Five Questions: North Texas
What are the biggest questions surrounding the suddenly resurgent North Texas Mean Green? DCTF's Greg Tepper takes a look.
This is the fifth of 12 installments of the Five Questions series, in which the DCTF staff picks the most pressing questions facing each of the FBS programs in the state.
Today’s team: the North Texas Mean Green.
Dan McCarney knew that he would have an uphill climb in Denton when he took the job at North Texas in November 2010. He was, after all, taking the reins of a program that had gone just 6-37 over the past four seasons under coach Todd Dodge, and just 11-55 from 2005-2010. That’s the backdrop in front of which McCarney began the slow turnaround of Mean Green football, turning a listless program into one that threatened to make a bowl as late as Week 11, ultimately finishing at 5-7. It was an important, measured step forward, but there are many questions around the North Texas program this offseason that will determine whether 2011 will be the exception or the new rule.
1) Who’s left to defend the pass?
It’s not like North Texas was a defensive juggernaut last season against the pass – the Mean Green ranked 104th nationally by giving up 265.8 yards per game through the air – but now the road becomes even tougher to hoe, as new defensive coordinator John Skladany enters with basically an empty cupboard in the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks from 2011 – Royce Hill and D’Leon McCord – have graduated. Same goes for both starting safeties, Brad Graham and Ryan Downing. To make matters worse, the two deep at the four secondary spots returns just one player – rising junior cornerback Hilbet Jackson – and was especially hamstrung when safety (and former team defensive MVP) DaWaylon Cook called it quits last season after battling injuries. So, who’s ready to step up to help Skladany, who comes to North Texas from Central Florida? Can Dallas Pinkston product Freddie Warner, who saw playing time in seven games as a freshman, make a leap? What about Tyler Chapel Hill’s own Lairamie Lee, who notched 10 tackles in 11 games as a freshman? Someone – or, more specifically, at least three players – will need to step up if the Mean Green wants that defense to improve.
2) Who carries the load?
How important was RB Lance Dunbar to the North Texas offense? Consider this: in his last three years in Denton, Dunbar (the pride of Haltom City) accumulated 5,028 yards from scrimmage. North Texas, as a team, racked up 13,508 yards from scrimmage. In short, Lance Dunbar had a hand in more than 37 percent of North Texas’ entire output over the last four years. That is nothing short of astounding. Unfortunately for the Mean Green, Dunbar’s eligibility is up, and North Texas is left searching for someone to fill the “go-to guy” role on offense. There are certainly options: QB Derek Thompson had some flashes last season, and he’ll have his three most prolific receivers – Brelan Chancellor, Christopher Bynes and Ivan Delgado – back in the fold. And Copperas Cove RB Brandin Byrd appears to be the heir apparent at running back. Still, these are all only suggestions; it will take someone showing the coaches in the offseason that they’re capable of being the team’s offensive weapon du jour for them to get the chance to prove it on the field. And speaking of offensive weapons…
3) Will the Mean Green open up the playbook?
North Texas was basically the opposite of explosive on offense last season. When they won, it wasn’t because they hit a series of big plays; it was because they wore down opponents with a steady, pounding attack. Need proof? North Texas averaged just 4.96 yards per play last season, making them one of just 22 teams in the nation to averaged less than 5 yards per play. Even Minnesota, one of the nation’s most inept offensive teams playing in one of the nation’s best defensive conferences, averaged over 5 yards per play. There are certainly reasons for this – reliance on Dunbar, the lack of a true deep threat, not wanting to put too much pressure on a sophomore quarterback – but what will the Mean Green’s playcalling look like in 2012? Will there be more shots down the field, more passes beyond the 7-or-8 yards that became the calling card last season? Will there be more explosive plays in lieu of the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality? Or will it be more of the same? There’s not a right or wrong answer here – you can win with conservative playcalling (just ask Jim Tressel) – but it will be interesting to watch in spring practice.
4) One Brandon for another?
Perhaps the biggest single departure for the Mean Green’s defense is defensive end Brandon Akpunku. The man we named North Texas’ Defensive MVP in our 2012 Winter Edition, Akpunku led the team in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (10), and ranked third on the team with 55 tackles. He’s gone now, and the onuses to fill the void will likely fall to another Brandon – rising senior Brandon McCoy. McCoy, a Carrollton Creekview graduate who served in the military from 2004-2009, was a strong complement to Akpunku last season, racking up 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss of his own in 2011. He’ll need more of that – and then some – to replace Akpunku, as well as a complement of his own on the other side (perhaps Everman product Aaron Bellazin).
5) Is momentum a myth?
There is no doubt that North Texas is on the upswing. Dan McCarney has infused life into a listless Mean Green program, and even finished strong, ending the season with a resounding 59-7 home win over longtime scourge Middle Tennessee State. There’s a confidence in Denton for the first time in a while, and all signs seem to be pointing up. The only question is…will that matter? Can success from one season carry over to the next, or is each season a single, free-standing entity devoid of influence from its past? We’re going to find out awful quickly if these intangibles – call it confidence, call it swagger, call it momentum – are real, because right now, North Texas has them in spades.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.