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Muhammad bringing energy to new role as starting safety

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

There is nothing North Texas coach Seth Littrell loves more than players who have bounce-around energy, especially at this time of the year, when the heat in fall camp is nearly unbearable and enthusiasm can be in short supply.

To say Khairi Muhammad fits that mold would be an understatement. The former DeSoto standout always seems to be shifted into overdrive.

That tendency is Muhammad's biggest strength, but it also can be a weakness. The sophomore is searching for a happy medium as he prepares to step into a key role for the Mean Green.

UNT lost senior strong safety James Gray to graduation after last season and has turned to Muhammad to plug that rather large hole in its defense. Gray and Kishawn McClain were among the best safety tandems in Conference USA last season, when they combined for 155 tackles and four interceptions.

"Khairi is really growing up and maturing," Littrell said. "He is starting to understand the importance of going out there and doing your job and focusing. At times, he gets over hyped. That is when a lot of his mental errors come up. He needs to stay poised and focused. That is part of the maturation process."

Few pairs of safeties did their job better in 2016 than Gray and McClain, who will be a senior this fall. In 2015, they became the first set of safeties in UNT history to each post more than 100 tackles in a season. McClain finished with 110, and Gray tallied 104.

McClain and Gray could just about read each others' minds on the field by the end of their second season starting together last fall, when McClain finished with 91 tackles to go along with Gray's 64 stops.

Muhammad paid a whole lot of attention to every move both made, not to mention what UNT defensive coordinator and safeties coach Troy Reffett had to say.

"James was a good player," Muhammad said. "I learned a lot from him and Kishawn. Those two guys and coach Reffett have helped me a lot."

Muhammad put those lessons to practice late last season when UNT began working him into the lineup. He intercepted a pass late in the win against Southern Miss in the 11th game of the season.

Muhammad also saw time in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and finished with two tackles in the loss to Army. 

Littrell said he ideally would like to redshirt his top freshmen, but he didn't have that luxury last season with Muhammad, who finished with 15 tackles while playing in all but one game.

The payoff could come this fall. Muhammad learned to harness his endless energy on the field in limited action last fall.

"Playing at the end of last year helped me get the jitters out, calm down and just play my game," Muhammad said.

McClain has noticed Muhammad's excitable nature. He's excited about the energy his new partner at safety brings, as well as his skill set.

"Khari is very talented and versatile," McClain said. "He can play in the back end and cover wide receivers in the slot. Coverage skills are a big part of his game."

Muhammad is working to improve his abilities to provide support in run defense, an aspect of the game Gray excelled at throughout his two seasons.

How Muhammad will fit with UNT's defense is perhaps the biggest question for the secondary heading into the season. 

McClain and cornerback Nate Brooks are members of C-USA's preseason all-league team. UNT also has honorable mention all-conference cornerback Nate Jenkins returning. Itawamba (Mississippi) Community College transfer Kemon Hall is pushing Jenkins for a starting job and gives the Mean Green another solid cornerback.

"The secondary has meshed on the field and off the field," Muhammad said. "We are one big family and have each others' backs."

Muhammad will be an even more important member of that family this fall, when he and McClain will try to build their chemistry as a safety duo as he tries to harness his energy and take advantage of the opportunity to expand his role.

"It's a great honor to start," Muhammad said. "Coach Reffett put his trust in me. I won't let him down."

Wilson named to watch list

UNT senior running back Jeffery Wilson was put on the watch list for the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award this week.

The award goes to the nation's top offensive player who exhibits the characteristics that define Earl Campbell, including integrity, performance, teamwork, sportsmanship, community and the tenacity to overcome adversity. Candidates must have graduated from a Texas high school or junior college or play at a Texas school.

Wilson is from Elkhart, a town in East Texas.

Wilson has missed parts of each of his first three seasons at UNT with a variety of injuries, but he still has managed to rush for 1,990 yards. He enters his senior season ranked 11th on UNT's career rushing leaders list.

There are 45 players on the watch list.

UNT adds South Alabama to schedule

UNT has added South Alabama, one of its former rivals in the Sun Belt Conference, to its football schedule.

UNT will travel to face the Jaguars at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, on Aug. 31, 2024. The Jaguars will play at UNT on Sept. 27, 2025.

UNT officials confirmed an agreement is in place for the series.

"It's a part of a much bigger picture that is coming together,"  said Jared Mosley, UNT's associate vice president for athletics and chief operating officer. "When you look at your schedule, you want to balance home and away games and also set up the best opportunity to get to the postseason."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.