It's time for this year's pre-season preview.
Let me start with a disclaimer, mostly the same disclaimer I used last year:
"I am a struggling writer/editorialist, not a news reporter, so the opinions expressed here are my own combined with data mined from other sites to form a handy season guide.
This contains a lot of supporting information read in reports from such sites as scout.com, rivals.com, the Denton Record-Chronicle, UNT.edu, and other sites, but are my own views and predictions.
I do want to say that large chunks of the information from which I pulled together the likely depth chart and other information were initially reported by Brett Vito, the reporter who covers the Mean Green for the Record-Chronicle.
He is quite simply the best source for information on the Mean Green out there and the Record-Chronicle is the best source for Mean Green News. The stats, schedule, and player dimensions are pulled from the UNT.edu athletics pages."
OK, Let's go.
QUARTERBACK: Once more UNT will have a new starter at quarterback. Riley Dodge, last year's starting QB, does not have the arm strength or the durability presently to be counted on to run the UNT spread offense for a full season in this make or break year for the coaching staff.
In the spring, it was apparent Riley was having issues with injuries again. His arm was sore and tired, and the resulting passes were not looking good. Head Coach Todd Dodge made the emotional decision to bench his son and go in a different direction to give his staff, the players, and the team their best shot to succeed.
Last year's backup 6'4" senior Nathan Tune held off the challenge from sophomore Derek Thompson over the summer and the fall to win the starting job. By all reports Tune worked diligently this off-season, adding 20 Lbs of good weight to his frame. Ultimately Coach Dodge reported that hard work played a big role in earning the senior the starting nod.
Last season, Tune was the team's sacrificial lamb, starting against the two toughest defenses on the schedule, Troy and the eventual National Champions, Alabama. Tune did very well last year although victories eluded him. He threw two potential game winning passes vs. Ohio that were dropped. He threw a TD vs. Alabama with no INTs and played well almost every time Riley Dodge went out last year.
Tune is, to my view, a cerebral and conservative game manager type of QB. He can progress through reads fairly well. He doesn't make an abundance of mistakes. He does not drop the ball and rarely throws interceptions. He is a little robotic, but looks like a very solid starter. He is not the instinctive elusive runner that Riley Dodge was, but Tune is very underrated as a runner. He has decent speed for a QB and is a competent straight line runner. Tune has a great arm and is one of the rare quarterbacks with the arm strength to throw a ball 50+ yards down the field with accuracy. His teammates seem to like and respect him. He can make all of the throws, a trait I think played a big role in him winning the starting job.
The backup QB will be sophomore Derek Thompson. I see him as a gunslinger. Thompson is one of those guys who doesn't know he is a young kid who is supposed to be struggling. He appears to be UNT's QB of the future. His build and his running style reminds me of Tim Tebow, but that is based off films of him running against high school defenses. I have not seen enough of him running against hitting collegiate defenses to say whether that aspect of his game will translate to the college level. Thompson is a big confident kid with a pretty good arm. He is clockwork on midrange passes over the middle. The balls get there quickly and on target. As these passes are generally hitting WR's on post plays in full stride and we have great WR talent, he threw a lot of TD passes over the off-season. I thought that was his comfort zone. To me, he struggled a little throwing the other passes. I worried what would happen if he went up against an experienced zone defense. I'd love to see the coaching staff use this guy as the sacrificial lamb like they did Tune last year. Where I think the warts on his game would be exposed as an everyday starter today, he could likely do pretty well as a suprise starter for a week. I'd love to see him start the Troy game. Where a guy like Tune won't lose you a game, this kid is just uppity enough and his game is well suited to win you a game you have no business winning against an unprepared opponent. I also think he'd make a great short yardage threat/designated QB sneak guy, but I don't anticipate him being utilized in that fashion. This coaching staff headed by two former college QBs is very sensitive about avoiding QB controversies.
Riley Dodge will be a utility/changeup QB this year. I think that is a good role for him. Dodge is still a very accurate and competent short passer and an instinctive runner. At Southlake apparently they once employed the changeup QB in their offense giving that QB a series or so in each half. If I have the story right that QB was Riley Dodge. I would not be surprised to see the same thing this year at UNT. I am expecting Dodge to take about 8-10 snaps a game at QB this year. I think that is about right. With the lack of zip on his midrange passes and the lack of arm on his deep passes I think he was exposed at times last season. This year, he can come in and force the defense in and then UNT can trot out Tune and send someone deep.
The third string QB is Chase Baine. He plays a lot like Riley Dodge. I do not anticipate him playing, but he could be surprisingly solid if he should be pressed into service.
RUNNING BACK: Even with the graduation of Cam Montgomery and the defection of Jeremi Mathis, UNT has a load of talent in the backfield.
Lance Dunbar emerged midway through the season to become the most feared big play back in the Sun Belt. Dunbar is not the biggest back at about 205 Lbs and not the fastest either. Every runner succeeds due to certain attributes they possess. Dunbar's attributes fit extremely well with the offense UNT ran last season. Dunbar is at full speed very quickly. He has great vision as a runner and doesn't waste a lot of movement or steps. He will easily and naturally cut back away from traffic. He finds his seams quickly and commits to them getting up field quickly. I am a little worried that Dunbar, like Montgomery last season, may find the second time through a lot more difficult. Last year, in the old offense, Dunbar was facing defenses that usually had all of their defensive backs spread out covering UNT's 4 receivers. Dunbar often only had a linebacker to beat and then he could outrun defensive backs who had 10 to 15 yards to make up. He effectively only had two layers to beat. This year with a base set that features 3 WRs and a tight end, there may be a safety better placed in the middle of the field creating a third layer, turning those 70 yard TDs into 15-20 yard gains. I am also concerned about Dunbar's ability to finish runs. Last year a lot of the better defenses would bottle him up for 2 yard gains and force UNT away from the run. If Dunbar can stretch those 2 yard gains into 3& 4 yard gains he would be able to dictate the play calling, not the defenses. I don't know how much improvement I see in that regard, and I think he may lose some carries to his backups over that. Dunbar will still be effective, but I suspect last year will appear to be a lightning in a bottle. (I Hope I am wrong.)
Hamilton and freshman Brandin Byrd are similar in that they are smaller backs too, but they may actually be faster and appear to be more physical runners in terms of finishing their runs.
Look for all of the backs to be more involved in the passing game this year.
WIDE RECEIVER: This is the best collection of receiver talent in the Sun Belt. Will it produce to it's talent? Probably not. Sometimes, when you have too much talent, players play on edge fearing the hook. Dodge would be smart to redshirt a few of these guys.
Jamaal Jackson, a second team all-Sun Belt player, is back. He is an elusive slot receiver type with 4.4 speed. I didn't see a great deal of improvement from him over the off-season and he got injured (ligament damage in his hand) which may have him out to the start of the year. Maybe when the games start, he will show more with big guns throwing the ball deep at him. I am going to say something very unpopular, but I think he is much more valuable to the team as a kick returner than he offers as a wide receiver. I don't think he is all that effective in the red zone and although he has great speed, he hasn't really got the knack for being a big play receiver. His speed allows him to get open. He has good, but not great hands. He will start the season as a starter, but I would not be surprised if his role lessens as the year progresses.
Darius Carey is a guy I had suggested was likely to emerge as the team's #1 receiver after the last spring scrimmage. The former high school QB turned his understanding of the game and very good and reliable hands into a starting job last season. He ran a 4.5 coming out of high school and made a lot of plays last year in earning third team all-sun belt accolades. He gets open, makes the catch, and turns north/south after the catch. In many of last seasons games he appeared to be UNT's best receiver. He looked bigger and more physical in the spring. He appears to be evolving into a possession #1 receiver. He broke his hand helping his mother move in the fall and really hurt his ownership of a starting job. I think he will probably reclaim a starting job fairly soon, but I no longer feel firmly convinced he will lead the team in receptions.
Troy Stradford has BCS, if not NFL prospect level talent. The question everyone asks is can he become that caliber of player? Critics question his hands, but the issue is really his concentration. He is capable of making a somewhat difficult catch, but will on occasion drop the easy one. Where he shines is is ability to get open. He will be a nightmare for opponents to cover. He combines 4.41 speed with good size and a play maker's attitude. He will be in the starting lineup because the coaching staff simply cannot afford not to start him.
Chris Bynes has been a bit of a surprise coming in from the JUCO ranks. The coaching staff said they liked him on signing day, but I don't think anyone knew he would be as productive as he is. He has great hands and a knack for making plays. He adjusts well to poorly thrown balls and just makes plays for his quarterback. He looks like to start in week one and may continue to start as the other starters return. I would not be surprised to see him take a lot of Carey's playing time early and Jackson's playing time late.
Benny Jones. The hit of spring 2009 before falling off the radar. He made a big impression on the coaching staff and apparently played his way into the rotation until injuries hit again. He hasn't played much since. This is a kid with good speed. He is also light as a feather and can't seem to stay healthy.
B.J. Lewis. I am disappointed that injuries hit this kid this off-season. He was a former go to guy in high school with the attributes you'd want at WR. He has good height, size, and speed. He seems like a guy who could be a solid deep threat and a threat in the corner of the end zones. He had a Jeckle and Hyde game in the final spring scrimmage and I had hoped he would redeem himself over the summer and fall, but the injury has cost him an opportunity to improve his standing. I like this kid because he was a go to guy in high school and he appears to play with the expectation of being a one in college. It is entirely speculation, but I suspect he may need a bit of a wake up call. He has very good speed, good size, and good hands. He has enough talent to be great at this level, but is he doing the little things required to be great? This is a guy who should want to be the best route runner on the team. This is a guy who shouldn't blow plays or lose focus and drop balls. For this kid to earn PT on the loaded roster out here, he has to be totally reliable. He has to run the right plays reliably, he has to run great routes that he really sells, he has to catch and hold on to the ball --- really he has to earn the trust of the coaching staff. Other receivers are doing it more than he is at this point. I want this kid to be great, but he may be letting his collegiate career pass him by a little.
Alex Lott may be the most underrated receiver on the roster. He is consistently productive and reliable. He doesn't have great attributes - he is short with good but not great speed - but he is really consistent. As he isn't as talented as some of these guys he is not likely to win a starting job, but UNT fans can count on him to deliver when he is in the slot. Last year he had some issues with taunting on the field. Hopefully he has grown up in that regard.
Willie Taylor is a bit of a hit or miss player. He will make a big play one minute and a bad play the next. He will drop a pass and has shown a bit of a perchant for serving up balls for easy interceptions. With all the injuries he has had extended periods to play and make his argument for playing time in front of the coaching staff. I think Taylor will be a very good player eventually, but I think the upside of playing him today does not outweigh the downside. This team has not established its identity yet and putting a player on the field who causes interceptions should be the last thing a staff should want to do. I personally would redshirt him.
Michael Outlaw is back. He has a bad rap from last year, but lets be fair — he was totally misused last year. He is a receiver who will run over the middle and take the tough hit and catch the ball. Last year the team used him as a deep threat and had him continuously trying to adjust to Riley Dodge's underthrown looping bombs. He was absolutely horrible in that role and dropped a lot of passes and allowed many more to be picked off. I personally believe it got into his head a bit. What I do like about Outlaw is that he is a game competitor. Most of the time he would follow up a drop with a tough nosed catch over the middle. He has missed some time and appears to have fallen out of the starting rotation for now. I think this is a guy who needs a little more time to distance himself from last season. It is not likely to happen, but I'd like to see him redshirted and see him start next year catching passes from Thompson. I think they would go together like peas and carrots.
Riley Dodge is another guy who hasn't really mastered out the WR position. I am hesitant to be too negative about him because I love the fact that he took the position change like a man, like the team leader he is. In spite of the fact the I don't like some of the things I see from him at wide receiver, I love him as a Mean Green Player and will cheer my ass off for him every time he touches the ball. Riley Dodge is not likely to be a consistent chain moving wide receiver this year. As a pass catcher, he is not that fast or elusive. Like Taylor he will pop a ball up in the air where it can be intercepted. When he does catch the ball he just doesn't seem that dangerous. Do you remember when the Aikman Dallas Cowboys would have a 3rd and 8 and hit FB "Moose" Johnson for 7 yards? That is the impression I get of Riley Dodge as a receiver. I don't see him as a deep threat or a red zone threat. I think he needs a year or two of development. I think the staff loves and respects the kid, I just hope they don't feed him too much PT at WR out of loyalty and respect.
Breece Johnson is a guy who has made a lot of plays in practice but really hasn't seen much time on the field. I would like to see the coaching staff try him out in end zone situations this year, but that appears it may not be in the cards with the volume of skilled receivers on the roster.
Brandon Chancellor - the other freshman from Copperas Cove - looked like a natural in fall practices. He doesn't have great timed speed from what I could locate, but he appears to be much faster on the field. He has had knack great open field runners have to get away from people for big runs and has somewhat polished receiving skills. He seemed to quickly earn some trust with the coaching staff. Dodge mentioned redshirting him. If he doesn't he might be the 5th receiver on this team or so, which is quite an accomplishment this far in his career on a roster with this much talent. Casey Schutza is another freshman receiver that looks pretty good. UNT landed two very nice prospects.
This should be the deepest WR corps in the Sun Belt. That said, will anyone emerge as a true number one receiver who can consistently move the chains in pressure situations?
Utility Back/TIGHT END:
Micah Mosley was a front runner for the utility back role before breaking his foot. Now it looks like Greg Brown will own the "starting" utility back slot with JUCO transfer Jamize Olawale backing him up. Brown seems likely to be destined for a life of blocking. Olawale may become a fan favorite in short order. As I mentioned in the signing day review he seems to be a receiving TE prospect with breakaway speed. He has made a number of big plays since arriving and looks to be a real threat in the open field.
Draylen Ross looked destined to start at the tight end spot until Conor Gilmartin-Donohue transferred in. Gilmartin-Donohue sounds like something of a mercenary. As I understand it the New Yorker is transferring in for the fall semester only. He is a polished player who does everything you want a TE to do, at a pretty solid level. The coaching staff seems to have a lot of confidence in him. Ross is a great physical specimen who is finally back at the spot where he started a couple of games as a freshman. It is impossible for me to say much conclusively about him at this point. He should be great double teaming a DE, but the fact he does not appear destined to start could indicate he has trouble dealing with linebackers. Most seem to agree he has solid hands for the position, but do the coaches see him as a receiving threat?
I think the production could surprise some folks, but it seems like the coaching staff wants to use these guys in more situational roles, so don't expect anyone to emerge statistically. Still they look pretty good.
OFFENSIVE LINE: This is a veteran offensive line returning 4 starters from last season. Last year the team gave up only 13 sacks on 413 pass attempts and powered a running game that gained 5.3 yards per carry. On the negative side they were stopped in short yardage situations too often. Along those lines it is pretty exciting that most of the players are back this year and 5-10 Lbs heavier - about what you would target for a good weightlifting off-season. On the flip side, UNT lost their offensive line coach to Tulsa and had to promote his assistant to the job on short notice, so there is a chance that UNT could see breakdowns occasionally in the pass blocking.
Strongside tackle Esteban Santiago brings aggression to the line. He set the tone for the entire line last year with his fire and most projected he would be one of the five best linemen in the Sun Belt this year. Sadly he showed up this fall 30 lbs over his playing weight last year. He has been conditioning, but it could be an issue early. Game one opponent Clemson has a DE who is supposed to be a first round talent.
Senior Victor Gill is a skilled, experienced, reliable blindside pass protector who should give Tune a lot of confidence in the pocket.
J.J. Johnson is a smart, solid returning center.
Former center Kevin Drake was OK last year at guard coming back from injury. One hopes he takes his game up a notch this year having a full year at the spot under his belt.
The fifth starter will be junior Matt Tomlinson. He has good size at 6-5/300 lbs and moves fairly well. Jeremy Bean was competing with Tomlinson for the open guard spot, but ended up getting a lot of reps at Tackle in the fall - likely in case Santiago was not ready to go. He provides good insurance at both spots. He is a pretty good player, with sufficient athleticism to succeed at both spots.
The team has a lot of good depth in guys like Fortenberry, Leppo, and Bean, and Franklin. None of them wow you, but all look like very competent backups who can hold their own in the Sun Belt.
The starting lineup should be very good if Santiago rounds into shape quickly. It will be interesting to see how the team does in short yardage situations this year and if there is a drop off in pass blocking. I think they will probably do pretty well, especially if seniors Santiago and Drake play to their talent level.
DEFENSIVE LINE: For once UNT has a lot of talent on the DL.
Senior Shavod Atkinson was the second best defensive lineman on the team last year behind Eddrick Gilmore who graduated. Last year Atkinson was a 309 LB NT-type run stuffer. As a pass rusher he flashed moments of dominance collapsing the pocket, but he lacked the last step to finish. This year Atkinson showed up to camp at a svelte 284 Lbs, apparently with the goal of finishing those plays. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this. My impression last year was that Atkinson lacked the agility to finish plays. Perhaps 25 lbs lighter after an off-season of hard work he will have that agility. It does seem fairly likely that he will not need quite as many breaks. On the negative side it is always a bit risky when you fundamentally change your body and you were a pretty good player before. With less weight his center of gravity will be higher. Will he keep his pads a little lower to compensate?
Fellow senior DT Kelvin Jackson actually added a pound to his weight over the off-season, but by all accounts he is in much better condition this year. I thought Jackson actually flashed a better upside than Atkinson, but he just wasn't in good enough shape to stay on the field. He is a big run stuffer who may not show as much power as Atkinson, but I thought he showed better agility as a pass rusher. That said, the players have such different skillsets and we don't know if those skills will lend themselves to effective play. As a Mean Green fan,it will be neat to see them on the field together for big chunks of the game this year. (Fingers crossed.)
Sophomore Tevinn Cantly's career is a roller coaster ride. Last spring he dropped down to 285 and looked good at DE. By the fall the coaching staff had apparently lost confidence in his ability to handle playing in space. By mid-season he was moved back to DT. He emerged as a player capable of delivering solid starting Sun Belt caliber DT play. Then this spring they tried to work him at DE again. This fall he was up to 336 LBs when he reported and he was again back at DT. He played some in the fall and looked OK, but he started having knee issues. I suspect Cantly's knees will do in his career if he can't keep his weight under a reasonable weight, say 300-310. I also think there is a lot of logic to just leaving this guy at DT.
Senior Jesse Desoto could surprise in spot minutes, but seems too small for regular play. He is lighter this year too. He appears a pretty marginal talent and was exposed as a heavy minute player in the past, but in previous years it seemed to me like he did surprisingly well as a pass rusher in scrimmages. Maybe this new weight will work for him.
Sophomore DT Kyle White reportedly came in this fall at 290 down from 309. They are saying good things about him - that he will play, but he isn't even running second string at DT with DE's in the mix.
DEs John Webber and Brandon McCoy are slotted as the team's backup DTs. In most defenses they would be strongside DEs. They are undersized as DTs. Webber, a senior, showed some pass rushing ability in the scrimmages and was a very effective DE at the JUCO level and a very highly graded prospect. McCoy is a military guy who showed up on campus and impressed the coaching staff.
At the starting DE spots it appears UNT will go with Sophomores KC Obi and Brandon Akpunku.
Akpunku was listed at 225 Lbs last year, but it was reported the weight melted off him a bit as the season progressed. Obi was listed at 214. He eventually took the weakside starting DE job from Akpunku and was a big part of the defense's improvement vs. the run in the season's second half.
Today both players are listed at a fairly unbelievable 240 lbs.
Obi is due to start at the strong side DE. He plays with good technique and speed. Last year he could chase down a QB, but he really didn't have any strength to prevent tackles from taking him around QBs. I don't think that has changed too much over one off-season in terms of a pass rusher. He needs a good push up the middle to flush the QB into him. If Atkinson and Jackson can provide that, he may record a few sacks. He also will likely have some trouble vs. the run. Obi does play good technique and consistently slide off his blocker to chase a runner down from behind, but he will be giving up 50-70 Lbs a game to mostly equally competent technicians at OT.
Akpunku is a mixed bag. He seized a starting job last year based almost entirely on his pass rushing, fierceness and determination, even though he was very much undersized and inexperienced at the position. He is really a top notch pass rushing 3-4 OLB. Unlike Obi, Akpunku’s technique as a down lineman is not that consistent. He was a very good pass rusher for the first half of last season, but appeared to go into a funk as a pass rusher when Obi took his starting job. Akpunku has worked hard to get stronger over the off-season and is such a fiery player and a potential leader that the coaching staff may just decide to live with any weakness he shows vs. the run this year.
Dodge and co. appear to have a little bit of a find in senior transfer DeMario Dixon. He has decent size at 260 lbs and appears to be a solid player who plays fairly well vs. the run and pass. JUCO transfer Frank Gaines was reported to be a 250 LB three star DE recruit, but the Texas heat appears to have melted 20 Lbs off his weight. He has flashed a little as a pass rusher. Aarron Belazine is a tough nosed, three star freshman DE. He weighs 232 Lbs and played LB and DT in high school. Everyone is impressed with him as a player, but the question is how long it will take for him to adjust to college football.
Last year's defensive line was disappointing, but considering the lack of bulk it was understandable. Everything had to fall exactly right for the line to be effective. Cantly appeared to lose the coaching staff's confidence at DE. DL coach Mike Nelson and DeLoach wasted half of Eddrick Gilmore's senior year at DT before they finally realized what most Mean Green fans and reporters already knew - that Gilmore was a good DE and a mediocre tackle. Jackson got injured and the two big tackles were not in good enough shape to play heavy minutes effectively. Akpunku and Sam Owusu-Hemmeng's work against the run was not very good or consistent.
Still the overall picture wasn't all bad. In the second half of the year the team stopped selling out the run, inserted better run defenders, and the defense played a lot better. Based off that strong finish, the team gave up 4.8 yards per carry...a big improvement from the 5.6 yards per carry they gave up the year before.
Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach and Nelson appear to want to sell out the run again to try to develop a pass rush. How tight Todd Dodge keeps the reigns on their experimentation with players at spots unfamiliar to them is a key for this team. Dodge cannot afford to wait 6 games to find out the team's best DE by a good margin is on the bench at DT again this season.
Projection: C. The talent is there for the DL to do a lot better, but I am not convinced the DeLoach/Wilson brain trust is not "too smart by half". Dodge needs them to be realistic and do what it takes to give him solid D line play even if "their vision" for some players is not met.
LINEBACKERS: Linebacker appears to be a position of strength for UNT. After heated competition in the fall, all three starting linebackers will retain their starting jobs (at least for game 1 against Clemson).
Senior returning starter Craig Robertson leads the way. He is a very solid player, who is good in space and solid vs. the run. He is about 10 lbs heavier after a good off-season spent fighting off a challenge from a 3 star JUCO transfer Brad Graham to keep his job. That kind of pressure was not really there last season, and should make Robertson a better player.
Graham won a ton of awards at the JUCO level. He is an instinctive playmaker who excels in space. He may be smaller than Robertson, but against smaller opponents (like the Sun Belt schools) where his lack of size is less of an issue, do not be surprised to see him take time away from Robertson.
Sophomore Jeremy Phillips, the former high school QB, also added weight and retained his starting job. Phillips has great instincts for the game, but is still a little bit of a work in progress as a linebacker. He will make a nice big play and then blow an easy tackle.
Three star JUCO transfer Forlando Johnson is small, but lightning quick and covers a lot of ground. He could be quite a weapon as a blitzing linebacker.
Senior A.J. Penson was a very solid run stuffing middle linebacker in the last part of last season and will start the season in the starting lineup. Has he improved enough to hold off the challenge of the two talented youngsters behind him?Sophomore Daniel Prior or freshman Zack Orr (the 3rd of the three star linebacker recruits) could unseat Penson at some point in the season. Both are terrific prospects. Prior is a little thicker this year. Orr has great size and is the son of a former NFL player. He may pick it up quickly.
DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD: If UNT does sell out to generate a pass rush again this year, UNT will need their defensive backs to be much more aggressive in challenging passes. They need to add to the pressure on opposing QBs by breaking up passes and making interceptions. Last year UNT’s secondary was all about bringing down their opponents after the catch and not giving up the big play. They were the kind of secondary one would employ in a "bend, don’t break" defensive philosophy. I don’t see enough playing of the ball to be excited if UNT’s defense is selling out to attack the pass first again this year.
Ford may very well be the missing piece in this secondary. The junior JUCO transfer has taken one of the starting CB jobs and may be the #1 CB by time the season starts. The coaches had him matching his 4.4 speed against Stradford’s in practice. Stradford has the moves and the wheels to get open against most CBs, but Ford generally did well against him. And unlike most of our secondary starters, he will play for the interception.
Junior Royce Hill missed some time this off-season with injuries. He is a very solid #2 cornerback, but is often credited with being much better than that. He doesn't have the speed to handle the burners or make up the space and jump the pass vs. a fast wideout. With Ford on the roster, Hill likely won't have to and will look even better for it.
I was not impressed with what I saw from the backup cornerbacks overall, but they doesn’t mean they are hopeless. Sometimes a minor technique change can lead to dramatic improvements. That said, I am concerned about them playing heavy minutes today. JUCO transfer DeLeon McCord is not a bad CB overall, but he is clearly a big step back in coverage ability from the starters. Still he seems to at least be in the right vicinity and to be a competent tackler. I really have not watched Jamaal Wilson enough individually to have much of an opinion. Sophomore Hilbert Jackson is well regarded by the coaching staff.
Senior safety Ira Smith gained about 10 lbs over the offseason. He can cover and is a solid tackler. He had 4.4 speed when he came to UNT and can cover some ground.
Ryan Downing is a guy I am a little disappointed in. Downing is a guy who looked like a good playmaker and a reliable safety at the JUCO level. I thought he would challenge for Smith’s spot (perhaps allowing Smith to play a little CB) but that does not appear to have happened. Robbie Gordon is the team's best ballhawk. He was in the cornerback rotation last season and (at least in my opinion) was one of the team's best CBs. Now he’s a third team safety. I hate this move as this team's backup CBs may not be ready.
What a difference a year can make. Last year I wondered if junior DaWaylon Cook was not strong enough or confident enough to be a secure tackler. Now the local reporters regard DeWaylon Cook as one of the bigger hitters on the team. He is a solid player who is decent in coverage.
Junior John Shorter is a good safety who lacks the speed of other members of this secondary and as such may never earn a starting job with this staff, but he is a good player who will bring an opponent down. I like freshman Will Wright a good deal. It will take him a while to crack the starting lineup, but I think when he does he may be a real playmaker for this team.
I still have a lot of questions about UNT’s special teams. Can UNT kick an extra point without the interior of their line collapsing? Will their kickers feel comfortable enough to hit even extra points? Are there issues with the snaps and the holders as well, or is this strictly blocking, technique, and confidence issues with the kickers and the blockers?
UNT should be a better coverage team with all the mobile tacklers coming in, but that may take a while to show up in the stats.
Kick returns were a strength last year with Hill and Jackson returning kicks. Jackson was one of the more dangerous kick returners in the Sun Belt and could be even better this year if he learns the role a little better. Punt returns were a problem last year and could be again this year. Carey is in the lead to be the returner again this year. Ford may figure in on returns.
COACHING: I actually have more concerns about Dodge’s assistants than Dodge himself. Dodge has consistently correctly identified most of his problem areas and moved to address them. Do his coaches have the ability to do the same?
Offensive Coordinator Mike Canales has wowed the local media with his knowledge and the multiple looks his offense brings to the game. Canales did the same thing in Arizona only to pull back to very unaggressive game plans once the games started. Canales also had a reputation for vapor locking as a play caller under the pressure. Canales’s reputation as the offensive boss (an offensive coordinator) is not nearly as glowingly positive as his work as a offensive contributor (a passing game coordinator).
A lot of coaches have issues calling plays in games. Some of them are smart enough to develop workarounds. The San Francisco 49ers back in the days of Bill Walsh used to script their play calling for the first part of their game. If Canales did decide to loosely script his first 35 or so plays, it would give the team a chance to practice the plays in sequence and develop a better understanding of what the coaches are trying to exploit and how to set up their opponents.
Under the gun UNT promoted an assistant, Jeff Bryant, to replace UNT’s OL coach. With a rookie coach, you may see issues with coordination leading to a lot more sacks this year. The flip side is this guy is a younger coach who may be better able to better relate to the players. I think that may present itself in the form of much greater aggression run blocking.
DL Coach Mike Nelson is a dramatic improvement over who we had before. He is clearly a good teacher of the game, but the last two years suggest he may not be all too skilled at pushing the right buttons with certain players. When you have an abundance of talent, it is OK to simply to prove you are in charge and occasionally rework bad technique. If one starting caliber FBS prospect doesn't work out, there are plenty more to fill the void.
At UNT where FBS starting caliber talent with FBS size have not been as plentiful, the job is more challenging. It involves figuring out what buttons to push with an individual player to to get your best talents to produce at the highest level possible. As last season proved, one squandered plus starting caliber DL talent can destroy the effectiveness of the entire line.
Over the last two years, I think there is a question whether Nelson above all the other assistants has maximized the talent he has on hand.
I think some of the player position changes may be undermining player confidence in Nelson and their own games. The way most of the moves have not worked out lead me to suspect that Nelson has done a very poor job in selling the players on why they have better odds at succeeding at the new positions.
It is sensible to sit down with a player individually and break down film of the player, pointing out things they already do very well and explaining how those aspects of their game would work well with their physical attributes much better at the new position. Painting a picture of how the player can become a more successful player in the scheme at a new position will improve the player's ability to acheive that goal.
If as a coach you cannot build a compelling argument of why the move helps the player compete over staying at a position where the technique is ingrained in them, the odds of the move succeeding are slim.
More to the point if you can't justify the argument to a player and insist on playing that player in a position where they are not succeeding, aren't you just effectively reducing the number of competent technicians you have on hand at a spot, ultimately reducing the number of effective fronts you can throw at an opponent? It seems entirely self-defeating. If a position move is a huge success, go with it. If not, set a reasonable time limit to stop hammering that square peg.
Along the same lines, Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach is a very good defensive mind, but he may need to steered by Dodge to make the decisions that make sense today instead of experimenting with ideas that MIGHT pay off six weeks from now. Dodge has to win a lot of games in the first eight weeks and frankly cannot afford to bury any talent in moves that don't pay immediate dividends..
If you lack size, talent, and experience at the FBS level, you usually lose. Dodge has taken a beating in the press over his record, but a big part of the problem was just a lack of talent and size. Dodge probably underrated the importance of that early in his tenure at UNT, but appears to have learned that lesson.
Projection: C (but Dodge is moving quickly in the right direction).
KEEP AN EYE ON: There are lots of players to keep an eye on. Will Troy Stradford become the WR his talent suggests he can become? Is Ford UNT’s #1 CB? When will Esteban Santiago round into shape, and how much of Nathan Tune will be left? Will Nathan Tune match or exceed his play of last season?
STAR POWER: RB Lance Dunbar is the undisputed star of this team.
STRENGTHS: Offensive line, running game, receivers
WEAKNESSES: physicality, mental toughness, size, coaching, generating turnovers, stopping the run.
UNT has been a soft team since Todd Dodge rolled onto campus. Until as a team they consistently start winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, UNT will have a hard time winning.
The Mean Green haven’t been very mentally tough either. Too many times after a turnover UNT's defense will emotionally deflate and give up 70+ yard 5-8 play drives. They have to be mentally tougher about that.
Good defensive teams don’t lose their focus over what the offense doesn’t achieve.
And while they are at it, how about holding on to a lead for once? Getting handed a 10 point lead by your offense doesn't mean that the defense can afford to take a series off.
It sucks to say, but I can't recall UNT holding on to a 14 point lead (or even a 10 point lead) since Dodge came to town. How can you expect to win if you cannot protect a lead?
The defense needs to show some pride and take equal responsibility in moving the team towards victory. They play like they feel their only job is to slow down an opponent occasionally, so UNT's offense can win a shootout.
Hold up your end of the bargain. Let's see some shutouts.
UNT needs to learn to step on their opponent’s throat and keep their foot there.
UNT has gotten bigger, but they are still undersized at DE. In 2008 they looked like a high school team. In 2009 they looked like an FCS team. This year they look like an FBS team albeit a small one.
UNT has spent a lot of time working on stripping the ball this off-season. I expect them to be better in that regard and I could see a few more interceptions, but I don’t expect this team to be much more than average at creating turnovers. Still that will be a big improvement over last season where they were last in the Sun Belt in generating turnovers.
I think UNT could have a real problem stopping the run again this year as well due to the lack of size at the DE spots.
THE BUZZ: Most predictions have UNT winning 3 games this year, but that seems low considering the sheer number of returning players in the first and second string.
UNT’s schedule is somewhat unforgiving. UNT probably has to win 5 of their first 8 games to have shot to retain their coaches. They have to come out at the bell fighting hard and need to put their best effort every down for the first 8 rounds.
UNT’s game against Rice (game 2) at Fouts Field will do a lot to suggest the path UNT will be on this season. With a nice recruiting class Rice will be about as talented as UNT and will enter the game expecting to win. UNT should be able to use the leadership of their upperclassmen to whip their team into maintaining focus to 60 minutes and winning the game.
That kind of win could be a key to learning to win games.
A loss that game however could drop UNT to 0-2 and require them to win at least 5 of their next 6 games. That would be very tough.
COACH: Todd Dodge (5-31).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 (1-7 in Sun Belt)
PROJECTED/APPARENT DEPTH CHART
QB 6 Nathan Tune (6-4/206 Sr.), 7 Derek Thompson (6-4/225, So.), 11 Riley Dodge (6-0/193, R-Fr.)
RB 5 Lance Dunbar (5-9/202 Jr.), 2 James Hamilton (5-8/184, Jr.), 38 Brandin Byrd (5-10/199, FR.)
WR 19 Darius Carey (5-10/188 Soph.), 88 Chris Bynes (6-1/220 Jr.), 9 B.J. Lewis (6-1/204 Jr.), 17 Breece Johnson (6-1/187 Sr.)
WR 15 Jamaal Jackson (5-10/167 Sr.), 4 Alex Lott (5-9/173 Sr.), 11 Riley Dodge (6-0/194 So.), 3 Willie Taylor (5-10/181 So.)
WR 14 Tyler Stradford (6-2/185 Jr.), 18 Benny Jones (6-2/164 Sr.), 82 Michael Outlaw (6-0/191 Sr.),
TE 87 Conor Gilmartin-Donohue (6-5/253 Sr.), 92 Draylen Ross (6-4/292 Sr.)
UB 84 Greg Brown (6-1/232 Jr.), 89 Jamize Olawale (6-2/226 Jr.), 32 Micah Mosley (6-0/219 Sr.)
T 64 Victor Gill (6-4/265 Sr.), 79 Ayodele Adedipe (6-5/313 So.), 74 Troy Franklin (6-5/280 So.)
T 77 Esteban Santiago (6-3/320 Sr.), 73 Jeremy Bean (6-5/300 Jr.), So 70 Coleman Feeley (6-4/299 So.)
G 72 Matt Tomlinson (6-5/300 Jr.), 60 Aaron Fortenberry (6-4/292 So.), 74 Troy Franklin (6-5/280 So.)
G 68 Kelvin Drake (6-2/295 Sr.), 70 Coleman Feeley (6-4/299 So.), 76 John Noble (6-6/273 Fr.)
C 56 J.J. Johnson (6-3/288 Jr.), 50 Nick Leppo (6-3/280 Fr.), 60 Aaron Fortenberry (6-4/292 So.)
WDE Brandon Akpunku (6-1/226, Jr.), 49 Frank Gaines (6-1/229 Jr.), 44 Aaron Bellazin (6-2/232 Fr.)
DT 99 Shavod Atkinson (6-2/284, Sr.), 98 John Weber (6-3/274 Sr.), 96 Tevinn Cantly (6-4/336 So.),94 Kyle White (6-2/290 So.)
DT 91 Kelvin Jackson (6-2/310, Sr.), 66 Brandon McCoy (6-2/265 So.), 97 Richard Abbe (6-4/357 Fr.),95 Jesse DeSoto (6-1/268 Sr.)
SDE 48 K.C. Obi (6-2/240, So.), 65 DeMario Dixon (6-3/258 Sr.), 90 Ryan Boutwell (6-3/254 Fr.), 93 LaChristopher Anyiam (6-4/292 Fr.)
OLB 45 Jeremy Phillips (6-3/198, So.) 26 Forlando Johnson (6-0/212 Jr.), 46 Julian Herron (6-2/205 Jr.)
MLB 31 A.J. Penson (6-1/225 Sr.) 35 Zachery Orr (6-0/240 Fr.), 53 Daniel Prior (6-2/228 So.)
OLB 42 Craig Robertson (6-1/229 Sr.) 25 Brad Graham (6-0/199 Jr.)
CB 21 Royce Hill (6-0/181 Jr.), 7 Jamaal Wilson (5-10/182 Jr.), 29 Hilbert Jackson (6-1/182 Fr.)
CB 23 Steven Ford (6-0/173 Jr.), 20 DeLeon McCord (6-1/176 Jr.), 29 Hilbert Jackson (6-1/182 Fr.)
S 10 DaWaylon Cook (6-1/205 Jr.), 18 John Shorter (6-0/195 Jr.), 40 Will Wright (6-2/204 Fr.)
S 8 Ira Smith (5-11/192 Sr.), 22 Ryan Downing (6-1/195 Jr.), 27 Robbie Gordon (6-0/190 Sr.)
K 49 Trent Deans (6-0/191 So.), 39 Jose Serrano (5-11/199 R-Fr.), 37 Zach Olen (5-10/206 Fr.)
P 41 Will Atterberry (5-11/187 So.) 49 Trent Deans (6-0/191 So.)
KR 15 Jamaal Jackson (5-10/165 Sr.) 21 Royce Hill (6-0/181 Jr.)
PR 19 Darius Carey (5-10/188 So.) 23 Steven Ford (6-0/173 Jr.)
MEAN GREEN MINUTIA
(Notes about key personnel mostly pulled from player profiles at UNT.edu)
QB/WR Riley Dodge — Voted AP Player of the Year at 5A, the highest level of play in Texas. School record 101 career TD passes, 27-2 record in high school, only playoff loss was a game where he was injured. The most celebrated and awarded prospect in recent UNT history. Set a UNT record with a season 67.7 completion percentage, earned Rivals.com Sun Belt Conference All-Freshman honors, and was a two time Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Week as a first year starter in 2009.
QB Nathan Tune — Led Celina to 16-0 record and 2A state title heading an offense that scored 46.1 PPG in playoffs in 2005. Started two games for UNT in relief of an injured Riley Dodge in 2009.
QB Derek Thompson — 2008 District 7-3A Offensive Player of the Year leading Glen Rose High to a 10-4 record, the best finish in school history. District 12-3A MVP in 2007. District 12-3A Newcomer of the Year in 2006. 4.7 speed. Ranked a 5.3 out of 6.1 by Rivals.com.
RB Lance Dunbar — Named Sports Illustrated honorable mention All-American in 2009 after 1,378 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns for UNT. Three-time 1,000-yard rusher in HS. Team MVP as a senior at Haltom HS.
RB Michah Mosely — four-year HS letterman. AP Texas 4A first team selection. Ran 297 times for 2,403 yards and 29 TDs in 2006. As a true freshman at UNT ran for 461 yards with 5 TDs.
RB James Hamilton — Rated No. 53 on the Dallas Morning News area top 100 list
RB Brandin Byrd — 167/1061/10 as a high school JR. in 2008; 125/980/12 as a High school Senior in 2009.
WR Michael Outlaw — 51/796/5 as HS junior; 56/816/7 as senior. Named to 2008 MAJC All-State North First Team after 46 catch 624 yard JUCO season. 41/473/2 as a starter for UNT in 2009.
WR Breece Johnson — 88/1,343/19 in 2006. Named AP 5A All-State First Team. Rated 33rd-best receiver prospect in Texas by Rivals.com
WR Jamaal Jackson — 41/418/1 at SWMCC. Runs 4.4. 71/701/6 as a starter at UNT earning All-Sun Belt Second Team in 2009 along with an equally impressive 27.2 yards per kick return.
WR Alex Lott — 46/890 as a Sr. Earned first team all-area. Walked on at UNT and caught 26 passes in 2008 and 22 in 2009.
WR Tyler Stradford — Ranked No. 56th nationally on Rival's list of the best high school receiver prospects in the class of 2007. 4.41 speed.
WR BJ Lewis — 49/958(20.31 ypc)/8 w 72T, 6INTs, 1FR, 2FF and 13 breakups in 2006. Averaged 5/108.6 ypg w/ at least 1+ TD per game in 2006 playoffs. Member of Texas 3A state finalist. 3A all state first team selection. Caught 21 passes for UNT in 2009.
WR Darius Carey — Played quarterback in HS. 2-time all-district 8-4A selection. 4.5 speed. 57/509/4 in 2009 setting freshman records at UNT in receptions and receiving yards.
TE Draylen Ross — First-team All-District 7-4A tight end as a senior. Played in 12 games as a freshman TE for UNT in 2006.
UB Jamize Olawale — 11/276/3 in 2009 in JUCO competition.
OT Victor Gill — Lead team to school's 1st state title appearance in 2005. Moved from TE to T in college. Started 12 games in 2008 and 10 in 2009. Graded out as team's best lineman at 90% in 2009 and lead the team with 44 knockdowns.
OT Esteban Santiago — Started every game in 2007 and 2008 and 11 games in 2009, earing second-team all-Sun Belt honors.
G/T Jeremy Bean — 3 star prospect by Rivals. JUCO transfer. In 2007,high school team averaged 34.5 ppg. Named district defensive POY and team MVP in 2006.
G Coleman Feeley — two-way starter and team captain in HS. Started seven games as a true freshman.
G Matt Tomlinson — Houston Chronicle Area Top-100 prospect. Played in all 12 games for UNT in 2009.
G Kevin Drake — Three year letterman in HS. Started all 12 games in 2007 earning second team all conference honors. Came back from lost season to start all 12 games in 2009 at guard.
C J.J. Johnson — Rated as fourth-best center in Texas by Rivals.com. Started all 12 games as redshirt freshman in 2008. Won UNT's Outstanding Offensive lineman award in 2008. Started all 12 games in 2009.
DE Brandon Akpunku — Member of 2006 5A Texas State champion. 55t/8s/3fr as a high school senior in 2007. Erupted on the Sun Belt scene in 2009 leading UNT both in sacks with 6 and tackles for losses with 11.5.
DE Aaron Bellazine — 2009 4A Second Team All-State. First team all-84A in 2008. Second team all- 8-4A in 2007. Rivals three star prospect.
DE Frank Gaines — San Diego County Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. 3 star prospect.
DT Shavod Atkinson — Honorable mention KJCCC all-conference team in 2008. Team's best Defensive tackle in 2009, playing in all 12 games and starting six.
DT Jesse DeSoto — 51T/11tfl/7s/4ff in 2006. Rated as 19th best defensive tackle prospect in Texas by Rivals.com. Recorded 2 sacks for UNT in 2008.
DT Kelvin Jackson — Named to the MACJC North Second Team in 2008 at Itawamba CC. Played in 11 games for UNT in 2009, starting five.
DT Kyle White —Ranked a 5.1 prospect out of 6.1 by Rivals.com.
DT Tevinn Cantly — 29 tackles,12 for losses, 2 fumble recoveries and 1 forced fumble in 5 games at DT as a high school senior. Move to Defensive tackle at midseason was part of defensive resurgence in 2009.
DE K.C. Obi — took Brandon Akpunku's starting DE spot as part of midseason resurgence. Started 4 games and earned Rivals All-Sun Belt Freshman Team Honors.
DE John Weber — Louisiana All state DE. 4.85 speed. 8.5 sacks in 2008 at Itawamba CC. Ranked a 5.4 out of 6.1 by Rivals.com as a prospect.
OLB Jeremy Phillips — MVP of District 18-4A. Ranked as one of the top 6 “athletes” in the area by the Houston Chronicle.
OLB Forlando Johnson — first-team all-Jayhawk Community College Conference in 2009 on eigth ranked defense in NJCAA. Three star recruit by rivals.
MLB AJ Penson — Rated as No. 40 MLB prospect in nation by Scout.com. Started 12 games for UNT in 2008.
MLB Daniel Prior — Ranked a 5.3 out of 6.1 by Rivals.com. Ranked the No. 36 SLB in the nation by Scout.com. 4.66 Speed.
MLB Zachery Orr — 5A all state selection as a junior after a monster year where he recorded 157 tackles, 24 for losses, 11 sacks, 1 Int and 3 fumble recoveries. Three star recruit by Rivals.
OLB Craig Robertson — Earned 11 letters in four HS sports, including first-team all-district in basketball, baseball and football. Honorable mention all-Sunbelt in 2007. 2 time UNT outstanding linebacker recipient. Lead the team in tackles with 107 in 2009.
OLB Brad Graham — Recorded 96 tackles, 13 for losses, with one sack and three forced fumbles in 2009 on his way to being named to the NJCAA All-American First Team Defense and winning the NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year award. Three star recruit by rivals.
CB Steven Ford — 49 tackles, 3 Ints, 1 forced fumble. 3 Star prospect by rivals. 4.4 speed.
CB Royce Hill — Ranked the 30th best corner prospect in the nation by ESPN.com. Started 9 games in 2008. Started 12 games in 2009, talling 3 interceptions and a 26.3 yard per kick return average.
CB/S Robbie Gordon — Voted best defensive back in 5A district 1 and Unanimous selection to Daily Ardmorite Super Team as a senior after 48 tackles, five ints and three fumble recovery season. Also member of high school 4x100 meter relay team that recorded the fastest time in Oklahoma in 2005.
S DaWaylon Cook — 3 year starter in HS. 2007 District 13-4A Most Valuable Player. Played in 11 games in 2008. Started all 12 games in 2009 and was named team's most outstanding defender.
S Will Wright — 75 tackles, 9 Interceptions as a high school senior in 2009. 10-5A First Team.
S Ira Smith — Part of a JUCO class that finished with a 22-2 record & a 2007 NJCAA co-national title. 4.4 speed.Ranked a 5.6 prospect out of 6.1 by Rivals.com. Started 11 games in 2009.
S Ryan Downing — 62 tackles, 3 Interceptions, 8 passes defended in 2009 at Buler CC. Three Star recruit by rivals.
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