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, North Texas (2-0) will visit Arkansas (1-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The game is scheduled to be broadcast by the SEC Network.
Fine is an alum of the Locust Grove High School familiar to third-year North Texas coach and former Oklahoma fullback Seth Littrell. He now leads the nation in passing after completing 65 of 90 passes for 862 yards with seven touchdowns against one interception through two games, a 46-23 win against SMU (0-2) and a 58-16 victory against Incarnate Word (0-2), both in Denton, Texas.
New Arkansas head coach knows Fine and the Mean Green best among his team's 2018 opponents. He went 3-0 against North Texas, a member of Conference USA, in an annual non-conference game as coach of SMU, a member of the American Athletic Conference, from 2015-17.
The 5-8 and 9-5 teams coached by Littrell were more formidable than the 1-11 team coached by Dan McCarney 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 in 2017, he completed 32 of 47 for 424 yards.
The Mean Green opened their 2018 season on Sept. 1 routing the Mustangs Morris left behind. Fine completed 40 of 50 for 444 yards with three touchdowns.
"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 has 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. You look at Mason Fine."
Arkansas senior safety Santos Ramirez has spent the week looking at Fine on game film.
"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 while still trying to rebound from losing a 27-9 lead during the third quarter lead during a 34-27 loss on Saturday to Colorado State (1-2) in Fort Collins, Colo.
Fine and his host of receivers ought to keep anyone from looking ahead to Arkansas' Southeastern Conference slate, which begins Sept. 22 at Auburn (2-0). North Texas' 6-2 junior receiver Rico Bussey made nine catches for 109 yards against SMU and eight catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns against Incarnate Word.
Arkansas is also familiar with North Texas' kicker, Cole Hedlund, who signed in 2014 to play for Bielema out of Argyle, Texas, as the nation's top prep kicker. Hedlund redshirted in 2014 and started each of the last three season as the team's top kicker before being replaced during each season.
Bielema replaced Hedlund with Connor Limpert after last season's second game. Hedlund missed a crucial 22-yard field goal attempt during a 28-7 loss to TCU in Fayetteville.
Hedlund was immediately able to play for North Texas as a graduate transfer and has rediscovered his high school. He is 7-for-7 on field goals this season, including a 51-yarder.
"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 will be excited to come back here. He's having a great year for them."
Morris said the Razorbacks responded far better in Tuesday's practice after the loss to Colorado State than they did the week prior after a season-opening 55-20 victory at home against Eastern Illinois (0-2). Tuesdays and Wednesdays are their heaviest practices after light workouts on Sunday and the NCAA mandated off day on Monday. They taper off their workouts on Thursday and Friday.
"Back on the field yesterday in pads and it was a really good day," Morris said. "I loved our focus, the energy level from when those guys walked out of that locker room even while stretch and flex. It was definitely on a different level. You felt a different vibe with this team. That's what you ask for."
And require, Morris said.
"I said it all week long what you want to know is how are you going to respond when adversity happens," Morris said. "I thought we've learned a lot about our football team. Overall yesterday, I was pleased with the way they came out."
Morris compared the successive Tuesday practices as a "night and day difference."
"The guys were definitely locked in a lot more," Morris said. "That happens. Every time we've asked them to respond whether through through camp or spring ball where maybe we didn't come out and have the standard that we wanted to set they've always responded.
"Starting Sunday, they came out with a different edge. These kids care and they understand for this program to move forward we're gonna have to learn and sometimes you learn through hard times."
The hard times looked a little easier finally practicing with two complete scholarship offensive lines.
"Yesterday was our very first day since I've been here that we had 10 scholarship offensive linemen," Morris said of the position group hardest hit by injuries starting with incumbent left tackle Colton Jackson requiring back surgery in July. "To be able to have practice and be able to have that rotation, which was really encouraging and exciting to see."
Incumbent left tackle Colton Jackson, the fourth-year junior from Conway, was a two-year starter, but he has been out since requiring back surgery in July. He completed two full practices this week on the second unit and seems at least partially in the game plan.
"We're anticipating Colton to possibly get in there and play a few series and see how it goes," Morris said on Wednesday's SEC teleconference. "He got in yesterday (Tuesday) full speed and full contact and did a great job. Just trying to get his legs back underneath him. That's the biggest challenge for Colton right now."
Freshman Noah Gatlin, of Jonesboro, debuted as the starting left tackle against Colorado State. He is likely to start again against North Texas.
Redshirt freshman Shane Clenin started at left tackle against Eastern Illinois, but he was idled last week by a sprained ankle. He practiced this week behind senior center Hjalte Froholdt. Clenin has practiced at every position on the line since the preseason.Sports on 09/14/2018
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