DENTON, Texas (AP) When Dan McCarney looks around the North Texas practice field, the coach is finally seeing what most NCAA Division I programs take for granted.
For the first time in McCarney's three seasons, the Mean Green have 85 scholarship players.
"More guys that look like Division I football players," McCarney said. "It's taken quite some time to replenish this roster to get it to where we can be competitive."
That translates to players, even the 16 returning starters, having to work harder for jobs.
"Where there's been no competition going on in many positions the first two years that I've been here," the coach said. "There were bodies there, but I'm talking about real competition, Division I competition, guys that have a chance to play winning football at this level."
That comes at a good time with North Texas stepping up to Conference USA after the past 12 seasons in the Sun Belt. The Mean Green won Sun Belt titles and went to bowl games from 2001-04, but won only 13 games the next six years.
McCarney is 9-15 so far. His goal in his third season?
"You just want tangible evidence of what we're doing year-round with this program, what we're doing to change the culture of the program, change expectations," McCarney said. "The reality was this program was in bad shape when we got here. The perception was even worse, and I've dealt with that for two years. ... How do you change perception? You make sure the reality of your program gets better."
Five things to watch with North Texas, which opens its season at home Aug. 31 against Idaho.
1. QB RACE: Senior Derek Thompson is a two-year starter who threw for 2,649 yards last season, but McCarney said the quarterback job is "wide open" and that more than one could play. Andrew McNulty is back as a sophomore after redshirting last year due to injury. There is also freshman Dajon Williams, a dual-threat player who quickly caught McCarney's attention. "He's in the mix," the coach said. "We don't have any plans of redshirting him right now." Sophomore Brock Berglund sat out last year after transferring from Kansas.
2. NO SACK FOR YOU: North Texas led the nation by allowing only six sacks last season, with none in nine games. "We're always striving to do better," said junior right guard Cyril Lemon, one of three returning starters. McCarney said as many as nine offensive linemen will be in the playing rotation.
3. D-LINE DEPTH: McCarney said that even on its best days the last two seasons, the defensive line frankly was "below average." In numbers and production. "We have nine or 10 that we think can give us a chance to play this year," McCarney said. "We've never had more than four or five. ... Hopefully those days are behind us, and hopefully we can be a great solid contributor."
4. EARLY AT HOME: The Mean Green play their season opener at home for the first time in 12 years. They play two of their first three games at home, something that also hasn't happened since 2001. They were 7-4 at home the first two seasons in their new stadium - after going 1-16 at home the three years before that.
5. LOVING LONE STAR: North Texas is one of four Texas teams in Conference USA, giving them three games against in-state opponents. The Mean Green played only one Texas opponent in each of the past three seasons. Senior linebacker Zach Orr, who had 108 tackles last season, said they look forward to finally getting to play against "a lot of guys we played high school with or high school against."
Predicted finish in Conference USA West Division: 4th.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org