Denton, TX – The University of North Texas is set to kick off their 97th season of football on September 1st in Baton Rouge against perennial national title contenders LSU. The Mean Green won’t be challenging for the crystal football, but they do have hopes of leaving the Sun Belt Conference on a high note before joining Conference-USA next season. Coach Dan McCarney and the players met with the media before the first day of practice and SportDFW was there.
UNT went 5-7 in Dan McCarney’s (and Apogee Stadium’s) inaugural season in 2011 and have not had a winning season since 2004. Coach McCarney recognizes the challenge that he faces given North Texas’ recent lack of success and historical position near the bottom of the hierarchy of Texas college football programs. But he also understands what it takes to turn around a moribund program, as he transformed Iowa State from a team that had only seen three winning seasons in the sixteen years prior to his arrival to one that went to five bowl games in six years.
Coach McCarney’s enthusiasm is infectious and he is working hard to change perceptions of his program on both the inside and the outside. Many people in Denton view the early 2000’s, when the team won four conference titles and went to as many bowl games, as the Mean Green’s glory years. He acknowledges and respects what those teams accomplished, but he also has a different vision for North Texas football:
“We were 2-16 in non-conference games and one of those victories was over Nicholls State. If that’s supposed to be my glory years and my expectations for this program, then they brought in the wrong head coach. That’s not what my expectations are. We have to challenge everybody in this program to <get to> a higher standard. What’s been going on here has been unacceptable for a long time. I think we’ve come a long way <in the last year>, I really do…there’s real fierce loyalty in this program and we’ve developed a will to win and a preparation to win. I respect my guys, I trust my guys and it’s hard to find somebody that I don’t really like.”
North Texas is going to be a very young team this season. They return only 14 seniors and 22 juniors, so underclassmen will be challenging for playing time all over the field. But Coach McCarney was pleased with the progress many players have made on strength coach Frank Wintrich’s offseason conditioning program, saying, “When I took the job a year ago, I knew this was the smallest Division One team I’d ever been around, and then I found out it was one of the slowest Division One teams I’d ever been around. Our football team has really bought into our offseason program, getting bigger, getting stronger, gaining weight, getting more physical to give <themselves> a chance to be a good division one program.”
The experienced offensive line coached by Mike Simmons should be the strength of the team. “Four of the five are back. Three of those guys were freshmen last year…we trust four of those guys right now…we have to find the fifth and who is the backup. We will build depth in the offensive line. I don’t want offensive linemen that have to be out there for 70-80 snaps and I think we’re closer to doing that this year”, said McCarney.
The line will no longer have record-setting running back Lance Dunbar to block for, however, as he is currently trying out with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent. Coach McCarney likes the guys that he has in line to replace him, saying, “When you look at Jeremy Brown, when you look at Brandon Byrd, when you look at <Antoinne> Jimmerson, those are really quality backs. Believe me I’ve been around this game for a while now and I know quality backs.” He added that he expects a few freshmen to challenge for playing time in the backfield, too.
Coach McCarney was always known as a defensive coach at Iowa State and that has not changed at North Texas. A former defensive line coach for many years, McCarney wants the defensive line in particular to be the strength of his team, saying, “As we build this thing, our number one plan to win is to play great defense. To me, it always has been and always will be starting up front in the trenches along that defensive line..if you’ve got those guys up front that can really change the line of scrimmage, it’s amazing the impact they can have on the final score of a football game.”
He says the defensive secondary, on the other hand, we be a particular area of concern given their performance last season:
“We have to show improvement <in the secondary>, no doubt about it. We gave up way, way too many yards and big plays last year in our secondary. Six of those guys are gone and we’ll miss them from an experience standpoint, but if you watched the NFL Draft, none of those guys will be playing on Sundays, either.
I think we can be better in the secondary this year. I expect us to be better in the secondary and I know that’s a big statement when a number of these guys haven’t played….that’s showing a lot of faith in the guys coaching these kids and it’s showing a lot of faith in our ability to evaluate and recruit and develop the guys that have been brought in here. Right now we’re more athletic at safety than we were at anytime last year. Marcus Trice and Lairamie Lee are really athletic guys and they’ll bring the wood and they do love playing the game.
With Freddie Warner, who is our best defensive back, out of the lineup until October, <the competition> is really wide open. There is nobody with any job security. We have no idea who is going to play.”
The players themselves are buying into Coach McCarney’s program as every player we spoke with said that they expect to contend for the Sun Belt championship and play in a bowl game at the end of the season. Junior linebacker Zach Orr (DeSoto) says there is a palatable difference in the enthusiasm around campus, too. “This is my third year and this is the most excited I’ve ever heard the students. They love the new stadium, they love the new atmosphere and they’re really excited that they got to see us have a winning record at home last year.”
Things seem to be headed in the right direction in Denton with Coach Dan McCarney. A good year from his young team would bode well for the Mean Green’s entry into the much tougher Conference USA next season.