By Craig Fields
After coming off a rejuvenating season that saw the University of North Texas Mean Green boast a 9-4 record, their goal will now be to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 seasons. Under the guidance of Head Coach Dan McCarney, the Mean Green will have a pretty good opportunity to do so.
Well it is no surprise that last year’s successful season was due in large part to the senior leadership that was on both sides of the ball. Senior starting quarterback Derek Thompson and starting running back Brandin Byrd led the team on offense. Overall the offensive unit was not all that bad, scoring about 32 points per game. The driving force had to be the legs of Brandin Byrd who had over 1,100 yards rushing and receiving combined.
This year, however, junior Antoinne Jimmerson will have to be the one to lead the way. Over the past two years he has compiled a sub par resume of about 1,300 yards rushing and receiving combined. But that was because he was always behind better talent. Last year we got a chance to see more of his shiftiness both between and outside of the tackles. He will need to have a strong season on the ground if the Mean Green plan on repeating the success that they had in the 2013-2014 season.
The most important position, the quarterback position, has yet to be figured out by McCarney and staff. There are most likely two possible candidates, those being Andrew McNulty and Josh Greer. McNulty has been in the UNT organization for a while now, is a senior, and knows the coaching staff well. His familiarity with the Mean Green coaching staff may be his only leg up on competition Josh Greer. There has been good competition at the quarterback spot this offseason and one thing that is certain is that whoever opens the season against the University of Texas would have definitely earned that starting role.
It is no far stretch to say that all-conference linebacker Zach Orr was the heart and soul of just not the defense but of the team. With his senior leadership and production gone from this year’s team, this unit will have to look to someone else to provide that spark.
Derek Akunne looks to be that man. He’s a senior and played alongside Orr all last season. He learned from the now Baltimore Raven and is looking to continue the new tradition of a stingy, aggressive, and hard hitting defense. This is a defense that ranked eighth in the nation last year in points allowed. They were aggressive up front and had sure tacklers in the secondary.
One of those sure tacklers, junior cornerback Kenny Buyers, will be back and ready to contribute. Senior Lairamie Lee will also return. While it is true that this unit has lost plenty of talent, a lot of that talent will be returning as well.
Defensive coordinator John Skladany will not have to change the way he likes to attack that much. He has linebackers that can blitz and drop back in coverage. He has a relatively solid secondary that can read plays and lay the boom on unsuspecting wide receivers. Though his defensive line may not get the type of pressure that he may like, the defensive unit as a whole should be solid yet again.
Last year’s special teams unit was in one word, explosive. If it was not Brelan Chancellor returning punts and kickoffs for touchdowns, then it was Akunne, Lee, or Orr blocking punts, extra points, or field goals. Offensive and defensive starters really took pride in special teams under the guidance of Head Coach McCarney.
A special teams play can change the momentum of any game, and that happened quite often last season. That same intensity and playmaking will need to be present for this team to repeat the success that they had last season.
While it is unknown who will be returning the kickoffs or punts for the Mean Green, my money would be on one of the many running backs that this team has on its roster. Reggie Pegram or Rex Rollins could be that returner that the Mean Green would need to give them good field position and momentum shifting plays when needed.
Well when it’s all said and done, this team has the ability to win at least six games and become bowl eligible yet again. They will need to have that same power running offense with a quarterback who can manage the game.
The freshman class is not filled with talent and will need some time to grow and mature. That being said, this year’s recruiting class had more three star talent than many of the previous years, so finding talent appears to be getting easier for the Mean Green on the heels of a very good season.
Prediction: 7-5 in the regular season. Depending on who they play in their bowl game, potentially 8-5.
9/6 vs SMU
9/11 vs Louisiana Tech
9/20 vs Nicholls State
10/18 vs Southern Miss
11/8 vs Floria Atl
11/22 vs FIU