On Sept. 3 North Texas was thrown the curviest of curveballs. Two days before the season opener, quarterbacks coach Tate Wallis was arrested for allegedly molesting a student at his previous job as a high school football coach.
The timing was such that hiring a full-time replacement was impossible and when Wallis formally resigned a week later, head coach Seth Littrell left the job vacant for the duration of the 2020 campaign.
Under certain circumstances, losing your quarterbacks coach right before the season — not to mention losing him like that — could sink an entire season, a pot hole that could send the car careening into a light pole. Instead, North Texas’ offense has been one of the very best in the country.
After a 2019 season in which they finished 59th in yards per play and 52nd in scoring, the Mean Green are second nationally in total offense (593.6 yards per game), fifth in yards per play (7.33) and 11th in scoring (39.2 points per game) among all teams with a minimum of five games played.
While the plan all along was for Littrell to call plays alongside Wallis and co-offensive coordinators Mike Bloesch and Tommy Mainord, running the offense and coaching the quarterbacks and maintaining the mountain of duties required of any head coach would have been too much for Littrell to handle by himself.
With no full-time quarterbacks coach, two graduate assistants have stepped up to help Littrell run the quarterbacks room.
And though they eventually arrived at the same place and time, their paths to this moment could not have been more different.
The oldest man in the room
Quinn Shanbour thought he was going to become a doctor.
After graduating high school in Oklahoma City in 2012, Shanbour enrolled at Choate Rosemary Hall with a specific plan: a year at the Connecticut prep school, then to Dartmouth, then a career in medicine.
That plan lasted until Oklahoma State called. The opportunity to play Big 12 football was too enticing, so Shanbour pulled an abrupt U-turn, picking a life of big-time football with the eventual goal of coaching after his Cowboy career ended.
“I wanted to play Power 5 football, soak up as much knowledge from Coach (Mike) Gundy and any of the coaches I could,” Shanbour told FootballScoop. “It was football from then on out at that point.”
After spending spring and summer in Stillwater, Shanbour suffered a freak injury in his first fall camp. An offensive lineman fell onto his leg, damaging his Achilles and his big toe to the point where he was told he’d never run again. Oklahoma State wanted him to hang up his pads and begin coaching immediately, but Shanbour wanted to continue playing. By the time the 2013 season started, he was a walk-on for Dan McCarney’s Mean Green program.
Shanbour didn’t make it into a game until 2016 and played sparingly in his six seasons on the Mean Green, his most significant moment coming in his final home game, when he ran for two touchdowns in relief of injured starter Mason Fine to preserve a win over Florida Atlantic.
“He’s a special person,” Littrell said after that game. “For him to have the opportunity on senior night, to come in here and step up and have to execute.”
His playing career complete after six seasons, Shanbour immediately accepted a GA role in 2019, where his duties remained largely the same as they were during his playing days — preparing Fine to play while shepherding the development of UNT’s younger quarterbacks.
“Quinn had a huge impact on my career,” Fine, UNT’s all-time leading passer, told FootballScoop. “He was the first person to teach me the offense, and if it wasn’t for those meetings we had all summer I wouldn’t have been able to grasp it like I did as a freshman. He was the guy who showed me what it took to be successful at this level.”
Now in his eighth season in the program, Shanbour holds two distinct identities. He’s the old man in the room, having spent more time in green than anyone in the program, while also so young that most Mean Green players are his former teammates.
“He’s like the older brother here for me,” quarterback Jason Bean told FootballScoop. “He’s always making sure where I’m supposed to be, knowing exactly what I’m doing. When he was a player he pushed me to be the best that I can be, and he’s still doing that in the coaching room.”
The Canadian free agent
In a world where the coronavirus doesn’t exist, Dane Evans is a Hamilton Tiger-Cat right now.
The 26-year-old played quarterback for the Ti-Cats in 2019 and will do so again in 2021. But with the Canadian Football League dark for 2020, Evans needed something to do.
“I was back in Texas for a buddy’s wedding,” Evans said, “and my wife and I were literally scanning our boarding passes on our phone and Coach Bloesch, he was my line coach at Tulsa, called and said, ‘I know your CFL season got canceled. We have a GA spot open. I need somebody that knows the offense and we only need you for the season. Would you be interested in that?'”
“I was like, ‘Hell yeah I’d be interested in that.'”
While his wife, Nikki, remained at the couple’s home in California, Evans joined the Mean Green staff in the middle of September, in between the team’s first and second games.
“The guy is one of the smartest guys I’ve been around,” Bloesch said. “He knows the system inside and out. To be able to go into the room with those quarterbacks — two guys who are in the first year of playing, first year of playing in this system, we didn’t have spring ball — to go in there and explain the offense, how to take advantage of certain looks, he’s just done a really good job of meshing with Quinn and Coach Littrell.”
It’s a serendipitous return to Denton for Evans, a native of the area whom McCarney’s staff did not recruit out of Sanger High School.
“They told me I was too short and if I wanted to play there I could come walk on,” he said.
Evans signed with Tulsa. He is now the Golden Hurricane’s all-time leading passer.
“I wasn’t nervous, but I was like, man, I hope Quinn doesn’t think I’m coming in here and saying ‘This is my room and all that stuff,'” Evans said of joining the team mid-season. “Honestly, I should never have thought that. Quinn is one of the coolest dudes I’ve ever met. We get along so well. Coaching-wise, we complement each other really well.”
A melting pot offense
The North Texas attack is the brain child of the two dominant offenses popularized on Texas soil — the Art Briles Veer and Shoot that Art Briles that Bloesch and Evans ran under Philip Montgomery at Tulsa, mixed together with Air Raid concepts Littrell learned as a player and assistant under Mike Leach.
“We’re trying to implement some things I did at Tulsa, so I’m kind of the guy they lean on when it comes to that, but we’re also doing some things that they had done previously, and those are things that Quinn did as a player,” Evans said. “We’re kind of like 50/50-ing it.”
“Those guys are doing a tremendous job with our quarterbacks. They’re in meetings every single day, giving their perspective as quarterbacks,” said Littrell. “Those guys have made plays. I know that when a quarterback is looking through the perspective of a guy who has truly been back there at the position, executing these plays, they get a different voice, a different opinion. The more you can have of that, the better.”
That blended approach has served the Mean Green well as they alternate between quarterbacks of differing skill sets. Austin Aune is a former minor league baseball player who threw for 382 yards in UNT’s Oct. 10 game with Charlotte. Bean is a high school state champion sprinter who ran for 169 yards in a win over Middle Tennessee a week later. Kason Martin is a coach’s kid and third-stringer who knows the offense well enough to run it on little to no reps.
“Each of them bring a different perspective,” Aune said. “Dane’s a little bit more of the playing side, what the quarterback’s feeling. Quinn’s really good at coaching our reads, what we’re looking for. I think they mesh really well.”
“If you ask me, I think (Evans and Shanbour) play the biggest part of the whole staff. They’re making this season so much easier on us,” Bean added. “They both know exactly what they’re talking about, so I feel like you can’t really go wrong with either one of them.”