UNT played their first fall football scrimmage Saturday morning. While I was unable to attend, I have gathered a series of source articles that cover the nitty-gritty well. I will also sum up what occurred in a general overview and give some thoughts in an effort to provide some framing perspective - something that is often overlooked in the kinds of articles that were sourced for this report.
Summing up the scrimmage
The defense reportedly played well overall. The back seven looked pretty good and the D-line had a lot of good moments. The first team defense played very well, the second team popped some leaks. The team was strong against the pass, but somewhat weak versus the run.
On the issue that really matters to Mean Green fans—the QB battle—reviews were somewhat split, although everyone thought Derek Thompson did better. The stats and Bret Vito's reports painted it as fairly decisive. The Mean Green Blog folks saw it as a lot closer.
Going into the scrimmage, the MGB guys had senior Nathan Tune narrowly ahead due to stronger work in the practices. After the scrimmage, MGB writer Steven Bartolotta suggested that Thompson probably pulled even with Tune or now may even have a narrow lead.
Much like the final spring scrimmage, Tune opened the game facing the first-team defense and struggled early, only to see his competition, sophomore Thompson, come in and light up the second-team defense for two quick TDs before the defense put a cap on him. (To be fair, Thompson probably should have had a third TD pass later in the game, but Jamaal Jackson dropped a pass in the end zone.)
Tune played better as the game went on, hitting a number of big passes and eventually hooking up with Brelan Chancellor for a TD.
It sounds eerily similar to the last spring game in that regard. Thompson had the better highlight throws and "won the scrimmage", but really the difference may not have been pronounced and may have had more to do with the personnel on the field.
Thompson's first TD pass was reportedly a strike to a streaking Tyler Stradford. His second TD pass was described as an under-thrown ball that JUCO transfer Chris Bynes made a great adjustment to snag.
(I think the under-thrown aspect of it may need to be confirmed. Sometimes a pass has to be under-thrown to give only the receiver a shot to catch it. It is unclear if that was what Thompson was doing—a real positive—or if was just a bad throw that the receiver made a hell of a play to catch.)
Tune had two interceptions, but he had a lot of bad luck on each play. Tune had an interception on a pass that hit Willie Taylor's hands and then bounced off his facemask to MLB Daniel Prior. It is usually hard to fault a QB on that kind of play. Tune also threw a pass behind Riley Dodge, hitting him in the shoulder and popping up to where DB Robbie Gordon was able to pick it off.
Maybe with better personnel on the field, both are receptions and not interceptions, but the bottom line numbers looked ugly for Tune: 8 of 18 with 1 TD 2 INTs. Thompson, by comparison, was 7 of 10 with 2 TDs 0 INTs.
Senior and former 3-star JUCO recruit Jeremy Bean and his competition, junior Matt Tomlinson, reportedly started on the OL as UNT's best lineman, senior strong-side tackle Esteban Santiago, did not start. The team ran the ball pretty well overall, but had some problems controlling the pass rush on blitzes. It is unclear how much of those pass blocking issues occurred versus the first team. With Santiago out, even if the first unit had some breakdowns, you have to take them with a grain of salt for now.
The kicking team is another story. The team had a couple of blocks on FGs and extra points.
Freshman Brelan Chancellor returned some punts.
Senior John Weber made a couple of tackles for losses and a sack playing with the third team. Apparently, at least some of his time was spent at DE.
Now 240-lb, returning sophomore, starting DE KC Obi apparently had a great game rushing the passer and 3-star freshman DE Aaron Bellazine apparently flashed as a pass-rusher too.
Thoughts on the proceedings
It sounds like our starting defensive tackles and back seven will be very solid. We have a lot of potential starting-caliber players at DE as well. If the D can learn to maintain their focus, not lapse into bad technique and mentally take plays, series, and even quarters off like they did last year, they could be very good—especially against Sun Belt rosters. They need to start playing every play like it could decide the game.
I am concerned about our third and fourth CBs and our ends.
Thompson coming in and torching the second team pretty quickly for big passes is becoming a recurring theme. I am interested to see how Thompson would do starting out against the first team in a scrimmage and Tune starting against the second. That would clarify if we are really seeing Thompson emerge.
Right now, one has to think there may be a correlation between Thompson's early scrimmage TD successes and him facing the second-team D.
It concerns me that the backup DBs get lit up when they come in and the starters do not. We will need some guys who can cover a little coming in off the bench.
Is it a lack of talent, a failure on their part to enter the game with the right mindset, or maybe just a lack of a pass rush from the second unit?
We are still at a work-in-progress point of the season. One should look for potential red flags, but acknowledge they might disappear fairly quickly with coaching.
It is interesting to see that CB Robbie Gordon made another interception. He made one in the last fall scrimmage as well. On a team without playmakers, Gordon has a nose for the ball.
I read in Dave Campbell's 2010 Texas Football that UNT has Gordon backing up Ira Smith at safety instead of at CB, but I don't know if that is accurate at all. I liked Gordon last year at CB a lot, but you hear very little about him in the cornerback discussion. He wasn't even discussed as a potential starter in the spring before guys like 3-star JUCO recruit CB Steven Ford arrived and when junior CB Royce Hill was out. That is a little troubling.
Why is that? Dodge and Co. love speed and Gordon may not have enough for their taste. Or there could be an issue that coaches see that fans do not. Does he not work hard enough in practice? Does he make the same technical mistakes over and over? It will be interesting to follow Robbie Gordon.
Ford may be the long-coveted No. 1 CB that UNT has needed. This is great news as the other 3-star JUCO CB D'Andre Wood didn't make it to UNT.
I would still like to hear that Ira Smith is getting some CB reps before the season starts. He was listed at 183 lbs last season and now is at 192, but he is still a small guy at safety—even though he does a very good job.
I think Downing is probably going to be good enough to earn some playing time at a safety slot, so it could make sense to get Smith, with his 4.4 speed, to occasionally give our starters a break if no one steps up and solidifies the third and fourth CB spots.
Dawaylon Cook lit up Michael Outlaw in the scrimmage. I remember seeing him barely hang on to runners in the fall scrimmage last year. It is just bizarre to hear him being called the team's "hard hitting junior" this year and the team's hardest hitter. It may very well be true after a solid year last season, but it is still weird to hear.
Last year, I was questioned the idea that Cook, and not Eddrick Gilmore, was the team's most outstanding defensive player. But sometimes a player really requires positive reinforcement. If winning that award has led to him becoming the kind of player who could potentially deserve that award, then kudos to the staff for giving it to him.
To me, this team looks loaded with starting-caliber linebackers. I disagree with Stephen Howard's suggestion that LB is one of the perceived weakest areas of the team. Three solid returning starters challenged by a trio of 3-star recruits and a talented OLB prospect in Julian Herron doesn't sound weak on paper to me.
I think we could lose a couple to injury and still have an above-average unit for the Sun Belt. They may be a little light, but they play well.
The question, like last season, will be if the DL can do their job holding the line of scrimmage somewhat, allowing the LBs to make plays.
Todd Dodge after the game called junior JUCO 3-star recruit LB Forlando Johnson a highlight of the game.
I'll tell you, that is very interesting. Dodge described the UNT defense on signing day as having two linebackers in the box working forward and one more like a safety working in space. The two returning OLBs are really accomplished space guys.
3-star JUCO transfer LB Brad Graham, the early star of the recruiting class, seems to be a guy who can excel at both, but my take is that he is better in space as well. His flexibility will earn him a lot of PT this year, but may actually work against him in terms of taking a starting job as he is splitting his time at multiple spots.
Forlando Johnson is a fast, box-and-forward guy who covers a lot of ground. The media keeps reporting that the coaching staff sees him as a potential starter, leading me to believe that he might ultimately squeak ahead of Phillips for the other OLB spot based on his better blitzing potential.
That the coaching staff is so high on him now, even before they have started to practice blitzing—an area that should be his forte with his explosiveness—suggests he may have an edge at that spot. It bodes very well for UNT, as Phillips is a gamer. Having two playmakers fighting for PT could bring out the best in both.
The now 240-lb sophomore K.C. Obi played well by all accounts, pressuring the QB. Obi was a very solid backside chaser last year. I still think he is going to have trouble generating push and holding position this year, but it is hard to see how he wouldn't be better with an apparently great offseason under his belt.
I think his body won't be ready to allow him to be a plus starter until next season, but in an unproven field, Obi is flashing more than the others.
I am deeply concerned that we will be too small at defensive end to prevent a blowout against Clemson. Obi is 240 lbs. The other first team DE Brandon Akpunku is also listed at 240 lbs. Frankly, we may find out that 240 lbs includes pizza weight that is likely to melt off in practice.
To make matters worse, two of the other DEs in the mix as possible the third or fourth tackles are junior JUCO 3-star DE Frank Gaines—allegedly a 250-pounder when recruited, Gaines has withered to a mere 229 in the Texas heat—and Aaron Bellazine, a highly-touted freshman 3-star DE prospect who played DT and LB in high school, who only weighs 232 lbs.
That is really light on the edges vs. Clemson.
Clemson is a program with SEC-caliber size and depth. If presented with an obvious mismatch, they will run on UNT's DEs all day long.
UNT is clearly planning to rotate out DEs to try to help in that regard. The travel plans call for UNT to take five defensive ends to Clemson. They will probably all play, but the questions to me are, "how many plays for the starters and who will backup?"
This is a moment where Todd Dodge needs to curb Defensive Corrdinator Gary DeLoach. DeLoach is all about getting this team to control passing attacks. That is good and fine, but if you throw five pass-rush-first DEs that average 240 lbs against Clemson, they will run outside on you all day long and UNT will lose in a blowout fashion.
Selling out the run to stop the pass against Clemson is just dumb. Clemson is starting a veteran QB who has been hit a lot harder than a 230-lb DE from UNT is likely to hit him. Even if UNT can get pressure, it isn't likely to take Clemson's QB off his game. So why sell out the run for a marginal gain?
UNT can afford to lose, but a blowout could be very harmful to morale.
DeLoach is DeLusional if he thinks Clemson won't run on UNT 45 times in that scenario. Dodge needs to rein in our eccentric genius, for this one game anyway.
You need to bring your best run defenders for this particluar kind of opponent and that usually means size.
You need more size than that against Clemson. And really, this game represents the perfect opportunity to provide a career-changing chance for an underachiever. Let some of your bigs at DE travel to Clemson. Tell them that the Clemson game is a chance for one of them to earn a slot in the top 3 at DE for the rest of the season if they play well.
Clearly, for some the stick does not work. Why not try the carrot?
254-lb Ryan Boutwell, 265-lb Ryan McCoy, 274-lb John Weber, and 260-lb newbie Demario Dixon could all compete for the remaining three travel slots. If one of the three emerges against Clemson, UNT's strong-side DE problem might be resolved.
What makes this interesting is how many plays the senior DE Weber is making against the backups and what that may suggest. He is the largest of our DE prospects. He apparently is getting plays at DE now (while they clearly state he played DE Saturday, it is unclear from the scrimmage reviews if he played there exclusively). In the spring he was a pass-rushing eagle tackle experiment. I would love to see if he can handle the starting strong-side DE job. Barring that, it makes a lot of sense to get him heavily into the DE rotation for game one against Clemson, at least with their strong OL.
It will be interesting to see if Weber has climbed out of third string at DE. I want to know if he is on the travelling roster to Clemson.
True freshman DT Richard Abbe (a 357-pounder) and Tevin Cantly (now 336 lbs) saw a lot of time at DT as a run-stuffing duo. That may have been simply a tryout or it could be strategy, as game one is Clemson with their strong running game.
There are a lot of defensive tackles that have actually shed some weight this year, so DeLoach and Co. may see more potential eagle tackle types on the roster, allowing Weber to compete at DE. According to Bret Vito, sophomore Kyle White has dropped down from last year's 300+ lbs to around 290 lbs. (He is still listed at 309 lbs on the team roster, though.) Senior Jesse DeSoto is listed as down to 268 lbs and, shocker of shockers, UNT's best defensive tackle from last year, senior Shavod Atkinson is listed at 284 lbs, down from last year's 307 lbs.
Cantly appears to have eaten his way out of the DE discussion, which based on his play at both spots last season is probably a good thing. Now he seems to be having knee problems flare up, perhaps in part from carrying too much weight. Hopefully, that will correct itself.
Punter Will Atterbury looked great by all accounts.
I am glad to see Todd Dodge really becoming more of a team overseer, with an offensive coordinator on staff that he doesn't feel the need to tightly manage. Dodge was quoted after the scrimmage noting that kick blocking would have to improve.
This, to me, could be one of the keys to having a successful season. If a team keeps getting kicks blocked, blocking is almost always a huge part of the problem.
If special teams and running backs coach Shelton Gandy cannot get this problem area resolved, Dodge may need to give that area of responsibility to Gary DeLoach. (DeLoach ran UCLA's special teams quite competently for a few years.) Teams will continue to come after UNT's kicking game until the Mean Green prove they can block for FGs. This has the potential to cost UNT 2-3 games in the Sun Belt this year, so kudos to Dodge for getting out ahead on it.
I am cheering for freshman Chancellor to land a return job, although I'd have pushed for a spot on the kick return team instead of the punt return team. Still punt returns are a problem area. The kid's measurables are nothing to write home about, but if you have seen his highlights, you have seen that this kid is made for open-field running. He is one of those guys who runs away from people on the field.
Chancellor and RB Brandin Byrd—high school teammates—actually share that open-field explosiveness.
The depth chart at RB appears to be settling into a firm order, with Lance Dunbar starting and converted DB Lance Hamilton and freshman Brandin Byrd backing him up. All three are small scooters.
I think it would make a world of sense to redshirt Byrd, but the coaching staff clearly loves his potential. Add to this the fact that Byrd came in early and you get the feeling he doesn't want to sit a season either.
Both backups run with purpose, hitting holes hard.
There appears to be excellent insurance if Dunbar goes down. In such a scenario, UNT may not have Dunbar, but they will have runners as good as most other Sun Belt teams. UNT may have five guys who are capable of 100-yard games.
Senior Esteban Santiago showed up 30 pounds over his playing weight from last season. That is a huge concern.
While I advocated some weight gain by Santiago, there is talk of potentially moving him to guard if he can't lose enough weight to play tackle. Santiago should be in discussions as the Sun Belt's best offensive lineman, not being looked at as a potential weak link to be covered up.
That is disappointing.
Hopefully Santiago drops the extra pounds quickly.
Most of the reviewers suggest Tomlinson looked like he took a step ahead of Jeremy Bean in the race for the guard spot. With Santiago out, I would be hesitant to reach that conclusion based off the scrimmage. How Santiago conditions may play a big role in that decision.
At wide receiver, Darius Carey's moving injury appears to have cracked the door for Bynes. The thought was that Stradford, Carey, and Jackson would be the three starting wide receivers this year and would catch most of the balls. Stradford and Jackson are 4.4 burners and Carey is not slow himself, with 4.5 speed.
The now bigger-looking Carey looked really good in the last spring scrimmage, favoring a possession-type, chain-moving, No. 1 receiver, but with his injury and a very deep and talented receiver corps, it should be no shock that others are emerging.
Bynes may be the team's most natural receiver. He has great hands. I would actually be surprised if he is not the team's reception leader going into the Rice game. I actually think it is not at all out of the question that you might see Jackson fall behind the other three in reception totals by season's end.
Offseason superstar Benny Jones has also appeared to earn the confidence of the new coaches and perhaps a place in the rotation. Jones has good speed.
Finally, some thoughts on the quarterbacks.
Thompson has a big arm, but is really a top-notch, mid-range passer. He is not truly a deep bomber, but he throws an excellent and accurate 30-35 yard pass over the middle. That is a great skill to have. Troy Aikman went to the NFL Hall of Fame throwing accurate short and mid-range passes. Thompson is also a bull-strong runner with a big frame.
As the unproven commodity in the QB duel, Thompson has to outperform Tune to win the starting job. The first fall scrimmage was a good start.
Tune has a big arm, too, and can throw all of the passes with accuracy, but he appears a bit more methodical. He is far more likely to check down and take the safe 10-yard gain than risk it going for the big score if he doesn't think it is a safe play.
While there are few sprinkles to his running, he runs a lot better than credited and throws accurately on the move. (In an amusing side note, after a feverish offseason of weight training, Tune, the former "stick man from Celina", is now officially listed as one pound heavier than Thompson!) Tune is one of the rare QBs who can throw deep with accuracy. He just doesn't do it that much.
Will that cost him the job vs. the unabashed gunslinger Thompson?
UNT is in the fortunate position of being able to choose between two competent-looking starting QB candidates. Will they chose the Gunslinger or the Game Manager?
Here are the articles sourced in this report: