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Experienced North Texas OL will test talented Texas front

Only five offensive lines in the country feature more experience than North Texas.

Scott Sewell-US PRESSWIRE

When Navarro College transfer Josh Greer takes the first snap from center on Saturday against the Texas Longhorns for the North Texas Mean Green, he will do so behind one of the nation's most experienced offensive lines.

So while the Mean Green lost most of the skill position talent from the squad that won nine games and finished the season with an impressive destruction of UNLV at the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the offensive line should remain a team strength -- head coach Dan McCarney returns 123 starts and four starters in the trenches.

The hope for North Texas is that the experienced group can help propel a more effective running game after ranking No. 89 nationally in rush S&P+ last season and losing starter Brandin Byrd to graduation.

Struggles to find explosive plays in the running game may also have been a result of a relatively predictable offense that ran the ball on standard downs 5% more often than the national average. In total, North Texas finished tied for 74th nationally in running plays of 10 or more yards, but No. 45 in rushes of 20 or more yards.

One area where the unit really excelled was in short yardage, ranking No. 22 nationally in power success rate, a measurement of how many times the Mean Green converted on short down-and-distance plays, including near the goal line.

The ability to extend drives in that manner helped McCarney's squad rank No. 11 in field position plus, all while jumping from 118th to 73rd in stuff rate.

In those short-yardage situations, North Texas benefited from one of the top guard tandems in Conference USA. Left guard Mason Y'Barbo and right guard Cyril Lemon are both seniors who have started 37 games in their respective careers. Both earned All-Conference USA honors last year, with Lemon a three-year honoree dating back to the program's days in the Sun Belt.

In fact, Lemon is the only player in the country to start every game in his career and earn all-conference nods each season. He's also versatile enough that he made two starts at right tackle in 2013 and will play there again in 2013, allowing junior college transfer Shawn McKinney to start at right guard. McKinney is a 360-pounder who could make it difficult for the Texas defensive tackles to anchor against the run.

At center, Kaydon Kirby is only a sophomore, but he started all of last season as a redshirt freshman, earning Conference USA All-Freshmen honors. At 330 pounds, Kirby will combine with McKinney for some 690-pound combo blocks.

Where the North Texas line is truly impressive, however, is in pass protection. Over the last two seasons, the line has allowed only 17 sacks, the fewest in the nation. Even the adjusted sack rate was impressive in 2013 -- the Mean Green ranked No. 8 nationally in that category.

The Texas defensive line also features a great deal of experience and should not only rank as the team's best unit overall, but one of the best in the Big 12 conference and in the nation overall.

So when North Texas has the ball on Saturday, it will be a match up of strength on strength and one that should provide some early perspective on just how good the front four for Texas can be this season.

Based on the areas where the Mean Green were especially effective last season, the dual goals for the Horns will be to get off the field on third and short and get to the quarterback. While those are unquestionably goals in each game, the quality and experience of the North Texas offensive line makes the ability to achieve success in those areas more important than in most season openers.

The ability of North Texas to convert on third down will be aided greatly by the team's performance on first down, when North Texas may once again skew heavily towards running the ball. In 2012, offensive coordinator Mike Canales called 280 runs on first down compared to only 141 pass attempts and of the 64 rushing attempts by former starting quarterback Derek Thompson, only 14 came on first down, so there couldn't have been many pass calls that resulted in scrambles.

Against a North Texas offense that relied on a quick, horizontal passing scheme last season, the Texas defensive line may not have much time to get to the quarterback on standard downs, placing a premium on the type of first down success rate that would put the Mean Green behind the chains and into long down-and-distance situations.

If the Horns can manage that, there's a chance to replicate some of last season's success during the conference schedule, when Texas recorded 35 sacks in nine games, aided in part by effective blitzing by defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who made use of his defensive backs to record five quarterback takedowns.

McCarney's team may well take a step back after losing a number of starters, but the offensive line will still provide an excellent early-season test for a defensive line that will need to play well during the non-conference portion of the schedule if the Horns hope to overcome the Cougars and the Bruins.