There were numerous questions about the future of North Texas football under head coach Seth Littrell heading into 2020 with the departure of all-time leading quarterback Mason Fine and the replacement of multiple coaches during the offseason. Other key losses North Texas faced in their upcoming season were all-conference defensive end Ladarius Hamilton, as well as wide receivers Rico Bussey Jr. and Mike Lawrence.
The 2019 campaign (4-8, 3-5 Conference USA) ended in a three-game losing streak to Louisiana Tech, Rice and Alabama-Birmingham where the Mean Green’s record was 4-5 through nine games with a potential bowl appearance opportunity. During the losing streak, Littrell said the program was going to be re-evaluated.
“Ultimately we didn’t do a good enough job as coaches and players in order to have the success we wanted,” Littrell said in a Nov. 2019 press conference. “I take full responsibility, we haven’t had the success in terms of wins and losses that I believe we should’ve had this season. I know there will be a lot of self-reflection especially in the offseason in order to figure out different things I need to do better as a mentor, coach and leader as well as the staff and the players.”
Immediately following the 2019 season, both offensive and defensive coordinators parted ways from the football staff, opening the door for a clean house operative to prepare for spring football.
The additions to Littrell’s staff include the hiring of co-offensive coordinator Mike Bloesch, defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler and defensive line coach Eric Mathies. North Texas also hired Steven Haunga as an offensive quality control coordinator and Mackenzie Morris as the lead football recruiting coordinator.
While the coaching staff went through changes, newly vacant slots had to be filled in on both sides of the ball after the offense lost five starters and the defense lost six. Littrell said the relationships during the summer training camp developed between the new coaches and new players competing for spots.
“There’s always cooperation and that’s why you build relationships during camp to get to know each other,” Littrell said. “Ultimately the thing you want is for players to go out and earn their jobs and compete. Like I always tell them, it’s your job to make the team better. As coaches, we have to make sure we do everything to put [players] in the right situation to set them up on having success.”
One of the bigger mysteries surrounding the offensive side of the ball for 2020 was who would take over the legacy Fine left at the quarterback position. Fine led North Texas to some of the top rankings in total offense and passing in the 2017-2019 seasons among C-USA. He holds numerous program single-season and career records in passing.
Sophomores Austin Aune and Jason Bean were the two assumed contending starters at quarterback throughout the summer training camp. The week-one depth chart listed the two as co-starters, but the plan was to announce the starting quarterback as a game-time decision against Houston Baptist.
“We’re extremely confident in both quarterbacks and we work with both during practices” senior wide receiver Jaelon Darden said. “We get plenty of live drills in with both quarterbacks and we’ll be ready to go whoever it may be [starting]. I’m more so excited for the younger [receivers] because of all the work they’ve put in like [Loronzo Thompson] and [Detraveon Brown], they’ve come in with the right mindset.”
Besides the quarterbacks, Littrell said the development of the running backs, receivers and tight ends is something that will play a role in the offense this season. Darden returns this season coming off 2019 where he led the receiving core with 736 yards on 76 receptions and 12 touchdowns.
Junior running back Tre Siggers lead North Texas with 898 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Senior running back DeAndre Torrey battled injuries last season but posted 967 total yards of offense.
“The depth of our running backs has been a huge plus with their experience and you feel good with these guys rotating and staying fresh,” Littrell said in an interview with the North Texas Daily. “Our receivers are an explosive group who have had a great camp with getting in rhythm and timing with the quarterbacks. I think the tight-end play has been as good as it’s been physically by understanding our blocking schemes and by getting out there being athletically on and off the ball.”
KD Davis said the team as a whole is prepared to show up and play their best every single day. The multiple weekly testing and COVID-19 protocols from the NCAA football help the team collectively focus on the big goal, which is having everyone healthy for game day.
“Coming in, the intensity is very high and everyone is buying in as a whole whether it’s the guys on offense, defense or special teams,” Davis said. “They’ve been locked this week and feel ready to go [against Houston Baptist].”
North Texas, in their home opener, broke the program record for total offensive yards with 721 in a 57-31 win over Houston Baptist. For the first time in program history, the Mean Green offense rushed and passed for 300 yards each in a single game.
Bean entered the game as the starting quarterback and played the majority of the night throwing for 217 yards on 11-of-18 attempts with three touchdowns. Aune threw for 111 yards on 6-of-11 attempts with one touchdown.
Davis earned C-USA Defensive player of the week recording a team-high nine tackles (seven solo), two quarterback hurries, one sack and a tackle-for-loss.
North Texas takes on Southern Methodist Saturday, Sept. 19, in their 10th all-time matchup. The Mustangs lead the series 6-3 after the previous meeting resulted in a 49-27 win over North Texas in 2019.
“Any time you make that transition [in moving on to a new quarterback] there’s no doubt in my mind that [Bean and Aune] can set records,” Littrell said. “But if you have a guy like [Fine] the last four years you’re gonna miss him. We miss him less tonight because of the way [Bean and Aune] played, I haven’t been concerned about who’s going to be the starter. One guy goes out and starts his career elsewhere, and another guy steps up.”
Featured Image: UNT football coach Seth Littrell looks out onto the field before the game against Houston Baptist on Sept. 5, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas