Friday, September 14, 2018
By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - At 5-11, Mason Fine from little Peggs, Okla., was deemed too little to be a major college quarterback by all but one team.
That team, the 2-0 North Texas Mean Green, visit the 1-1 Arkansas Razorbacks at 3 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on the SEC Network.
Fine has rewarded the Mean Green by becoming a statistical giant.
The alum via Locust Grove, Okla. High School familiar to North Texas coach and former Oklahoma Sooners fullback Seth Littrell, leads the nation in passing.
Fine has completing 65 of his 90 passes for 862 yards with seven touchdowns against one interception. He averages 431 passing yards for the Mean Green's 46-23 and 58-16 victories over SMU and Incarnate Word that UNT hosted in Denton, Texas.
Of all the quarterbacks and teams that Arkansas faces in 2018, new Arkansas coach Chad Morris by far best knows Fine and the Mean Green.
Coaching the SMU Mustangs from 2015-2017, Morris went 3-0 against the Conference USA's Mean Green in their annual non-conference game.
However, the 5-8 and 9-5 Mean Green teams that Littrell coached in 2016 and 2017 were far more formidable than the 1-11 team his UNT predecessor, Dan McCarney, coached in 2015.
Morris' Mustangs had to earn those 34-21 and 54-32 victories. Fine came off the bench to complete 8-of-11 against SMU in 2016.
As the starter, he completed 32-of-47 passes for 424 yards on Morris' 2017 Mustangs.
The Mean Green opened their 2018 season on Sept. 1 routing the Mustangs that Morris left behind.
Fine completed 40-of-50 passes for 444 yards with three touchdowns.
What allows the little quarterback to play so big? Apparently Fine gets the ball out before tall pass-rushers can get their hands up.
"The ball gets out of his hands extremely quick," Morris said. "Even when you do bring pressure on him, he's a guy that very few times does pressure get home. That ball comes out. A lot of it is scheme, getting in and out of routes."
And a lot of it is talent, instinct, savvy and proving his worth isn't measured by height.
"This guy plays with an edge," Morris said. "He sees the field really well and understands coverages. He is very well coached."
That Fine is well-coached is a given, says Morris, citing Littrell whom he's known since both were ACC offensive coordinators with Morris at Clemson and Littrell at North Carolina.
"Seth and I go way back," Morris said. "Just a great young offensive mind. He’s very bright. He does a great job of preparing his players. He came into North Texas and basically built that program from the ground floor up and has done a fabulous job of recruiting and also just evaluating talent."
Arkansas senior safety Santos Ramirez has spent the week looking at Fine on game film. He's impressed.
"He's a great quarterback," Ramirez said. "He does a great job looking off safeties and puts the ball in the right place. He's got velocity on the ball and the receivers are very talented. They have great chemistry together. So we have to go out and have our best game, especially in the secondary."
Not that these Razorbacks need an attention-grabber after falling 34-27 at Colorado State last week, but Fine and his host of receivers, led by 6-2 junior Rico Bussey (9 catches for 109 yards against SMU and 8 catches, 3 for touchdowns, and 128 yards against Incarnate Word), ought to keep anyone defensively from looking ahead to Arkansas' SEC slate that starts Sept. 22 at Auburn.
While Morris and the offensive assistants he brought with him from SMU know the Mean Green well, the Razorbacks themselves know UNT's placekicker, for Cole Hedlund once was one of them.
Signed by Arkansas' Bret Bielema regime in 2014 as the nation's outstanding prep placekicker, Hedlund somehow seldom hit stride at Arkansas.
After redshirting in 2014, Hedlund began three seasons as the placekicker always supplanted by season's end.
Bielema replaced him with Connor Limpert after last season's second game upon Hedlund missing a 22-yard field goal attempt during the 28-7 loss to TCU in Fayetteville.
With degree in hand rendering him immediately eligible as a graduate transfer, Hedlund chose UNT and rediscovered his high school form. He's 7-for-7 on field goals, including a 51-yarder.
Hedlund was determined to head out the Arkansas door for a change of scenery before Morris was hired in December even with the new coach's Hedlund family ties.
"I know him just briefly when I got here," Morris said. "His brother, Chad, kicked for us at SMU and did a fabulous job. A great family. I know he (Cole) will be excited to come back here. He’s having a great year for them."
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