North Texas Daily

Smith, Darden headline productive group of freshmen for Mean Green football

Smith, Darden headline productive group of freshmen for Mean Green football

September 27
18:56 2017

Following a remarkable rally by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, North Texas found itself knotted at 43-43 Saturday with just 27 seconds remaining on the clock.

That’s when a freshman made what may be the most underrated play of the season so far.

Backup running back Evan Johnson took the ensuing kickoff all the way back to the UAB 44-yard line, which eventually set up the game-winning field goal from Trevor Moore. The win moved the Mean Green to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in Conference USA.

Just like last season, North Texas has several freshmen who have cracked the two-deep depth chart while making their presence felt early in their career. In all of the contributing freshmen, head coach Seth Littrell has already been impressed with their work ethic.

“There is a reason they’re playing,” Littrell said. “It’s because they work extremely hard. All of those guys have talent and they’re really mature. They’ve grown up even quicker than I thought they would.”

Each one has their own niche in their first year with the Mean Green, and their roles and opportunities will continue to grow in the coming years as they develop as players and trust with the coaches.

Some new faces have attacked the field this season with a reckless abandon that makes them seem far more experienced than they may be, but it’s still been an adjustment from the high school level to college football.

“The speed of the game,” freshman slot receiver Jaelon Darden said. “I already know what I’m supposed to be doing, so the speed of the game is the hardest aspect [of college football].”

Darden is four games into his opening campaign with the Mean Green and has already caught eight balls for 97 yards and a touchdown. He has also emerged as the most reliable punt returner on the team and has been clean so far in that role.

Another offensive playmaker is redshirt freshman running back Nic Smith. Smith was on the roster last season, but didn’t see the field and redshirted. He has wasted no time making a major impact as the primary backup to senior Jeffery Wilson, showing the ability to be a reliable threat out of the backfield.

North Texas freshman running back Nic Smith runs the ball in a game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Sept.23 at Apogee Stadium. North Texas defeated UAB 46-43. Sara Carpenter

Smith has 179 yards rushing on 32 carries for two touchdowns and has also caught five passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in his first year on the field.

“That’s my little bro,” Wilson said. “He pushes me with the way he works and vice versa. It’s a blessing to have [him], and Nic is going to be a tremendous back.”

As a true freshman, Johnson has shown a different skill set than Smith and Wilson with his sheer quickness. His jump cuts and ability to change directions in a hurry show a lot of promise. He’s rushed for 113 yards on 15 carries, averaging 7.5 yards per touch.

One thing is certain – the Mean Green will have two talented running backs even after Wilson has graduated.

“Everyone sees his explosiveness on the field but they don’t know his explosiveness off the field,” Wilson said of Johnson. “He attacks everything like a veteran and he’s smart. He can be a first string back as well as Nic, so it’s going to be good.”

On the defensive side of the ball, there are four or five freshman who make their way on and off the two-deep depth charts depending on the week. But there is one who’s already made a substantial impact on the field.

That’s freshman safety Makyle Sanders. As sophomore Khairi Muhammad’s backup on a defense that features five defensive backs, Sanders has been able to get playing time due to his ability to learn quickly.

“He’s coming on, he’s learning and he has good size,” Muhammad said. “He can feel the run game, and he’s coming on with his man technique. He’s going to be a really good player in the future.”

These freshmen all have been able to do their jobs at a high level and have all had their work ethic praised by coaches and teammates.

It can be overwhelming for some 18, 19 or 20-year-olds to come in against older, established guys and compete for playing time, but to them, working hard is already second nature.

Darden and the other freshmen attribute their early success to the coaches and older players mentoring them.

“No, I’m not really [surprised],” Darden said. “I just came in, competed and did what I had to do, so I earned the [playing time].”

This class has the potential to grow into something very intriguing as they continue to develop. With a few freshmen redshirting, like quarterback Cade Pearson, the future remains bright for the Mean Green despite a number of seniors graduating at the end of this year.

“A lot of young guys that are playing and the guys that are even redshirting [have potential],” Littrell said. “I’m excited about that class and I think the future is really bright here.”

Featured Image: North Texas freshman wide receiver Jaelon Darden runs the ball after a kickoff return in a game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Sept.23 at Apogee Stadium. North Texas defeated UAB 46-43. Sara Carpenter

About Author

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune is the Senior Sports Writer for the North Texas Daily, covering football and men's basketball.

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