I have taken a bit of a break from my post spring series on UNT’s roster, but now that I am back from vacation it’s time to get back at it. I started off with some positions where UNT has a lot to be confident about — quarterback and offensive line come to mind.
Today, we take a look at an area of concern, UNT’s cornerback spot.
UNT struggled at times last year at cornerback, despite having some experienced players — Royce Hill was a four-year starter and Steven Ford played two years for the Mean Green. By the middle of the year, freshman Freddie Warner had become a starter only to be lost to a season-ending injury.
The number that sticks out is that UNT ranked last in the Sun Belt in passing defense with an average of 265.8 yards allowed a game on the season. There is no doubt UNT had its problems in the back end. I just wonder how much of them were directly attributable to the cornerback spot. Some of them? For sure. The whole problem? Probably not, especially if you take a closer look at the team.
UNT was torched by Houston’s Case Keenum, Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne and Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin, three really good college quarterbacks.
But when it came to Sun Belt Conference play, UNT actually ranked third in pass defense with 215.0 yards allowed a game.
UNT finished tied for fifth in the Sun Belt with 26 sacks, but 11 of those sacks were recorded by linebackers and defensive backs. UNT wasn’t afraid to blitz and paid the price at times.
UNT won five games last season and essentially picked up one of those wins because Hill and Ford returned interceptions for touchdowns in a 31-17 win over Florida Atlantic.
UNT heads into next season with a whole lot more questions than answers at corner, especially after Warner tore his ACL during spring practice. UNT won’t get him back until the middle of the season, if he returns at all.
You know what they say about saying, “It can’t get any worse.”
Losing Warner left career backup Hilbert Jackson listed as one starter coming out of spring practice. UNT still lists Warner as its starter on the other side with D.Q. Johnson and Kevin Maduka listed as the backups. UNT recruited Johnson out of Iowa Western to come in and compete for a starting job right away. He participated in spring practice. UNT needs him to come on quickly.
UNT did sign two high school cornerbacks the staff is high on in Devante Davis and Xavier Kelly, who is arguably the most highly touted prospect in the class outside of offensive lineman Boone Feldt.
The hope is that one of those guys will jump up and play on a high level right away.
That could happen, but history is not on UNT’s side.
The Sun Belt has not had a freshman defensive back named to the all-conference first- or second-team since Troy’s Bryan Willis in 2009, when he was a second team pick. Last year’s all-conference team had four senior defensive backs on the first team with two seniors and two juniors on the second team. In 2010, it was four seniors on the first team with a senior, two juniors and a sophomore on the second team. In 2009, three seniors and a junior were on the first team with two seniors, a junior and Willis on the second team.
Cornerback seems like one of those spots where it is easy for someone to come in and play right away. And to a certain extent that is true. Hill played right away, as did Markeith Knowlton back in the bowl era. He stated at defending national champion Oklahoma as a freshman in 2001.
UNT will have to hope that its young players are ready and can play at an adequate level right off the bat while facing a challenging early schedule. UNT opens at LSU and also has games at Kansas State and Houston, not to mention a home game against Troy, which might have the best passing quarterback in the Sun Belt Corey Robinson returning, all in the first half of the season.
UNT won’t be expected to win at LSU, Kansas State or Houston, but that game against Troy could be the biggest of the season. Conventional wisdom sets that up as a game that will send UNT to Florida Atlantic at 2-2 or 1-3.
UNT will be a whole lot better at the end of the year after the young players it brings in at cornerback gain experience and Warner works his way back.
It’s how those young cornerbacks fare early that will be a key concern for UNT heading into the year.