North Texas DT Dion Novil has NFL aspirations

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Joe Greene and Brandon Kennedy are the two greatest defensive tackles in North Texas history.

Freshmen weren’t allowed to play college football in the 1960s, so Greene only scored three seasons at North Texas. But he earned All-Missouri Valley Conference honors in his three seasons and remains the only consensus All-America in school history.

Freshmen are now allowed to play varsity ball, and Kennedy became one of only four players in North Texas history to earn all-conference honors in his four seasons. He made the All-Big West second team as a rookie and then the All-Sunbelt Conference first team in his final three seasons. He was also the Sunbelt Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 and 2003.

Greene became the fourth overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He went on to win four Super Bowl rings and earn spots on the NFL’s 100th Anniversary Team and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kennedy was undrafted in 2004 and has never played a down in the NFL.

Dion Novil is eager to know if and where he stands between Greene and Kennedy in the historical pecking order of North Texas defensive tackles.

Novil was a three-year starter and a two-time All-Conference USA first-team selection. He had 37 ½ career tackles for loss and 10 ½ sacks – well below Kennedy’s school record of 61 tackles for loss and his 18 sacks. But Novil isn’t short of Kennedy in one key aspect – his height.

Kennedy didn’t fit the NFL’s prototype for defensive inside — not at 5-9 ½, 332 pounds. That’s why he went to training camp as an undrafted free agent with the Denver Broncos and didn’t last the summer. Players this size tend to get smothered by all those 6-3, 6-4 guards in NFL blocking fronts.

But Novil measured a shade under 6-2 and 301 pounds on his pro day last week. Those extra four inches of height Novil has on Kennedy will get him longer looks from NFL talent evaluators as they build their draft boards. And they’ll have plenty of tape to study, basically, two different players.

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Novil swelled to 330 in 2020 to play inside in Clint Bowen’s defensive scheme. He had 38 tackles, 8 ½ tackles for loss and 2 ½ sacks as a power player in 2020 en route to all-conference first-team honors. But when Phil Bennett replaced Bowen as defensive coordinator in 2021, he wanted Novil to slim down and play 300. Novil posted a career-high 49 tackles, nine tackles for loss and four sacks as a speed player. in 2021 to repeat as an all-conference first-team selection.

Although he weighed 301 on his professional day, Novil is not married to a specific weight.

“It depends on where I’m going,” Novil said. “I felt 300 was a happy medium, whether they wanted me to go bigger or smaller. It was the right number for me to start.

Novil had a career-high 11 tackles in a 2019 game against Alabama-Birmingham, five tackles for loss in a 2020 game against Rice and his lone career interception in a 2021 game against SMU. He also forced four fumbles in his career and blocked three kicks. Novil participated in the Hula Bowl but was not invited to the combine.

North Texas linebacker Ladarius Hamilton was also not invited to the combine in 2021. He played in the NFL last season for the Packers. Neither wide receiver Jalen Guyton nor cornerback Kemon Hall was invited to the combine in 2019. Guyton has played three seasons now for the Chargers and has caught six touchdown passes, including 72 bombs, 70, 59 and 44 yards from Justin Herbert. Hall also played for the Chargers in 2021.

None of these three players was drafted. Zach Orr was not invited to the combine in 2014 nor was he drafted. He signed with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent and started as an inside linebacker for the Ravens before a neck injury ended his career after just three seasons.

Running back Jeff Wilson was not drafted from North Texas in 2018. He has now played four seasons with the 49ers, rushing for three 100-yard games and scoring 17 career touchdowns. He has just signed a new three-year contract with San Francisco.

Every North Texas player doesn’t have to be Joe Greene to make it to the NFL. There are quality footballers on campus. Sometimes NFL teams have to look a little harder to find them. Novil hopes they will continue to search this spring.

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