Re-ranking UNT’s players Nos. 1-5 (safety duo highlights top 5)

North Texas defensive back Kishawn McClain tackles Western Kentucky running back Darmontre Warr last season. McClain led UNT with 110 tackles last season. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas defensive back Kishawn McClain tackles Western Kentucky running back Darmontre Warr last season. McClain led UNT with 110 tackles last season. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas most productive position last season was safety, where Kishawn McClain and James Gray came through with terrific years.

Both made a ton of plays for UNT. That was good. They also made a ton of tackles. That wasn’t so good for UNT, considering the pair was often the Mean Green’s last line of defense.

Both finished with more than 100 tackles and will again be key components of UNT’s defense. They are also members of the top five of our Mean Green roster raking that comes to a close today.

The top five also includes three key members of UNT’s rebuilt offense.

Each member of our top five will be key leaders in addition to be key playmakers for the Mean Green as they look to bounce back from a 1-11 finish in Seth Littrell’s debut season.

1. Kishawn McClain, safety 

McClain led UNT with 110 tackles and was often the best player on the field for the Mean Green. He intercepted a pass, broke up three more, forced two fumbles and posted 2.5 tackles for loss in 2015. He led UNT in tackles in games against Rice, Southern Miss, Marshall, UTSA and UTEP. The Mean Green are hoping for a big season from McClain, who has a lot of experience entering his junior season and will be a key leader for UNT.

2. Jeffrey Wilson, running back

Wilson has struggled to stay healthy in the first two seasons of his college career, but still managed to lead UNT with 830 rushing yards in 2015. The junior missed two games due to injury last season and has missed five games in his first two seasons combined. Wilson is UNT most proven and decorated playmaker. The Mean Green need him to have a big season this fall.

3. James Gray, safety

Gray was everything UNT hoped he could be in his first season playing for the Mean Green after transferring in from Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. The senior finished with 104 tackles, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles. UNT needs Gray to be an all-conference level player as a senior and help what was a terrible Mean Green defense in 2015 improve.

4. Alec Morris, quarterback

Morris came out of spring practice as UNT’s starting quarterback. The Alabama transfer barely had time to adjust after transferring at the semester break before taking the field in spring. Despite having no previous experience playing with UNT’s wide receivers, he was the Mean Green’s best quarterback throughout the spring. UNT’s rival Louisiana Tech has won bowl games the last two years with fifth-year senior transfer quarterbacks. UNT will try to follow that path this fall. Morris has the best pedigree for a UNT quarterback in a long, long time. UNT desperately needs him to work out. Far too often, UNT has started quarterbacks whose backstories sounded like feel-good tales of overachievers. Riley Dodge, anyone? Great in high school, not a top FBS-level college QB. Those out-of-the-norm scenarios rarely have happy endings in real life. Morris is just the type of quarterback UNT needs — a once highly regarded high school prospect with legitimate size, arm strength and talent and a background that isn’t littered with warning signs.

5. Sam Rice, offensive lineman

Rice was an anchor on UNT’s offensive line in 2015, his first season playing for the Mean Green after transferring from SMU. The senior started all season at left guard. UNT shifted Rice to center in spring practice following the unexpected departure of Kaydon Kirby. There is a good chance Rice will be the only returning starter UNT will have in its lineup along its offensive front for its season-opener against SMU. Rice will have to play well, make all the protection calls at the line of scrimmage and provide leadership for a rebuilt unit that struggled at times in the spring.

Here’s a look back at the rest of the countdown:

Nos. 6-10: Key wide receivers included on list
Nos. 10-15: Key returning defensive players will be vital
Nos. 16-20: Veteran linemen will be key to UNT’s hopes to improve
Nos. 25-21: Rutherford, Wheeler among key playmakers 

Thursday night notes — Could this be UNT’s key competitor for Raveon Hoston?

It’s Thursday night and time for a couple of quick, but important notes on the UNT football front.

The on-going saga of JUCO defensive end Raveon Hoston has been this year’s version of the recruiting story that keeps on giving (content that is).

Hoston visited UNT earlier this summer and recently told the Denton Record-Chronicle that he will announce his destination on June 1.

Hoston said he has a few other options, but declined to name them.

Well, we may now know the identity of at least one of the other schools in hot pursuit, and it makes the story even juicer.

JUCO Football Frenzy mentioned today that Washington State is in the mix. There are a few niche recruiting guys/sites that are pretty reliable on the JUCO football and basketball fronts. This is one of them.

What makes this little twist all the more interesting is that UNT has two assistant coaches who were on Mike Leach’s staff at Washington State just a couple months ago — offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and wide receivers coach Joel Filani. UNT head coach Seth Littrell worked for Leach at Texas Tech.

UNT has typically had little luck recruiting against Power 5 programs.

Stay tuned.

And in other news, I had a chance to see a UNT recruiting target in person tonight. There is a heck of a lot going on at this time of the year on the high school front.

I pitched in by covering the Lake Dallas spring game. The Falcons’ stud cornerback Kobe Boyce is headed to Texas, but one of his teammates is a UNT/G5-level recruit the Mean Green have a real shot at.

Offensive lineman Segun Ijiyera has offers from UNT, Nevada, Tulane and Southern Miss, among others.

Ijiyera certainly looks the part and played well tonight.

Check back.

I will likely kick off the annual UNT recruiting target series with a story on Ijiyera in the next couple of days.

Re-ranking UNT’s players Nos. 6-10 (Wide receivers who will move into key roles enter countdown)

North Texas wide receiver Tee Goree catches a pass during the Mean Green's spring game. Goree will be one of UNT's key weapons next season. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas wide receiver Tee Goree catches a pass during the Mean Green’s spring game. Goree will be one of UNT’s key weapons next season. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

One of the key tenets of new North Texas head coach Seth Littrell’s offense is spreading the ball around to a variety of playmakers, especially when it comes to wide receivers.

The problem heading into Littrell’s debut season is that UNT has very few proven playmakers among his returning wide receivers.

UNT ran a balanced offense that leaned heavily on the running game throughout the tenure of Dan McCarney. When UNT did throw the ball last season, it nearly always targeted Carlos Harris who caught 61 passes for 727 yards and seven touchdowns.

All three of those totals were more than double of any other player on the roster.

Tight end Marcus Smith was UNT’s second leading receiver with 29 catches and is also gone. UNT needs a few key players to develop into the weapons Littrell needs to make his offense work.

And that brings us to the latest edition of our countdown of the top 25 players on UNT’s roster heading into the 2016 season. Nos. 6-10 include two wide receivers who could help make the Mean Green’s offense effective.

6. Tee Goree, wide receiver

If there is any player on UNT’s roster who is in position to post a breakout year due to a change in offensive philosophy, it’s Goree. The former Carthage standout is one of the more highly regarded players to sign with the Mean Green in recent years. He caught 15 passes for 118 yards last season. He caught six passes for 141 yards and a touchdown in the Mean Green’s spring game. Goree is in position to become one of the Mean Green’s primary weapons in the passing game.

7. Turner Smiley, wide receiver

Smiley is UNT’s leading returning wide receiver after catching 25 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown last season. The junior had a bit of a rough spring, due to a hand injury. He caught just one pass in UNT’s spring game. Smiley is one of UNT’s more experienced and proven offensive weapons, though. It’s hard to believe he won’t come back in the fall and carve out a major role with a team that is going to throw the ball quite a bit.

8. Nate Brooks, cornerback

Brooks moved into the starting lineup in the sixth game of his freshman season and went on to finish with 38 tackles and three pass breakups. The former Whitehouse standout came out of spring practice as a starter and should become an even better player in his second season as a starter.

9. Fred Scott, linebacker

Scott has started 23 straight games heading into his senior season. He ranked fourth among UNT players with 68 tackles and was third in tackles for loss at 5.5 in 2015. UNT is shifting to a 3-3-5 defense under new coordinators Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett and is bringing in a few key junior college recruits to upgrade its linebacker corps. William Johnson from Arizona Western College will arrive in the fall and will have the opportunity to challenge both Scott and fellow linebacker Cortney Finney for starting jobs. Scott will have to work hard to keep his spot in the fall, but he is an experienced player who is one of UNT’s top returning defensive players.

10. Eric Keena, punter

It isn’t often that one thinks of a punter as a weapon for a college football team. Keena was an exception to that rule last season. The rugby-style specialist averaged 44.2 yards per attempt, had 17 punts downed inside opponents’ 20-yard line and posted 15 punts of at least 50 yards. Keena also kicked off for UNT and had 14 of his 32 attempts go for touchbacks. Keena made a huge difference throughout the season in terms of setting UNT up with good field position.

Here’s a look back at the countdown:

Nos. 10-15: Key returning defensive players will be vital
Nos. 16-20: Veteran linemen will be key to UNT’s hopes to improve
Nos. 25-21: Rutherford, Wheeler among key playmakers 

UNT coaches caravan notes

North Texas hosted its annual coaches caravan stop in Denton on Wednesday at the fair grounds.

North Texas hosted its annual coaches caravan stop in Denton on Wednesday at the fair grounds.

North Texas hosted its annual coaches caravan stop in Denton over the fairgrounds tonight.

There were more than 100 fans and UNT boosters who attended. UNT football coach Seth Littrell, men’s basketball coach Tony Benford and women’s basketball coach Jalie Mitchell were all there and spoke.

I will have a story in Friday’s paper.

Until then, here are a few key tidbits …

Football

– On the football front, I had a chance to chat with Littrell for a minute and got a little clarification on Willie Ivery’s status. I mentioned Ivery in a couple of spring practice blogs. He disappeared a little later on. Littrell suspended Ivery midway through spring practice and didn’t bring him back for the spring game. Ivery got back on track academically and is in good standing heading into the summer. Ivery still needs to do well in class over the summer, but is making progress.

– The rest of UNT’s players are all in good standing academically.

– Littrell mentioned that UNT has gotten a positive reception from high school coaches across the state when it comes to recruiting.

– If you have been following along, UNT has been turning over a ton of rocks in the junior college ranks looking for help. UNT still has some digging to do. The best UNT teams have always had talented players with unusual backstories that hard-working assistant coaches found. I have a feeling UNT’s staff understands that is going to be the way it works at the mid-major level.

– Defensive end Malik Dilonga graduated and will play next season as a graduate student.

– Littrell mentioned in his Q&A with Dave Barnett the transition both he had his players have undergone since he arrived at UNT has gone better than expected.

Men’s basketball

– Head coach Tony Benford expressed high hopes for his fifth season at UNT, which he said is in position to compete with any team in Conference USA, including UAB and Middle Tennessee. That’s a big statement for a team that was 12-20 last year, although UNT does return 90 percent of its scoring and 80 percent of its rebounding.

– UNT had three players graduate, including guard Todd Eaglin, who was the first person in his family to graduate.

– All of UNT’s players are in good standing academically. Two players have a perfect 4.0 GPA, while seven are at 3.0 or better.

– Benford emphasized that he has high character players on his team.

– Singee A.J. Lawson will play in an all-star game on Friday.

– SMU transfer Keith Frazier has done a good job in class and is fitting in well since arriving at UNT.

– Sophomore center Rickey Brice has lost 25 pounds, largely due to becoming sick during a family vacation to Hawaii.

Women’s basketball

– Head coach Jalie Mitchell said her team received its invitation to the Preseason WNIT largely because the selection committee thought the program has a lot to be excited about due to its returning players and incoming recruits, including transfers who sat out last season.

– UNT could play at home or on the road at the home of its WNIT opponent. It just depends on how the schedule that will be released in the next few weeks sets up.

– UNT had its best year academically in the last decade. UNT had one player with a 4.0 GPA and seven others with at least a 3.0 GPA. UNT had three players graduate.

Re-ranking UNT’s players Nos. 11-15 (Key players on defense make countdown)

North Texas cornerback Chad Davis reacts after stopping UTEP  running back Jeremiah Laufasa last season at Apogee Stadium.  Davis is one of UNT's key returning players. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas cornerback Chad Davis reacts after stopping UTEP running back Jeremiah Laufasa last season at Apogee Stadium. Davis is one of UNT’s key returning players. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas struggled in the 2015 season defensively. The Mean Green gave up 62 points in a loss to Iowa, 56 to Louisiana Tech and 55 to Western Kentucky.

And that wasn’t even the bad part.

UNT was drilled 66-7 by Portland State on homecoming.

Add it all up and the Mean Green allowed 41.2 points a game last season.

One of the big challenges UNT faces this year is improving on that total. A big part of the Mean Green’s plan is to infuse quick-fix junior college players into the lineup.

The success of that plan will depend in large part on a few key returning players that should play vital roles in UNT’s new 3-3-5 alignment. Several of those players are featured from Nos. 11-15 in our countdown of the top players on the Mean Green’s roster:

11. T.J. Tauaalo, defensive tackle

Tauaalo didn’t put up huge numbers last season in terms of tackles, finishing with 27. What he did provide was a solid presence in the middle of UNT’s defensive line, a role that will be vitally important this fall as the Mean Green move to a 3-3-5 defense. Tauaalo is in position to start at nose tackle. He must hold up to help UNT avoid being gashed in the running game.

12. Chad Davis, cornerback 

Davis broke up six passes last season, more than any other returning player, and came out of spring practice as a starter. The senior made the play of the year for UNT in 2015, returning a blocked extra point for a touchdown in the Mean Green’s win over UTSA. The play turned the tide in UNT’s lone victory of the season.

13. Cortney Finney, linebacker 

Finney ranked sixth among UNT players with 42 tackles and recovered two fumbles last season. He is another junior college product who improved as the season went along. Finney came out of spring as a starter. The question is what his role will be in the fall after the arrival of a few key incoming junior college recruits.

14. Trevor Moore, kicker

UNT’s special teams have been productive throughout the tenure of special teams coordinator Tommy Perry. Moore is one of the reasons that has been the case. The Oklahoma native made nine of his 14 field goal attempts last season and only missed once inside the 40-yard line.

15. Jareid Combs, defensive end

Combs was one of UNT’s key junior college recruits last season. And like a lot of transfers, it took him a while to settle in. Combs didn’t start until the ninth week of the year, but ended up making an impact while finishing with 21 tackles and three quarterback hurries. He came out of spring practice as a starter and should play a key role.

Here’s a look back at the countdown:

Nos. 25-21: Rutherford, Wheeler among key playmakers 
Nos. 16-20: Veteran linemen will be key to UNT’s hopes to improve

UNT defensive end target Raveon Holston sets commitment date

Los Angeles Valley College defensive end Raveon Hoston is about to make his decision on where to continue his college football career.

Holston said via text message this week that he will make his pick on June 1.

The 6-4, 246-pound junior visited UNT earlier this summer.

Hoston declined to say what other options he is considering at this point, but said that UNT “is definitely in there.”

Hoston spoke highly of UNT after visiting the school earlier this month.

“I like the school a lot,” Hoston said. “The coaches [want to help] me become the best Raveon possible. It’s always good to come across coaches like that.”

Here is our original story on Hoston’s visit.

Hoston is a highly recruited player who had offers from Memphis and Central Florida at one point. He finished with six sacks and 23 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, in eight games last season.

Hoston missed three games with a hamstring injury. Here are his Hudl highlights.

UNT is looking for players who fit into its new 3-3-5 defense.

Hoston seems like a good fit at defensive end.

The question now is if UNT can land Hoston and add him to an ever growing list of quick-fix transfers the Mean Green have taken in their 2016 class. UNT signed seven in its original class and have picked up two late commitments from the junior college ranks.

Running back Anthony Wyche, one of Hoston’s teammates at Los Angeles Valley, committed to UNT early in the summer. The Mean Green added a second late JUCO commitment when Brooklyn ASA offensive tackle Jalen Thomas committed to play for the Mean Green this week.

UNT picks up commitment from JC tackle

North Texas saw its patience pay off when it came to recruiting ASA College tackle Jalen Thomas.

The Detroit native spent the spring in junior college working to improve his academic standing and prepare for the move to a FBS program. When Thomas reached his goal, UNT was there waiting with a scholarship offer.

Thomas visited UNT over the weekend and committed to become a late addition to the Mean Green’s 2016 recruiting class. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining. He is rated as a two-star prospect by 247 Sports and is No. 42 on the site’s rankings of the best JUCO offensive tackles in the Class of 2016

“When I was in Texas, I felt like it was home,” Thomas said. “The coaching staff treated me like one of their own. They make a big push for me.”

Thomas (6-5, 276) redshirted his first season at ASA, transferred to City College of San Francisco and then back to ASA for his sophomore season. He played in just four games last season while waiting for his transfer back to ASA to be approved.

Marshall, Middle Tennessee and Georgia State all offered Thomas a scholarship under the assumption that he could transfer at the semester break in December.

“I was waiting to get my GPA up,” Thomas said. “A lot of other schools backed off. UNT gave me a chance.”

Missouri State and a few other FCS schools offered Thomas a scholarship this spring.

UNT offensive line coach Brad Davis recruited Thomas, who will join an offensive line that has been in transition over the last few months.

UNT lost two starters to graduation and then lost starting center Kaydon Kirby due to family issues. The move to a passing offense has only added to the challenges the Mean Green face on their offensive line.

Jordan Murray and Texas Tech transfer Trey Keenan came out of spring as UNT’s starting tackles.

Now UNT will have Thomas to compete with them, and hopefully improve the Mean Green’s pass protection that was suspect at times in the spring.

“I love the spread offense,” Thomas said. “Passing blocking is what I do.”

Re-ranking UNT’s players Nos. 16-21 (linemen featured on countdown)

North Texas defensive end Jarrian Roberts celebrates after helping the Mean Green make a defensive stop against Rice last season at Apogee Stadium. Roberts is one of UNT's top returning defensive playmakers. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas defensive end Jarrian Roberts celebrates after helping the Mean Green make a defensive stop against Rice last season at Apogee Stadium. Roberts is one of UNT’s top returning defensive playmakers. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

One of the big questions North Texas faces heading into the 2016 season is how its offensive line will fare, largely because who will end up starting remains a bit of a mystery.

It appears safe to say that Sam Rice will end up starting, either at guard or center. Outside of that, it’s anyone’s guess how UNT will line up.

UNT signed highly regarded JUCO product Cody Hayes, who started his career at Texas Tech. He figures to start at some spot along the Mean Green’s offensive line after arriving at UNT over the summer as a late signee.

Some of the players Hayes will compete with for playing time or play next to make our list as we continue our countdown of the top players on UNT’s roster. We ran through the players who checked in at No. 21-25 yesterday.

Here are Nos. 20-16:

16. Jarrian Roberts, defensive end

Roberts was UNT’s most productive defensive lineman and led the team with 6.5 sacks, 10.0 tackles for loss and 5 quarterback hurries. The senior missed spring practice and underwent ankle surgery, but is still listed as a co-starter at defensive end with Malik Dilonga (who checks in at No. 19 on our countdown). Roberts should see plenty of playing time. He is one of UNT’s few proven playmakers.

17. Trey Keenan, offensive line

One of the feel-good stories of the spring was the development of Trey Keenan. The former Argyle standout started his career at Texas Tech and struggled to put on the weight he needed to play as a tackle at the Big 12 level or develop the skills necessary to play tight end. A redshirt year at UNT helped Keena, who is now listed as UNT’s starting right tackle. He said late in spring that he is consistently weighing in at 295 pounds.

18. Jordan Murray, offensive line

Murray has NFL size at 6-9, 360. The question is if he can put that size to use and develop into a standout college player. The sophomore started one game as a freshman and played in six. He came out of spring as a starter at left tackle. Murray could be a key player for UNT, if he can show that he is quick enough to play in pass protection. He could end up protecting quarterback Alec Morris’ blindside.

19. Malik Dilonga, defensive end

Dilonga has always had a ton of physical talent and he seems like a good fit at defensive end in UNT’s new 3-3-5 defense. He was listed at 6-4, 264 on the Mean Green’s post-spring depth chart. The former Trinity Christian School standout was second on the team with 3.0 sacks and fourth in tackles for loss at 4.5 last season. He started the last two games of the year and is coming on at the end of his career.

20. Chris Miles, offensive line

Miles came to UNT as a highly regarded offensive line prospect from Flower Mound and started 11 games as a redshirt freshman at tackle. He seemed like a perfect fit for UNT’s run-first offense under former coach Dan McCarney. Miles had a bit of a tough spring trying to adjust to new coach Seth Littrell’s spread offense and is listed as a backup at left tackle. He clearly has some talent and time to develop. Depending on the way summer and fall practice go, he has a good chance to end up starting somewhere along UNT’s front.

Here’s a look back at the countdown:

Nos. 25-21: Rutherford, Wheeler among key playmakers 

And that’s how the story ends — Texas LB Dalton Santos to LA Tech

There was some interest among North Texas fans in where Texas graduate transfer linebacker Dalton Santos would end up.

And now you know how the story ends.

He committed to Louisiana Tech, as expected.

That’s a big get at a position of need for the Bulldogs, who lost all three of their starting linebackers to graduation.