It is game week. The first of the season and the first of year three of the Danny Mac Era. Spare me your talk of hot seats and deadlines. Todd Dodge left terrible program and Dan McCarney not only had the same obstacles that every other NT coach has had — subpar facilities, subpar stadium, irrelevance, apathy — to go along with the shambles of a roster Todge. Danny couldn’t believe it was an FBS roster. He’s had some help along the way, however. Dodge left a few gems — particularly in the running back depth chart. Rick Villareal got the stadium built and facilities improved.
Last season the team made strides. The team looked tough, competitive, and competent. Unfortunately, they also looked afraid of scoring points. This year the team looks something like a return to the Darrel Dickey Era, which is good and bad, depening on which portion of the era you saw. There is the defense that, despite having a former running back starting at corner, fared well most of the time. There is the run game that looked formidable. Unfortunately there was also the lack of points and worst of all — the losses.
The good news is that Derek Thompson — the named starter — has had time to improve, the defense has a bit more experience and we have a new conference. It is all looking up . . . or is it? Let’s find out.
The group that put up a decidedly mediocre 20.9 points per game last year is mostly back. That would seem like a bad thing at first glance, but the guys showed some promise. Between Antoinne Jimmerson and Brelan Chancellor, the offense should have some explosiveness that can keep the pressure off the run game. Mike Canales is back coordinating and there are rumors that we will see more if his prefered shotgun looks this season. Danny Mac’s imprint has been obvious. Last season no only did we run on first, second and probably also third down, but we didn’t even do it cleverly. Two tight ends (sometimes three!) and an inside zone. It is great when you run like Wisconsin, but not when you don’t. We didn’t. Some of the offensive drudgery can be blamed on the passing game. Whether or not you put that on Derek Thompson or the WR corps is a matter of preference/bias/seating position. Whether of not we’ll get some shotgun and variety will depend on how well Thompson has improved and how much Chico has convinced Coach Mac that his way is the best way.
I’ve never been one to care too much about formation more than effectiveness. While I tend to favor spread formations and the guys who have made them famous, the real idea is to get your best players the ball in less predictable ways, and more players the ball in space.
QBs: Derek Thompson, Andrew McNulty, Dajon Williams, Brock Burglund
We might as well start at the biggest question mark of the roster. That’s not a knock. That is just the situation. No one knew who the starter would be until it was announced. Everyone had their preference. Most people outside of the Sports Information Department felt that the QB play left something to be desired. From the excellent Matt Hinton’s Deadspin article this week:
108. NORTH TEXAS UNT allowed fewer sacks in 2012 than any team in the nation, even the overwhelmingly ground-bound option teams, giving up just six sacks in a little over 400 called passes. Which means junior quarterback Derek Thompson was just not very good at passing.
That just about sums it up. The good news is that he beat out some capable guys in spring and fall practice. Also interesting? Freshman sensation Dajon Williams has been guaranteed time by the head man himself. The QB position will not be boring this year.
RBs: Brandin Byrd, Reggie Pegram, Antoinne Jimmerson, and Mark Lewis.
There are others, but these will be the guys that do the heavy lifting. Brandin and Jim Jim stepped up admirably in place of the departed Lance Dunbar and kept the RB U tradition alive. Reggie Pegram has made some noise in practice as well. He was highly touted after he transferred from Perdue. It’ll be nice to see how they fair against defenses not stacked against them. If it is anything like the one-two punch of last year we’ll get a good show from these guys.
WRs: Brelan Chancellor, Darius Terrell, Lynrick Pleasant, Nick Schrapps, Carlos Harris, Derrick Teegarden, John Chelf, Darnell Smith, Roderick Lancaster
The story Bret Vito is selling (he says the staff agrees with him) is that the wideouts were the reason the passing game was so mediocre after Brelan went down early in the year. Agree to disagree. Chance plus a couple of other guys (whichever combination that turns out to be) should be enough. In fact, let me just print what I said in last year’s preview:
A good spread offense is one where the ball finds the open players. You shouldn’t have to force the ball to a guy to get yards. That is the thinking at least. I dare say this group can be solid. No scoring records will be set, yet I don’t foresee the terribleness that was the final year of the Dickey era.
Darius Terrell is the latest in a line of WR transfers from name schools that is seeking to make his fortune here in green (in his case, he transferred from Texas). He’s a good twitterer so follow him if you like that sort of thing. Also follow me. @meangreennation
Carlos Harris is shifty, Lynrick Pleasant is big, and Darnell Smith has the distinction of being called the most difficult cover by a freshman DB.
OL: *LT Antonio Johnson, LG Mason Y’Barbo, C Kaydon Kirby RG Cyril Lemon RT LaChris Anyiam, BACKUPS of note: Shawn McKinney, Travis Ellard, Micah Thompson, Connor Trussell
The line that only allowed six sacks is back. If the passing game can take the pressure off the run game, we could see more explosive runs. The strength of the team right here ya’ll. Shawn McKinney will split time with Kaydon Kirby.
TE: Drew Miller, Daniel Prior, Cooper Jones, Marcus Smith, Tanner Smith, Cade Carter, Chris Loving.
Blocking and short passes. Bret Vito reports that we’ll likely see six tight ends play. Given our penchant for running with two and three TE sets, that makes a lot of sense. Daniel Prior makes a return after injury kept him out last season.
The defense was surprisingly stout last season. Zac Whitfield turned in a surprisingly decent performance as a cornerback despite only just switching over from running back. Unfortunately, as the season progressed the youth and inexperience in the secondary were exploited. The defense was okay against the pass overall and mostly okay against the run . . . until they go out and allow a big one to gash them. Even though it was a pass play, the touchdown that comes to mind is the eventual-game-winning TD by Troy against Zac Whitfield after a game-long stellar effort against one of the Sun Belt’s top QBs. With more experience and a couple of new faces, this year’s Defensive squad should be a little bit better.
DLine: DE Aaron Bellazin, DE Daryl Mason, DT Ryan Boutwell DT Richard Abbe, DT Andrew Lincoln, DT Austin Orr, DE Chad Polk (former LB), DE Jarrian Roberts (former LB)
To get more pressure on the quarterback a couple of guys have moved from LB to DE. This is standard stuff. We’ll see if does anything. It is a football rule that getting to the QB usually equals a good defense. Really, it would be nice if the run defense were a bit stouter as well. Defensive Line is Coach Mac’s specialty so know that his pride is tied up in this unit’s success.
LBs: Zach Orr, Derek Akunne, Will Wright, Fred Scott, Jamal Marshall, Sed Ellis
Zach Orr is the best player on the defense, and after Derek Thompson (I mean, he’s the QB) is the face of the program right now. The two-time All Sun Belt pick has a chance to grab an honor in a new conference. There are rumblings that he’s the best LB in program history. If he can lead the team to the first bowl game in 8 years? Hell, I don’t see why not.
DBs: Marcus Trice, Lairamie Lee, Hilbert Jackson, James Jones, Freddie Warner (UPDATE: he is out for the year again after he broke his arm), Kenny Buyers, Zed Evans, and Zac Whitfield.
This unit should be leaps and bounds better than the one that got burned often on the trickier plays. If the D-line can get some pressure on the passer we might even see an excellent group. Zac and Hilbert attack the ball but can get burned deep and on double moves — or did last year. Marcus Trice, the former OU transfer, is a ball hawk but made mistakes in the passing game. Lee, the other safety, is a coach favorite.
Question: What ever happened to Xavier Kelly?
P: Blake Macek
K: Zach Olen
Solid. He had that terrible game vs Troy but bounced back nicely.
Schedule & Predictions
- AUG 31 IDAHO WIN
- SEPT. 7 at Ohio LOSS
- SEPT. 14 BALL St WIN
- SEPT. 21 at Georgia LOSS
- OCT. 5 at Tulane WIN
- OCT. 12 MTSU WIN
- OCT. 19 at La. Tech LOSS
- OCT. 26 at So. Miss WIN
- OCT. 31 RICE WIN
- NOV. 9 UTEP WIN
- NOV. 23 UTSA WIN
- NOV. 30 at Tulsa WIN
Yeah. Looking at that Tulsa game the other night makes me feel smarter for picking us in a win on the 30th of November.
Go Mean Green.
// Hat tip to the DRC and Bret Vito, SBNation’s Bill Connelly, USA Today’s Paul Myerberg, Go Mean Green Dot Com, and of course, MeanGreenSports.com whose coverage of the Mean Green helped a ton, obviously.