Jason Pirtle was always there for Mason Fine back in their days growing up in Locust Grove.
Fine wanted nothing more than to play quarterback in college, and that meant throwing the football around quite a bit in that tiny Oklahoma town.
That’s where Pirtle came in.
“When I wanted to stay after practice to throw, Jason was always around,” Fine said. “He had the same dreams I did.”
Those dreams were of earning scholarships at a Football Bowl Subdivision school and of making big plays when they got there.
Fine’s journey from those Oklahoma fields to North Texas has been well documented. He became Oklahoma’s all-time leading passer, mainly by chucking the ball to Pirtle on Friday nights, landed that scholarship from UNT and became one of the best quarterbacks in college football.
For Pirtle, the journey has been a little different.
The bumps along that path made the Mean Green’s 51-31 win over Abilene Christian last week special.
Pirtle finally received his chance to contribute in the opening game of his junior season. He capitalized with three touchdown receptions in his first game since moving from wide receiver to tight end and one of his first as a scholarship player.
“I took it in and enjoyed the night,” Pirtle said in an understated way that reflects his reserved personality. “My friends from back home were all texting me and congratulating me on Twitter. Every time I left my phone for a few minutes, I would get back to it and have a hundred notifications from Twitter and Facebook.”
Pirtle was expected to play against ACU and saw his role expand after starter Kelvin Smith was scratched due to injury. Pirtle had caught just five passes in two seasons heading into the game.
Pirtle’s first catch in UNT’s win over ACU went for a touchdown. So did his second and third.
By the end of the night, Pirtle had hauled in three touchdown passes and finished with four catches for 88 yards to match the No. 88 jersey he wears.
The friends who kept Pirtle’s phone buzzing the rest of the night and his teammates know what he went through to get to the point where he’s contributing for the Mean Green heading into their game at rival SMU on Saturday.
Pirtle didn’t just roll in and become an overnight sensation at UNT like Fine, who was named to the Conference USA all-freshman team in 2016 and entered his senior season as the leading passer in the FBS with 9,417 yards. He walked on, endured multiple position changes and his own doubts before finally finding a home as a tight end in a season UNT has made the position a more prominent part of its offense.
“I was happy for Jason,” UNT cornerback Cam Johnson said. “I didn’t expect three touchdowns, but he does well in practice. He’s a hard worker. Nothing but positives ever come out of him.”
A long road to a role
The assumption when it comes to Pirtle is that he was a tag-along with Fine. The two were seniors at Locust Grove in 2015.
UNT coach Seth Littrell wanted to sign a high school quarterback to develop heading into his debut season with the Mean Green. He chose Fine and was the only coach at an FBS school to offer him a scholarship.
Littrell was impressed by Fine’s talent, moxie and the 13,081 passing yards he rolled up in high school. He didn’t particularly care that Fine was undersized at 5-foot-11.
Pirtle was a lot like Fine in that he didn’t fit the mold for an FBS-level player. He had hands like glue but didn’t possess the speed teams look for in a wide receiver and was too small to play tight end at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds.
Littrell took Pirtle as a preferred walk-on largely because he put up huge numbers while catching passes from Fine. Pirtle set Oklahoma records for career receptions (249), receiving yards (4,843) and touchdown catches (59) by the time he graduated, but only received scholarship offers from Division II schools.
“We felt good about Pirtle coming in,” Littrell said. “He probably had more receiving yards coming into college than any other receiver on our team. He was a great take for us.”
Up until Saturday, it appeared as if Pirtle might come and go quietly in his time with the Mean Green.
UNT tried him at fullback in addition to wide receiver before he moved to tight end during spring practice.
Littrell awarded Pirtle a scholarship during the 2018 season, not because he excelled at any of those spots. Pirtle’s contributions covering kickoffs were his meal ticket.
The role wasn’t at all what one of the most productive receivers in Oklahoma had envisioned.
“Even though I was a preferred walk-on, I expected to make an impact early,” Pirtle said. “It was tough. We had a good class of wide receivers coming in with Rico Bussey Jr. and Michael Lawrence. A lot of people in my class were having success. I was happy for those guys. You try to enjoy your friends’ success and keep working.”
That is exactly what Pirtle did.
“Pirtle will tell you he isn’t the most athletic, gifted or talented guy, but he is the hardest worker in the room,” Fine said. “We have been in the same boat for years. Everyone told him for years he wasn’t going to be a Division I receiver or football player. He was right there with me trying to prove people wrong.”
Getting his chance
Pirtle’s last position change turned out to be the one that finally afforded him an opportunity.
Littrell had been planning on making the tight end a more prominent part of UNT’s offense dating back to late last season. When offensive coordinator Graham Harrell left for Southern Cal in the offseason, Littrell hired Bodie Reeder to replace him.
Reeder has a similar philosophy when it comes to using tight ends as weapons in the passing game.
UNT’s coaches moved Pirtle to tight end in anticipation of that shift. Pirtle embraced the challenge like so many others he has taken on during his time with the Mean Green and turned to Smith for advice.
“Kelvin was one of the first guys I got to know when I got here,” Pirtle said. “Moving into a position room with him was a blessing in disguise. I knew I was really small and had a lot of work to do. I enjoy learning from him and love learning about football. I knew a lot about coverages but had to learn about fronts. I asked him a thousand questions. He’s been doing it for years and is a really smart guy.”
Learning about the nuances of playing tight end was just part of the process. Pirtle also had to perfect his blocking technique that was raw at best after playing wide receiver for years.
And then there was the matter of his weight. Pirtle was never going to make it as a tight end at his size. He packed on 20 pounds to get to 225 and cracked UNT’s depth chart for its season opener against ACU.
UNT had some plays in the game plan for Pirtle, who was set to back up Smith.
Those plans changed right before kickoff.
“I found out that Kelvin wasn’t going to go right as we ran out of the tunnel,” Pirtle said after the game. “I thought, ‘I guess it’s time.’”
Pirtle hadn’t caught a pass since a win over Incarnate Word in UNT’s second game of last season, his only catch of the 2018 campaign. He hadn’t caught a pass as a tight end ever.
Fine was confident Pirtle would be ready when the ball came his way.
“You knew that he would get an opportunity at some point and that he would make the most of it,” Fine said.
That chance came on the opening play from scrimmage in UNT’s win over ACU. Fine faked a handoff to running back DeAndre Torrey, settled in the pocket and looked down the field.
Pirtle was running all alone down the sideline.
Fine fired the ball to Pirtle, who hauled it in and coasted into the end zone before raising his hand in the air as his teammates rushed in to mob him.
The play took Pirtle and Fine back to those nights after practice on the fields in Oklahoma. Those throwing sessions helped start Fine on his path to stardom at UNT.
Pirtle’s journey to find a role with the Mean Green was a little longer and a lot rougher but has been no less rewarding.
“It was a tough decision,” Pirtle said of passing on scholarship offers from smaller schools to walk on at UNT. “I knew I could play on the [Football Bowl Subdivision] level and didn’t want to go to a Division II school and regret it.
“I am a firm believer that God puts you where you are supposed to be.”
For Pirtle, that place has always been on a football field, catching passes from Fine.