Phil Bennett

North Texas defensive coordinator Phil Bennett watches players go through drills during the Mean Green’s spring game/practice at at Apogee Stadium in March. UNT is hoping to improve dramatically on defense under Bennett this fall.

North Texas will enter the 2021 season looking to extend a run of success that has seen the Mean Green play in a bowl game in four of the last five years.

UNT finished 4-6 last season after falling to Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

Improving on that mark won’t be easy due to a tough schedule. The Mean Green will travel to Missouri, face a Liberty team that could open the season nationally ranked and tackle SMU in Dallas in nonconference play.

UNT will have to improve substantially to post its first winning season since 2018.

Here’s a look at five key issues UNT needs to address as it looks to reach that goal.

1. Find a way to improve defensively

There isn’t a bigger issue for UNT than finding a way to improve a defense that struggled last year.

The Mean Green allowed 42.8 points per game last season, when UNT lost four games despite scoring at least 28 points.

UNT coach Seth Littrell brought on former SMU coach Phil Bennett to take over as his defensive coordinator. Bennett has served as the defensive coordinator at several national powers, including Texas A&M, LSU and Kansas State.

The Mean Green’s season will hinge largely on if Bennett can improve UNT’s performance defensively.

2. Make the right decision at quarterback

UNT had the luxury of a stable situation at quarterback for years during the tenure of Mason Fine, one of the most productive players in program history.

UNT lost Fine to graduation before last season, and it showed.

Jason Bean and Austin Aune split time in 2020. Both shined at times and struggled at others. Bean transferred to Kansas, leaving Aune to compete with North Carolina transfer Jace Ruder.

Ruder was a four-star prospect coming out of high school and will get a long look.

UNT must make the right call when it comes to picking a starter and developing him.

3. Adjust to a new defensive system

Bennett has installed a new defensive scheme in the offseason that will feature a base four-man front.

The challenge for the Mean Green throughout the offseason has been finding transfers who fit the system to supplement returning players and then getting the unit up to speed.

UNT has made progress in that regard, but the adjustment process is far from over. Fall practice will offer the opportunity to fine tune before the Mean Green open the season on Sept. 4 against Northwestern State.

4. Get a host of key transfers ready

Littrell and his staff have brought in a host of transfers since the end of last season in the hope that they will improve UNT’s talent level. Ruder may be the player with the highest profile, but he is far from the only key player the Mean Green added.

Defensive tackle Kalvin Hutchings and cornerback TyRae Thornton could also play key roles. The Mean Green need those players to make an impact. The whole season could depend on Ruder getting up to speed, if he can beat out Aune for the starting quarterback job.

Those players have to be ready.

5. Replace key playmakers on offense

UNT has recruited well when it comes to offensive skill position players throughout coach Seth Littrell’s tenure.

The Mean Green need the best of those recruits to come through in 2021, because UNT lost quite a bit of production.

The obvious example is Jaelon Darden, who declared for the NFL draft and was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The wide receiver caught 19 touchdown passes in just nine games in 2020 and was by far UNT’s biggest offensive threat.

Darden was far from the only player the Mean Green lost. Fellow wide receiver Austin Ogunmakin transferred to Liberty. Greg White also left the program.

The trio’s departure left Deonte Simpson as UNT’s only returning player from its top four receivers a year ago.

Quarterback Jason Bean transferred to Kansas after starting seven of UNT’s 10 games. Running back Tre Siggers transferred to SMU after ranking third among UNT players for 458 rushing yards.

UNT has a lot of talented skill position players on its roster. It will need them considering how many holes it has to fill.

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

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