The Mean Green are eyeing a swift rebound, because it’s way too easy to lose momentum in a place like Denton.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
Prior to winning nine games in 2013, North Texas had strung together eight losing seasons in a row, testament to the difficulty of thriving on this campus. And any hints that the futility has returned will crush Dan McCarney’s chances of winning the always-grueling recruiting battles with regional rivals from Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference.
After openly expressing the rigors of being the Mean Green head coach a year ago, McCarney will be under the microscope to pilot the team back to a bowl game and a winning mark in 2015.
The 2014 campaign was a tale of two very different competencies for North Texas. At Apogee Stadium, the Mean Green was a respectable 4-2, laying the groundwork for what should have been a postseason return. Away from home, however, the team was winless, getting manhandled by an average score of 42-19 in six trips. If a turnaround is going to happen in 2015, consistency must be achieved, regardless of the venue.
No single position underscores North Texas’ struggles over the past decade more than quarterback. In fact, the last time the Mean Green produced an all-conference hurler was Scott Hall 11 years ago. In a state with as many experienced gunslingers as Texas, a dry spell that long is flat-out unacceptable. The program must make significant strides behind center, especially after ranking 107th nationally in passer rating and 111th in yards per game.
But senior Andrew McNulty and his bevy of contenders have flashed few signs of being the answer. And de facto savior DaMarcus Smith missed a critical spring of practice to get in shape in the classroom.
North Texas surprised a lot of people by winning nine games two years ago in its Conference USA debut. After slumping last season, a repeat of that 2013 uprising is sorely needed in Denton. In football-rich Texas, if you’re not moving forward, you’re going to get stampeded … by rivals and by fans leaving your camp.
This is an especially critical year for McCarney and his coaching staff, because a fourth losing season over the last five years could lead to a major shakeup in 2015.
What you need to know about the offense: Consistency from behind center remains elusive in Denton. It’s been a very long time since North Texas challenged opponents through the air. Too long. And the run of futility is likely to continue in 2015. Senior Andrew McNulty is the frontrunner at quarterback, yet he’s the guy who threw one more pick than touchdown passes a season ago. Plus, four-fifths of last year’s starting O-line has graduated, and Carlos Harris is the only returning player who caught more than 15 passes in 2014. Harris is a good one, and TE Marcus Smith is a reliable red-zone threat, but no one else in green and white has proven anything at this level. There’s cautious optimism that a handful of transfers can assimilate quickly up front, creating running room for veteran RB Antoinne Jimmerson and his sophomore understudy, Jeffrey Wilson. However, everything will ultimately hinge on the quarterback race, which hopes to add ballyhooed junior-college transfer DaMarcus Smith at the end of the spring semester.
What you need to know about the defense: Veteran coordinator John Skladany rolled out a well-coached defense in Denton, year-in and year-out. Now that he’s retired, though, it’s up to Chris Cosh to take the baton and prevent the unit from straying from its personality. The Mean Green harbors no obvious stars, particularly after the graduations of LB Derek Akunne and CB James Jones. But it’s made a habit of overachieving with undersized defenders who work hard and limit their mistakes. The well-travelled Cosh arrives with a couple of priorities: Rebuild a secondary that graduated three seniors and get his kids to play as well on the road as they do in Denton. In 2014, North Texas gave up just 17 points a game at Apogee Stadium, but was dinged for 42 points per game on the road. LB Blake Bean and FS James Gray have transferred from Buffalo and Fort Scott (Kans.) Community College, respectively, intent on contributing immediately.
What to watch for on offense: The rebuilding of the O-line. As if locating a pulse on the necrotic Mean Green offense wasn’t going to be challenging enough already, the team is replacing four starters, including first-team all-leaguer Cyril Lemon. C Kaydon Kirby is the new anchor of a unit that will be dotted with rookies and newcomers, such as SMU transfer Sam Rice and Butler Community (Kans.) College transfer Brian Ochs. Figuring out the two-deep is already happening this offseason, but achieving chemistry up front is going to take time.
What to watch for on defense: Meeting and greeting. North Texas has so far used the offseason to get the personnel familiarized with new staff members … and vice versa. Veteran coordinator Chris Cosh has replaced John Skladany, one of Dan McCarney’s closest confidants. And while Cosh is expected to keep a 4-3 alignment, he’ll have to learn the characteristics of his Mean Green players, which includes a group of newcomers. To address defensive holes, North Texas signed six junior-college transfers, led by honorable mention All-American S James Gray.
This team will be far better if … the offense perks up … considerably. Successful Conference USA teams typically possess a little firepower, and certainly more than the Mean Green displayed in 2014. For starters, North Texas’ 27-point average was grossly inflated by a 77-3 demolition of FCS Nicholls State. The Mean Green averaged less than four yards a carry, threw as many picks as touchdown passes and sputtered on third downs. If UNT is going to beat the odds in 2015, it’ll have to be far more productive moving the ball and scoring points.
The Schedule: North Texas is one of the few teams that won’t kick off the new campaign on Sept. 5, and will not enjoy a bye week during the regular season.
– The schedule features just five games in Denton, as well as a wicked three-game November road swing to Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee.
– Along with the trip to Knoxville on Nov. 14, the Mean Green will also trek to Iowa City on Sept. 26 to play Iowa of the Big Ten.
– All three of this year’s East Division opponents, Marshall, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, figure to be in contention to win their half of the conference.
– Before having to play the Hilltoppers and the Herd in consecutive games, North Texas will host FCS Portland State in a much-needed home game on Oct. 10.
– WATCH OUT FOR … SMU. The matchup takes place in Dallas, the Mustangs will have a game under their belt and new coach Chad Morris is using this offseason to turn things around on the Hilltop.
Best Offensive Player: Senior WR Carlos Harris. Harris was like a weed in the pavement a year ago, overcoming little support to rank third in the league in receptions. The undersized playmaker is accustomed to beating the odds, flourishing as a player despite lacking prototypical size. Harris is a dangerous weapon in the open field, which is why the program will use him in more ways than just as a pass-catcher. With more help from the quarterbacks, he has All-Conference USA potential.
Best Defensive Player: Senior DE Chad Polk. Polk doesn’t have NFL size, and he’s hardly a household name, even around Denton. But he’s a blue-collar worker, with a great motor and just enough speed off the edge to create headaches for opposing offensive tackles. After leading the Mean Green in sacks, and tying for the team lead in tackles for minus yards, even more disruption and mayhem will be expected from Polk off the edge in 2015.
Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Andrew McNulty. Or whoever wins the right to lead the North Texas offense in 2015. The Mean Green started three different quarterbacks a year ago, McNulty, Josh Greer and Dajon Williams, with collectively poor results. McNulty gets first dibs on turning things around, though Greer and Williams are back, Connor Means has completed his redshirt season and fingers are crossed that Butler (Kans.) Community College transfer DaMarcus Smith will be academically eligible in time for the fall. After ranking 107th nationally in passer efficiency rating, UNT needs someone to grab this job and end any talk of a competition or a controversy.
The season will be a success if … the Mean Green finds the formula to play a 13th game. Although it looks like a longshot right now, with Iowa, Western Kentucky, Marshall, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee on the schedule, .500 ought to be a minimum requirement for any Conference USA program with a track record. It was just two years ago that North Texas won nine games, including a 36-14 postseason rout of UNLV. Fueled by desperation after going 4-8, the Mean Green must regroup quickly enough to manufacture six wins from a difficult schedule.
Key game: Sept. 12 at SMU. For North Texas, this quick trip south to Dallas will be huge by so many different measurements. Not only is it opening day for the Mean Green, but it’s also against a local rival who often competes on the recruiting trail for the same high school athletes. UNT desperately needs momentum, and faced with one of the league’s toughest schedules, must pocket the winnable games in 2015. The Mustangs, which won one time in 2014, is one of those games.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Sacks: North Texas 33 – Opponents 24
– First-quarter scoring: North Texas 62 – Opponents 100
– Touchdown passes: North Texas 13 – Opponents 19
Players You Need To Know
1. WR Carlos Harris, Sr.
When North Texas needs to make a play or move the chains, No. 9 is likely to be the target. Harris is the program’s most reliable playmaker, a shifty 5-8, 183-pounder who can make people miss in space. As the focal point of the passing game in 2014, he caught 70 passes for 863 yards and three touchdowns, adding 92 yards and a score on the ground. Harris could be even more effective this fall if the Mean Green develops accomplices who can absorb some of the attention from opposing defensive backs.
2. RB Antoinne Jimmerson, Sr.
No, Jimmerson has yet to deliver that one true breakout season. But he’s been steady and productive throughout his career, rushing for 1,579 yards and 17 touchdowns on 336 carries. He’s also caught 28 passes for 364 yards and five touchdowns. Jimmerson led the 2014 Mean Green with 589 yards on the ground, and he’s ideally built at 5-9 and 222 pounds to be this year’s workhorse between the tackles.
3. DE Chad Polk, Sr.
Polk emerged in 2014 as North Texas’ best pass rusher, finishing with 5.5 sacks to go along with 25 tackles, 8.5 stops for loss and three pass breakups. At 6-0 and 231 pounds, he’s a situational speed rusher, with a limited ability to impact the run defense. Polk, who gets off the snap and around the edge quickly, will be looking to build upon last season’s honorable mention All-Conference USA campaign.
4. C Kaydon Kirby, Jr.
Kirby’s importance to the Mean Green offense has grown exponentially since the end of 2014, since he’s the only returning starter along the O-line. He’s started every game of his North Texas career, 25 in a row since the beginning of his redshirt freshman year. Kirby goes 6-3 and 329 pounds, with the attitude and the overall strength to be a legitimate road grader on running downs.
5. CB Kenny Buyers, Sr.
Buyers is back for one more year to serve as the stable veteran of the Mean Green secondary. In fact, he’s the only returning full-timer now that James Jones, Sheldon Wade and Lairamie Lee have graduated. Buyers is a one-time walk-on, who earned a scholarship in 2013. However, his production did slip in 2014 to 55 tackles, three stops for loss, two picks and five passes defended. And he’ll need to lead by example for North Texas to improve its pass D in 2015.
6. TE Marcus Smith, Sr.
Smith came out of nowhere to become one of the squad’s biggest surprises of 2014. He ended up catching as many touchdowns—six—as a junior than he did receptions as a sophomore. A high school wide receiver, he’s grown to 6-4 and 247 pounds, which has helped make him a more effective blocker in the running game. In the red zone, Mean Green quarterbacks will want to know where Smith is at all times.
7. LB Fred Scott, Jr.
Scott laid an important career foundation as sophomore by starting all 12 games in the middle, filling the enormous shoes of Baltimore Raven Zach Orr. The 5-11, 238-pounder still has plenty to learn, but his 54 stops and 2.5 tackles behind the line should earn him another year in the lineup. Scott, who’s moving outside, plays with good leverage and instincts, and he’s tough to move off his base.
8. PK Trevor Moore, Soph.
Moore was one of the program’s biggest surprises a year ago. And one of its most consistent offensive weapons. In just his first year removed from Edmond North (Okla.) High School, he nailed 15-of-17 field goals to lead the Mean Green in scoring and earn honorable mention All-Conference USA. Moore connected from a season-long 47 yards, and showed increased confidence throughout the season.
9. P Eric Keena, Jr.
Keena forms one-half of a kicking unit in Denton that should rank among the league’s best over the next two seasons. In his first season of action, he averaged 44.8 yards per punt, which would have ranked No. 2 in Conference USA had he qualified with enough attempts. The honorable mention all-conference pick showcased the desired leg strength, both as a punter and as a kickoff specialist.
10. DT Austin Orr, Sr.
Orr is back for one more season to help bolster a D-line with a chance to be sneaky-good in 2015. There isn’t much that’s flashy about the 6-4, 277-pounder, but he’s experienced and quick enough to get penetration up the gut. Orr started half of last year’s games, making 21 stops, three tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles, and should be in the lineup again this year.