UNT Preview: What can we learn?

A decisive Texas win is all but a foregone conclusion in the Longhorns' home-opener Saturday against North Texas. But how Texas wins will be a harbinger of things to come for the 2006 season. Will we see evidence of a championship-caliber team when Texas begins its title defense at Royal-Memorial Stadium?

We told the team that everybody in the nation that's interested in football at 11 o'clock Saturday will tune-in to see how good you are after last year," head coach Mack Brown reported.

A season-opener, even against an over-matched opponent, can be a leading indicator of what's good, bad or ugly about your football team. Recall Texas' 2002 home-opener against North Texas. It may have been the ugliest 27-point win in Longhorn history. At the final gun, you knew Texas' O-line couldn't run-block and, consequently, the ground game (27 rushing yards on 34 attempts against the Mean Green) was going to struggle all season. Likewise, when Texas trailed 10-0 in the 2000 quarterback-rotating, season-opener against UL-Lafayette, you knew that it was no aberration when a Chris Simms' INT was taken to the house (you could also hear the giggles all the way from College Station before Major Applewhite came off the bench and sparked the Horns to 52 unanswered points).

Conversely, the past two home-openers -- Texas outscored opponents 125-3 -- gave evidence of the point-a-minute potential with QB Vince Young at the helm as well as the defensive upgrades that Brown desperately wanted. You also saw a Texas team determined to shake the perception that it played "soft" against more physical squads. You saw the foundation of a team that gradually regained it's We're-Texas-And-You're-Not swagger months before the BCS National Championship game. You also saw a mature team that could maintain its focus and intensity for 60 minutes.

As such, there are still several things the Horns must accomplish to post a quality win Saturday as college football's regular season game-of-the-year looms on September 9. And although the QB storyline is as well-worn as an old pair of boots, it remains the most compelling question to be addressed by later-afternoon.

As expected, Brown named RS-freshman Colt McCoy the starter for Saturday's contest, but that designation has always come with an asterisk. Coaches have never backed off from the six-month long assertion that there may not be a clear-cut starter until they can evaluate how well McCoy and true freshman Jevan Snead fare in live, game-day action. Neither has taken a collegiate snap; neither has taken a hit since high school.

Personally, I don't care who starts. I'd love to see them both do exceptionally well, but I want one of them to go a long way toward establishing himself as the go-to guy. Chief among my reasons for disliking QBs who either rotate or enter on scripted-series is because, throughout the years, players privately have said they don't like it. Players have always publicly supported whoever is behind center, but then they speak privately of how changes of leadership-styles, snap cadence, ball trajectory and velocity, chemistry and comfort level, can affect the offense.

It's also an intriguing subplot not only to see how each QB plays but also how coaches decide to play them. Coaches want to see which QB does the best job of managing the game, and protecting the ball, commandeering the huddle, and protecting the ball, recognizing defenses, and protecting the ball and moving the offense, Oh, and protecting the ball. In other words, ball-security is a first-among-equals on Brown's checklist.

Horn fans will be looking to see if RB Selvin Young can live-up to his recent hype as a "complete back" that has, for now, cemented his starting nod over Jamaal Charlers (whom DB coach Duane Akina recently described as "the fastest guy in the world"). We'll want to see if a slimmed-downed and determined Henry Melton can emerge as an every-down back. And, of course, we'll want to see FL Jordan Shipley stay healthy and notch his first collegiate TD since signing in 2004. We'll keep our eyes open to see if a 'featured' running play emerges, given the change at QB and Year Two of tailback-by-committee.

Horn fans want to see some semblance of an honest pass rush from the defensive front. We'll look to see if the depth will allow Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik to rotate players as liberally as he thinks he can. We'll want to see quality snaps for the freshmen DBs (Chykie Brown, Robert Joseph) because Chizik will need them against Texas Tech (and perhaps as early as September 9).

You don't want to see the same guy handling all three phases of the kicking game. Ideally, Greg Johnson handles the punts (the senior reportedly gets amazing height during practice) and freshman Hunter Lawrence (who has just a rocket of a leg) gets thrown into the mix and handles KO duties. Obviously, the FG kicker/PAT specialist must be settled before September 9 when points will come at a premium against Ohio State.

Freshman SLB Sergio Kindle (left ankle) will not play. Junior WLB Drew Kelson (left ankle) is listed as doubtful.

The Mean Green had established themselves as perennial Sun Belt bullies, winning four straight league titles from 2001-04 and reeling off 26 straight conference wins. But UNT staggered to a 2-9 mark in 2005, dropping all five games in league play. The bottom line: inexperience at QB, injuries at RB, an ineffective offensive line and a porous run defense resulted in a series of fourth-quarter collapses as UNT dropped five games by a combined 21 points. Coach Darrell Dickey openly questioned his team's toughness last season and replaced his defensive coordinator after the unit surrendered 31.5 ppg.

QB Matt Phillips will log his first collegiate start against Texas, Dickey announced earlier this week. Incumbent Daniel Meager started all 11 games last season but has missed several practices after suffering a concussion. Meager will not play Saturday, according to Dickey. Phillips threw for 448 yards and 48 TDs as Meager's backup last season. Junior college transfer Woody Wilson will enter the game as the No. 2 signal-caller.

The Mean Green returns its top four receivers but WR Johnny Quinn is questionable after breaking his hand during August camp. The senior, who led his team in receiving the past three seasons, had hand surgery last week.

Junior Jamario Thomas led all Division-I RBs as a freshman with 180.1 ypg. But a hamstring injury, plus the re-emergence of RB Patrick Cobbs, combined to keep Thomas at just 361 yards in 2005.

"He's a great player and he's really got our guy's attention," Brown said.

The O-line returns four starters while breaking-in freshman Chad Rose at center. Overall, UNT returns nine starters from an offense that generated just 14.3 ppg last season.

The Mean Green welcome back seven defensive starters, but the most significant returnee could be coordinator Fred Bleil (who previously held the position from 1996-97).

"Their Defensive Coordinator was there in the mid-90s, but he has not been a coordinator at North Texas lately," Brown said. "So, we're really guessing about what they will do on offense. We've had two or three different reports, so we're not sure. Because of that, you just have to start and figure it out during the ball game."

Bleil has changed the base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, in part, because the unit's strength should be its linebackers. That's where MLB Maurice Holman and OLB Phillip Graves earned All-Sun Belt Conference honors in 2005. The D-line will probably remain the team's weakest link where DE Jeremiah Chapman led the squad with all of four sacks last season.

North Texas is replacing both CBs with freshmen, but safety Aaron Weathers was named the Sun Belt Conference's Newcomer of the Year in 2005 after notching 113 tackles and three INTs.

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