Head coach Dan McCarney has done a tremendous job of rebuilding the North Texas Mean Green football program over the last three years, culminating in a strong 2013 campaign. The team finished 9-4 on the year, winning six of their last seven regular season games and dominating the UNLV Rebels 36-14 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. It was a huge step forward for a program that had been mired in mediocrity for quite some time.
But the challenge this season will be sustaining their success. North Texas loses several key contributors on both sides of the ball that will test how deep the program is in 2014. After finishing just one game out of the Conference USA Championship last season, will the Mean Green find enough talent in the wings to take another step forward this fall?
The key to the North Texas offense is efficient and quick decision-making from the quarterback. This fall, the team will have to replace three-year starter Derek Thompson, who completed 64.4 percent of his passes last season for 2,896 yards with 16 touchdowns, though he accounted for 13 interceptions. The race to replace Thompson is still up in the air with 2013 backup Andrew McNulty, athletic hurler Dajon Williams, and JUCO transfer Josh Greer vying for the starting job.
At running back, North Texas faces the challenge of replacing bruising back Brandin Byrd, who rushed for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. The team will look for junior Antoinne Jimmerson to expand his role in the offense after he rushed for 446 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. Joining him in the backfield rotation will likely be senior Reggie Pegram who gained 338 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2013.
At receiver, the team must replace three of their top four pass catchers from 2013. Look for junior Carlos Harris to step up as a leader as the team’s top returning pass catcher after hauling 47 catches for 553 yards and two touchdowns last season. Keep an eye on junior tight end Marcus Smith, who average over 15 yards per catch (on just six catches) to step into the void of graduated tight end Drew Miller.
North Texas faces its biggest rebuilding job, however, on the defensive front. Four of the top five defensive linemen from 2013 are gone, leaving a major void of experience in the trenches. Chad Polk is the team’s best lineman heading into 2014 after recording 14 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks in 10 games last season. He’ll lead a group that lost 25 tackles for loss and 19 sacks worth of production during the offseason.
Similarly, the linebacker position is going to be hit hard by turnover heading into this fall. Zach Orr and Will Wright combined for 21 tackles for loss and four sacks last season but neither will return in 2014. Derek Akunne is the team’s leading returning linebacker after recording 67 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2013. Look for former four-star recruit and Oregon Ducks transfer Anthony Wallace to make an impact at middle linebacker as he joins the Mean Green on the field this season.
The secondary will be one of the most experienced groups on the team heading into the 2014 season with three of four starters returning. While they lose their leader in free safety Marcus Trice, who accounted for 70 tackles, five interceptions, and nine pass breakups last season, there is not a lot of reason to worry about this group. Kenny Buyers and James Jones had strong seasons at corner last season and strong safety Lairamie Lee is a playmaker in his own right. Together, the trio combined for five sacks, seven interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and five forced fumbles last season.
While the team loses a lot of talent heading into this season, there’s no reason to think the Mean Green will suffer a significant step back in 2014. There’s still talent on this team waiting to prove themselves and their schedule sets them up nicely to return to the postseason this year.
They have just three games on the schedule against opponents who are projected to finish better than No. 75 in the country this season, all of which occur on their non-conference schedule. While road trips to the Texas Longhorns and Indiana Hoosiers will be very tall orders, the Mean Green should win or have a chance to win just about every other game on their schedule.
Conference-USA figures to have another wide-open title race in 2014 and North Texas is poised to make a run. Look for the Mean Green to be in the mix for the C-USA title this fall and finish the year with around eight wins.