5 questions with North Texas reporter Brett Vito

Published: Thursday, September 13, 2018
Seth Littrell is 16-13 in his third season as head coach at North Texas.
Photo by University of North Texas
Seth Littrell is 16-13 in his third season as head coach at North Texas.

Editor's Note: Brett Vito covers North Texas football for the Denton Record-Chronicle. We asked him to answer five questions about the Mean Green to give Arkansas fans a better insight into Saturday's opponent.

How did Seth Littrell put together such a dangerous team so quickly?

There used to be a radio talk show host in Dallas who liked to scream at his listeners that, “the game is about the quarterback.”

That’s a simplistic view of things, but for UNT it really is the bottom line. Seth Littrell moved UNT from a run-first system to a version of the spread when he took over the program before the 2016 season and brought in Mason Fine that same year.

UNT has grown along with Fine, who might be the best quarterback playing at the Group of Five level in the country. He’s also better than a lot of guys playing at Power Five schools.

Littrell won just enough games in 2016 to get to a bowl as a 5-7 team when Fine led UNT to four wins before going down for the year with a shoulder injury.

That season was key because it showed UNT is headed in the right direction. Littrell and his staff capitalized by bringing in more talented players to put around Fine in each of the subsequent seasons.

It’s remarkable to think about how far UNT has come in such a short amount of time. This team won just one game in 2015 and was blown out 66-7 by Portland State in arguably the worst loss ever by an Football Bowl Subdivision team in a game against an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision ranks.

UNT added Littrell and Fine a short time later. The talent has just followed them to Denton since.

Can you describe Mason Fine and what makes the Mean Green offense tick?

UNT’s coaches have often borrowed a basketball term to describe Fine. They call him a gym rat, and they’re right.

Fine’s drive and desire have made him the player he is today. He didn’t grow up in a family with a history of athletic success and didn’t have the advantage a lot of kids do today with going to camps or having private lessons.

Fine just worked and turned himself into one of the more successful quarterbacks from a statistical perspective in the history of high school football. He threw for 13,081 yards at Locust Grove, a tiny school in Oklahoma about 70 miles from Fayetteville.

UNT was the only school that offered Fine a scholarship because he was only 5-11 and 170 pounds.

He’s maintained his work ethic at UNT and turned himself into one of the more productive quarterbacks in the country. He threw for 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. He has 862 yards and seven touchdowns this year.

Fine and UNT coach Seth Littrell are cut from the same cloth in that they are grinders. Littrell talks every week about the importance of preparation and having the right mindset. And when I say every week, I mean every week.

UNT is hard to stop because they are so well drilled in that system. The Mean Green are like a machine out there.

Who are the next five top playmakers behind Fine, offense or defense?

UNT has some talented guys on both sides of the ball who have helped spark its rise the last few seasons, including two good wide receivers in Jalen Guyton and Rico Bussey Jr.

Guyton started out at Notre Dame and has all the tools. He’s 6-1, 202, and has great speed that allows him to make plays down the field.

The Mean Green have Bussey on the opposite side. He’s off to a great start this year and has 237 receiving yards.

Both Guyton and Bussey each have three touchdowns on the year.

Slot receiver Michael Lawrence hasn’t gotten off to a great start. He has five catches for 69 yards, but he could break out at any time. He led UNT catches (62) and receiving yards (819) last season.

UNT’s top defensive player is linebacker E.J. Ejiya. He led the Mean Green in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks in 2017. The senior has 13 tackles and two quarterback hurries. He’s also blocked a kick, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble this year.

Cornerback Kemon Hall has two interceptions and is also one of UNT’s top defenders.

How would you describe North Texas' defensive style, their base set and how much they like to pressure?

UNT went to a 3-3-5 scheme when Littrell took over a couple of years ago and really struggled with it at times.

The Mean Green gave up 35.5 points per game last season but appear to have find their groove this fall. UNT is allowing 19.5 points per game.

UNT is going to blitz a ton, bring pressure from a host of different areas and then fake that pressure and bail out.

The Mean Green play a lot of man-to-man coverage. UNT struggled last season with having the ball thrown over its heads. That hasn’t been a problem this year because UNT has gotten home when it does blitz.

What is your take on the Mean Green's mindset with a shot at knocking off a Power 5 opponent?

This is a huge opportunity for the Mean Green and they know it.

UNT hasn’t beaten a Power Five conference team since knocking off Indiana in 2011.

A win over the Razorbacks kicks the enthusiasm when it comes to UNT football to a whole other level. It would also give the Mean Green a huge boost in recruiting and set up what could be a magical season.

UNT would still have some tough games left, including at home against Louisiana Tech and Florida Atlantic and at UAB.

None of those games look as tough on paper as Arkansas, though.

UNT wins this game and one will start to hear people pondering if the Mean Green can go unbeaten, much to the chagrin of Littrell.

Even if UNT pulls this off, he’s going to talk about preparing the right way next week.

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