DENTON – Lunch pail and a hard-hat. That's what North Texas offensive line coach Chuck Langston
expects each of his student-athletes to bring – figuratively – to practice each day.
The gritty mentality implemented by Langston in 2017, his first with the Mean Green, has begun to pay off as the group paves the way for one of the nation's most prolific offenses.
"The main thing was changing the culture in the room," Langston said. "We're trying to be more physical and better technicians. I challenge them each day to be great and to maximize their abilities each day."
The men in the trenches were the unsung heroes of an offense that finished in the top 25 nationally in passing yards (4,086) and total offense (6,371).
However, it's the same group that contributed to quarterback Mason Fine
being brought to the ground 39 times, so there's still some work left to do.
"We've got to take pride in protecting our quarterback," Langston said. "We ran the ball well at times, but the emphasis is on being better pass protectors when it comes to technique, understanding blitzes and schemes and communicating calls up front."
Langston points to their overall strength as why they were getting beat physically in games, especially late in the year, so that's where the group's growth started.
"We weren't strong enough in the weight room," Langston said. "Conference USA is a physical league, so you've got to be strong to last during the season and prevent injuries."
Redshirt junior Elex Woodworth
is starting to see the payoff of the coaching and philosophy change but recognizes that it's a process.
"We've got more goals and he makes us want to accomplish all of them," Woodworth said. "He puts us in that mindset to work harder all the time. It takes time to implement new guys, build that chemistry and get everyone on the same page."
Woodworth, who joined T.J. Henson
, Jordan Murray
and Sosaia Mose
on the honorable mention All-Conference USA team last year, is not resting on his laurels.
"To me, it means I need to work harder and try and get up to that first team," Woodworth said. "I try not to focus on that stuff. I've just always got to work harder than the season before. The day before. The play before."
The group returns 12 student-athletes, including four starters and two others who saw action in 2017. Woodworth is confident that the unit's chemistry will take them to the next level this season.
"Everybody's on that same page now," Woodworth said. "All we need to do is come out and work as hard, if not harder, than everyone else is. Do whatever it takes."
Thomas Preston III
, a Mesa, Arizona, native and one of the line's six newcomers, comes to Denton after two seasons at Scottsdale Community College. Having family in Frisco ended up leading Preston to choose North Texas out of his handful of Division I offers.
"It was a big jump coming here from Arizona, but having somewhat of a support group here was the biggest factor," Preston said.
After developing his football IQ and learning more than just the gap slides he ran in high school, his next challenge was sliding over from guard to center. Mose, the starting center for the last nine games of 2017, has been working hard to teach the defensive formations to his new backup.
"He's helped me a lot in the film room and in practice on identifying those things."
The group's cohesiveness extends well beyond the relationship between Preston and Mose, and Preston believes their growth is more mental than physical.
"There's some big bodies out here, but we have some new guys learning positions and plays," Preston said. "We're constantly working together in practice and playing different positions."
Even with four returners who primarily started at the same position, all five spots are still open in Langston's eyes, in hopes that the competition will further develop the chemistry as a group.
"I'm just trying to find the best five lineman," Langston said. "Whatever position. I just want the best five and then we'll figure out what position."
But until that line is set and takes the field against SMU on Sept. 1, one thing's for sure: this group is on the rise.
"We're not where we want to be, but the guys are willing to work and sacrifice to be great."