In six seasons as head coach at North Texas, Darrell Dickey has stockpiled his roster with players who were too short, too small or too slow for the so-called elite. The result has been a program that has been too tough for its Sun Belt Conference rivals.
Mid-major success, however, has its pitfalls. If the Mean Green earn another trip to New Orleans, it could be UNT's last trip with Dickey, whose stock is rising after three straight Sun Belt Coach of the Year awards.
OffensePatrick Cobbs is a tad on the small side, but that didn't keep him from leading the country in rushing with 152.7 yards per game. He was the only back in the nation with four 200-yard games. The unanimous all-conference selection did not play extensively in the spring as the coaching staff sought to develop a capable backup -- and to keep their 5-foot-9, 205-pound dynamo as fresh as possible.
Quarterback Scott Hall started only nine games but performed well enough to earn first team all-conference honors. After missing the entire 2002 campaign with an injury, Hall returned to compile a 153.4 passing efficiency rating, a figure that would have led the Sun Belt and ranked among the top 10 nationally had he met the minimum of 15 attempts per game.
A dozen members of the Mean Green earned all-conference honors last year, but the receiving corps was shut out. That could change if Johnny Quinn continues to develop after leading the squad in receptions and yardage as a freshman. Tight end Andy Blount (five TDs, 415 yards receiving) has proven to be more than just a formidable blocker. And speaking of blockers, four starters return on the offensive line, including Andy Brewster, considered by many to be the premier center in the Sun Belt.
DefenseSix starters, including a pair of first team all-conference selections, return from the Sun Belt's top-rated unit, but this is without question a rebuilding year for the Mean Green defense. It's never easy to replace a conference Player of the Year, much less one who won it in consecutive seasons, but that's what North Texas must do in the case of lineman Brandon Kennedy. Michael Pruitt, who improved steadily as the year progressed, gets that assignment. Evan Cardwell, who tied Kennedy with a team-high six sacks, will start inside along with Pruitt. Both starting ends return, including first-team All-Sun Belt selection Adrian Awasom.
Another first-teamer, free safety Jonas Buckles, leads a trio of returning starters in the secondary. But the biggest challenge will be retooling the linebackers, where three all-conference starters have departed. Shawn Early, who played in every game a year ago, is the only sure bet.
SpecialistsThe kicking game will be more than adequate with placekicker Nick Bazaldua and punter Brad Kadlubar, both second team all-conference picks in 2003. North Texas led the Sun Belt in kickoff return coverage (14.1), but an upgrade in its kickoff and punt return units would be a welcome addition. Kevin Moore and Quinn are the leading kick and punt returners, respectively.
Final AnalysisThe Mean Green, the only team in the Belt with a winning record last year, aims for its fourth consecutive conference title in 2004. With 14 starters returning, including six all-conference honorees, a return trip to New Orleans is a realistic proposition. There are, however, some serious gaps to fill, particularly on the defensive line and at linebacker. But that's just being picky. This is still the team to beat in 2004.