post-practice Tweets highlighting some of the top performers of the day in the first week of camp.
That’s a good sign, not only for Smiley, but UNT as well in a season it must replace starting quarterback Derek Thompson. Andrew McNulty and Josh Greer have the early jump on the job after the first few workouts of fall drills.
Whoever wins the job will have a couple of veteran receivers to work with in Carlos Harris, Darvin Kidsy and Darius Terrell.
What is something of a mystery at this point is if any additional players will emerge in the next few weeks to help whoever wins the job.
McCarney said he likes what he has seen from freshmen Jalen Adams, Tee Goree and O’Kerron Rutherford.
Smiley has a bit of a jump on that trio because of the year he spent working under the tutelage of wide receivers coach Mike Grant.
“Working with coach Grant and the other receivers, I can feel how much better I have gotten,” Smiley said.
That time also gives Smiley perspective in terms of what UNT lost in Chancellor and Smith, not to mention what he and the rest of the Mean Green’s young wideouts need to do to fill the void.
“There is no way you can look past the guys that we have lost, but we feel like we have enough guys who are talented enough to come in and play,” Smiley said. “We want to come in and prove that we can do just as well as they did or even better.”
While UNT has some holes to fill, it does have a few key contributors back.
Carlos Harris caught 47 passes for 553 yards and is a lock to start.
Canales has described Harris as one of the best third-down receivers in Conference USA.
Darvin Kidsy caught 16 passes last year and is the only other wide receiver UNT has returning who finished with double figures in receptions last season.
That lack of proven depth is the reason McCarney issued a challenge to his young receivers before a UNT quarterback lofted a ball in the air this fall.
“We have challenged every one of them,” McCarney said. “You are not in this program to hang out or pick up a paycheck or wait for your next Nike T-shirt. You’re here to help us win games. That is why they were brought in to the program.”
The challenge is one Smiley said he and UNT’s other young receivers have heard.
They believe that they are up to the challenge.
“We talk all the time about how we have more people who can rotate and are ready to play in games,” Smiley said.
A key opportunity for Smiley to continue his rise as a player will come on Saturday, when UNT will go through its first scrimmage of fall practice. McCarney said it could last up to 120 plays.
“None of them are ready so that we are saying, ‘Ok, you are on the bus to Austin, Texas, with us right now,’” McCarney said of UNT’s young players.
“But there are some running backs, receivers, linebackers and defensive linemen who seem like they have a chance.”
Smiley got his first chance to capitalize on the opportunity fall camp presents young players this week.
So far, it’s an opportunity he is taking advantage of.
Darren Denucci, an offensive lineman who played at Snow College before joining UNT’s program over the summer, is no longer with the team.
McCarney said Denucci participated in one practice before leaving. ... UNT will work out in full pads for the first time today.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.