2013 North Texas Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - North Texas Mean Green Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The Mean Green is gauging its defensive progress in incremental steps. Yeah, the D still missed too tackles and gave up too many big plays last year, but it also yielded its fewest points since 2006. Coordinator John Skladany, no stranger to Conference USA, is determined to keep North Texas on the road to defensive recovery. The coach will be working with eight returning starters, none more impactful than LB Zach Orr and CB Zac Whitfield. In fact, the entire back seven appears as if it'll have a shot to be pretty feisty in 2013. It's in the front four that the Mean Green needs to turn the corner. The program is far too soft at the point of contact, triggering headaches for the pass rush and the run defense. North Texas needs to win the line of scrimmage, a goal complicated in the spring by the suspension of DT Richard Abbe and the ACL injury to DE Quenton Brown.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Zach Orr
Tackles: Zach Orr, 108
Sacks: Aaron Bellazin, 5
Interceptions: Zac Whitfield, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Brandon McCoy
Unsung star on the rise: Senior DE Aaron Bellazin
Best pro prospect: Orr
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Orr, 2) Sophomore CB Zac Whitfield, 3) Junior LB Derek Akunne
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, secondary experience
Weakness of the defense: The pass rush, run defense, takeaways, third-down stops
Someone will need to step up this year to offset some of the pass-rushing production of departed DE K.C. Obi. Senior Aaron Bellazin is working hard in the offseason to be that someone. Despite starting just a pair of games a year ago, he still made an impact with 32 tackles, nine stops for minus yards and five sacks. Built like an outside linebacker at 6-2 and 244 pounds, he also moves like one, using his quickness to get around the edge. Bellazin could author a breakout year in 2013.
Bellazin's partner on the outside will be either 6-2, 270-pound senior Brandon McCoy or 6-0, 226-pound sophomore Chad Polk, two very different options for the coaching staff. McCoy is a vet of 21 career starts, and will have a greater impact against the run. He made 22 stops and 3.5 tackles for loss in nine games last year. Polk, on the other hand, is a purely situational pass rusher, a converted linebacker with excellent speed and burst.
Trouble looms on the inside in Denton. Senior Richard Abbe was going to be the mainstay against the run, and why not? He's a thick 6-4, 319-pounder, with four starts in 2012 and three career letters on his resume. However, he was suspended in late April following a DWI arrest, meaning 6-4, 268-pound sophomore Austin Orr or even 6-3, 261-pound senior Ryan Boutwell could get meaningful minutes in early September. Boutwell has starting experience, but he also has struggled to stay healthy and is a better fit at the three-tech position next to him.
At the other tackle spot, the Mean Green likes to employ a smaller, quicker player, junior Alexander Lincoln . He's built like an outside linebacker at 6-2 and 249 pounds, which creates obvious problems on the interior. The six-game starter was overmatched in 2012, making just 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Watch Out For … Abbe's punishment. The Mean Green needs No. 97 to create logjams in the middle of the line. However, head coach Dan McCarney takes these sorts of situations seriously. The senior will have to be on his best behavior, yet will still probably get dinged for a game or two in September.
Strength: Experience. Even with the spring ACL tear to DE Quenton Brown, who was closing in on a starting job, North Texas is pleased with its overall depth and seasoning up front. Six linemen have lettered at some point, five of whom have started games.
Weakness: Winning the line of scrimmage. The Mean Green just doesn't disengage well or hold up at the point of attack. How else can it be explained that the team ranked 87th nationally in sacks, while giving up an average of almost five yards per carry?
Outlook: After bowing meekly at the line of scrimmage in the Sun Belt, more of the same is expected now that North Texas has been promoted to Conference USA. The unit simply has no stars or even consistent playmakers, a reality that's been complicated by the graduation of DE K.C. Obi, the suspension of Abbe and the injury to Brown.
Unit Rating: 4.5
For one final year, the undisputed leader of the North Texas D will be senior Zach Orr . The program's experienced man in the middle has been a playmaker from the moment he secured a starting job at the beginning of 2011. Instinctive, quick to the ball and fundamentally sound, the two-time Second Team All-Sun Belt selection corralled a team-high 108 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and two interceptions in 2012. The latest in a long line of gifted Mean Green linebackers, Orr plays a whole lot bigger than 6-1 and 231 pounds.
Joining Orr in the starting lineup will be 6-0, 238-pound Derek Akunne . The coaching staff is excited about the future of its junior, who started playing with more confidence and consistency last season. He's tough and physical at the point of contact, and not likely to be pushed off his base. In a breakout season on the outside, Akunne was second on the team with 90 stops, chipping in 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and five pass breakups.
Topping off the starting trio from the other outside spot will be 6-2, 221-pound senior Will Wright . The three-time letterwinner has waited patiently for this full-time opportunity, serving as a valuable special teamer and reserve. He did earn three starts in 2012, collecting a career-high 21 stops.
Trying to become the heir apparent to Wright is sophomore Jamal Marshall, a converted cornerback. He'll fly all over the field to make plays, but needs to pack more muscle on to his long and lean 6-3, 193-pound frame.
Watch Out For … the rookies to face few limitations to immediate playing time. The Mean Green will start three seasoned upperclassmen, but the backups are unproven. If either Sed Ellis or Calvin Minor proves he's physically and mentally ready, a spot in the two-deep could be his reward.
Strength: Proven players with range. Orr is the defensive anchor, a perennial all-star in his old league. Akunne is a solid No. 2 from the outside. And Wright has been around long enough to look right at home in the starting lineup. This group is a bunch of trackers who'll never be too far from the ball.
Weakness: Size. As might be expected, the linebackers are not very big, a problem when faced against physical opponents who dish out a steady diet of running plays. The starters average only 6-1 and 230 pounds, lacking the muscle to pummel bruising backs in the hole to avoid yards after contact.
Outlook: The linebackers will set the tone for the rest of the defense with their range, speed and tenacity. Yeah, they'll be a little vulnerable to the run, but they'll compensate by going from sideline to sideline to track down the ball. Orr gets an opportunity to raise awareness in front of a new set of fans, while seeking a third straight year as an all-star.
Unit Rating: 5
In sophomore CB Zac Whitfield, the program feels as it's mined a gem out of Sherman (Tex.). The Mean Green knew No. 23 was fast when it shifted him to defense from running back in 2011, but few expected him to adjust so quickly to such a difficult spot on the field. Whitfield debuted auspiciously by parlaying 60 tackles, three interceptions and a dozen pass breakups into the All-Sun Belt Second Team. While only 5-9 and 180 pounds, his leaping ability, closing speed and improving coverage skills are going to cause problems for Conference USA wide receivers.
With opposing quarterbacks likely to avoid Whitfield, it's more important than ever for the team's other corner, Hilbert Jackson, to deliver the best season of his career. The 6-1, 187-pound senior has the size and experience, but has had problems in coverage. The Mean Green's third leading tackler had 84 stops in 2012, yet no picks and only five pass breakups.
The staff is hoping for big things out of 5-8, 197-pound senior FS Marcus Trice, whose career began at Oklahoma. The former four-star recruit from the 2009 class started all 12 games a year ago, six at strong safety and six free safety. He's quick and confident, debuting in Denton with 63 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, two picks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Strong safety belongs for now to hard-hitting junior Lairamie Lee, a nine-game starter from a year ago. He's terrific in run support, racking up 72 tackles to finish fourth on the squad. However, the 5-10, 189-pounder needs to get better in pass coverage, or else he could become vulnerable to Louisville transfer Zed Evans . The 5-11, 195-pound Evans became immediately eligible since he already has his degree. He's a former running back, with some of the fastest wheels on defense.
Sophomore CB Kenny Buyers is poised to provide quality reps off the bench for a second straight year. As a rookie in 2012, he appeared in all but one game, and made 15 tackles on defense and special teams.
Watch Out For … Trice's name to get called plenty in the fall. He's a feast or famine type of defender, who'll get beat on one play and then bounce back on the next one. He's athletic and frenetic, and better prepared for success than he was at this time last year.
Strength: Hitters. The Mean Green does a nice job of supporting the run out of the secondary, fearlessly stepping up and throwing their weight around. No one is especially thick or well-sized, but no one will be able to tell when the final defensive numbers are tallied at the end of the year.
Weakness: Coverage breakdowns. While this unit is getting better, a trend that ought to continue in 2013, it still has too many holes in coverage. The Mean Green is especially vulnerable over the top, allowing 63.3% of last year's throws to be completed.
Outlook: The competition is improving, but so is the secondary. North Texas is welcoming back all four starters from a unit that held up rather well in 2012. Whitfield is a building block pass defender, Evans is a nice addition from Louisville and Jackson, Trice and Lee will all be sharper with a season of action behind them.
Unit Rating: 5.5
North Texas has a dichotomous situation among the specialists, a veteran kicker and an unproven punter. Stocky and strong-legged senior Zach Olen was 11-of-16 on field goals in 2012, including a perfect 9-of-9 from inside 40 yards. This will be his fourth season as the program's regular placekicker.
Olen could punt as well, but it's more likely that redshirt freshman Blake Macek will handle the duty in his first year of action. He'll have the tall task of replacing four-year starter Will Atterberry, a two-time All-Sun Belt pick.
Senior Brelan Chancellor and sophomore Carlos Harris have been pegged as this year's primary return men. Chancellor was an active special-teamer in 2012, but struggled to generate big plays.
Watch Out For … Olen to wait in the wings. Yeah, the staff would prefer to give the punting nod to Macek, but Olen is a veteran, and he'll be ready to pull double-duty just in case his leg is needed for more than just field goals and extra points.
Strength: Olen inside 40 yards. The 5-9, 221-pound senior is the Mean Green's best special teams weapon, as long as the goal posts aren't too far away. He's generally consistent on three-pointers, and has played in enough games to maintain his composure during crunch time.
Weakness: The coverage teams. It's not the only problem associated with this group. It's just the most glaring one. The Mean Green was 117th nationally in kick coverage in 2012, and 90th on punts, yielding a touchdown in both areas.
Outlook: It would be nice if the special teams unit could provide a helping hand to the offense and defense. It would also be unexpected. Olen is a borderline all-star candidate, but North Texas has issues everywhere else, and is really going to miss the consistency of Atterberry at punter this fall.
Unit Rating: 4
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