The stage was set for Brelan Chancellor, Zach Orr and Brandin Byrd to make North Texas history before the Mean Green ran through its first practice this fall.
A few weeks later, after he secured the starting quarterback job for the third straight year, Derek Thompson’s path to a prominent place in the record books was also set.
Heading into the Mean Green’s regular season finale on Saturday at Tulsa, the numbers and the spots in the record books are all secure for the quartet of UNT seniors.
What has made the experience all the more rewarding for those cornerstone players is that they have something else that has always eluded them to go along with those milestones: a whole lot of wins.
UNT (7-4) has a winning record for the first time since 2004 and has all but locked up a spot in a bowl game.
“We came here to win,” Thompson said. “That is the most important thing. Stats will come if you play well. It’s nice to get some personal accolades, but winning is at the top. If you put up numbers without winning, you kind of get forgotten. That is what I’m excited about. We’ve able to put up numbers and get the credit for winning to go along with it.”
That milestone will separate the seniors from a host of players who have come and gone over an eight-year span when UNT didn’t win more than five games in a season and often produced a whole lot less.
The quartet was down to its last chance to post a winning record this season and led a batch of 22 seniors on a veteran team to what amounts to the Promised Land.
“I am more into numbers than statistics,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “The numbers of a program are wins versus losses, how many times you win at home and on the road, getting to bowl games and doing things that no one thinks we can do.”
UNT has reached that point heading into its regular season finale.
The Mean Green finished 4-8 last season and wasn’t expected to improve much this year, when UNT was picked to finish fifth out of seven teams in Conference USA’s West Division.
The Mean Green has soared past those expectations. UNT has won three more games than last season already, marking the biggest single-season turnaround for the program since 2002.
A win over Tulsa would give UNT a four-game jump over last year, which would be its biggest turnaround since 1984.
Thompson, Chancellor, Byrd and Orr have led the way while carving out individual legacies in program history.
Thompson became just the third player in UNT history to surpass the 7,000-yard mark in passing yards in the Mean Green’s loss to UTSA last week. The former Glen Rose standout has 7,018 yards and this week will likely surpass Steve Ramsey, who played seven seasons in the NFL, on UNT’s career leaders list.
Ramsey threw for 7,076 yards at UNT from 1967-69.
Thompson has closed on one of the Mean Green’s all-time greats while throwing for 2,467 yards in his senior year.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Thompson said. “To move up high on the passing yardage list is pretty special for me. There are a lot of great players who have played here. At the same time, I’m not worried about the personal statistics. That will come. We have a pretty special senior class. That shows when we have guys who will be in the top five in so many categories.”
Chancellor is among them, thanks to a solid senior season that has seen him lead UNT in receiving yards (682) and all-purpose yards (1,673). He ranks third in program history in all-purpose yards with 5,212 and has a chance to surpass his former teammate Lance Dunbar, who rolled up 5,375 before beginning his career with the Cowboys.
The former Copperas Cove standout expressed sentiments similar to those of Thompson, who is much prouder of the Mean Green’s record than in the individual accomplishments that fueled UNT’s run.
“It’s something that I will look back on when I’m old and telling my kids about it,” Chancellor said. “I will have to show them the record books because they won’t believe me.”
Orr played just as vital a role as Thompson and Chancellor in helping UNT reach that goal. The former DeSoto standout has 106 tackles on the year and 348 for his career, a total that ranks sixth in UNT history.
There are times UNT’s senior trio looks back and marvels at how far they have come.
Chancellor was part of a recruiting package deal with Byrd, his Copperas Cove teammate who now ranks 11th on UNT’s career rushing list with 1,899 yards.
“We knew we were getting Byrd and his buddy Brelan, who had a fro this big,” Thompson said while estimating the size of Chancellor’s wild hair at the time. “I thought there is no way we just signed this kid, but he has had such a big impact.”
Several of UNT’s seniors have. The record books will show that.
What has made this season special for each of them is that they finally have something else to show for all those yards, touchdowns and tackles: a winning season.
“That is the biggest thing, winning and getting to a bowl,” Chancellor said. “That means more to me than anything else.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and firstname.lastname@example.org.