This week we spoke to Brett Vito from the Denton Record-Chronicle to get his thoughts on North Texas and the Mean Green’s chances of pulling off the upset on Saturday.
HD: North Texas is coming off a very successful 9-4 season that included a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and expectations are high despite the loss of several key players. What is the mood surrounding this program heading into Saturday?
Vito: “The mood is probably about as high as it’s ever been here, at least dating back to the New Orleans Bowl run that North Texas had from 2001 to 2004. Just for them to win nine games and play as well as they did last season was terrific for the program in terms of their momentum.
“If you look at it North Texas’ season ticket sales are way up. They matched last year’s total in early August and expect the season ticket sales to be up about 20 percent at least by the time North Texas opens with SMU. You can really feel the momentum behind the program.”
HD: What is something that really strikes you as a big question mark for this team?
Vito: “I think the big question is the overall loss of a senior class that was more than just an anchor for the team in terms of its play on the field. A lot of those guys were very important leaders for the team off the field.
“That senior class will go down in UNT history as one of the most important groups of players that has come through that program in the last 25 years. Those guys changed everything. They changed everything on the field but also with the tone off the field. When you have that group of guys that are like that, that leave the program, I think it leaves a huge void and a lot of questions.
“I just don’t think we are going to know what North Texas has from a play-making standpoint and from an emotional one in terms of leadership off the field until we see the Mean Green out there.”
HD: Who is going to replace last season’s starting quarterback Derek Thompson?
Vito: “They took it down to the very last minute and [Monday] they announced that Josh Greer will start the Texas game. He ended up coming from a junior college.”
[Note: Greer is 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. He threw for 1,205 yards and eight touchdowns while playing in just six games at Navarro College as a freshman due to injury. He originally signed with UAB.]
HD: Do you think we’ll see two QBs roll out there for UNT?
Vito: “I don’t think so. If they get into a situation where North Texas is getting blown out then maybe they would put [Andrew] McNulty in there at the end. I think they are going to go with Josh and stick with him.”
HD: For as little experience as you have at quarterback, UNT’s offensive line is oozing with it. Is that the strength of this team as far as you are concerned?
Vito: “Not just me but Dan McCarney is on record as saying this group of offensive linemen is not just a strength of this offense but of the entire team. Three guys could play for a lot of teams in the country.
“Cyril Lemon has started every game in his college career. He has terrific size at over 300 pounds. He’s about 315. He’s played every down practically and is a three-time all-conference player. He could break North Texas’ draft drought that dates back to 2004.
“It’s not just him. [Mason] Y’Barbo [6-2, 297] is another four-year starter at the other guard position and Antonio Johnson [6-5, 302] is a four-year starter at tackle.
“Those guy have played a lot of football and have played against some big-time teams. They’ve played at Alabama, at LSU, gone to Kansas State. They are not going to be intimidated by playing in front of big crowds because they’ve done it before.”
HD: Do you get the sense that UNT can come down to Austin and win this game?
Vito: “That’s Dan McCarney through-and-through. They have the feeling and the attitude in the program with him there that they have a chance to win any Saturday. I think he really instills that kind of belief that they can go anywhere and potentially pull off the upset or win those games.
“Everybody forgets that they were tied with Georgia in the third quarter at Georgia last year. They do have that belief.”
HD: What is the key for you if North Texas is going to pull off the upset?
Vito: “I think the key for North Texas is to be able to run the ball and stop the run. That’s an old football saying but I think it really holds true.
“North Texas’ strength as an offense has been running the ball forever. Every year they’ve been good they’ve had a good running game. This year, that offensive line is just absolutely terrific. And they’ve got some really good running backs. Antoinne Jimmerson [446 yards rushing and seven rushing TDs in 2013] is a really explosive player and they’ve got a lot of good young running backs they like as well.
“North Texas is one of those rare mid-majors that hangs their hat on the running game and that attracts some pretty good players.
“For a Division I team, North Texas has an incredibly small defensive front. They lost their big nose tackle to graduation. He was 320 pounds. If you add it up their starters will average 260 pounds. And without [three-year starting middle linebacker Zach] Orr behind them, who is probably going to make the Baltimore Ravens roster, that takes another run stopper out of there. They can’t get gashed by Malcolm Brown and those guys.”