The secret to success in 2022 for North Texas is to bottle the momentum gained during a five-game winning streak to close the 2021 season and carry that over to a new campaign. The Mean Green were 1-6 more than halfway through last season, but a loss at home to Liberty was the spark that became a wildfire. North Texas wouldn’t lose again until the bowl game, knocking off future Conference USA champion UTSA along the way.
The turnaround was a result, at least in part, to a change in philosophy. North Texas abandoned its normally pass-happy offensive style that allowed former quarterback Mason Fine to set records for a tough, rugged style that placed two tight ends on the field on most plays. Some of that was dictated by a rash of injuries at wide receiver. Some of it was because the strengths of the offense were along the offensive line and at running back.
Head coach Seth Littrell, a former offensive coordinator, believes that recipe will remain an integral part this season.
“We didn’t change our identity quick enough last season based on injury and the youth. That’s on us as coaches,” he admitted. “There was a recipe for success down the stretch and we’re getting a lot of guys back, so we’re going to continue to be a physical team that plays complimentary football.”
Another catalyst for the resurrection midway through a difficult season was the character and culture built inside the North Texas locker room. Littrell, who took over the Mean Green ahead of the 2016 season, proved successful early in his career with nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018. Some of the leaders of the current roster – namely linebacker KD Davis and offensive lineman Manase Mose – were on that 2018 team that won nine games. The two leaders helped hold the locker room together during a rough start to the season.
“We knew what we had in the locker room,” Mose said about last year’s team. “It was up to us players to go out there and prove that to everyone else.”
But can North Texas carry that momentum into a new season?
“We can bring that momentum in this year, but there is a reset with a new season,” Mose continued. “We need to rebuild that foundation and tightness within the group that propelled us to that success.”
A slew of injuries in 2021, specifically at wide receiver and in the secondary, forced a lot of inexperienced players onto the field earlier than expected. Take the Liberty game for example. One defensive back was lost to a targeting penalty and another to an injury, both in the first half. That forced the Mean Green to face a Liberty offense led by Malik Willis, a first-round NFL Draft pick, with two freshman defensive backs. Running back Oscar Adaway III was lost before the season. Littrell estimated that he finished 2021 with only six of his 16 scholarship wide receivers healthy enough to play.
“The positive was a lot of young players got reps and game experience,” Littrell said. “Our culture is a huge reason why we were able to finish the season out the way we did. Our chemistry and culture are as good as it’s been in my time at North Texas.”
UNT receives an early opportunity to build on that culture to start this season. A shift in the Conference USA landscape forced a new schedule. North Texas now opens the season in Week 0 with an August trip to UTEP for a unique opportunity to start the 2022 campaign against a conference opponent. That urgency should force the Mean Green to hit the ground running in fall camp. There aren’t any tune-up games available, and the week starts a week earlier than previously expected.
“We’ll need a good camp and to be locked in,” Littrell said. “We have the experience to handle it. If we can stay healthy and keep our culture the way it is, we have a chance to be successful.”
Improvements at quarterback and on defense allow North Texas to compete for the West Division crown in Conference USA.
North Texas misses out on bowl season thanks to a lackluster offense and a defense without a pass rush.
Game of the Year
North Texas at UTSA — Oct. 22
The Roadrunners are emerging as North Texas’ favorite team to beat, and the Mean Green were the only program to knock off UTSA in the 2021 regular season. Seth Littrell’s squad hopes the Nov. 12 matchup between the two programs means more than just a bowl berth. This could be an important game in the C-USA race.
North Texas moved offensive coordinator Mike Bloesch from the offensive line to the quarterback room to improve the communication between play-caller and signal-caller. The Mean Green passing attack was inconsistent throughout 2021 with Austin Aune eventually emerging as the starter over Jace Rudder. The duo accounted for more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12).
North Texas won nine games in two of head coach Seth Littrell’s first two seasons, and elite quarterback play was a staple of those teams. In 2019, the last time the Mean Green finished the season with a winning record, they threw the ball 504 times and averaged 306.7 passing yards a contest. Last year, North Texas passed the ball 394 times with an average of 197.08 passing yards a game. The coaching staff elected to bring in two young transfer quarterbacks rather than an older player ready to immediately compete for the starting spot.
“It is Austin’s position until someone takes it for him,” Littrell said. “He was the starter last year, he has game experience the last two years, and he knows the offense. He’s been further ahead.”
The good news for the North Texas offense is an experienced offensive line and a healthy wide receiver room. Manase Mose, who started 12 games at center and one at guard in 2021, enters the 2022 season with 48 starts. Due to the free COVID-19 year, Mose is part of a special group of five-year starters. He could end his career with over 60 starts if he stays healthy and the Mean Green reach a bowl game.
North Texas is excited about the return of wide receiver Tommy Bush from injury. He’s a high-level athlete who once played at Georgia. Jyaire Shorter is scheduled to return from injury in the summer. Leading receiver Roderic Burns (58 catches) also returns. The program added a big-play threat out wide in Missouri transfer Jay Maclin.
The running back room must replace DeAndre Torrey’s production. Oscar Adaway III returns after missing 2021 with a preseason injury. Ikaika Ragsdale and Ayo Adeyi flashed in 2021.
Offensive MVP: Manase Mose
North Texas wants to run the football and that starts up front. Mose, a second-team all-conference selection in 2021, is the anchor up front.
Offensive Name to Know: Jay Maclin
The Mean Green want to regain their ability to be explosive in the passing game. North Texas was hindered at the wide receiver position in 2021 due to injury, so the coaching staff scoured the transfer portal for difference makers. Jay Maclin, who spent the previous two seasons at Missouri, arrived prior to spring practices and impressed in live action throughout March and April. The 5-11 speedster is a viable deep threat for Austin Aune.
North Texas added a pair of transfers – Stone Earle and JD Head – to the quarterback mix to push returners Austin Aune and Jace Rudder.
RUNNING BACKS: B-
Ikaika Ragsdale and Ayo Adeyi are tasked with carrying the torch left by star running back DeAndre Torrey, who averaged 101.25 rushing yards a game last year.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: C+
Junior Roderic Burns returns after catching 58 of the 204 completions by North Texas in 2021. He receives help from Damon Ward and an improving tight end room.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
The Mean Green offensive line returns multiple starters from a unit that helped the team rush for the second-most touchdowns in school history a year ago.
Numbers don’t lie. The biggest statistical explanation for the late-season turnaround for the Mean Green in 2021 was an improved defense. North Texas allowed 36.85 points per game in its seven losses. That number dropped to 16.5 in wins.
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett joined the program in January 2021. The 40-year coaching vet only required seven games to elevate a North Texas defensive unit that struggled mightily in the two years prior to his arrival. The Mean Green allowed 32.5 points per game in 2019 and a staggering 42.8 during 2020.
“Coach Bennett comes to practice with high energy,” star linebacker KD Davis said. “He’s the reason I stayed here in North Texas. I believe in everything that he’s coaching and that’s why I stayed part of this program.”
Davis blossomed under Bennett’s tutelage. His 121 tackles in 2021 were tied for seventh-most in North Texas history. He combines with Kevin Wood (52 tackles) to form the strength of the Mean Green defense, and maybe the entire team.
“Offensive line and linebacker are our deepest positions on the team,” head coach Seth Littrell said. “KD and Kevin were out for the spring, but those guys have played a lot of football. That allowed some young guys to come along and develop depth.”
The defensive line lost 15.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss to the transfer portal when twins Grayson Murphy and Gabriel Murphy bolted for UCLA. Roderick Brown and Enoch Jackson are back to anchor the interior of the defensive front. The task between now and a Week 0 contest at UTEP is to identify and develop potential edge rushers. Littrell mentioned Fatafehi Vailea as a potential breakout star. The prevalence of the transfer era isn’t always a disadvantage. Littrell said his program likely adds a pair of defensive linemen to the roster before the fall.
Safety Larry Nixon III and cornerback DeShawn Gaddie return to lead a young but experienced secondary. Nixon’s 71 tackles were third on the team in 2021. Gaddie led the team with six passes broken up and was fourth on the squad with 57 stops.
Defensive MVP: KD Davis
Davis is a flat-out stud in the middle of the Mean Green defense. He’s the ultimate vacuum, cleaning everything up from sideline to sideline.
Defensive Name to Know: Fatafehi Vailea
A defense is only as good as its two-deep along the line, specifically at the defensive tackle position. The Mean Green feel optimistic about their prospects up front with Roderick Brown and Enoch Jackson serving as anchor points of the unit. Vailea, a 6-2, 288-pound redshirt freshman, was a three-star prospect out of Desert Pines High School in Nevada. His senior season was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19 and he did not appear in 2021.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
North Texas’ defensive line was dealt a tough blow when twins Gabriel Murphy and Grayson Murphy entered the transfer portal after the 2021 season.
Middle linebacker KD Davis is the most productive defensive player in Texas. He returns after recording 121 total tackles in 2021. Larry Nixon III is also back.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: C+
DeShawn Gaddie (57 tackles, 6 pass breakups) anchors the 2022 secondary. The rest of the defensive backs are unproven outside of John Davis.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Ethan Mooney only missed two kicks in 2021, and both were over 40 yards. Bernardo Rodriguez also returns after averaging 43.85 yards per punt last season.
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