The 2015 high school football season was the best ever for quarterbacks in Oklahoma.
There may not have been a Troy Aikman or Paul Smith or Sam Bradford in the bunch — Aikman won three Super Bowls, Smith set multiple NCAA records and Bradford won the Heisman — but the depth and overall quality of prep QBs going off to college from the Sooner State was unprecedented.
Lincoln Christian’s Micah Wilson (Missouri), Tulsa Edison’s Scotty Gilkey (Eastern Illinois), Del City’s Terry Wilson (Oregon), Mustang’s Chandler Garrett (Wyoming), Berryhill’s Nyc Burns (Oklahoma State) and Jenks’ Cooper Nunley (Drake) are all on Division I football rosters.
Measured in statistics or wins or championships or college destinations, it’s the most accomplished class of quarterbacks Oklahoma has ever produced.
But three games into the freshman season of the best quarterback class in state history, only one has played — and he won the starting job.
Locust Grove’s Mason Fine.
First-year North Texas coach Seth Littrell is eager for a turnaround in Denton, both immediate and long-term. After starting fifth-year senior and Alabama transfer Alec Morris in the season opener against SMU, Littrell inserted Fine into the lineup late in defeat, and he sparked the team with a touchdown drive.
Fine started the following week against Bethune-Cookman — UNT’s first freshman starting QB since 2007 — and helped spark the Mean Green’s first win (they won only one game last year). Then last Saturday, Fine made his first career road start at the University of Florida in The Swamp, home of 93,000 stirred up Gator fans.
A year earlier, Fine was preparing for a non-district game against Stilwell.
Combine the population of Stilwell and Locust Grove, and it wouldn’t fill half an end zone in The Swamp. That’s quite an upgrade in talent.
Fine had preferred walk-on offers from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but his only Division I FBS scholarship offer came from North Texas (FCS Austin Peay was the first to offer him). OU coach Bob Stoops said this week that he just couldn’t pull the trigger on a scholarship offer to a 5-foot-10, 170-pound quarterback (FBS schools may offer only 25 scholarships per class) — and anyway, the Sooners already had a 2016 QB commit in Austin Kendall.
But once Littrell saw Fine’s video, he knew he saw a Division I quarterback.
In his first two starts, Fine hasn’t exactly set the college football world on fire or assaulted the UNT record books. But he did construct a victory, and last week in Gainesville, he took hit after hit and stood resolute, made only two bad throws and frequently gave his receivers catchable passes.
The final score was 32-0, but Littrell may have learned more about Fine in that loss than he learned in North Texas’ 41-20 victory over FCS Bethune-Cookman.
After completing 8-of-11 passes for 74 yards in clean-up duty loss to SMU, Fine was 11-of-22 for 108 yards against Bethune-Cookman. At Florida, however, Fine completed just 6-of-22 passes for 66 yards and threw his first interception of the season. He was also officially sacked seven times (two other sacks were counted as rushing attempts) and was hurried eight others.
Yet, Fine stood in on the game’s final drive, throwing the ball downfield, in and out of his receivers’ hands, and taking more hits.
“Just wanted to let him fight through it,” Littrell said.
Littrell said Fine will be the Mean Green starting quarterback moving forward — they play at Rice this week as the Conference USA schedule begins — but also that the job will continue to be evaluated on a game-by-game basis.
“I came in here with the purpose to play,” Fine said after the Bethune-Cookman game. “I didn’t come in here to be a third stringer or second stringer, I came here to compete for the starting position and I’m gonna continue to compete and hopefully get better.”
No doubt things will get a little easier moving forward than they were last week. Littrell said Florida has “probably one of the best defenses in the country. They proved that tonight. I’m a believer.”
Fine was sacked for a safety on his first pass attempt. He started the second quarter with a perfect touch pass to a running back on a wheel route for a 27-yard gain down the left sideline, but the play was negated by a questionable offensive pass interference call.
Later in the drive, on maybe his best play of the night, Fine finally got time, set his feet and calmly went through his read progressions — first option, second option, third option, fourth option, then back to his third option, to whom he delivered a 19-yard completion.
That momentum was quashed immediately, however, when Fine was sacked on first down, then had passes dropped on second and third down.
On the first play of the second half, he delivered a 25-yard completion over the middle. He helped draw three defensive pass interference penalties in the second half (for 47 yards), and his late deep ball down the left sideline was perfectly placed for an over-the-shoulder catch inside the Gators 10-yard line but was broken up at the last second on an athletic play by the Florida defender.
Fine displayed poise throughout the defeat. Even when he fumbled a shotgun snap, Fine had the presence of mind to chase it down and scoop it up to maintain possession, and he never got agitated with his offensive line or his receivers.
“We got dominated up front, for one,” Littrell said. “It’s hard to do anything when you can’t block ‘em up front.”
In all, Fine’s receivers dropped five passes, a large contribution to that 6-of-22 number.
But Littrell said the whole night, while disappointing offensively with just 53 yards total offense on 50 plays, was a learning experience for Fine and for the team.
“One, there isn’t a person in that offensive room that’s ever been shut out,” Littrell said, “and two, I’ve never even heard of that (53 yards of offense). I pray to God it never happens again. It’s frustrating.”
There will be better days ahead for UNT and for Fine. The toughness and attitude he showed Saturday earned the respect of his coaches and teammates.
It will be a story worth watching in the coming years, the little guy from Locust Grove that no one wanted, the most prolific passer in the history of Oklahoma high school football, earning his way with a tireless work ethic and an indomitable mindset and a gritty determination.
“I go into every game confident,” Fine said. “My teammates around me boost my confidence, and my coaches, they prepare me.
“Hopefully I can get better every week.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.