UNT defensive line outlook

North Texas defensive tackle Dion Novil (97) sacks Rice quarterback Mike Collins during the Mean Green's win over the Owls last season at Apogee Stadium. Novil is among UNT's top returning defensive players heading into the 2021 season.

North Texas has received plenty of good news since its loss to Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

Arguably the best of that news was defensive tackle Dion Novil's decision to take advantage of the NCAA granting players an additional season of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Novil was a first-team All-Conference USA selection and was the only UNT representative on the first- or second-team defense. The senior could have headed off to chase his NFL dreams but elected to return for another season with the Mean Green.

UNT needs all the help it can get after allowing 42.8 points per game heading into its first season under new coordinator Phil Bennett.

Novil will give UNT a place to start as it looks to rebuild. The Abilene native anchored the middle of UNT's defense and is one of a handful of key players who are set to return up front.

Promising redshirt freshmen defensive ends Gabriel and Grayson Murphy are also set to return.

One of the big questions heading into the 2021 season is how Bennett will use the talent he has returning as he looks to improve UNT's defense.

Here's a look at what Bennett has to work with along UNT's defensive front in the latest installment of our look at the Mean Green's roster on a position-by-position basis.

Key returnees: DT Dion Novil, Sr.; DE Gabriel Murphy, Rfr.; DE Grayson Murphy, Rfr.; DL Davontae McCrae, So.; DL Jonathan Pickett, Fr.; DL Jimmy Walker, Rfr.; DL Ta'Shoyn Johnson, Fr.; DL Dayton LeBlanc, So.; DL Jake Jones, So.; DL Caleb Colvin, Sr.; DL Kortlin Rawsaw, Fr.; DL Kenneth Dodson

Key losses: DE Caleb Colvin, DL Justin Booker-Brown, DE Asher Frow, DL  Caleb Kroese, DT Ca'Maurie Johnson, DL Samuel Pitts

Newcomers: DT Kalvin Hutchings, DT Trent Ward, DT Kevin Greene, DT Fatafehi Vailea, DT Rod Brown

Biggest unanswered question: UNT will move from a 3-3-5 scheme to a multiple-front look under Bennett. The question is how UNT's players will fit into the new scheme.

Novil has played anywhere from defensive end to nose tackle in his career. He's all but sure to start, but his role is likely to change. It would make a lot of sense for UNT to have him drop weight from the 330 pounds he played at last season when he anchored a three-man front.

UNT also returns the Murphy twins, who started out as linebackers before becoming pass-rushing defensive ends. They exceled in that role. Gabriel Murphy finished with 4.5 sacks, while Grayson Murphy added 3.0. Will they remain in that role?

Hutchings is a highly regarded talent as well. 

The Mean Green have several good players to work with along their defensive line. The question is how Bennett will use them and if the group can help UNT make a big jump defensively.

Why 2021 production could be better: UNT has a host of solid players returning and some talented newcomers set to join the fray. Bennett will move those players around and put them in position to make plays next season.

Why 2021 production could be worse: There are not any obvious reasons UNT would take a step back in terms of its production from its defensive line.

UNT has its key players back and added a host of highly regarded newcomers. What one has to wonder is how those players will adjust to a new scheme and a new coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball.

Matt Passwaters will coach UNT's defensive line after spending the 2020 season as an offensive quality control assistant at Hawaii. He was among the least experienced coaches Seth Littrell added to his staff in the offseason.

There is always a chance UNT could struggle to settle in under Passwaters, especially early in the season when the Mean Green will face a tough schedule with games against SMU, UAB, Missouri and Louisiana Tech.

Overall outlook: There is a lot to like about what UNT has up front defensively with Novil as well as some other solid players returning.

How Bennett and Passwaters fair in developing the unit will be interesting to watch.

Here's our series so far:

Quarterbacks — Ruder joins fray as UNT’s situation improves from a year ago

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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