Q&A with Jason Munz of the Hattiesburg American

We are fortunate today to have Jason Munz from the Hattiesburg American with us to talk a little about this weekend’s UNT-Southern Miss game. Both teams are 2-4 on the season and 0-2 in Conference USA play. One can find Jason’s work for the paper on the American’s website, which also contains a link to his Southern Miss blog. Here’s what Jason had to say about Saturday’s game and the Southern miss program.

1. How much better is Southern Miss under second-year head coach Todd Moken this season?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s night and day, but Southern Miss has improved in a number of areas this season. Turnovers aren’t anywhere near as big a problem as they were last year. The offensive line has improved. The run game is better.

2. How much has Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens progressed?

Things are beginning to slow down for Nick. He’s not getting hit as much as last season, so that’s a big part of his development. His TD-to-INT ratio is better. He’s still got work to do. It’s important for people to realize, Nick’s most recent start was just his 12th at Southern Miss — the equivalent of a full season. So he’s still growing as a quarterback, but he’s better than he was as a true freshman.

3. How much better is Southern Miss defensively? UNT hung 55 points on the Golden Eagles last year.

The defense has been up and down this season. It still struggles to get off the field on third down. It’s still giving up too many big plays. The last couple of games, tackling has been an issue. And it has struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard after the team’s offense scores. But, when its back is against the wall, it has been pretty good. It’s also creating far more turnovers than a year ago.

4. Who are USM’s key playmakers?

On offense, it’s primarily Nick Mullens (QB), George Payne (RB), and Michael Thomas (WR). You could throw Casey Martin (WR) in there as well. On defense, Dasman McCullum (DE) has been very good this season. Brian Anderson (LB) covers a lot of ground, and Jacorius Cotton (S) is the quarterback in the secondary.

5. How do you see this game playing out?

I’m picking Southern Miss to win this one. North Texas seems like it’s reeling right now, while Southern Miss looks to be putting things together slowly but surely. It just feels like these two teams are moving in opposite directions, which I believe will favor Southern Miss.

Dajon Williams talks confidence and a guess as to a starter

McNulty

I caught up with Dajon Williams for a couple of moments on the way to the airport for Conference USA media day this week.

There have been some questions as to the UNT quarterback’s mindset after being benched in during the Mean Green’s loss to UAB last week.

Be sure to check out tomorrow’s story about UNT halfway into its season that is now posted. 

I gave Williams a chance to speak his mind. Here’s a teaser, not a whole lot has changed in terms of how he looks at things.

As far as the quarterback race (Take 3) goes, I’ve heard from a few people who know how things are going at practice.

This is just a gut feeling, but I think there is a very good chance Andrew McNulty starts on Saturday against Southern Miss.

That just seems to be the way this is headed.

McNulty sat behind Derek Thompson and for years and hasn’t really gotten much of a crack at the starting job.

Saturday’s game against the Golden Eagles looks like it could be his opportunity. McNulty played well late in UNT’s loss to UAB after Williams struggled and turned the ball over four times.

There is nothing Dan McCarney detests more than turnovers and the stress they put on a defense.

We could see this weekend if McNulty can drive the bus and handle UNT’s offense.

Pulling Williams in is a bit of a risk. He could lose a little confidence or drive, but UNT is running out of wiggle room if it wants to make a run at six wins.

UNT turning to McNulty would be a heck of a story. He’s started one game at UNT. He’s be carrying the hopes of a team and an entire season on his shoulders after spending pretty much his entire career as an afterthought.

Like I said, just a gut feeling.

Prediction: UNT will right the ship with win over Southern Miss

North Texas quarterback Andrew McNulty throws a pass in a win over SMU at Apogee Stadium earlier this season. McNulty could become the third player to start under center for UNT this season when UNT takes on Southern Miss on Saturday at home. (The Dallas Morning News/Nathan Hunsinger)

Southern Miss at UNT, 6 p.m. Saturday, Apogee Stadium, Denton

Records: North Texas 2-4, 0-2 C-USA; Southern Miss 2-4, 0-2 C-USA

TV: American Sports Network: Ron Thulin (play-by-play), Keith Moreland (analyst), Evan Nemec (sidelines)

Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1, KGAF-AM 1580

On the line: UNT’s chances of playing in a second consecutive bowl game have taken a bit of a hit the last couple of weeks when the Mean Green lost consecutive games at Indiana and UAB. UNT fell to 0-2 in Conference USA play last week with its loss to the Blazers, a set back that was particularly costly. UNT’s hopes of making a run at the C-USA West Division title are dim at best now, especially considering one of its losses came against Louisiana Tech, which appears to be the odds-on favorite after jumping out to a 2-0 start in league play. The Bulldogs have the tiebreaker over UNT in addition to a two-game lead. What the Mean Green are hoping now is that they can make a late run at becoming bowl-eligible with six wins, a goal that is still well within the realm of possibility. UAB is in essentially the same position with a 2-4 overall record and an 0-2 mark in league play. The Golden Eagles have a brutal schedule coming up after their game against UNT with games against C-USA division leaders Louisiana Tech and Marshall coming up with a game at UTEP in between. Saturday’s game could be Southern Miss’ best shot for a win for a while.

When North Texas has the ball: The UNT quarterback carousel continued to spin this week with the Mean Green taking a long look in practice at both Dajon Williams and Andrew McNulty. UNT started the year with JUCO transfer Josh Greer as its starter and stuck with him for three games before turning to Williams, a redshirt freshman, for three games. McNulty has played well off the bench this season, but has started one game his entire career, and that was back in 2011. No matter who is under center, UNT will be content to hammer away in the running game, if it has the opportunity. Southern Miss ranks 12th in C-USA with an average of 246.0 rushing yards allowed a game. Antoinne Jimmerson rushed for 104 yards last week in UNT’s loss to UAB and rolled up 83 yards against Indiana in the Mean Green’s previous game.

When Southern Miss has the ball: The Golden Eagles have come on late in the season offensively and had one of their best games in their last outing, a 37-31 loss to Middle Tennessee. The Golden Eagles not only posted a season-high point total, they also rolled up a season-high 537 yards. Nick Mullens threw for 426 yards and three touchdowns for the Golden Eagles in his best game of the year. UNT has struggled in pass defense all year and has given up seven passing touchdowns in its two C-USA games. UNT also didn’t force a turnover in its loss to the Blazers, ending a 21 straight games in which the Mean Green have posted at least one takeaway.The lone turnover UNT forced against Indiana came on special teams.

Prediction: UNT is in an even more dire situation heading into its game against Southern Miss than it was a week ago against UAB. The realistic goal for UNT now is to become bowl-eligible with six wins. The Mean Green face a long road to get there and really need to take the first step this weekend at home, where UNT is typically very tough to beat. There is some question about who will start at quarterback, but no matter who UNT rolls out there, he will spend a lot of time handing the ball off to Jimmerson, who is coming on late in the season, and the rest of the Mean Green’s running backs. UNT will give up some plays in the passing game like it has all season, but will make just enough plays to win.

UNT 27, Southern Miss 24

Quick recruiting tidbit — UNT target named NJCAA POW

Baxter

One of UNT’s problems this season has been a lack of playmakers at wide receiver outside of Carlos Harris, who is having a monster year.

That was one of the reasons UNT jumped into the race for Trinity Valley wide receiver and former SMU commit Jarvis Baxter. We talked to him this summer for our on-going UNT recruiting target series.

I bring it up because Baxter could be on the verge of blowing up.

The former Garland Lakeview Centennial standout was named this week’s NJCAA Offensive Player of the Week after catching 13 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns.

Baxter has offers from the New Mexico schools in addition to Louisiana-Monroe and Lamar.

There is no telling how high Baxter is on UNT’s board, but he has connections to to the team. I saw him at Friday Night Lights.

Baxter sounds like he would be a good get for UNT, but he could start attracting more attention.

He told me this fall that he wanted to wait until after the season to see if he would get any additional offers.

Stay tuned.

C-USA media day wrap-up thoughts, notes

North Texas men's basketball head coach Tony Benford talks with a member of the media at Conference USA media days in BIrmingham, Ala. , on Wednesday.

Conference USA media days has wrapped up. But before I go to the wrap-up festivities, here are a few thoughts.

There is an aura of confidence when it comes to both the UNT men’s and women’s teams, but both are going to depend on a host of newcomers and players coming off injuries.

Tony Benford sees J-Mychal Reese as a huge difference-maker at point guard and really played up his overall abilities. He is also developing into a leader for the team.

UNT is really hoping the NCAA grants Reese’s waiver request for immediate eligibility, which is a roll of the dice.

Benford also likes his depth of talent at the guard spots with Carrington Ward, DeAndre Harris and several other guys.

The question is if enough of those players come through and if UNT has enough strength inside to hold up.

Benford is high on Armani Flannigan, a JUCO transfer who has yet to become a major contributor. I warned everyone after Tony Mitchell left how iffy a proposition it is to depend on newcomers to contribute in the post.

Those guys tend to play better later in their careers. UNT will have to hope that is case with Flannigan, who averaged 2.4 points a game last season, and Colin Voss, who was actually pretty effective when it comes to a JUCO transfer at 7.3 points a game.

The UNT women were hit hard by the injury bug last season, but should have everyone back. The Mean Green could be pretty good if BreAnna Dawkins, Acheil Tac and especially Candice Adams come through.

UNT didn’t have a great year last year, but wasn’t all that far off considering how many close games they lost in a season nothing seemed to go right. UNT is really hoping JUCO point guard Kasiney Williams comes through.

She will play a lot.

UNT is built better for Mike Petersen’s system. He likes what he has in terms of his team and his newcomers.

The question is if those players can make up for what UNT lost, especially when it comes to the 11 points a game Alexis Hyder provided.

I will have a whole lot more in the paper tomorrow. Check back.

C-USA media days quick-hitters

North Texas men's basketball coach Tony Benford, left, and women's basketball coach Mike Petersen talk during Wednesday's Conference USA basketball media day in Birmingham. (Associated Press)

Conference USA media day took place this afternoon in Birmingham, Ala. I will have a host of material in tomorrow’s DRC and DMN and some video for later in the week, but here are a couple of quick-hitters as far as the news tidbits of the day:

– The UNT men are preparing like Texas A&M transfer J-Mychal Reese will be eligible this year. UNT is still waiting on an appeal that would grant him immediate eligibility at UNT after he played part of last season at A&M before being dismissed.

– T.J. Taylor is on track as far as his rehab goes and should be ready for UNT’s exhibition game on Nov. 14. Taylor had preseason knee surgery.

– All of the members of the UNT women’s team are working out and have been cleared to play. Point guard Candice Adams and shooting guard BreAnna Dawkins are not 100 percent. Acheil Tac and Joh’Vonna Darrington are pretty much at top shape at this point.

– Kasiney Williams has shown signs that she can provide some quality minutes at the point guard spot after transferring in from Baton Rouge Community College and could give UNT a lift at a spot where UNT lost two key players and has another in Adams who is coming back from a knee injury.

Five things people need to know about Southern Miss

Southern Miss' quarterback Nick Mullens passes the ball as Middle Tennessee’s Steven Rhodes rushes in during the Blue Raiders win in Murfreesboro, Tenn., earlier this season. MTSU recovered the fumble. (Daily News Journal/Helen Comer)

North Texas will face Southern Miss at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Apogee Stadium in Denton. Here’s a quick scouting report of the Golden Eagles:

Southern Miss: 2-4, 0-2 in Conference USA (Lost to Middle Tennessee 37-31 on Oct. 4)

Key number: Four (Games this season in which UNT has allowed at least 38 points, including last week’s 56-21 loss to UAB in which the Blazers padded their offensive output by returning two interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns. Southern Miss is averaging only 18.8 points a game).

1. The Golden Eagles are coming on offensively

Southern Miss is averaging just 18.8 points a game, but is coming off its best performance of the season offensively in a 37-31 loss to Middle Tennessee. The Golden Eagles put up 527 yards against the Blue Raiders. Nick Mullens threw for 426 yards and three touchdowns. Southern Miss is coached by noted offensive guru Todd Monken, the former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. The Golden Eagles have gradually improved during his three-year tenure. UNT head coach Dan McCarney said that Southern Miss is a much-improved team over a year ago when the Mean Green rolled into Hattiesburg, Miss., and hammered the Golden Eagles 55-14. Southern Miss managed just 249 yards of total offense in that game. Mullens is accounting for more than that by himself. He’s averaging 267.3 passing yards a game.

2. Mullens is a whole lot better than he was a year ago

Mullens was just settling into the starting role the last time UNT faced him a year ago. He has found his form in his sophomore year and has been on a roll the last few weeks. Mullens threw for 268 yards in win over Appalachian State, 283 in a loss to Rice before his big outing against MTSU. UNT has struggled against top quarterbacks all season. UAB’s Cody Clements threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in a win over UNT last week. Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns against UNT, while Louisiana Tech’s Cody Sokol hit the Mean Green for 243 yards and five touchdowns earlier this season. UNT will face another challenge in Mullens.

3. Southern Miss has had a whole lot of time get ready for UNT

The Golden Eagles had a bye last week and had an extra week to prepare for UNT. That extra time should pay dividends for Southern Miss. Jason Munz from the Hattiesburg American reported this week that running back Jalen Richard will play this week. An extra week in the middle of the season can pay dividends for a team. Southern Miss will be ready to go in what will be a key game for both teams, which are still holding out hope that they can make a run late in the year at becoming bowl eligible.

4. Southern Miss is forcing turnovers at a high rate

Southern Miss has forced at turnover in seven straight games dating to last season and has gradually improved in that statistic the last few years. The Golden Eagles forced 12 turnovers in 2012, improved that total to 19 in 2013 and now has 12 turnovers in six games this season. UNT has thrived forcing turnovers throughout Dan McCarney’s tenure, but has struggled in that regard this season. The Mean Green lost the turnover battle 5-0 in its loss to UAB last week.

5. The Golden Eagles are struggling on run defense

Southern Miss has struggled to contain opponents’ running games throughout the season and enters the weekend ranked 12th among 13 C-USA teams with an average of 246 rushing yards allowed a game. Even Alcorn State found success running the ball against Southern Miss, picking up 295 yards on the ground. That could play in UNT’s favor. The Mean Green are a run-first team and will pound the ball at the Golden Eagles.

Story lines heading into C-USA basketball media day

North Texas men's head coach Tony Benford and women's coach Mike Petersen will appear as Conference USA media day on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

The North Texas men’s and women’s basketball teams will  participate in Conference USA Media Day on Wednesday at the Westin Hotel in Birmingham, Ala. UNT men’s head coach Tony Benford and I were on the same flight tonight. UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen is also scheduled to attend.

Here are some key story lines heading into tomorrow:

1. Both UNT coaches have their players now. Will that help matters?

The UNT women changed coaches in three straight seasons not too long ago, but is now entering its third season under head coach Mike Petersen. The UNT men are also entering their third season under Tony Benford, who took over after LSU hired away Johnny Jones, a future member of the school’s Hall of Fame. Both will now have rosters filled almost entirely with players they recruited.

The UNT men do have Jordan Williams back, which will help considering he’s the team’s best player.

The point remains the same, though.

Both teams should have players who fit the systems Benford and Petersen want to run. And those players enter the season knowing what the system is going to be and how to run it.

The hope is that will turn the tide for both programs that have struggled in the past few years.

2. Does UNT have the horses?

Neither the UNT men’s nor the women’s team had a single player named to the preseason all-conference team. The question of whether or not UNT has the talent to compete certainly seems like a valid one.

Benford is on record saying that UNT will have one of the best backcourts in Conference USA. It will be a lot better if Texas A&M transfer J-Mychal Reese is ruled eligible. I doubt it, but we could hear more about his status tomorrow.

The UNT women also have a solid player coming back in Briesha Wynn.

Does either team have enough talent to make a run at a winning season? We will at least hear what UNT’s coaches have to say.

3. Is the pressure building?

There is an old saying in coaching, “Don’t take over for the man. Take over for the man who tried to take over for the man.”

Or something along those lines.

Benford violated that rule when he took over for Jones, who led UNT to six straight winning seasons, including five of at least 20 wins, five conference tournament finals, two NCAA tournament appearances and a Sun Belt West Division title. Oh, and he also brought Tony Mitchell to UNT. It was one of the true golden eras in program history.

It’s been a struggle for Benford and has been tough on Petersen as well. Neither has posted a winning season, although the UNT men did break even at .500 last season.

UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said this summer that it’s time for the Mean Green to start winning in basketball again. For the record, the UNT women haven’t posted a winning season since Tina Slinker led the Mean Green to a Sun Belt West Division title back in the 2005-06 season and are riding a streak of eight straight losing seasons.

Can UNT turn it around this year? Both coaches could provide some insight.

Williams vs. McNulty: Pondering the options

Williams

UNT began its weekday preparations for its game against Southern Miss today, actually yesterday now that I have spent some time making the trip back to Birmingham for Conference USA Basketball Media Day tomorrow.

And thus began in earnest the battle between Dajon Williams and Andrew McNulty for the starting quarterback job.

One-time starter Josh Greer has dropped out of the race.

For the record, I fully expect Williams to start this week, but what do each bring to the table?

Here are some thoughts …

Dajon Williams is by far the most athletic quarterback UNT has and gives the Mean Green a threat in the running game. UNT has run the read option quite a bit since he took over.

Williams also has a cannon for an arm and is pretty accurate.

The former Pflugerville Connally standout’s big issue is that he has committed some turnovers in key spots, including last week when UAB returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns on back-to-back plays.

Williams appears to trust his athletic ability too much at times and tries to make plays.

Dan McCarney is not a fan of the gun-slinging mentality.

McNulty

As far as McNulty goes, who knows?

It’s not like we have seen a lot of the Iowa native as a starter or in any capacity for that regard over the years.

McNulty has about zip in the way of experience outside of garbage time. The assumption is that he could go in there and drive the bus, maybe a little more. He made some nice throws after coming on in relief of Williams late against the Blazers, although I wouldn’t read a whole lot into that.

Mike Canales has told us that McNulty knows the system.

He’s also pretty athletic and can run the ball.

McNulty would fit in with the changes UNT has made offensively.

He’s also toward the end of his career as a junior. He’s not a long-term, build-for-the-future player.

Dan McCarney adamantly pointed out that UNT still has a lot to play for this season. He’s right. The chances don’t look good now with UNT sitting there at 2-4, but there is a chance the Mean Green turns it around and makes a run at a bowl game.

If McNulty can led you there, you put him in there.

But if UNT yanks Williams, there is less time to develop a young player who could be vital down the line.

Quick recruiting note on QB recruiting

There was a rumor that went around on Twitter today that quarterback Anthony Millsap of Timber Creek has committed to UNT.

I checked in with the staff at Timber Creek.

Millsap does not have any Division I scholarship offers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end up at UNT, which has had a great deal of success with its walk-on program, but I don’t think he ends up in UNT’s signing class.

There is some question as to whether or not UNT takes a quarterback, something we have gone over more than once.

Chris Riddle, a quarterback out of Florida seems like the most likely prospect to end up signing with the Mean Green.