After taking a break to cover some of the developments in football recruiting and follow up with Tony Mitchell on his experiences at the Amare Stoudemire camp, it’s time to continue plugging along on our post-spring football series on UNT’s roster.
Today, we take a look at UNT’s safeties.
But first, a fun factoid — UNT has had one defensive back named first- or second-team All-Sun Belt since the end of the bowl era. Aaron Weathers was a second-team safety back in 2005. That’s one guy in seven years. In the four years prior, when UNT was at the height of a golden era in program history, Jonas Buckles, Craig “The Hit Man” Jones, Markeith Knowlton and “Neon” Don McGee combined to be named to the All-Sun Belt team nine times in four years. Buckles was a four-time all-conference pick.
There are a myriad of reasons UNT has struggled over the last few years, but the play of its defensive secondary has been toward the top of the list at times.
The safety spot remains a top concern heading into next season.
Ryan Downing and Brad Graham started almost all of last season as seniors and had their moments. Downing finished second on the team with 68 tackles, intercepted one pass, caused two fumbles and recovered two. Graham added 52 tackles and two interceptions.
The problem UNT faces is that Downing and Graham are not the only two safeties on the depth chart who completed their careers last year. Backups D’Leon McCord and John Shorter also finished up last year.
UNT’s hope is that any combination it throws out there will be at least as good as the pairing of Downing and Graham and potentially a lot better.
That could prove to be the case.
UNT will likely turn the job over to Marcus Trice and Laramie Lee, who came out of spring practice atop the depth chart. Trice is one of the more intriguing players on UNT’s roster heading into the season. He transferred in from Oklahoma, where he was stuck behind some top-end Big 12 talent and has all the makings of an impact addition. He’s not the tallest safety out there at 5-8, but he has the physical skills it takes, which is why he ended up at OU in the first place.
Lee played a little bit last year, mostly on special teams, and finished with 10 tackles.
Kenny Buyers and Mike Marshall are listed second on the depth chart, but the feeling is that a few of UNT’s signees could have a chance to contribute right away. Coppell safety David Busby was one of the more highly recruited players in UNT’s class and Jamal Marshall has great size at 6-3, 190 pounds.
UNT will have to hope its new crew at safety can help the Mean Green improve its performance in pass defense. UNT ranked dead last in the Sun Belt with an average of 265.8 yards allowed a game, although UNT’s problems were a team-wide issue and not just one that can be pinned on its play at safety. It also didn’t help that UNT faced a couple of top-end quarterbacks in Houston’s Case Keenum and Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne, who torched UNT for 458 and 314 yards, respectively.
The challenge UNT will face is that while it didn’t produce the way it hoped at safety last year, the guys back there at least had some experience. Downing played two years in junior college and started the last five games of his junior year, while Graham also had three years of college experience and three starts at safety heading into last year.
Trice and Lee have talent, but very little experience and no starts under their belts at UNT, where they will be tested right off the bat. UNT has LSU and Kansas State in the first three weeks of the season and then faces Troy in its Sun Belt opener. Troy quarterback Corey Robinson led the Sun Belt last season with an average of 284.2 passing yards a game.
There will be no easing into the season for UNT at safety, just one of the spots where UNT is rebuilding.
How Trice and Lee handle the task could go a long way toward determining how UNT fares next season.