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Five UNT players who exceeded expectations in 2017

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas saw a host of players do exactly what one might have expected in 2017, when the Mean Green finished 9-5 after falling to Troy in the New Orleans Bowl.

Quarterback Mason Fine built on a great freshman season and was named the Offensive Player of the Year in Conference USA. Running back Jeffery Wilson was great when he was healthy and safety Kishawn McClain racked up 96 tackles on his way to becoming one of the top 10 tacklers in UNT history.

But what about the unexpected players who came through?

Every team that enjoys a season like the one UNT just completed has an unexpected player or two jump up and have a great year.

Here's a look at five:

1. Colton McDonald, linebacker 

When UNT signed McDonald as a graduate transfer from West Texas A&M, it looked like a thinly veiled attempt to land his younger bother Caden McDonald.

Caden McDonald was a top prospect at Justin Northwest and signed with San Diego State, where he redshirted this past season.

What few saw coming was just how big of an impact Colton McDonald made during his lone year with the Mean Green. UNT endured injury problems all year at linebacker and often turned to McDonald, who responded by making 39 tackles. 

McDonald's 56-yard fumble return for a touchdown in UNT's loss to Troy in the New Orleans Bowl was arguably the biggest play of the game for the Mean Green. That score kept UNT in a game it eventually lost 50-30.

UNT was down 22-7 before McDonald picked up a snap that sailed over quarterback Brandon Silvers' head and scored. The Mean Green pulled within 22-20 at halftime before Troy pulled away.

No one saw what McDonald provided coming.

2. Michael Lawrence, wide receiver

One of the biggest questions UNT faced heading into the season was if it would be able to rebuild at wide receiver after losing three of its top four players at the position after the 2016 season.

Lawrence didn't seem like a prime candidate to break out after catching one pass for 16 yards in 2016, but ended up being one of UNT's best weapons in the passing game. The sophomore led UNT in receptions (62), receiving yards (819) and also caught four touchdown passes.

The kicker?

He's still a walk-on.

So, yeah. He exceeded expectations. By a lot. 

3. Kemon Hall, cornerback

When UNT signed Hall out of Itawamba Community College in Mississippi, it appeared to be a move to improve the Mean Green's cornerback depth. UNT had two established corners coming back in Eric Jenkins and Nate Brooks. 

Hall turned out to be much more than that and was a wire-to-wire starter for the Mean Green. He ranked fourth among UNT players with 73 tackles and broke up eight passes on the season.

Hall also intercepted a pass and forced a fumble.

4. Nic Smith, running back

Expectations were high for Smith heading into his redshirt freshman season at UNT because he was such a highly regarded prospect. 

What he accomplished exceeded those expectations. Smith backed up Wilson and ended up starting the last three games of the year when UNT's starter went down for the season with a foot injury.

Smith ended up rushing for 684 yards and six touchdowns. Those totals were impressive.

5. Joe Ozougwu, linebacker

Ozougwu made a ton of plays in comparison to the amount of time he was on the field. The lightly recruited redshirt freshman finished with 18 tackles, including 5 for loss, and 2 sacks. 

Ozougwu started two games in place of starting Jack linebacker Joshua Wheeler  and produced at a level few expected. 

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas linebacker Colton McDonald (41) tackles UTEP running back Kevin Dove this season at Apogee Stadium. McDonald was a key contributor in his lone season with the Mean Green. (Jake King/DRC)