DENTON — Former Chapel Hill standout Lairamie Lee says he isn’t sure if he’ll be starting this year for the University of North Texas Mean Green.
Either he’s being modest or forgetful, because his head coach, Dan McCarney, has no doubt.
“(Lee) and (Marcus) Trice are our starters,” McCarney said. “I like the job they’re doing. We’re getting better back there. No question Lee’s a starter.”
Lee will be the starter at free safety when the Mean Green opens its season on Sept. 1 on the road in Baton Rouge, La., against national title contender LSU. The Mean Green has a brutal road schedule in non-conference, though it’s spaced out between Sun Belt Conference games.
But along with LSU, the Mean Green must travel to Manhattan, Kan., to face Big 12 contender Kansas State and to Houston to pay back the Cougars for opening their new home, Apogee Stadium, last year. The Cougars went 12-1 last year and nearly went to a BCS bowl game, had they not lost to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game.
The Mean Green’s home opener is against FCS foe Texas Southern on Sept. 8.
Lee is less concerned with the schedule and more concerned with fitting into a defense that needs an infusion of talent after ranking No. 94 in FBS last season in total defense.
“I’m just out here trying to do my job, try to make plays and do whatever it takes to make us better as a team, help our defense and win,” Lee said.
Lee played last year as a true freshman, playing in 11 of UNT’s 12 games on special teams as the Mean Green finished 5-7 in McCarney’s first season. He finished the year with 10 tackles and a blocked punt, which came in the Mean Green’s season-ending victory over Middle Tennessee.
But opportunities abound this season, as the secondary took a serious hit from graduation. Only one player from last year’s two-deep roster is back for 2012, meaning that Lee, along with his younger teammates, will be counted on to make a serious impact.
That’s one reason the Mean Green went after Lee leading up to signing day last year. Lee played both linebacker and running back for the Bulldogs, helping them to a Class 3A Division I state championship berth against Henderson at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Lee earned All-District 17-3A most valuable player honors after posting 148 tackles, 10 forced fumbles, 14 tackles for loss and eight interceptions on defense, along with 1,443 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on offense. He also earned a place on the 2010 Associated Press All-State team at linebacker.
North Texas came late to the recruiting process, though. After the Mean Green fired Todd Dodge midway through the 2010 season, offensive coordinator Mike Canales took over on an interim basis until the Mean Green hired McCarney on Nov. 30. Even then, the Mean Green didn’t start pursuing Lee until about two weeks before signing day.
“They (UNT) came around at the last second,” Lee said. “The new coaches had just come in and one of my high school coaches sent them a tape and they liked it.”
McCarney said there was plenty to like when they got a look at Lee on tape.
“He’s been a real physical kid since the day he got here, which is one of the reasons I loved him coming out of school,” McCarney said. “He a tough, hard-nosed person who plays with an edge. (This year) he’s better in coverage, he’s better on technique, better on communication, plays with great confidence and that comes with experience and success. He’s one of our most improved guys, that’s for certain.”
Lee may be joining the Mean Green at the start of its resurrection as a program. Last year the Mean Green finally accomplished its decade-long dream of building a new stadium, located on the west side of I-35 within a long tee shot of venerable Fouts Field. This year the Mean Green will play its final season in the Sun Belt Conference, its home since leaving the Southland Conference and moving up to FBS (then Division I-A) more than 10 years ago.
Next year the Mean Green joins Conference USA, which invited North Texas, Florida International, Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio to play football in the conference starting in 2013. UNC-Charlotte and Old Dominion will be full football members by 2015.
Many around the program see it trending up after several years of losing. The program was once the standard-bearer for the Sun Belt after winning four straight league titles from 2001-2004. Lee, who has three years left, sees a hunger for success among players and coaches, as well as the Denton community.
“I think the attitude has been good,” Lee said. “Folks are ready for a change. Folks want to win, win bowl games and start a winning tradition around here. Right now we’re just trying to go out of the Sun Belt with bang and win a championship. We want to do something great before we leave.”
Matthew Postins is a former Tyler Morning Telegraph sports writer. He is a freelance writer in the Metroplex.