There might not be a bigger reason North Texas is headed back to the postseason after a one-year hiatus than Jaelon Darden.
The senior wide receiver seemed to make just about every big play that helped UNT earn a berth in the Myrtle Beach Bowl on Monday, when the Mean Green will face Appalachian State.
The question now is what UNT can do without him.
Darden declared for the NFL draft shortly after UNT’s win over UTEP in its regular season finale and will not play against the Mountaineers, leaving the Mean Green without a key weapon as they chase history.
UNT is 3-8 in bowl games in program history and 0-3 under coach Seth Littrell.
“There is no doubt a bowl win would mean a lot to the program, especially since coach Littrell hasn’t won a bowl game since he’s been here,” UNT linebacker KD Davis said. “It would be great to go to South Carolina and get a win.”
UNT will need a host of players to come through to make it happen, particularly without Darden.
The senior finished with 74 caches for 1,190 yards and set a program record with 19 touchdown catches on the season. The Houston native finished his career as UNT’s all-time leader in all three major receiving categories, receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and receiving touchdowns (38).
Darden accounted for all but six of UNT’s 25 touchdown receptions.
Deonte Simpson ranks second among the Mean Green’s players with 25 catches for 517 yards and four touchdowns. Austin Ogunmakin has 16 catches for 218 yards and is UNT’s only other player with more than 200 receiving yards on the year.
“A lot of these young men haven’t made a ton of plays, but they’ve contributed,” Littrell said. “I’m excited to watch them go out there and compete. It’s a great opportunity.”
It’s also a great challenge, one UNT’s young players are looking forward to facing without one of their key leaders in Darden.
“We are trying to make sure that we are mentally prepared,” said freshman cornerback Loronzo Thompson, one of UNT’s top young players. “We are excited to be in a bowl game and want to be locked in.”
UNT’s players will need to be at their best if they hope to make up for losing their top player.
“It would be great to have Jaelon, but someone will have to step up and be as good as he was,” Davis said.
That might be too much to ask, but UNT’s coaches and players are confident their other receivers can step forward and give the Mean Green other viable options to keep their potent offense rolling.
UNT ranks seventh nationally in total offense with an average of 515.0 yards per game, largely because of a deep cast of playmakers at a variety of positions.
The Mean Green could look to their running backs in addition to their wide receivers as they try to fill the void Darden left.
Several of those players have come up with big games during UNT’s run to the Myrtle Beach Bowl.
Simpson caught five passes for 113 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Southern Miss. Running back DeAndre Torrey rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Middle Tennessee, while fellow running back Oscar Adaway III carried the ball 20 times for 104 yards in a loss to SMU.
UNT will need a big game from each of those players on a day it will be without Darden.
“Obviously, they have big shoes to fill,” Littrell said. “I tell them all the time, there’s not going to be one person who’s going to replace Darden. It better be the whole group. That’s what it’s going to take.
“They’re excited about the opportunity to go in there and make plays.”