Seniors Lead Mean Green's Quest For Bowl Eligibility
North Texas Enters Senior Day With Chance To Fulfill Preseason Goals
DENTON - On a warm night in early August, 100-plus members of the North Texas football team filed into their newly-renovated team meeting room, along with coaches and a handful of administrators. Among the group were a contingent of 17 seniors, most of whom had been through a lot of change during their time at North Texas.
Of that group, nine had spent three to four years with the program; the other eight transferred from other programs or junior colleges. All but two in that room, graduate transfer quarterback Alec Morris and defensive tackle Demonte Hood, had just come off a bitterly disappointing 1-11 season in 2015. Before them at the podium stood 38-year-old first-time head coach Seth Littrell.
“We will win a bowl game this year,” Littrell said matter-of-factly.
To those outside the room, especially given what had transpired a year earlier, that notion may have seemed far-fetched. To the 125 or so people in that room, none of that outside perception mattered. Their new leader made it clear. This was not a season to simply develop for the future, this was a win-now campaign.
The culture started to change with Littrell’s hiring in late December of 2015, but it was never more clear than on report day in that meeting room. The message was concise, but powerful. “We will compete and we will have success.”
To the seniors, this was music to their ears. Despite the fact that many on the outside were forecasting multiple years of slow-building success, these 17 and their teammates were focused on their mission in 2016.
“Coming off of a 1-11 season, (a bowl game) was something that was far from your mind when you come off that type of year,” senior linebacker Fred Scott said. “He (coach Littrell) showed confidence in us, and still shows that confidence in us. He tells us every week that he still believes in us and he always will. It’s just a fact that we’ve got to go out there and prove ourselves. That confidence coach Littrell had in us, and the coaches that he brought in had in us, was a great boost in confidence in us as players coming off of a season like we just had.
“We aren’t where we want to be yet, but reaching our goal would just prove that the coaching staff was right to believe in us and that they are serious about winning here in Denton. It will show that it can and will be done.”
Scott, a native of Kennedale, Texas, like several of his senior teammates dealt with the transition from former head coach Dan McCarney to interim coach Mike Canales to Littrell and the current staff. Scott is on his third defensive coordinator in four years. One of five team captains, Scott, the starting weak side linebacker, has dealt with more adversity this season, missing multiple games with an abdominal injury. He has fought through that to return to the field in short order to do his part as a leader and contributor to help the Mean Green reach their goal.
North Texas came out of the gates strong, opening with a 4-3 record after wins over Bethune-Cookman, Rice, Marshall, and a dominant victory at Army. Despite a current three-game skid, at 4-6, bowl eligibility is still within reach. Wins in the Mean Green’s final two games would bring the win total to six and provide the program with an opportunity to fulfill Littrell’s August proclamation.
Many of the senior class that was part of the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl champion team hold that particular season and moment as the best memory of their careers in Denton to date. All were very sure to mention, however, that those fond memories could be pushed to number two should the team achieve its goal in 2016.
“2013 is definitely at the top right now,” senior defensive end Malik Dilonga said. “But hopefully that can be topped this season with another bowl game. But for now, I’d have to say the Heart of Dallas Bowl was my best moment here at North Texas.”
Reflecting on the 2013 season that saw North Texas go 9-4 after winning seven of its last eight games is something each member of this senior class does when looking back on their early days in Denton. Several discussed parallels they saw between that group and the current roster. High character was a theme emanating from those conversations, as well as belief in not only each other but in the process that the coaching staff laid before them.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Kenny Buyers has fought through his own bit of adversity. Buyers was sidelined in 2015 after suffering a back injury that kept him off the field the whole season. While that year was frustrating for all involved, not being able to do anything about it added a whole new layer of frustration for the Hurst, Texas, native.
Buyers initially considered moving on after the 2015 season, but when Littrell and staff came on board, he decided to give it one more year. He bought in like so many of his teammates and couldn’t be happier with his decision. The one curveball thrown his way was a position switch. Buyers spent his first four years as a defensive back, shining in that role before being approached to become a slot receiver.
“I think getting to a bowl would be huge especially with coach Littrell and the coaching staff being in their first year here,” Buyers said. “There were a lot of people writing us off at the beginning of the year, saying we were only going to win one game and stuff like that. To be able to be this deep in the season with our goal still ahead of us is a great situation. I didn’t get to play last year, but sitting out and having to watch us go 1-11, it was kind of a blessing to be able to come back and be able to play for this coaching staff. Now we have a chance to possibly go play in a bowl game if we take care of our business, which starts Saturday.”
Saturday, the seniors will be honored before their final game at Apogee Stadium. Any time a chapter in life ends, there are a bevy of emotions that go along with it. It’s no different in this case.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” senior punter Eric Keena said. “I think on game day it’s probably going to hit me pretty hard. I can’t imagine this Saturday being my last home game and the last time I’ll be in front of our UNT crowd and fans, but I’m definitely going to miss it. It’s been awesome and it’s crazy to think about.”
“My freshman year when I redshirted, there were a lot of people from my class that were quitting or leaving for medical reasons, and I questioned if I would even make it through another four years,” Dilonga added. “But now it’s flown by and this is my last home game. I think it was at the Rice game (on September 24), I started to do this after the pregame when I just go out and warm up by myself while everyone else is just getting a feel for the field. I have started a kind of personal tradition, where I pause as I walk off the field. I like to take in the whole stadium, the moment and everything that’s going on and enjoy it because my chances to do that are numbered.”
Bonds have been forged through the years by this group, standing beside one another as more than teammates. Those are takeaways from collegiate careers that will never change regardless of the final outcome of the 2016 season.
“I’ve built so many relationships with coaches and players alike,” Keena stated. “I’ve learned so much from all the guys, who are all like brothers now. It’s a great group of guys, and I am thankful for this coaching staff and I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to play and study here at the University of North Texas.”
The Mean Green have spent this week in what Scott referred to as “playoff mode.” The path to bowl eligibility for a team that won just once in 2015 is still within reach. Seventeen seniors will make their final walk onto the field at Apogee Stadium with a chance to extend the season and reward the coaching staff for the confidence they instilled in the team back in August. That all starts Saturday against Southern Miss.