Five burning questions

North Texas safety Makyle Sanders (10) celebrates after intercepting a pass during the Mean Green's loss to Southern Miss earlier this season. UNT will have a new defensive coordinator next season. Head coach Seth Littrell is expected to announce his choice for the position in the next few days.

North Texas is just a few days removed from a 4-6 season that came to a close with a 56-28 loss to Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

It’s never too early to begin looking toward the 2021 season. With that in mind, here are five burning questions for the Mean Green heading into the offseason.

1. Who takes over at defensive coordinator?

UNT coach Seth Littrell has two open positions on his coaching staff. The Mean Green need a new defensive coordinator after Littrell and Clint Bowen mutually agreed to part ways after the season. UNT also needs a new quarterbacks coach. Tate Wallis resigned before the season, leaving the Mean Green one assistant coach short all year.

A source with knowledge of the situation said this week that Littrell is closing in on finalizing his staff.

While the quarterbacks coach spot is important, all eyes are on what Littrell does at defensive coordinator. UNT is about to be on the fifth iteration of its leadership on the defensive side of the ball in the Littrell era. The Mean Green started off with Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett as co-coordinators in 2016, went to just Reffett in 2017, switched to Reffett and Jeff Koonz in 2018, back to Reffett as the sole coordinator in 2019 and then went to Clint Bowen this season.

Bowen lasted just one year. It didn’t go very well. UNT allowed 42.8 points per game.

Who’s next? There isn’t a bigger question for UNT.

2. Does it matter who is running the show on defense?

No matter who UNT’s coordinator is, one has to wonder if it will make a dramatic difference.

The Mean Green just haven’t been very good very often defensively in the Littrell era. UNT is all about offense, and make no mistake, the Mean Green are great.

Seniors will have the chance to return next season. That will help, but UNT didn’t have a whole lot of elite defensive players outside of first-team All-Conference USA tackle Dion Novil.

UNT has a good junior college defensive tackle prospect set to arrive in the offseason in Kalvin Hutchings but not a whole lot of other impact transfers coming in.

Will the combination of a new coordinator, a host of returning veterans and a highly regarded recruiting class with a transfer or two be enough to turn UNT’s defense around? The Mean Green are about to find out.

3. Will UNT switch to a 4-3 on defense?

UNT has run a system with a three-man front on defense throughout Littrell’s tenure.

Is this finally the year the Mean Green switch to a 4-3? UNT went hard after defensive tackles during the early signing period, grabbing three out of the high school ranks to go along with Hutchings.

Several of UNT’s current players also lobbied to move to a 4-3 following the season. The Mean Green were terrible against the run, allowing 269.2 rushing yards per game. Appalachian State piled up 500 rushing yards against UNT in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

Moving to a 4-3 could help the Mean Green become a little tougher to run against.

4. Who emerges to replace Jaelon Darden?

UNT lost wide receiver Jaelon Darden when he declared for the NFL draft following the Mean Green’s win over UTEP to cap the regular season.

Darden had a monster year, catching 74 passes for 1,190 yards and a program record 19 touchdowns in his final year with the Mean Green.

UNT has always loaded up on wide receivers in recruiting and should be fine moving forward. Austin Ogunmakin caught seven passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. He’ll have a chance to fill Darden’s shoes next year.

UNT also signed highly regarded Greenville receiver Caleb Johnson and Blinn College receiver Bryson Jackson.

The Mean Green will have multiple options, but someone is sure to emerge as UNT’s top target.

5. How will UNT’s quarterback situation unfold?

Sophomores Jason Bean and Austin Aune split time at quarterback in 2020. Both had their moments. Bean ended up throwing for 1,131 yards and rushing for 346. Aune threw for 1,650 yards and rushed for 29.

Littrell maintained throughout the year that he feels like he had two quarterbacks he can win with. Highly regarded freshman Bryce Drummond will join the race in time for spring practice.

The competition for the starting job in the spring and leading up to UNT’s season-opener in 2021 will be intense and a storyline to follow.

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

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