North Texas tackled one of the toughest challenges when it comes to college football last season.
Replacing a legend is never easy. Mason Fine certainly qualified during his career with the Mean Green.
The Oklahoma native led UNT to the Conference USA title game in 2017, helped pave the way for three bowl appearances and went down as one of the more prolific passers in college football history.
The problem when a team loses a player who threw for 12,505 yards and 93 touchdowns is that he leaves a glaring hole.
Jason Bean and Austin Aune combined to put up solid numbers in 2020. UNT wound up with 2,830 passing yards and 28 touchdowns with just nine interceptions in 10 games, but there is little doubt the Mean Green took a step back.
Aune threw for 1,650 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Bean threw for 1,131 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bean also provided a threat in the running game while rolling up 346 yards and five touchdowns.
Aune is back, but Bean entered the NCAA transfer portal and is not expected to return. UNT also added North Carolina graduate transfer Jace Ruder and Oklahoma high school product Bryce Drummond.
Here’s a look at where UNT stands in the quarterback in the first of our annual position outlooks.
Key returnees: Aune, So.; Will Kuehne, Rfr.; Amani Gilmore, Rfr.; Cole Johnson, Rfr.; Luke Gombert, Fr.; Kason Martin, So.
Key losses: Bean
Newcomers: Ruder, Drummond
Biggest unanswered question: The offseason quarterback battle promises to be an intriguing affair. There is little doubt that Aune enters the competition at the top of the depth chart.
The question is if he is still there by the time UNT opens its season with a game against Northwestern State. Coach Seth Littrell has spoken highly of Drummond, who graduated early and enrolled at UNT so he could participate in spring practice. The Mean Green had to hang on at the last minute to fend off other schools and sign Drummond.
The competition will only become more interesting when Ruder arrives over the summer after he graduates from North Carolina. The Kansas native was a four-star prospect coming out of high school before injuries derailed his career with the Tar Heels.
Ruder could finally capitalize on his potential at UNT. The question is if he will have enough time to learn the system and settle in during fall practice and win the job.
Aune will have a huge head start. So will Drummond for that matter.
What one also has to consider is that Littrell has shown he isn’t afraid to play multiple quarterbacks. He went back and forth between Aune and Bean last season.
The battle could last into the season.
The bottom line is UNT is looking at an intriguing quarterback race that is certain to drag out into fall practice when Ruder arrives.
Why 2021 production could be better: UNT has a ton of options heading into the season and is in a much better place than it was a year ago.
UNT rode Fine to the finish line in 2019. Aune and Bean had barely played as the 2020 season approached.
Aune benefited from the experience he gained last season and should be better in 2021. Drummond and Ruder will also immediately elevate UNT’s talent level.
Drummond was a highly regarded high school recruit. Fine was also an Oklahoma high school product. That turned out pretty well.
Ruder has the type of talent UNT rarely has in its program. He was the No. 15 ranked dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country. One has to figure one of the three will pan out and elevate UNT’s quarterback play.
Why 2021 production could be worse: UNT does have some talented quarterbacks to work with, but none of them have proven themselves to be top-end college players.
Aune never could beat out Bean, who started seven of UNT’s 10 games last season. The former Argyle standout was benched in one of those starts, a win over Middle Tennessee when Bean came off the bench to rally the Mean Green.
Aune should be better due to the experience he gained, but is he going to be dramatically better?
Drummond could need time to adjust to the college level and Ruder is going to come in cold to fall practice with a lot to learn and not a whole lot of time to learn it.
Overall outlook: The bottom line is UNT is in a much better place than it was a year ago.
Aune is a whole lot more experienced and Ruder is an intriguing option. UNT will also have a quarterbacks coach this year in former Houston quarterback Blake Joseph.
The Mean Green went a whole season with Littrell and a couple of graduate assistants filling the quarterback coaching role last season after Tate Wallis stepped down before UNT’s opener.