Summer football questions series — Part III: Can UNT rebuild its defensive line?

North Texas defensive tackle Alexander Lincoln wraps up UNLV senior quarterback Caleb Herring during the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day at the Cotton Bowl.

One of the biggest surprises last season for UNT was the way a defensive line that was a huge question mark developed in a year that saw the Mean Green win the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

UNT had issues at defensive end after losing Quenton Brown to a knee injury during spring practice and at tackle, where there were questions if Richard Abbe would ever play for the Mean Green again.

Somehow UNT regrouped in fine fashion up front, where a core of veteran players anchored a defense that allowed just 17.8 points a game.

One of the biggest challenges for UNT entering the 2014 season is finding a way to replace so many of the key players who led that unit, including Abbe, fellow tackle Ryan Boutwell and starting defensive ends Aaron Bellazin and Brandon McCoy.

Those four players combined for 107 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 19 sacks last season.

That is a whole lot of production to replace. And let’s not forget, those four players combined to start 90 games in their careers.

UNT has three players coming back with some experience in defensive ends Daryl Mason and Chad Polk and tackle Alexander Lincoln. That trio of players has combined to start 14 games in their careers. Throw in the fact that UNT has a new defensive line coach in Kevin Patrick, and UNT has a ton of questions to answer.

Those questions are the reason the topic of UNT’s defensive line has been discussed over and over the last few months. That isn’t going to change before the Mean Green heads to to Austin for its season-opener against Texas in August.

The good news is that while UNT has a bunch of holes to fill, it isn’t totally without talent and experience. Mason is pretty talented and at 6-foot-3 and 253 pounds has good size. Lincoln is a proven player, even if he is undersized 6-foot-2, 267 pounds.

Polk will contribute as a situational pass rusher.

I also have a lot of faith in Patrick, a veteran coach who discussed the defensive line situation with us during spring practice (disclaimer, this is recycled video):

UNT head coach Dan McCarney said that UNT will have a solid rotation by the beginning of the season that will also include tackle Sid Moore, a player the staff is high on. What I have my doubts about is UNT coming up with another line as productive as last year’s unit basically out of thin air with a few players with limited experience and a couple of solid recruits coming in, including Keller Central tackle TJ Tauaalo and Tillman Johnson.

UNT is in a completely different spot than it was last year.

Let’s compare the situations.

UNT had questions — a ton of them heading into 2013 up front — but it did have a bunch of guys with quite a bit of experience. McCoy had started 21 games and Boutwell 20. Abbe had started just four games, but had played in 27. Bellazin posted five sacks as a junior.

There were some questions in the off-season, but by the time UNT opened the season at home against Idaho, it had four guys on the field who had played a lot of college football.

UNT heads into the fall with Mason and Malik Dilonga at end and Lincoln and Austin Orr at tackle.

That lineup would leave UNT with a ton of questions. I understand the sentiment that UNT has a really good off-season weight program under Frank Wintrich, but that is not going to magically address all of UNT’s questions, some of the biggest of which are …

1. Does UNT had an anchor in the middle?

Once Abbe returned from some off-season issues, he was a terrific anchor in the middle of UNT’s line who commanded double teams at 320 pounds. UNT doesn’t have a tackle on its depth chart over 275. Sir Calvin Wallace is 300 pounds, but has fallen so far out of favor, it’s hard to see him working his way back. UNT could turn to Austin Orr, who was listed at 272 pounds and had five tackles last year. It’s hard to imagine Orr or anyone else eating up the double teams that Abbe did.

2. Where does the pass rush come from?

UNT didn’t have a dominant pass rusher last year, but did have a couple of solid ends in Bellazin (9.0 sacks) and McCoy (6.0 sacks). Mason has the potential to fill the void, but he now becomes the player opponents are focused on stopping. Can he produce while attracting that type of attention?

3. Can UNT eat up blocks like it did before?

One has to wonder — and there are people who have already pointed this out — about the fact that UNT’s front commanded a lot of attention last season, allowing the Mean Green’s linebackers to run free.

UNT is pinning its hopes on a few returners and a core of newcomers to quickly develop.

And that is the reason UNT’s defensive line is a question heading into the fall — it’s all about hope. Not proven production. Not players with a ton of skins on the wall. Hope.

Let’s look back at some of the standouts UNT had up front last year and what they did early in their careers. Bellazin posted five tackles as a freshman and 10 as a sophomore. Abbe had eight tackles his first two years combined. Lincoln was terrific for a young player as a sophomore when he had 15 tackles.

Expecting a whole group of players to explode on the scene out of nowhere is where teams can run into problems.

UNT had a ton of players come through and play extremely well up front last year. But that situation was a whole lot different.

Back then, UNT had a few more proven players to turn to when it opened the season.

Here’s our list so far:

UNT off-season questions series
(Remember, it’s a questions series, not a cheerleading exercise):

1. Can UNT maintain momentum

2. How does UNT’s QB situation shake out?