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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 102: North Texas

As if simply getting another shot – a much-deserved shot, mind you – wasn’t enough. For Dan McCarney, North Texas has become the gift that keeps on giving. There’s another turn as a head coach, five years after his ridiculous dismissal at Iowa State. There’s the new on-campus facility, Apogee Stadium, where the Mean Green have already made themselves at home. Then there’s the new conference affiliation: Sun Belt out, Conference USA in, beginning in 2013. You’re welcome, coach. Not that’s it been anywhere near a one-sided relationship: McCarney has given the Mean Green an identity, a sense of purpose and some much-needed direction. Not bad for the first 12 months of any relationship, right? Well, there was the stroke McCarney suffered in February, but as he put it, that was nothing a little splash of vodka couldn’t cure.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Denton, Tex.

Nickname
Mean Green

Returning starters
15 (9 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 102

2011 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 88

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at L.S.U.
  • Sept. 8
    Texas Southern
  • Sept. 15
    at Kansas St,
  • Sept. 22
    Troy
  • Sept. 29
    at F.A.U.
  • Oct. 6
    at Houston
  • Oct. 16
    La.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 27
    at M.T.S.U.
  • Nov. 3
    Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 10
    South Alabama
  • Nov. 17
    at La.-Monroe
  • Nov. 24
    at W.K.U.

Last year’s prediction

Let’s take it one year at a time, and remember that North Texas still has a little ways to go before returning to Sun Belt contention, a process that includes reversing the type of losing culture McCarney inherits in his debut season. Only a little ways, mind you: the Sun Belt isn’t good, U.N.T. not that bad, and I can see the Mean Green competing for four wins in conference play and factoring in the Sun Belt race. The schedule starts very poorly for the Mean Green, ensuring a poor start, but look for the team to play well down the stretch — not just as the schedule lessens, but as the players begin to understand what is asked of them by this new staff.

2011 recap

In a nutshell North Texas beat a B.C.S. conference opponent for the first time since destroying Baylor early in 2003. But that B.C.S. conference team was Indiana. North Texas won more than three games – won five games, in fact – for the first time since 2004. But the five defeated teams combined for 11 wins on the season: Indiana and Florida Atlantic with one, Middle Tennessee State with two, Troy with three and Louisiana-Monroe with four. Each of the seven teams that beat North Texas went on to become bowl eligible; three, including Alabama, won at least 10 games. But North Texas still lost the seven games. Good news, bad news? A little bit, if you view last fall as a stand-alone season. But if you view the year in the framework of where U.N.T. stood prior to McCarney’s arrival, well, you see a different picture.

High point A 59-7 win over Middle Tennessee State in the season finale. A meaningless win, in the grand scheme of things, but a terrific way for U.N.T. to end the regular season. It was also about how they won: the Mean Green ripped the Blue Raiders to shreds.

Low point There was no what-could-have-been loss; the Mean Green’s losses came by an average of 23.0 points per game. But knowing that woeful M.T.S.U. awaited in the season finale, losing to Western Kentucky at home on Nov. 19 likely stands as last season’s low point. The loss officially ended the Mean Green’s bowl hopes.

Tidbit The Mean Green’s first season at Apogee Stadium went well. North Texas went 4-2 at home last fall, the program’s best home record since 2004, when it went 4-1 en route to the Sun Belt title. Another note: U.N.T. went 1-15 at home from 2008-10. The Mean Green were also a more potent offensive team at home, averaging 32.7 points per game while in Denton against only 17.0 points per game on the road.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) Using the rankings compiled by Rivals.com, North Texas has not compiled a recruiting class ranked higher than third in the Sun Belt over the last 11 years. That high-water mark came in 2008, when the Mean Green’s class included eight three-star recruits. U.N.T. has finished fifth in the Sun Belt five times, in 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003 and 2002; seventh once, in 2006; and sixth four times, in 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2012. This is one area where the program must improve in order to hang with its new rivals in Conference USA.

Former players in the N.F.L.

RB Lance Dunbar (Dallas), LB Craig Robertson (Cleveland), TE Draylen Ross (Cleveland), OG Brian Waters (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

American sports franchises with green in their logo
1. Boston Celtics.
2. Green Bay Packers.
3. Miami Dolphins.
4. Oakland Athletics.
5. New York Jets.

Coaching

Dan McCarney (Iowa ’75), 5-7 after one season with North Texas. It was about time that McCarney got a second shot at running his own program, as he achieved enough over 12 seasons at Iowa State to more than deserve another opportunity. As was the case in Denton last fall – and will continue to be the case, one would think – the odds were stacked against McCarney and the Cyclones; nevertheless, McCarney left in 2006 as the program’s all-time leader in wins (56) and bowl appearances (5), making a pretty easy claim to being the finest coach in I.S.U. history. Among his other highlights in Ames: 2004 Big 12 Coach of the Year; five of the program’s 17 seven-win seasons; the first nine-win season in 94 years in 2000; and, that same year, the program’s first ever bowl win. So you can understand why the masses were left shaking their heads when Iowa State opted to dismiss McCarney in late 2006, when his Cyclones slipped to 4-8 after back-to-back bowl berths. He was snatched up quickly: McCarney spent one year at South Florida as the assistant head coach and defensive line coach before spending the last three seasons at Florida in the same capacity. The Gators won the national championship in 2008, McCarney’s debut season in Gainesville, and returned to the B.C.S. a year later. But it’s not the national title and B.C.S. experience that made McCarney so attractive to U.N.T.; it helps, but it’s far from his defining characteristic. What defines McCarney is what he achieved with the Cyclones, as well as his work as a Haden Fry assistant at Iowa from 1977-89 and under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin from 1990-94. It’s about his experience winning when others said he couldn’t, whether at Iowa, Wisconsin or Iowa State. If he can win there he can win in Denton.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The biggest change on McCarney’s staff is at defensive coordinator, where former U.C.F. coordinator John Skladany replaces Clint Bowen, who left to take a position under Charlie Weis at his alma mater, Kansas. Skladany’s hire is noteworthy for two reasons: one, Skladany’s two defenses at U.C.F. were absolutely superb; and two, he was the defensive coordinator at Iowa State throughout McCarney’s entire tenure. If any coach could be called McCarney’s right-hand man, it would be Skladany. In he and Mike Canales – McCarney was extremely wise to retain his services last winter – at defensive and offensive coordinator, respectively, North Texas is in very good hands. North Texas also hired former Montana State assistant Noah Joseph, who was a graduate assistant under McCarney at Iowa State, as safeties coach. Joseph replaces Anthony Weaver, who left to take a position with the New York Jets.

Players to watch

I think that North Texas can feel secure about its situation at quarterback, which is a new feeling for the program: you might need to go back five seasons, all the way to 2008, to find the last time the Mean Green held some degree of confidence in their starting quarterback. The heightened sense of relaxation has less to do with the production U.N.T. landed from junior Derek Thompson last fall – he was fairly spotty, though he did limit his turnovers – than with the idea that the entire quarterback corps should be far more familiar with Canales’ offense in their third season in his system. Greater familiarity with the system will lead to increased confidence when under center, which will in turn lead to increased productivity.

One of Thompson’s biggest issues is remaining healthy, something he’s struggled doing over the last two years. He suffered a season-ending injury in 2010 just as he was moving into the starting lineup; he missed another game last fall, sitting out the loss to Tulsa. Another issue is his consistency: Thompson can get from zero to 60, which is nice, but can also revert back to zero within a week, if not within a quarter. There was only one solid two-week stretch of play, against Troy and Western Kentucky; the rest of Thompson’s season was defined either by extended periods of mediocrity – if not a touch worse – or by disappointing follow-ups to strong performances.

Can he be the leader of this offense? I think he can; again, this is due to his increased comfort level playing under Canales. I wouldn’t list Thompson among the top four quarterbacks in the Sun Belt, but he’s absolutely good enough to lead U.N.T. into bowl play. There is a depth issue, however, and the Mean Green should be worried about the health of this offense if Thompson goes down to injury. Former JUCO transfer Brent Osborn is the likely backup, though sophomore Andrew McNulty started last October’s game against Tulsa in Thompson’s stead.

There’s a slightly similar story in place at wide receiver: solid along the starting lineup, but with depth issues as you work down the two-deep. The Mean Green return their top three at the position in junior Brelan Chancellor (team-best 37 receptions for 457 yards) and seniors Christopher Bynes (37 for 442 and 5 scores) and Ivan Delgado (27 for 305), but desperately need two or three unproven underclassmen to fill out the rotation. As U.N.T. left spring ball, the three backup spots were held by junior Lynrick Pleasant, sophomore Derrick Teegarden and redshirt freshman Chaz Sampson – there’s one career reception among the three. Sampson might be the most intriguing receiver on the roster, thanks to his size, but Chancellor is the difference-maker: not only is he growing into a big-play role as U.N.T.’s inside receiver, but Chancellor has shown an ability to alter field position in the return game.

The role of the tight ends should continue to grow in 2012. Since the position went unused in the previous offensive system, McCarney inherited zero tight ends upon his arrival. Andrew Power, a JUCO transfer brought in to be the starter, ended up making 16 receptions for 142 yards; his backup, Drew Miller, added 6 grabs for 105 yards. While Power is the stronger blocker, Miller and converted quarterback Cooper Jones might help U.N.T. stretch the middle of the field.

Not many teams need to replace the most productive running back in school history: North Texas is one, along with Oregon, Western Kentucky and Utah State, off the top of my head. The Mean Green won’t be able to replace Dunbar’s production with one player, of course, so the offense will instead turn the ball over to a committee of backs. One is junior Brandin Byrd (83 yards), the only returning back to notch double-digit carries in 2011. Another is Jeremy Brown, a former walk-on with more speed than Byrd. U.N.T. also has a pair of redshirt freshmen in the mix with ZacWhitfield and Antoinne Jimmerson, so look for a quartet of backs to share the wealth. One thing to remember: Dunbar was a great back, but North Texas rushed for 1,892 yards as a team last fall – 66th-most in the country. It’s entirely possible that a by-committee approach boosts that total.

Seeing the Mean Green mount an improved pass rush after years of struggles getting to the quarterback was a wonderful sign for this defense, and one we should have seen it coming: McCarney was going to be very hands-on with the defensive line, and given his pedigree, an improvement was coming sooner, not later. U.N.T. made 26.0 sacks as a team last fall, tied for 52nd nationally, after combining for 30.0 sacks over the previous two years. Even if the defense remains a sticking point for the Mean Green, that the pass rush made such a drastic improvement last fall bodes well for its future under McCarney and Skladany.

And the latter is an upgrade over Bowen, with all due respect to U.N.T.’s former coordinator. As with McCarney up front, Skladany will take a strong interest in U.N.T.’s linebackers; he’ll coach this position in addition to his coordinator duties. Skladany will like junior middle linebacker Zachary Orr (74 tackles, 7.0 for loss), who led the team in tackles last fall despite missing the final three games of the season. Orr is one of a few defenders with a promising future: he’s been a fixture in the rotation since stepping on campus, even making 60 tackles as a freshman despite making only a single start. Orr will be flanked at outside linebacker by senior Jeremy Phillips (21 tackles ), who missed six games last fall with a knee injury, and junior Will Wright (31 tackles, 2.5 for loss). One option not at Skladany’s disposal is would-be sophomore Michael Stojkovic, who recently left the program.

Stojkovic’s departure stings in three ways: one, he might have been the Mean Green’s second-best linebacker, behind Orr; two, he had significant potential; and three, his departure means that U.N.T. can’t afford to move Wright back to safety, which might have been an option. Wright began his career as a defensive back before being transitioned down to linebacker last fall, meaning that if the option was there, McCarney and Skladany could have used him in the secondary. Why is this worth discussing? Because North Texas lost all four starters off of a defensive backfield that was already among the nation’s worst – which raises the question of whether U.N.T. can do a worse job defending the pass than it did last fall.

It’s impossible to predict. On one hand, the secondary probably can’t be any worse. The Mean Green allowed less than 200 yards only three times last fall; those three opponents averaged 172.3 rushing yards per game, so it wasn’t as if the defense put the clamps down altogether. On the other hand, there’s an absolute dearth of experience among the returning defensive backs. Could the new group be worse than the last? I doubt it. But they can be just as awful.

Depth at cornerback took a major hit following would-be starter Freddie Warner’s A.C.L. injury during the spring. His status for 2012 is now in doubt, leaving U.N.T. to pass the baton to either JUCO transfer D.Q. Johnson or one of five incoming freshmen, at least two of whom – Devante Davis and Xavier Kelly – seem poised to begin at cornerback. The coaching staff is very high on both Davis and Kelly, so it’s not out of the question that two freshmen start at the position. This isn’t a great situation. The starting safeties will be former Oklahoma transfer Marcus Trice, an undersized fireplug of a tackler, and former special teams contributor Lairamie Lee.

The only way that North Texas can bail out this question mark of a secondary is to take another step forward in rushing the quarterback. And this defense will need to do so without end Brandon Akpunku, the team leader in sacks as a senior. His spot will be filled by senior K.C. Obi (20 tackles), a past starter who will team with  Brandon McCoy (44 tackles, 4.5 sacks) — a former tackle who moved to end last fall — to form the Mean Green’s starting end pairing. The defense returns both starting tackles in Ryan Boutwell (28 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Tevinn Canty (17 tackles, 4.0 for loss), but Canty may lose his starting role to junior Richard Abbe, who had a nice spring. As in the secondary, the line will add an influx of talent over the summer: five incoming freshmen will also battle for snaps.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Put it this way: the offensive line is in a far better place today than it was at this point a season ago. And the line is years removed from its status as an annual sticking-point under Dodge, thanks to a recharged dedication to a physical running game and the nice job McCarney’s staff has done in developing several youthful starters and reserves. But even with four returning starters and several backups back in the fold, the line remains a work in progress. Three of the four returning starters are only sophomores: left tackle Antonio Johnson, left guard Mason Y’Barbo and right guard Cyril Lemon. While undoubtedly talented – Lemon in particular seems like a future all-conference pick – it’s only natural to view this trio as a year away from reaching its potential.

There’s a void at right tackle following the loss of all-Sun Belt pick Matt Tomlinson. The Mean Green’s best option at tackle might be junior LaChris Anyiam, though I wonder if he has the strength to handle the running game on the strong side. While senior Coleman Feeley tops the current depth chart, his past battles with injuries makes him somewhat unreliable. If I were North Texas, I’d try out former Arkansas transfer Cam Feldt at right tackle; now at left guard, he has the strength to be anchor on first down.

It’ll be on senior center Aaron Fortenberry to lend a steadying hand to this still-growing line. A contributor since his freshman season, Fortenberry found a home in the middle after swapping between center and guard over the last three years. The bad news – though it’s not that terrible, to be honest – is that the line should start only one senior; the good news is that you’d likely want your only senior to be at center. The line will be better in 2013 than it is this fall.

Game(s) to watch

North Texas must continue to win games at home. But the season will be defined by how the Mean Green fare in the four Sun Belt road games: Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky. The latter game is particularly important, seeing that in comes in the season finale against a Western Kentucky team primed for another breakthrough season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Start by addressing this team’s specific issues before moving to two bigger, more wide-ranging factors. The offense will only go as far as the running game takes it; while Thompson is growing into a nice Sun Belt quarterback, as noted earlier, this offense clearly needs a strong running game to be successful. With no proven running backs on the roster and an offensive line still one year away from reaching its potential, it’s only natural to view the entire offense as a question mark heading into the summer. If he takes a big step forward, Thompson might be able to put the Mean Green on his shoulders – but it’s far too early in the game to predict such a scenario to occur. There are things to like about this defense: the pass rush took a great step forward last fall, for starters, and Skladany should do a nice job at coordinator. But this secondary is so underwhelming – at cornerback in particular – as to negate any potential strengths the Mean Green hold along the front seven. Here, more than anywhere else, U.N.T. is going to need freshmen to step right up and play beyond their youth. Now, consider two big-picture factors. The first: North Texas is certainly getting better under McCarney, but it’s too soon to think of this team as bowl-worthy, or as a Sun Belt leader. This team’s goal should be further improvement while the program as a whole prepares for the upcoming conference swap. Secondly: Arkansas State – despite the coaching change – Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International and Western Kentucky are farther along in the process. U.N.T. doesn’t quite match up with that group both in personnel and scheme – meaning the Mean Green aren’t as well-versed in this new system as those conference rivals are in theirs. While it would be nice for North Texas to end its Sun Belt run atop the league, I doubt that comes to pass.

Dream season North Texas goes from five wins to the top of Sun Belt, thanks to key wins over Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky. The Mean Green return to bowl play for the first time since 2004, setting a nice tone for the program heading into its move to Conference USA.

Nightmare season The Mean Green go 1-3 in non-conference play, as expected, but also open Sun Belt action with two ugly losses to Troy and Florida Atlantic. While U.N.T. wins a third straight over Middle Tennessee State and trounces South Alabama, the program’s Sun Belt era ends in a 3-9 season.

In case you were wondering

Where do North Texas fans congregate? Begin your search with Go Mean Green, continue with Inside North Texas and finish with the Web site of the Denton Record Chronicle. Go in any order you’d like, actually.

North Texas’ all-name nominee RB Konockus Sashington.

Word Count

Through 23 teams 76,545.

Up Next

Who is No. 101? The athletic director at tomorrow’s university once served as the offensive coordinator for a coach whose son is currently a coordinator in the Big Ten.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    Boston College is next…

    BC AD Gene DeFilippo was Offensive Coordinator at Youngstown State for Bill Narduzzi whose son Pat is the Defensive Coordinator for Michigan State.

  2. Joe says:

    Very good writeup Paul….you have done your homework. Go Mean Green!

  3. Steve says:

    Just hope they don’t turn into another Rice by moving to the CUSA. It’s going to be strange not watching Lance this season.

  4. Big Tex says:

    UNT Coach Dan McCarney is from the Hayden Fry Iowan coaching tree. Fry is a living legend at North Texas where among his coaching highlights at UNT were his teams beating a 6 & 5 Tennessee Volunteers and Houston Cougars 28 to zip the year before they entered the Southwest Conference.

    CUSA is the conference North Texas has had its eyes on since its beginnings. The Big West and Sun Belt were always only going to be temporary homes for UNT. North Texas recruiting (and 4 star transfers) have already begun to dramatically rise with the tide of the Mean Green being in CUSA and that was an expected benefit.

    UNT’s President Lane Rawlins was Memphis U’s president back when he helped in the formation of Conference-USA. The timing of Dr. Lane being in Denton as UNT’s president couldn’t have been any better; also, the timing of SMU leaving for a very unsettled Big East was the ace in the hole for North Texas–From CUSA Commish’ Banowsky: Welcome to CUSA! North Texas! We love your upside much more so than others.

    UNT: A DFW TV market deliverer you say? Well, North Texas has over 200,00 North Texas alums living in the DFW Metroplex and they are not likely going to watch SMU or TCU when those 2 are on local TV. You tell me if North Texas can deliver TV ratings with their enormous DFW-Denton constituency.

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