The Mean Green enter spring practice following the winningest two-year period since the 2003 and 2004 seasons and come off a 9-5 year complete with a Conference USA West Division championship.
The tide is turning in Denton, but there is still a long way to go to reach the heights those within the program desire.
North Texas student-athletes have been grinding in the weight room and through conditioning since the start of the semester, but the time has arrived where they can get back out on the field and put the work in there as well. Spring practice begins Wednesday morning and culminates with a luncheon where fans can hear head coach Seth Littrell address offseason topics and the outlook for the spring.
Key Additions: Running backs coach Tashard Choice, director of recruiting Luke Walerius, Defensive linemen Darrian McMillan, Tuulau Saafi and Dayton LeBlanc, running back DeAndre Torrey, offensive lineman Thomas Preston III and quarterback Kason Martin.
There has been no turnover on the coaching staff to this point, and Choice has been promoted to his new position as the team’s 10th assistant. Choice spent last season in a quality control role and will have the opportunity now to step in with a talented, young running back group. When former director of recruiting David Stenklyft was promoted into the director of football operations role, paving the way for Walerius, who joins the Mean Green from Kentucky. He will be tasked with continuing to grow the program’s recruiting efforts.
The six early enrollees include four junior college transfers, looking to earn their places with the team. McMillan and Saafi will be counted on to fill some of the void along the defensive line created by graduation of some key contributors on the edge. Torrey, a standout at Mississippi Gulf Coast, will be added into the mix at running back, joining a talented young group, headlined by rising sophomores Nic Smith and Evan Johnson. North Texas also expects redshirt junior Anthony Wyche back this season, and Stephen F. Austin transfer Loren Easley, who sat out last season, will also be competing for time in the backfield.
The pair of freshmen early enrollees LeBlanc and Martin are looking for their first set of practices to get an early start on preparation for the fall. LeBlanc, the son of former Mean Green defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc, spent his junior season at Denton Ryan before transferring to Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School after his father’s move to Kentucky. Martin, another son of a coach, played for his father Kirk at Manvel (now the quarterbacks coach at Syracuse), leading the Mavericks to the Texas 5-A Division I Championship Game.
Key Losses: Running back Jeffery Wilson, safety Kishawn McClain, defensive ends Andy Flusche and Tillman Johnson, linebacker Joshua Wheeler, wide receiver Turner Smiley, kicker Trevor Moore and cornerback Eric Jenkins.
Production-wise, Wilson’s graduation is the biggest void to fill, at least offensively, as his 1,215 yards and 18 touchdowns are now on their way to the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis. Spring practice is the first chance in a series of opportunities for the running backs mentioned above to seize the job. Smith filled in for Wilson after an injury sidelined the all-conference performer, and concluded his first season of action in Denton with nearly 700 yards and eight total touchdowns. Johnson also provided a spark and change of pace in the backfield, chipping in around 250 yards and three more scores. Torrey enters the fray looking to take advantage of the early reps coming off a freshman season in the Mississippi junior college ranks that saw him rush for 1,298 yards and 12 scores in just nine appearances in 2017.
McClain’s former safety spot is also up for grabs, and spring will feature a handful of candidates vying for it with a handful more joining this fall from the high school ranks. McClain was second on the team with 96 tackles in 2017 to go along with a pair of interceptions, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble and leaves Denton as the team’s seventh leading tackler in program history (336). Rising sophomore Makyle Sanders, newly converted safety, redshirt freshman Tre Siggers, and Taylor Robinson seem to have the most to gain entering the spring.
North Texas will have a new pair of defensive ends come Sept. 1 with the departures of Flusche and Johnson, creating new opportunities for some new faces on the roster. The junior college pair mentioned above, McMillan and Saafi will be in the mix, as will rising sophomore Dion Novil, who debuted last season. McMillan and Saafi will be learning a new system and the early arrival should pay major dividends in terms of fast-tracking them for the fall.
The jack linebacker spot previously held by Wheeler is also now open, and Joe Ozougwu seems to be a good candidate to fill that role, coming off an All-Freshman team nod from the Conference USA coaches, and should figure to get a lot of reps with the first team defense this spring.
Moore leaves Denton as the most decorated kicker in program history, holding nearly all of the kicking records and that will be difficult to replace. Some candidates looking to compete for that job will also get an early start in the competition, including Zach Williams and Arkansas graduate transfer Cole Hedlund.
Smiley was one of four Mean Green receivers with over 600 yards receiving last year, hauling in 35 catches for 623 yards and five touchdowns. North Texas’ receiving corps is one of the deepest units on the field, especially on the outside. They return outside receivers Jalen Guyton, Rico Bussey, Jr., Quinetin Jackson, O’Keeron Rutherford, and have some newcomers waiting in the wings, including Kansas transfer Keegan Brewer, among others. Additionally, though they aren’t arriving until the fall, the Mean Green are adding a pair of freshmen in Austin Ogunmakin (Alief, Texas) and Jyaire Shorter (Killeen, Texas).
Leading receiver Michael Lawrence returns in the slot, as does Jaelon Darden, Kelvin Smith and Caleb Chumley. Lawrence caught a team-best 62 passes for 819 yards with four scores a year ago, while Darden had a strong freshman season with 32 catches for 281 yards and three touchdowns. Smith and Chumley combined for 34 catches and nearly 400 more yards from their tight end spots.
With practice opening Wednesday, the wait for football is over for a group hungry to attack their goals in 2018. The work put forth in February and March can serve as the on-field foundation to those ambitions.
North Texas is riding a seven-game home winning streak dating back to November of 2016, and is looking to reach its third-consecutive bowl for the first time since the early part of the 2000s. The Mean Green’s goals are simple: go undefeated at home, compete for the Conference USA Championship and win a bowl game. It all gets started Wednesday.