Off-season questions series No. 2 — Can UNT rebuild on its defensive line?

North Texas senior defensive end Aaron Bellazin (44) and senior defensive end Brandon McCoy chase UTEP quarterback Mack Leftwich during the Mean Green's win over the Miners last season at Apogee Stadium. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

After a couple of eventful weeks off to address other issues, we are resuming our off-season questions series on the blog.

We kicked off the series not too long after the Heart of Dallas Bowl, when we examined UNT’s unsettled quarterback situation in the wake of Derek Thompson finishing his highly productive career in style. Thompson was named the MVP of the bowl game.

That leads us to question No. 2 on our list — Can UNT rebuild on its defensive line?

UNT’s defensive front was a big question heading into last season, but like everything else during a magical year when every twist and turn seemed to go the Mean Green’s way, everything fell into place.

It’s pretty amazing to think about just how bad a spot UNT was in when it came to its defensive front in the months leading into the season. To review:

– Richard Abbe was kicked off the team for a few weeks over the summer due to off-the-field issues.
– Key JUCO recruit Quenton Brown tore his ACL in spring practice. UNT knew heading into the season that he was going to miss the first half of the year.
– Defensive end Brandon McCoy was out for the spring with an injury.
– Defensive tackle Ryan Boutwell was out for the spring with another injury.
– Dylan McDorman was forced to give up football due to degenerative shoulder injuries.

It wasn’t pretty.

How UNT recovered was remarkable and one of the big stories of the Mean Green’s season. UNT allowed just 120.5 rushing yards a game and posted 39 sacks on the season.

Defensive end Aaron Bellazin was a second-team all-conference pick, while Abbe was an honorable mention selection.

One of the big issues UNT faces this off-season is how to replace nearly its entire defensive front.

Abbe, Boutwell, Bellazin and McCoy were all seniors. They formed UNT’s starting defensive front in eight games last season. They combined for 19 sacks, 25 tackles for loss and 107 total tackles.

I have been accused of overvaluing experienced players and underestimating the value of the development of young players and the potential impact of incoming recruits.

Fair enough.

But any way one looks at it, that is a lot of production to replace.

UNT has two defensive linemen returning next season who made starts in 2013 in defensive ends Daryl Mason, who made three starts, and Chad Polk, who started once.

Brown made it back to play a little at the end of the season and should also figure prominently in UNT’s plans.

Defensive tackles Alexander Lincoln, and Austin Orr played some last season and should also see their roles expand.

Here’s a look at the players UNT has returning and their production last season:

– DE Chad Polk, 19 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks
– DT Alexander Lincoln, 16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks
– DE Daryl Mason, 12 tackles, 1.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks
– DT Austin Orr, 5 tackles, 1.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks
– DE Quenton Brown, 2 tackles

Defensive tackles Sid Moore, Dutton Watson, Sir Calvin Wallace and Mustafa Haboul and ends Jarrian Roberts, Andy Flusche and Malik Dilonga are also on the roster and could find roles

UNT really needs Wallace to come through. He’s the only tackle UNT has who checks in at over 275 pounds. Someone is going to have to replace Abbe in the middle of that defensive line. Abbe was a rock at 320 pounds.

Finding a replacement for Abbe could be arguably the second biggest question UNT is facing heading into next season other than who will replace Thompson at quarterback.

UNT also added a pair of high school signees, defensive tackle T.J. Tauaalo and defensive end Tillman Johnson.

If history tells us anything, it is that Tauaalo and Johnson are likely a year away from contributing in a significant way.

People were high on Moore heading into his freshman year, and he never saw the field.

Abbe, Bellazin and Boutwell combined for six tackles as freshmen in 2010.

It is interesting that UNT didn’t add some help from the JUCO ranks.

What makes this all the more intriguing is that defensive line coach Mike Nelson retired after last season. UNT hired former South Florida assistant Kevin Patrick to take Nelson’s place. Patrick has some serious skins on the wall and should do well at UNT, but making a transition with the coaching staff while essentially replacing the entire defensive front will make this season’s situation up front all the more interesting to watch.

Here is our list so far:

1. Who replaces Derek Thompson at quarterback?
2. Can UNT rebuild on its defensive line?

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