How good is previously little known sophomore UNT QB Derek Thompson? (A player with so little fanfare or exposure, there is not even a picture of Derek Thompson in the Bleacher Report Photo Datatbase. For the record, the picture to the right is a proxy photo.)
That may now be the biggest question floating around UNT's program this year. For weeks the sophomore quarterback has been making news for his play on the practice field as he's pushed incumbent Nathan Tune for the backup job.
Now with Riley Dodge moving to slot receiver, Thompson is in a competition with Tune for the starting job.
It does raise the question, "Did the potential of Thompson help end the QB career of Riley Dodge?" Consider that Dodge and Thompson will both be sophomores this coming year.
After all, if Thompson was deemed a raw, but far superior, talent to Dodge by Offensive Coordinator Mike Canales, then why spend your time developing Dodge?
To hear daily observers talk, Thompson throws hard on every play and has a pretty good arm. If you project the big Thompson (6'4", 223 pounds) as the starting quarterback, QB sneaks could become a real weapon in short-yardage situations, and that is one of the biggest problem areas for UNT on offense.
As much of an uncanny knack as Lance Dunbar has for breaking big plays, he is a pretty marginal short yardage back with poor tackle-breaking lower body strength. Pairing him with a bull of a hard running QB who runs north-south between the tackles is a pretty compelling strategy for piling up first downs.
How good is Thompson? We don't really know. He has throw more than a couple touchdowns in spring practice.
The little collegiate film we have of him is him throwing a few passes at the end of the Arkansas State game, where he took the team down the field for a score against what may have been some of their younger backups with a perfect performance in that series.
There is also some highlight reel video on-line of his big plays in high school which makes him look a lot like Tim Tebow, but those are highlights only and the video quality is reduced to where the viewer can't get a good feel for the amount of zip on his passes, beyond noting he does seem capable of throwing the ball 40 yards with some good velocity.
He appears to have a good arm - certainly better than Riley's Dodge's from the last 2 years - but is it really a great arm, or is he just one of those QB's who puts as much pepper on every pass as he can?
Thompson as a prospect had reported 4.7 speed. He is a north-south runner who runs with a good head of steam and good body lean. He is still listed at 223 pounds, his weight from last season, but there is talk that he is a good bit bigger now from weight training.
There seems to be a buzz around him that appears it may extend into the coaching staff.
It seems pretty clear that at some point in the future Thomspon probably has a date with the starting QB job at UNT. Should that be opening day in 2010 or 2011? Or somewhere in between?
Is he really a good enough talent to beat out a guy like Tune, who has played well against a couple of the best defensive teams in college football, delivers consistent high-level play, senior leadership, and runs a mistake-free offense?
Can UNT's staff afford to take that risk with most of their more winnable games in the first half of the season?
Fans like myself can make up their minds for themselves this Sunday at 3 p.m. at Fouts Field, when UNT plays its final spring scrimmage. The scrimmage is open to the public. Both quarterbacks will split time with the first- and second-team units.
Additional notes about spring practice
Do not be surprised if UNT's defense looks very fragile vs. the run and actually the pass as well in the final scrimmage. Don't overblow the significance of it.
UNT's new recruiting class is heavy in the back seven, and a handful of those guys are here for the spring. That means defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach will be doing a lot of shifting of players around to see what they can do.
New linebacker Forlando Johnson for example, a junior college transfer, appears to be a playmaker in pass coverage. In UNT's system, one outside linebacker plays a lot like a strong safety with heavy coverage responsibility and the other is more of a box-type player.
The two starting outside linebackers are somewhat proven commodities. Craig Robertson is a multi-year starter, and Jeremy Phillips has big-time playmaking instincts in coverage and is about 12 pounds heavier so far this year.
Probably Johnson's ideal slot would be the outside linebacker spot occupied by Robertson, who, although he is the most proven linebacker and may be UNT's best linebacker, is not as much of a playmaker in space as the other two.
This has had Deloach and staff reportedly trying out both Robertson and Johnson outside as well as in the middle (perhaps hoping one of the two can beat out run stuffer AJ Penson or at least pick up some plays there in passing situations). There was even a report DeLoach might try Johnson out at safety.
Why safety with all that talent coming in and two proven solid starters? I think UNT started basically two free safety/nickleback types last year. Both guys were pretty good in coverage, but didn't make many plays and while they did a decent job tackling, they were no threats to dismember a receiver.
My guess is that ideally the coaching staff would love to look at Ira Smith at cornerback over the spring, but because three-star recruit Jamison Hughes (a natural run controlling stong safety in my opinion) has not been there and last year's quality backup safeties John Shorter and Darrien Williams are no longer with the program, depth is not what you'd want.
(I am a bit suprised we haven't heard about three-star JUCO recruit Ryan Downing - a star JUCO safety who I see as a free safety type - beyond one big hit. I thought he'd be making noise in the secondary a la Johnson by this point, but spring practices are more of an investigative exercise, so I am not too concerned. Yet.)
UNT's most experienced corner, Royce Hill, is out until the summer with an injury, and neither of the team's three-star, 4.4-running JUCO cornerback prospects have arrived on campus, so UNT is running out a lot of "unknowns" at the position. There is a very real possibility that the offense is running against guys who won't even see the field in the fall (though there is clearly the space for one or two of these guys to emerge).
With that coverage picture, don't expect much of a pass rush.
Really, you shouldn't expect much of one anyway. DeLoach has long tinkered with positions in the spring, and this year is no exception, with DT-turned-DE-turned-DT Tevinn Cantly once more being looked at at the end spot as well as defensive ends John Webber and LaChris Anyiam getting looks at defensive tackle.
Last year they tried to implement a more aggressive scheme that went after the pass first, but they lacked the horses in the backfield. They sold out the run to try to generate a pass rush and it failed. That led the defense to be way behind the curve in moving to stopping the run. Their defensive ends were regularly turned and moved in the first half of the season, opening up wide running lanes.
Late in the season the coaching staff made personnel changes moving Cantly to DT, the physical senior Eddrick Gilmore to the strong-side DE spot, and better backside run chaser K.C. Obi into the lineup that helped the DL hold their position and freed the linebackers to flow down the line.
(I would contend it amounted to a decision to change their focus to stopping the run first.)
DeLoach and staff have again pushed most of their DL size to the middle. One hopes head coach Todd Dodge learned his lesson last year and the experimenting will not be allowed to go on past halfway through the fall preseason practices—rather than through 60 percent of the regular season like last year.
Guys like Aniyam and Weber need to get long looks at the strong-side defensive end spots if they prove to be marginal, backup caliber DTs. There is no reason to replicate the Gilmore mistake again this year.
While UNT will have the horses at cornerback and safety to try a philosophy that stops the pass first come the fall, they probably do not today, which means that this offseason could mirror the last in the regard that UNT's defense may come out of the spring with less of an identity than fans would like.
This kind of shuffling will lead to holes being there when they won't be in the regular season and should make the offense and both QBs look a little better than they are.
Now, that said, a lot of good work is happening in the spring, and a lot of players are getting a lot better. I only mention this to keep fans' expectations for the spring game in perspective.
Spring ball is an opportunity for the bottom of the roster to play its way into or close to the top two strings of the depth chart and for people at the top to get some reps. To a certain extent, a "grain of salt" has to be taken with what occurs.