RUSTON, La. — North Texas safeties coach Noah Joseph grabbed Zac Whitfield tight around the neck Saturday night at Joe Aillet Stadium and wouldn’t let him go.
Joseph wanted to make sure that Whitfield knew just how proud he was of the sophomore cornerback’s performance in the Mean Green’s 28-13 win over Louisiana Tech.
In that way, Joseph wasn’t any different from a number of people in UNT’s locker room a short time later celebrating a win that Whitfield played a key role in just a few weeks after being pulled from the Mean Green’s starting lineup.
Whitfield intercepted two passes against Tech and made perhaps the play of the game when he snared a ball lofted down the sideline by quarterback Ryan Higgins and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown that put the Mean Green up for good.
Whitfield started the first two games of the year before being replaced by Kenny Buyers.
“I am really proud of Zac,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “He took being moved down on the depth chart and the competition like a man and didn’t go into the tank. He competed like crazy every day and came up with two of the biggest plays we have had this season with those interceptions.”
UNT trailed 10-0 after struggling early before quarterback Derek Thompson hit Brelan Chancellor behind Tech’s secondary for a 61-yard touchdown.
Tech still led and was driving when it faced a third-and-15 situation from its 42-yard line late in the first half and Whitfield read Higgins’ eyes, intercepted his pass and weaved his way down the field for the go-ahead score.
“The momentum really shifted on that play,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield added a second interception late in the fourth quarter to ice the game and cap a performance he credited to the way he responded to seeing his role reduced.
Whitfield gave up a few long touchdowns early in the season, including a 75-yard strike to Chase Cochran in a loss to Ohio in the second game of the season.
Buyers started the next week and has been in the starting lineup ever since. Both Buyers and Whitfield played against the Bulldogs. Buyers finished with nine tackles.
“The competition made me better,” Whitfield said. “Kenny pushes me and I push him.”
The benefits were obvious after UNT’s win over the Bulldogs.
“Whit showed up great,” UNT lineabacker Zach Orr said. “He showed resiliency and took one back to the house. It was great to see him come back and battle every day in practice.”
Joseph was just one of several people who made sure to tell Whitfield just how big his contributions were.
“Coach told me that he was proud of me,” Whitfield said.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.