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North Texas linebacker Mike Linehan makes an eagle claw sign during the singing of the alma mater after the Mean Green’s loss to Louisiana Tech last season at Apogee Stadium. Linehan will battle with a host of young players for starting jobs in fall practice.

There are a host of reasons North Texas took a dramatic step forward defensively last season.

The play of linebackers E.J. Ejiya and Brandon Garner was among the biggest. The pair combined for 189 tackles, including 43 tackles for loss, and 15.5 sacks during their senior seasons.

The number of points UNT allowed plummeted from 35.0 in 2017 to 24.2 last year with Ejiya and Garner leading the way.

The departure of both left a huge void in UNT's defense. The Mean Green are still figuring out who will move into those spots in the lineup.

The battle for playing time at linebacker comes in at No. 2 on our list of unsettled position battles heading into the opening of fall practice next week.

UNT runs a 3-3-5 scheme and is essentially set at the Jack linebacker spot with Joe Ozougwu and Jamie King returning. It's the weak side and middle linebacker spots that are up for grabs.

Veteran backup Mike Linehan came out of spring practice as the starter on the weak side with Larry Nixon as his backup.

William LeMasters, another veteran backup, was listed at the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker with KD Davis and Tyreke Davis listed as co-starters. 

KD Davis was a highly regarded prospect who signed with UNT as part of the Mean Green's 2018 signing class, while Tyreke Davis has been a significant contributor the last two seasons. He started 10 games at the nickel spot last fall. 

What makes UNT's search for two new starters at linebacker all the more interesting is that some of the Mean Green's top-rated incoming recruits are linebackers.

Grayson and Gabriel Murphy from Bishop Lynch, Taylor Jacobs of South Grand Prairie and Kevin Wood of Converse Judson are all rated as three-star prospects. 

Jacobs had an offer from Texas Tech at one point in his recruiting process. The Murphy brothers and Wood were recruited by several Group of Five programs from the region.

All four arrived over the summer, have been in the offseason program and possess the physical attributes to contribute right away.

The question is whether any of those newcomers will be ready to start.

The good news for UNT is that it has plenty of options as it looks for two new starting linebackers.

The Mean Green have veterans who could be ready to start for the first time like Linehan and LeMasters, young players who could make the jump into the lineup after gaining some experience in the program like KD Davis, Nixon and fellow redshirt freshman Jordan Hunt as well as freshmen with high ceilings.

The battle for starting jobs will be one to watch beginning next week.

Here is our list so far:

1. Several players in the hunt to start at cornerback

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

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