Summer football questions series — Part IV: Is the leadership in place with players, has the culture changed?

Senior linebacker Zach Orr is one of the key leaders North Texas will have to replace next season. Orr played a key role in the shift of UNT's overall culture in addition to serving as a vital leader last season. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

There have been times over the years when we have been accused of being a little negative here on the blog about where things were headed at UNT, especially when it comes to the traditional off-season football questions series (even though at times we were clearly right).

It’s more or less the nature of the format.

With that in mind, it’s worth flat out saying that UNT is definitely headed in the right direction when it comes to its football program following a breakout 9-4 season and a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, even if we have a few questions to pose. UNT coach Dan McCarney has attributed that turnaround at least in part to a different attitude around the program and the leadership of key players, particularly those in last year’s senior class.

And that brings us to our fourth question in our series: Does the generally positive attitude and direction of the program continue and does UNT have the leadership in place among players it needs?

My take?

Yes and maybe.

To say that there is a better feeling around the program and better culture within as opposed to a few years ago is an understatement. And I really do believe that pays off on the field.

Before McCarney arrived after the 2010 season, there was a feeling that UNT would never breakout out of its nearly decade long funk. Players were not always taking care of their business off the field and when something went wrong on the field, one could pretty much count on games and seasons to quickly spiral out of control.

We gradually saw the program break that cycle. The big turning point came last season when UNT blew a winnable game against Tulane and fell to 2-3. UNT had folded in similar spots pretty much on an annual basis since 2004.

UNT broke the cycle, winning five straight games, a run that helped the Mean Green reach a bowl game and then win it for just the third time in school history.

The first question in our series was if UNT can keep its momentum going.

What we are talking about here is if the attitude and drive that made last season and the momentum that was built from it possible are still there.

McCarney essentially posed the same question earlier this year.

“The exciting part of it is the standards are in place,” McCarney said. “We have done it before. Let’s do it again. That is the challenge out there. Can we keep the edge and not be complacent? I’m not. My coaches aren’t. We have to make sure that the guys out there are not complacent about anything. Why not keep the edge and be hungry? Why not have tremendous loyalty, desire and edge that we played with. Can we manufacture that again?

A lot of people who have covered sports — or payed any attention to them — believe that teams tend to take on the personality of their coach. I believe that.

UNT is in great shape in that regard because of McCarney. He’s a fireball and has a personality that can fill up a room.

Add in last year’s success and I don’t see any reason for the overall culture of UNT’s program to change.

With that being said, McCarney mentioned that his best teams are the ones where the players take over the leadership of a team.

That’s the question heading into UNT’s 2014 campaign. The guys who were UNT’s emotional leaders, the guys who rallied the troops when things went wrong and made sure everyone is pulling in the same direction have mostly departed stage left. Three-year captain Zach Orr, Marcus Trice, Derek Thompson, Brandin Byrd and Brelan Chancellor were huge in that regard. And it wasn’t just UNT’s team captains/key leaders who were important.

One aspect of last season’s team that I thought was vital was the depth of leadership and experience it possessed across the board. Guys like Ryan Boutwell, LaChris Anyiam and Aaron Bellazin might not have been the ones people would think about being cornerstone leaders, but they contributed to the overall stability of the team.

Look at each position group. There was a stabilizing senior leader in pretty much every one of them: Quarterbacks (Thompson), running backs (Byrd), wide receivers (Chancellor, Darnell Smith), offensive line (Anyiam), defensive line (Boutwell, Aaron Bellazin), linebackers (Orr, Will Wright), defensive backs (Trice).

UNT lost a tremendous amount of players who were part of that overall stability.

There are guys coming back this year who can help fill the void, including Mason Y’Barbo, Cyril Lemon, Derek Akunne and Kenny Buyers.

There is little doubt that there is going to be a bit of a transition when it comes to the personality and leadership of UNT’s team next year, though. There is good reason so have faith in guys Akunne and Y’Barbo, but one never knows how things will work out until the season begins.

It’s also worth noting that most of UNT’s veteran guys who one can see taking charge next year are all offensive linemen or defensive backs. UNT won’t have that same veteran presence all up and down its lineup next season.

Players spend a whole lot of time working in position groups. Will a lack of a veteran presence in some of them matter?

UNT’s overall culture has changed without a doubt. What remains to be seen is if that leadership and overall veteran depth will be missed not only from a productivity standpoint, but a leadership one as well.

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?

3. Can UNT rebuild its defensive line?

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