DENTON, Tex. — When the 2019 college football season begins, the active Football Bowl Subdivision leader in career passing yards will be a small quarterback from an appropriately tiny town who received a single F.B.S. scholarship offer coming out of high school.
That North Texas bothered to recruit Mason Fine at all in January 2016 owes itself to a conversation between Seth Littrell, the Mean Green’s incoming head coach, and Matt Hennesy, Fine’s high school coach in Locust Grove, Okla.
The two men had been friends for years, and Hennesy knew Littrell needed a quarterback. He had just the guy. This was “a once-in-a-lifetime kid” who was the only two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Oklahoma history. He had elevated a doormat program to a state title contender, notched pinball numbers in the same Air Raid offense Littrell runs and yet he had accrued zero major recruiting interest aside from an invitation to walk on at Oklahoma State.
Sounds great, Littrell thought. What’s the flaw?
“He’s short,” Hennesy said.
Short, in Fine’s case, is 5-foot-10, a figure that for generations has frightened colleges and stood as a death knell to N.F.L. dreams. Even now, after amassing 9,358 passing yards and back-to-back seasons with a completion percentage above 63 at North Texas, and leading a college most people outside the state barely associate with football to a 9-3 record, Fine is bracing himself to be overlooked once more when he exhausts his eligibility next year.
“It’s harsh, but it’s the way it is, and the way the league is,” Fine said during an interview ahead of Saturday night’s New Mexico Bowl against Utah State. “I’ve been told I can’t do something my whole life.”
For his part, Littrell isn’t concerned. He has “an extreme amount of confidence” that Fine compares favorably to established N.F.L. quarterbacks.
“He is just as good as Nick Foles and is just as good as Mitch Trubisky,” Littrell said. He should know. Before coming to North Texas, he coached Foles at Arizona and Trubisky at North Carolina. “At this time in his career, maybe better as a player over all.”
Fine was born in Peggs, Okla., an unincorporated town of 813 too small for even a welcome sign. He took up football in the fourth grade when his father, Dale, signed him up for a youth league in a neighboring town. Neither father nor son knew what he was doing — “I remember showing up for the first day of practice, and my pads and my pants were upside down,” Fine said — but the boy threw well enough to be slotted in at quarterback.
The next year, his father drove him two and a half hours to Norman, where Oklahoma held a youth football camp. Fine remembers hanging on every word Josh Heupel, then the Sooners’ quarterback coach, told the crowd about quarterback mechanics.
When the camp was over, he spent the drive back to Peggs jotting down everything he could recall in a notebook. His father then typed it up, and the document became their blueprint. Every night after Fine’s father returned home from work, the two threw for half an hour until dinnertime, applying each tip from Heupel’s lecture, and a few things they gleaned from other camps, in every pass.
On it went for four years, until Fine arrived at Locust Grove as a high school freshman with a 135-pound body but much of the technique he still uses today.
“Throwing with my dad in the yard, that’s the foundation right there,” Fine said.
When his senior season ended, Fine resigned himself to accepting Oklahoma State’s walk-on offer or playing for a school in the lesser Football Championship Subdivision. Then Littrell took Hennesy’s advice and compared Fine’s film to the rest of the quarterbacks on his shortlist, several of whom had Power 5 conference offers. He saw enough to take a chance.
“Game for game for game, it wasn’t even close,” Littrell said. “It just felt like: ‘Why not? We don’t have anything to lose.’”
Littrell offered a scholarship, and Fine committed on the spot. He planned to redshirt but instead broke fall camp as the backup to Alec Morris, a highly-touted graduate transfer from Alabama. That’s where he figured to stay, until Littrell abruptly inserted him into the fourth quarter of North Texas’ first game that season. Fine led a touchdown drive and was named the starter the following week. Three years later, he has broken virtually every team passing record and has led the Mean Green to their best two-year win total since the 1970s.
But the burden of proof is higher for smaller quarterbacks in the N.F.L., even as players like Baker Mayfield and Russell Wilson experience success. This year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Kyler Murray, figured to be a point of contention among draftniks were he not already signed to play baseball for the Oakland A’s. The challenge is especially true for quarterbacks leading the so-called Air Raid offense, the fast-paced, wide-open college scheme that is only beginning to gain a foothold in the N.F.L.
Fine will have to prove he has enough accuracy, athleticism and smarts to make up for his supposed height deficiencies. His coaches believe he has more than enough of all three.
“He’ll end up making the team as a backup, he’ll sit there and be that backup guy that doesn’t get a ton of reps,” said Hennesy, who doesn’t hide that he wants to see Fine prove his doubters wrong again. “But when his number’s called, he’s never leaving the field again.”
“I’m just going to laugh and sit back and watch,” Littrell said.
Fine has other ambitions should the N.F.L. not work out. He is a quarter Cherokee, and his parents have worked for the Cherokee Nation in different capacities. He thinks one day he might run for presiding chief.
“I went back home over the bye week,” Fine said, “and I had about three people tell me: ‘You just need to hurry up and run for chief already. You have my vote.’”
It’s one of many paths Littrell could envision for his quarterback. Coaching might be another.
Or, better yet, “I can definitely see him being an athletic director,” Littrell said, before smiling at the thought of a role reversal.
“Maybe he’ll take a chance on me.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Mason Fine’s high school coach. He is Matt Hennesy, not Hennessy. Because of an editing error, the article also misstated North Texas’ opponent in the New Mexico Bowl. It is Utah State, not Northern Illinois.
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