Old Man Game: Austin Aune, Frank Harris ready for historic meeting in C-USA title tilt

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Quarterbacks can also age like fine wine, at least that’s what North Texas’ Austin Aune and UTSA’s Frank Harris continue to prove. 

Social media buzzed when 25-year-old Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and the 24-year-old Hendon Hooker, at a combined age of 49, faced each other on Nov. 5. It was hyped as one of the oldest quarterback battles to date at the college level – alongside duels such as Brandon Weeden vs. Ryan Tannehill (combined age of 51) and Chris Weinke vs. Josh Heupel (50). 

Aune, 29, and Harris, 23, played two weeks prior to Bennett and Hooker. The Friday night matchup between North Texas and UTSA for the Conference USA championship is a rematch of Aune and Harris, who combine for 52 years of age, in what might be the oldest quarterback showdown in college football history. 

Want to get even crazier? Both could technically return for another season in 2023 and combine for 55 years of age when the two face off as American Athletic Conference teams next season. 

Save the old man jokes because both hear it from teammates, and even opponents. UTEP defensive end Praise Amaewhule joked that Aune was as old as his dad when the Miners faced North Texas to start the season. An exaggeration, sure, but Aune is 11 years older than some of his teammates. 

“I’ll walk into the locker room and instead of ‘hey, what’s up, Aune?’ it’s ‘hey, what’s up, dad?’ or ‘unc’ or ‘pops,’” Aune, a husband and father, laughed. “When we’re talking shit to each other, they always throw in the age. It is hard to get away from that one.” 

Aune was the 89th overall pick of the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft and spent six years in the New York Yankees organization. He was a three-star quarterback out of Argyle High School who signed with TCU after throwing for 3,411 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior. Football was always a passion, so when baseball didn’t work out, Aune went back to school. First at Arkansas in the spring of 2018, and then to North Texas where he redshirted in 2018 and played sparingly in 2019, making his college debut in a win over UTSA on Sept. 21. Aune was 1 of 1 for 13 yards in relief.  

“I know a lot of guys wouldn’t be in college at his age, so it is a testament to him that he’s following his dreams to play college football,” Harris said about Aune. “. I respect him for accepting that grind and those challenges after playing professional baseball.” 

To steal a baseball term – Aune wasn’t the opening day starter for the Mean Green in 2020. He ended up playing in eight games with three starts. He was passed up again as the Week 1 starter in 2021 before moving into the starting role down the stretch. The last time he was a regular starting quarterback for his team was at Argyle in 2011. Aune threw for nine touchdowns and nine interceptions as the Mean Green rallied towards bowl eligibility despite a rash of injuries at wide receiver. 

“It didn’t come as fast as I wanted it to, but I kept with it and stayed true,” Aune said. “It is a marathon not a sprint.” 

Aune outlasted multiple competitors to start in the season opener at the college level for the first time in his career when North Texas knocked off UTEP in Week 0 earlier in 2022. His performance – 236 passing yards and three touchdowns – was a preview of a breakout season. Aune threw for 3,115 yards and 31 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in the regular season. His passing yards per game grew from 153.2 in 2021 to 259.6 in 2022. He’s thrown 22 more touchdowns this year compared to last year on 55 more attempts. Aune is averaging 15.5 yards a completion. 

And he’s not even the most prolific quarterback in the C-USA title game. That designation belongs to Harris – the leading candidate to win C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. The San Antonio native holds nearly every record a quarterback could possess at UTSA. He’s thrown for 8,817 yards in his career. He’s over 10,000 total yards because of the 1,759 he’s added on the ground. In 41 games, Harris has accounted for 92 total touchdowns. 

But that’s not even the most impressive part. Harris led UTSA to a 12-2 record and the program’s first ever conference title in football last year. His Roadrunners are 10-2 and 8.5-point favorites to repeat as champions. And he’s not just a passenger – many of those wins are due, in large part, to last-minute comebacks orchestrated by the lefty. 

“He’s a winner,” Aune said of Harris. “He’s turned that program around to what it is. They’ve got a chance to win every ball game because of the way he plays, so he’s a good quarterback.”

UTSA is 18-6 in one-possession games since the start of 2020. One of those comeback wins occurred earlier this year when Harris found J.T. Clark for a 10-yard touchdown with 15 seconds left in the game in a 31-27 win over North Texas in the Alamodome. Aune threw for 325 yards in defeat. Harris totaled 238 yards through the air and 75 on the ground. 

Harris is at his best when the lights shine the brightest. He looks unfazed by the pressure and the expectations. Ironic because he admits to a fear of public speaking. Harris says he’d prefer to play quarterback in front of thousands of people than speak in front of 20. 

Like Aune, Harris’ route to success wasn’t easy and involved more than a few roadblocks. Harris contemplated giving up football prior to 2020 due to a rash of injuries. He tore both ACL’s and underwent shoulder surgery in the span of three seasons. Harris took a redshirt in 2017 as he healed from a high school injury, was forced to miss 2018 with a different injury, and then had the 2019 season cut short after starting the first four games of the year when he was hurt against North Texas. 

“Battling through that adversity and the hard times made me the person I am today,” Harris said. “It was a dark time for me, but I’m reaping the benefits now. I trusted the process.” 

That process involved hiring Jeff Traylor as head coach. UTSA was 26-32 in five years under Larry Coker and 19-29 in the four seasons that Frank Wilson led the program. Traylor is 29-9 since the start of 2020 entering the C-USA title game. Five of those losses came in 2020. Traylor is 15-1 in conference games since the start of 2021. The only loss was to North Texas last year. 

And in true old man fashion, Harris likes to remind his younger teammates about the differences between the program he arrived at in 2017 and the one he’s leading to new heights in 2022. 

“I love being the older guy in the locker room and leading the younger dudes,” I tell them how good they have it with the new staff and the facility to keep them humble. I want them to know where we’ve come from as a program.”  

UTSA and North Texas are building a quiet rivalry at the G5 level. The 327 miles separating the campuses feels close enough for dislike in a state as vast as Texas. The two teams are 5-5 against each other in 10 meetings. North Texas’ longest winning streak in the rivalry is three games from 2017 to 2019. UTSA got off to a fast start with consecutive wins in 2013 and 2014. The showdown on Friday night is the biggest one yet, and not just because of the conference crown. This feels like the climax of a boxing trilogy between Harris and Aune that dates back to last season. 

“Now that we’re playing good football at the same time, it magnifies it and makes it bigger for both programs,” Aune said of the rivalry with UTSA. “These games are fun. This is why we love college football. These are the games we all look forward to playing.” 

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