UNT 5 reasons optimism

North Texas running back Ikaika Ragsdale carries the ball last season during a win over Northwestern State. Ragsdale is one of several productive players returning for UNT in 2022.

North Texas has closed out spring practice. The Mean Green’s spring game is in the books and most of their incoming recruits are lined up for 2022.

That can only mean one thing. It’s time for our annual series on five reasons for optimism and five reasons for pessimism when it comes to the Mean Green for the upcoming season.

UNT is coming off a 6-7 campaign that culminated with a loss to Miami (Ohio) in the Frisco Football Classic.

As always, we start with the bright side for UNT. We will get to our five reasons for pessimism later in the week.

1. UNT has quite a bit of talent returning

The focus when it comes to UNT over the last few months has been largely on who the Mean Green lost after last season. There’s a good reason for that.

Offensive tackle Jacob Brammer (Vanderbilt), defensive end Grayson Murphy (UCLA) and defensive end Gabriel Murphy (UCLA) were among UNT’s most productive players. All three transferred up to Power Five schools. Running back DeAndre Torrey, defensive tackle Dion Novil and safety Makyle Sanders all signed free-agent contracts with NFL teams following their senior seasons.

The upside is that even with all those losses, the cupboard is far from bare. Linebacker KD Davis is one of the best players in Conference USA. Running backs Ikaika Ragsdale, Ayo Adeyi and Isaiah Johnson all showed potential last season.

Gabe Blair was terrific considering he was just a freshman and appears to be on course to emerge as one of the best offensive linemen in Conference USA later in his career. UNT has 10 starters returning and several other players who started at least a couple of games.

If those players continue to progress, UNT could be in good shape.

2. Phil Bennett is back for another year

One can make a case for defensive coordinator Phil Bennett being UNT’s biggest addition last season. He took over a defense that allowed 42.8 points per game in 2020 and had it playing at a high level by the end of the season.

UNT allowed just 27.5 points per game in 2021. Bennett will have had an entire offseason to continue developing the unit by the time the Mean Green kick off the 2022 campaign. It’s unreasonable to expect UNT to make as big of a jump as it did last year, but it’s very much within the realm of possibility that the Mean Green will continue to improve.

3. Austin Aune has had another year to grow

There hasn’t been a UNT player in years who is as big of a lightning rod as Austin Aune. UNT’s nontraditional quarterback is a former minor league baseball player, a dad and is 28.

Aune lost the starting job heading into last season before winning it back. He went on to throw for 1,991 yards and nine touchdowns.

UNT brought in transfers JD Head and Stone Earle to compete with Aune in spring practice. Neither came close to knocking Aune out of the lineup.

The Mean Green could still find a late transfer, but the bottom line is Aune steadily improved last season and continued that growth in spring practice.

Compared to the start of last season, the former Argyle standout will be a much better player heading into what he has said will be his final year of college football. That alone puts UNT well ahead of where it was a year ago.

4. UNT’s injured receivers should be back

One of UNT’s biggest problems last season was losing its top two wide receivers early in the season. Jyaire Shorter and Tommy Bush each played just two games before missing the remainder of the year due to injury.

Losing both pushed Roderic Burns into the lead role. Burns did an admirable job while catching 58 passes for 802 yards and four touchdowns. He just wasn’t the big-play threat Shorter and Bush are.

UNT will look a whole lot different with Burns as a secondary option behind Shorter and Bush. The addition of Missouri transfer Jay Maclin will also help matters.

The Mean Green will be a whole lot more explosive, which should help Aune.

5. The schedule is manageable

There were times in previous years where one could look at UNT’s schedule and chalk up at least a couple of losses right off the bat.

The Mean Green played at Missouri last season and at Iowa in 2017. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that UNT’s chances of winning those games were somewhere between slim and none. UNT did beat Arkansas a couple of years ago, but that was a perfect scenario. The Mean Green were at the top of their game, while the Razorbacks were something of a mess.

UNT doesn’t have a game against a Power Five program this season. The schedule is actually full of games UNT should win.

The Mean Green bought a game against Texas Southern out of the SWAC. UNT will also face a Florida International team that went 1-11 a year ago and a UNLV team coming off a 2-10 season.

And that’s just for starters. Louisiana Tech went 3-9 and is entering its first season under new coach Sonny Cumbie.

If UNT wins those four games — and it should — the Mean Green will be well on their way to finishing over .500 for the first time since 2018.

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

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