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Insider

Like LSU, UNT opens with DB questions

8/27/2012

BATON ROUGE -- LSU won't be the only team in Tiger Stadium Saturday with secondary questions.

North Texas will have an entirely new secondary when it opens at LSU. And at one cornerback spot, the Eagles moved redshirt freshman Zac Whitfield, a converted running back, to a starting spot after one projected starter, Freddie Warner, was lost to a knee injury in the spring.

Whitfield did not move to defensive back until after spring practice, when he was contending for a starting spot in place of 4,000-yard career rusher Lance Dunbar, now a free agent rookie with the Dallas Cowboys. After Warner suffered a torn ACL in the spring game, Whitfield was moved to defense and won the job.

North Texas coach Dan McCarney said Warner was the Eagles' best defensive back, so don't be surprised if LSU doesn't go after a recently converted running back taking his place.

LSU will be debuting a new starting quarterback in Zach Mettenberger, but there is hope that the junior will bring an improved passing game to a Tigers offense that ranked 100th of out 120 Division I FBS programs last season. While conventional wisdom says that LSU coach Les Miles may ease Mettenberger into his first start Saturday by leaning on a potent running game, UNT's musical chairs in the secondary and the fact that a veteran core of linebackers is the strength of the UNT defense might suggest otherwise.

In regards to a secondary shuffle, North Texas, 5-7 a season ago in McCarney's first season, can relate a bit to the Tigers.

Like North Texas, LSU lost arguably its best defensive back in Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu, since the end of the season. In his place, the Tigers will likely start either true freshman Jalen Mills or redshirt freshman Jalen Collins. Free safety Eric Reid is now the only returning starter in the Tigers' secondary.

The question is, will North Texas be the team to provide an early challenge to the young secondary?

The Eagles return starting quarterback Derek Thompson and their three top receivers, led by Brelan Chancellor (37 receptions, 457 yards).

It's not clear that testing LSU's secondary will be in the interest of McCarney and the Eagles, however. Thompson threw for a modest 1,788 yards a season ago in an offense that leaned on the running back. And while North Texas lacks its top two running backs from last season, it does return four of five starters on its offensive line.

Both running back candidates, Brandin Byrd and Jeremy Brown, had 70-yard touchdown runs in the Eagles final August scrimmage. Given that McCarney is historically a run-first coach and that it might be in the interest of a Sun Belt Conference team to try to shorten the game by running the clock, don't necessarily expect North Texas to abandon the running game to try to exploit the Tigers' young secondary.