by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Sure, it might take a Dale Carnegie instructor to see many positives in the North Texas football situation. After all, the Mean Green is exiting a brutal 6-season stretch in which the only team it might have outperformed were the old Washington Generals, the longtime victims of the Harlem Globetrotters. Since 2005, North Texas hasn’t won more than three games in any season. Indeed, it’s hard to remember early in the last decade, when the Mean Green was actually the scourge of the nascent football division of the Sun Belt and made four consecutive trips to the New Orleans Bowl. But the program seemed to hit rock bottom during the most-recent four-season stretch, when the experiment of hiring wildly-successful local high school coach Todd Dodge blew up even more spectacularly than Gerry Faust’s flameout at Notre Dame almost three decades earlier. By the time Dodge’s career record at UNT had sunk to 6-37 by midseason a year ago, Mean Green administrators decided to humanely end his tenure and turn over the reins to o.c. Mike Canales for the final five games of the season.

A strange thing happened after the switch to Canales, however, as North Texas suddenly became the most entertaining entry in the Sun Belt. The Mean Green scored a whopping 33.6 ppg over the final five game with Canales in charge, winning two of those outright (improving to a final 3-9 record) and covering the spread four times. Some believed Canales, who had landed in UNT’s lap after serving with distinction as South Florida’s o.c. before being abruptly ousted with the rest of the Bulls staff when Jim Leavitt was controversially forced out after the ‘09 campaign, was due a shot at the head coaching job on a full-time basis. But few would argue with the Mean Green’s selection of veteran mentor Dan McCarney, who had earlier presided over an impressive reclamation job at Iowa State where he led the Cyclones to five bowls (no small feat). More recently, he spent the past four seasons as a defensive line coach at South Florida (where he worked with Canales) and then on Urban Meyer’s Florida staff. McCarney was quick to retain Canales as his offensive coordinator, hoping that some of the momentum from late 2010 carries over to this fall.

And things are on the move in Denton, and the Sun Belt, for that matter. The hiring of McCarney coincides with the opening of UNT’s new Football Stadium at Mean Green Village, a futuristic-looking facility situated on the opposite side of I-35E from old Fouts Filed, a jerry-rigged facility with some of the worst sightlines in the country. Not so with the shimmering new facility, which, among other things, doesn’t have a track encircling the field, and can gets fans close enough to almost touch the players after they could barely make out the uniform numbers without binoculars at the old stadium. The new facility, along with a similar one opening this fall at Florida Atlantic, is a further indicator that the Sun Belt is making progress, too. Not to the point where it can expect to be involved in the BCS anytime soon, but the league has solidified its place in the upper-division ranks. The Belt is now becoming a target destination for schools, too, and will be expanding in the near future when South Alabama gains FBS status in 2013. Start-up programs at Georgia State and Old Dominion might also be thinking of making the move up from the CAA to the Belt and its FBS status in the near future, while uncertainty in the WAC means that Louisiana Tech or New Mexico State might also be possible candidates to enlist. It looks like Sun Belt football is here to stay.

As for North Texas, it knows of glory days in its past, and not just the title winning sides of early Sun Belt gridiron action within the last decade. In the late ‘60s, when known as North Texas State, the Eagles were a feared commodity in the Missouri Valley Conference, boasting teams featuring future NFL stars Mean Joe Greene and Cedrick Hardman (quite a defensive line pair, we’d say), WR Ronnie Shanklin, and QB Steve Ramsey. There don’t seem to be any Mean Joe Greenes on the current roster, but McCarney has reason to believe his team could nonetheless be a factor in the Belt race this fall.

As mentioned earlier, the offense really began to percolate late last season, although finding a full-time QB was the focus of spring work and will continue into fall camp. The Riley Dodge experiment has officially ended, with his shoulder problems and dismissal of his dad as head coach prompting his transfer to Tulsa, and oft-injured Nathan Tune has exhausted his eligibility. But Canales and McCarney are hoping that 6'4 soph Derek Thompson, injury-prone in the past and KO’d early last season with a broken leg, can fulfill the enormous potential his strong arm and quick feet suggest. Thompson was on the field long enough to only throw 18 passes last season, however, in a year in which four different Mean Green QBs were utilized due to injuries. Thus, former juco Brent Osborn and jr. Chase Baine, who provided a spark in the two games he started last season (including a 257-yard passing effort vs. Arkansas State), will have to be ready if needed.

The focus of the offense, however, remains electric 5'9, 203-lb. sr. RB Lance Dunbar, who popped for 1553 YR and 13 TDs in 2010 after scurrying for 1378 YR and 17 TDs in ‘09. Included in Dunbar’s yardage tally last season was a 270-yard explosion in the finale vs. Kansas State. Canales is hoping to slightly decrease the workload on his featured back, which means more carries for soph Brandin Byrd and sr. James Hamilton, quick-hitting backs built along the lines of Dunbar. Canales’ spread formations never quite detonated in the manner expected last season as the passing game struggled with the various QBs, but with a year to resonate, expect the aerial show to improve as the spread makes better use of TEs and the WRs and DBs in motion. Junior WR Darius Carey, whose receptions dropped from 57 as a frosh to 38 last season, figured to bounce back with better numbers this fall until running into disciplinary problems that could sideline him, and former juco and Oklahoma transfer WR Tyler Stradford flashed some big-play potential last season despite missing several games due to a severe gash on his leg suffered when trying to escape an attack from a pit bull (really). The OL, always a strength of McCarney’s Iowa State teams, is likely to improve in the new regime, especially with jr. C J.J. Johnson returning to duty after missing almost all of 2010 with a broken leg. Two other starters return, although pass protection must improve after conceding 30 sacks a year ago.

By Sun Belt standards, the Mean Green “D” wasn’t all that bad last season (ranking 78th nationally), and McCarney’s expertise on that side of the ball (remember, he was Barry Alvarez’ d.c. at Wisconsin in the early ‘90s before superb work with South Florida and Florida DLs the past four years) figures to be an extra benefit this fall. Although ex-Kansas d.c. Clint Bowen officially holds the same title at UNT, make no mistake that this will be McCarney’s stop unit. McCarney’s first order of business will be to tighten a rush “D” that really didn’t stop any team that wanted to run the ball last year, when the Mean Green allowed 185 ypg (ranking 91st) despite facing several all-pass foes on the 2010 schedule. UNT has some excess beef at the DT spots, including 336-lb. Tevinn Cantly and 357-lb. Richard Abbe (don’t get caught between those two in the buffet line), but their durability and wherewithal remain question marks. And unless the Mean Green gets more proactive on the defensive front, it will be difficult to generate more momentum-changing plays than a year ago, when UNT ranked a poor 114th in tackles for loss. McCarney’s problems in the LB corps have more to do with size than ability, as OLBs Will Wright and Jeremy Phillips are no bigger than most DBs, and are prone to being bowled aside despite their quickness. Plenty of experience returns in the secondary, where the first-string DBs all started games last season. Better continuity after last year’s rash of injuries could certainly help improve upon the rather-pedestrian 8 picks from a year ago. A DB to watch is D’Leon McCord, a juco transfer who emerged as a potential shutdown CB as last season progressed.

Pointspread-wise, it’s worth noting that UNT hasn’t recorded a winning mark vs. the number since George W. Bush’s first term (a 7-5 mark vs. the spread in 2004), and is just 7-23-1 vs. the line its last 31 vs. non-Belt foes. But last year’s late-season rally when covering four of the last five games was the Mean Green’s best such stretch vs. the points in seven years. For what it's worth, McCarney's teams at Iowa State were notorious for extended win and lose streaks against the spread, having four such of five games or more (two win, two lose) over his last five years in Ames.

Summary...McCarney’s credentials are solid and he doesn’t inherit a bad situation in Denton, especially since the offense began to get the hang of o.c. Mike Canales’ spread late last season and the program and community in an upbeat mood with the sparkling new stadium. And the strike force could be dynamic if soph QB Derek Thompson lives up to his billing and provides a proper diversion for do-everything RB Lance Dunbar. McCarney also seems like the right guy to mold a tougher stop unit after the “D” proved too soft at the point of attack a year ago, and how much progress the defense makes likely determines if the Mean Green can make a stealth run at the Sun Belt crown. Don’t lose the scent of UNT if the Mean Green take their lumps in pre-league play with games vs. Houston, Alabama, and Tulsa, as past Sun Belt contenders have often absorbed some lickings outside of conference play only to catch fire when the league schedule begins. But if nothing else, unlike recent seasons, we can at least expect the Mean Green to entertain us this fall.

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