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Football: Mayfield took gamble with late transfer, sees it pay off at UNT

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

There wasn't much Riley Mayfield hadn't seen in his football career by the time he joined his North Texas teammates on the turf at Kinnick Stadium for the Mean Green's game against Iowa this year.

The big tackle had been a part of big wins, tough losses and all-conference teams, but felt like he had never reached his ultimate goal until that cool September day when he played in front of a crowd of 65,668.

Mayfield developed into a star at Abilene Christian, a school in the Football Championship Subdivision, and still had one year left to play heading into 2017.

Mayfield
Mayfield

The former Cedar Park standout rolled the dice and left ACU, hoping to find a program that would pick him up as a graduate transfer and give him a shot at playing at the highest level of college football.

Mayfield was overcome with emotion that day in Iowa City, where he felt like that dream finally became a reality.

"It was amazing," said Mayfield, who starts at right tackle for the Mean Green. "That is the moment you live for as a player. The hostile environment and the screaming fans is everything you dream of growing up.

"Going out for warmups, it dawned on me how big a stage that was. I have never been nervous before a game, but I was right up until the first snap."

UNT coach Seth Littrell said Mayfield held his own in a 31-14 loss to Iowa, a Big Ten team with big-time talent.

Mayfield's performance wasn't a surprise for Littrell or his teammates. They've barely had time to get to know Mayfield since he arrived in Denton this summer for his one-and-done season and have quickly been won over.

Mayfield has started each of UNT's four games and will be in the lineup again Saturday when the Mean Green travel to Southern Mississippi.

"Riley is a great person and is really laid-back and quiet off the field," Littrell said. "He's a 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir' guy who comes from a good family. He is starting to get more comfortable on the field and with a leadership role."

Littrell envisioned Mayfield growing into an impact player and providing guidance for an offensive line in transition while fulfilling his dream of playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

The plan has unfolded perfectly for Mayfield and UNT (2-2, 1-0 Conference USA), which will look to establish itself as a contender for the West Division title by moving to 2-0 in league play this weekend with a win over Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles (2-1, 0-0) also are expected to be in the championship chase.

"Coaches always talk about guys stepping up, and that is what you see out of Riley," said Joshua Wheeler, a linebacker who battles Mayfield in practice daily. "He stepped right in. He started out a little shaky, but the staff has coached him up. He's playing phenomenal."

A perfect match

There might not have been a bigger question heading into Littrell's second season than the state of the Mean Green's offensive line.

UNT surrendered a whopping 43 sacks in 2016 and lost arguably its two best linemen in Sam Rice and Trey Keenan to graduation.

The Mean Green had some good high school recruits arriving, but Littrell and his staff felt like adding a transfer with experience would pay dividends.

Mayfield was pondering his future at the same time. He redshirted as a freshman at ACU in 2013 and quickly developed into a player who was named to the preseason All-Southland Conference team in 2015.

A knee injury prevented Mayfield from playing in 2015, but he came back to receive All-Southland honorable mention in 2016.

Mayfield started to examine his options after the season. He enjoyed his time at ACU and the bond he formed with teammates and coaches, but decided to seek other opportunities.

"I had started to become a little complacent and wanted a new challenge," Mayfield said. "I wanted to see if I could compete at this level."

UNT seemed like a good fit due to the connections Mayfield had with the program. Quality control assistant John David Baker and graduate assistant Herschel Sims played for ACU before joining UNT's staff.

Mayfield played with Baker and Sims at ACU.

"One of the things they emphasized was coach Littrell and what he was building here with the culture of the program," Mayfield said. "They felt like I had the opportunity to come in and compete for playing time. They said it would be a good situation."

That has been the case, both on and off the field.

Mayfield slid right into Mean Green's starting lineup at right tackle and helped bolster a line that has given up just nine sacks through four weeks, down from 17 at the same point last year.

Mayfield has helped UNT get off to a good start while establishing himself as a steadying influence.

"Riley has given us leadership and experience," UNT quarterback Mason Fine said. "He is a really quiet dude and is also well-spoken. He's not a rah-rah guy. He just goes out there and does his job."

Mayfield has found a pursuit off the field as well and is working on his master's degree in business administration with an emphasis on finance.

Mayfield said coming to UNT from a religious school has been a bit of a culture shock at times, but he has quickly found a comfort zone.

"It's been an incredible experience," Mayfield said. "Everyone has been welcoming."

A long ride to FBS 

Mayfield seemed destined to play at the FBS level when he was a senior at Cedar Park.

The Timberwolves won the Class 4A Division II title in 2012 with Mayfield as one of their starting guards.

Baylor, Texas State and Central Arkansas showed interest, but when January arrived Mayfield faced an uncertain future. Texas State pulled its offer late. It was the only FBS offer Mayfield had.

ACU called and offered Mayfield the chance to join the program in the midst of its transition from Division II to Division I.

Mayfield jumped at the opportunity and credits the staff at ACU with helping develop him as a player.

"The people out there were great," Mayfield said. "The coaches worked really hard with us. Unfortunately, we didn't win a lot of games, but I wouldn't be in the position I am today if I hadn't gone through it and built myself up as a player."

ACU won just five games combined in the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Mayfield's final two years with the Wildcats.

Mayfield decided during his final semester at ACU that it was time to move on, take a chance and see if he could play at the major-college level.

Littrell thought Mayfield would be a perfect fit at UNT.

"We needed him, with the lack of experience and depth on our line," Littrell said. "It's been key for us to have him in terms of depth and competition."

UNT has been able to redshirt some of its freshmen offensive linemen thanks largely to Mayfield coming in, winning the starting job at right tackle and playing well.

Mayfield will play just one season at UNT, but his impact will last far into the future because of the extra time those freshman linemen will have to develop and the example he has set.

"It definitely was a risk," Mayfield said of leaving Abilene. "But I am pretty confident in what I can do. I felt like I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn't go out and try. I would always look back and wonder 'what if?'

Mayfield won't have to ponder that question now — not after walking onto the field at Iowa, emotions bubbling up inside him.

Mayfield needed five years to get to the turf at Kinnick Stadium, but he was finally right where he always envisioned being as his college career entered its final stages.

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