Five reasons for optimism art

North Texas defensive tackle Dion Novil sacks Rice quarterback Mike Collins during a game last season at Apogee Stadium. Novil is one of the top returning defensive players in Conference USA heading into the 2021 season.

North Texas has been on quite a roll under Seth Littrell. The Mean Green have played in a bowl game in four out of his five seasons.

UNT has lost all four of those bowls, but getting there is still an accomplishment considering the Mean Green had played in just one bowl game in the 11 seasons before Littrell arrived in 2016.

The question now is if UNT can extend that run of postseason success, and if the Mean Green can break through for just the fourth bowl win in program history.

The issue is one we will examine this week in our annual series on five reasons for optimism and five reasons for pessimism for the Mean Green heading into the 2021 season.

We kick it off today with five reasons for optimism:

1. UNT has most of its key players back

The focus since the end of last season has been on the key players who have left UNT.

The Mean Green have lost a handful, including wide receiver Jaelon Darden, one of the all-time greats in program history, as well as offensive lineman Anterrious Gray and running back Tre Siggers.

The good news for UNT is that, while it has lost a few key players, it has quite a bit of talent returning.

Defensive tackle Dion Novil was UNT’s only first-team All-Conference USA selection on defense last year. He elected to return for another shot at his senior season. Second-team All-C-USA offensive lineman Jacob Brammer is back as are seven players who were honorable mention all-league picks – running back DeAndre Torrey, offensive lineman Manse Mose, tight end Jason Pirtle, linebacker KD Davis, safety Maykle Sanders, punter Bernardo Rodriguez and long snapper Nate Durham.

The cupboard is far from bare.

2. There is a chance UNT could be better defensively

UNT has been down this road before.

The idea last season was that the Mean Green would be a whole lot better defensively after Littrell hired Clint Bowen to take over as his defensive coordinator.

The new hope is former SMU coach Phil Bennett can turn things around after Bowen’s departure. One can argue that Bennett has more skins on the wall as a coordinator than anyone the Mean Green have ever had running their defense.

Bennett served as the defensive coordinator for a host of national powers, including LSU, Texas A&M and Kansas State.

It’d be hard for things to go worse than they did under Bowen. UNT allowed 42.8 points per game last season.

Will UNT improve under Bennett? That seems like a reasonable expectation.

3. UNT is in a better spot at quarterback this year

UNT faced the unenviable task of replacing one of the program’s all-time greats in quarterback Mason Fine heading into last season.

Jason Bean and Austin Aune had barely gotten off the bench during their time with the Mean Green before they ended up splitting time in 2020. UNT is in a whole lot better position this time around, despite the fact Bean transferred to Kansas.

Aune threw for 1,650 yards and 13 touchdowns while starting three games and playing in eight in 2020. Aune will compete with North Carolina transfer Jace Rudder for the starting job.

Rudder was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and appeared in games in three straight seasons with the Tar Heels before transferring to UNT.

The Mean Green will be far more experienced this fall at quarterback no matter how the race turns out.

4. UNT has stacked together good recruiting classes

UNT has recruited at a high level compared to its peers in C-USA over the last few years, if one believes the rankings.

The Mean Green have the league’s second-ranked class set to arrive this summer, according to 247Sports. UNT’s 2020 class was also ranked second in the league.

There are a host of highly rated players in those classes who could make an impact this fall. Some of the top players from UNT’s 2020 class have already made a difference, including Loronzo Thompson and Upton Stout.

Thompson started games at both cornerback and wide receiver last season, while Stout started three games at cornerback.

UNT’s coaches believe there are several other talented players in their last two classes who could make an impact.

5. Expectations are low for UNT in 2021

UNT will fly under the radar in 2021 after finishing 4-6 last year.

The Mean Green have tended to fare well when no one expects much from them.

The expectation was that UNT would struggle mightily in Littrell’s debut season in 2016. The Mean Green went on to wildly outperform expectations, winning five games in the regular season and qualifying for a bowl game.

UNT nearly beat Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl before falling 38-31 in overtime at the end of Littrell’s first season. There were lingering doubts about UNT the next year when the Mean Green were picked to finish fourth in C-USA’s West Division. UNT won the division and played in the C-USA title game.

No one expected much out of the Mean Green last year. UNT was coming off a 4-8 season and surprised by qualifying for bowl without Fine.

UNT will be an underdog again this year. It’s a situation that seems to suit the Mean Green.

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

Recommended for you

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!