Updated: Apr 24, 2021
On Saturday, the Tar Heels will be back inside Kenan Stadium as Spring Practice 2021 comes to a conclusion with the annual spring game. After a spring camp that Mack Brown has said to have been about as high energy as any he has coached, Saturday’s game will be an early look at some of the talent and depth the Tar Heels have built up during his two and a half years back at the helm in Chapel Hill. It will also set the stage for some major position battles that will ultimately be settled in fall camp. Let’s take a look at some of the position groups and individual players to watch on Saturday afternoon.
Position Groups to Watch
This will be the first place that most people's eyes will go on Saturday, as it appears to be the position group with the biggest question marks as of right now. Mack Brown has raved about the Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler and what he brings to the table and right now it feels like he’ll be a big part of what the Tar Heels do on the ground this season. As Brown said earlier in the spring, though, this backfield will likely resemble the backfield from 2019 more than the one from 2020, meaning tjar the Tar Heels are likely hoping that two of the other five guys competing for reps at this position can become trusted members of the backfield. The most exciting candidate of the group is D.J. Jones, who would have played a significant role in the backfield in the Orange Bowl had he not gone down with an injury prior to the Miami game. Brown did reveal a couple of weeks ago, though, that Jones did get banged up a little in practice, so there is no guarantee that he will be at 100% on Saturday. The other spot will be battled out amongst a group of wild cards, that includes Orange Bowl starter British Brooks, veteran Josh Henderson and young guns Elijah Green and Caleb Hood. Saturday will be a good chance to get a look at those four and see if anyone has an edge heading into the fall.
In large part because of COVID-19, the Tar Heels spent the majority of last fall cross-training players in the secondary to avoid being caught off guard by any situation that may have been thrown their way in what was expected to be a trying season. As Mack Brown revealed in his final presser of spring practice on Tuesday, that cross-training has continued this spring, with names like Ja’Qurious Conley and Don Chapman spending their majority of the spring at different spots from last year. Conley has reportedly spent a good amount of the spring at safety and Chapman has reportedly
been working the majority of the time out of the nickelback spot. The hope is that both guys will be able to stay at those positions on Saturday, giving us a good look at their abilities to potentially play significant roles at those respective positions this fall. This unit will also be interesting to keep an eye on because of the talent and depth that resides on the outside. With Storm Duck’s return and DaeDae Hollins continued emergence, it will be interesting to see how the reps are distributed starting on Saturday and heading into the fall. With the competition at safety and the talented depth at corner, it will be hard not to take notice of this group on Saturday.
Brown has said multiple times this spring that he is looking for guys to step up on the outside with Khafre Brown going down with an injury during camp and Beau Corrales still working his way back from sports hernia surgery. Saturday will be the final chance for those guys to do just that and give themselves a shot to compete with those two guys for reps in the fall. The obvious candidates to step up are Emery Simmons, who showed flashes last season and has done the same again reportedly this fall, and Antoine Green, a veteran in this system who has started before, but has just failed to remain on the field because of injury setbacks. Justin Olson and Stephen Gosnell are sleepers to make an impact, and just like Simmons and Green, will have a big chance on Saturday to stand out and generate some momentum for the fall. True freshman J.J. Jones has been another guy that many of the major outlets have seemed to be pleased with this spring and he will have an opportunity to close his spring strong. Another interesting element to this receiving corps that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much is the backup job in the slot. Saturday will give us some insight into who may be the top depth option behind spring standout Josh Downs.
The Tar Heels have really made improving the defensive line talent a focus on the recruiting trail over the last couple of years and Mack Brown seems very pleased with what he has seen from the unit this spring. The group returns starters Tomari Fox and Raymond Vohasek, but like the majority of the other veteran-ladened spots on this defense, you probably won’t see much of them on Saturday as they try to get the depth pieces as many reps as possible. The good news is, the depth has taken a major step forward so far this spring. Sophomore Myles Murphy will enter the game off of a dominant practice that Brown made sure to point out in Tuesday’s presser and fellow returning depth piece Jahlil Taylor will look to close what has supposedly been a big spring for him. The two true freshmen will also be worth watching out for, as they have been arguably the most raved about early enrollees in camp by Brown in his pressers. Don’t forget about guys like Clyde Pinder Jr. and Kevin Hester who will also look to factor in in the middle of the defense out of the nose tackle position and flashed a year ago. With Brown saying he is looking for guys in the front four who can win one-on-one matchups in the trenches, this will be a good chance to see if those guys may be ready to emerge ahead of the 2021 season.
Back in his very first press conference of the spring, Mack Brown mentioned that this position group was set to produce one of the best battles of the spring. That battle doesn’t come at either starting spot, as Jeremiah Gemmel and Eugene Asante are almost certainly locked in as the starters for this season. Like we said above in the section about the defensive linemen, both of those guys have seen their reps in scrimmage and game situations limited because of their experience in the system and the expectation is that they won’t see a ton of action in this one on Saturday. Instead, most of the reps will likely be split between the two incumbents and two early enrollees that continue to vie for backup roles behind the two starters. Brown has talked about the progression of true freshmen RaRa Dillworth and Power Echols throughout the spring and Saturday will be a chance to see that progress. It will also be an opportunity to compare them to the returning depth pieces of Khadry Jackson and Cedric Gray, who are looking to expand their roles beyond the special teams ones they held a year ago. Saturday should be a good look at all four of these guys and where they’ll stand heading into the summer and fall.
Players to Watch
The true freshman defensive lineman has been one of Mack Brown’s main talking points of the spring on the defensive side of the football and he hopes to wrap up his strong spring in style on Saturday. If he can close the spring while standing out amongst this group of defensive linemen, that could set him up with a chance to earn some significant reps in the fall.
Conley finished the season about as well as anyone on the defensive side of the football and there have been some rave reviews coming out about him once again this spring. Conley has been spending a lot of time at safety with the staff focusing on cross-training again this offseason. Saturday will be a chance for Conley to prove that he has what it takes to contribute at safety and potentially make the move back to the position that he played through most of high school and a position that the Tar Heels are looking for more consistency from in 2021.
When you talk about the guys that have been the standouts of spring camp, you can’t leave out Downs. Saturday will be another chance for him to give people a look at why he has a chance to be one of college football’s breakout stars this year. This will be a great chance to see the connection between himself and quarterback Sam Howell, as he hopes to become his go to target this season. He will likely see the bulk of the attention from the defense when he is on the field, so this will also be a great chance to see how he can handle people keying in on him, something that he could face as the season goes along.
This will be the first look for many at the transfer running back that will look to help smooth over the transition of the backfield after the loss of the most productive running back tandem in program history. Brown has been excited to see Chandler open it up a little bit in the open field and Saturday will be a great chance for him to do that and prove that he will be one of the mainstays in that Tar Heel backfield this season.
With both Khafre Brown and Beau Corrales out or limited for the majority of the spring, Mack Brown has talked about the fact that he is needing someone on the outside to step up and the obvious candidate is Simmons. He showed flashes at times last season in Corrales’ absence and has now done the same in spring camp. The big question for him will be consistency, but right now he will just hope to close the spring strong and set himself up with a chance to be the primary rotation receiver on the outside or possibly challenge for a starting job.
Things have finally seemed to click for Barnes this spring after a slow start to his career in Chapel Hill, as his name has been another staple of Mack Brown pressers so far this spring. He has stepped up for the team as a flexible option at both tackle and guard, leading Brown to add him to the group of offensive linemen that the staff can trust. Saturday will be the perfect opportunity to see just how far he has come this spring.
Brown has said that the quarterback battle is one that will be settled in the fall, but it is notable that he has mentioned Criswell after each of the last two press conferences following scrimmages. While it doesn’t appear that he has been dominant, Brown has seen major improvement from the sophomore gunslinger this spring especially in the last couple of weeks. Although this will be a battle that will extend into the fall, Criswell may have a chance to put a little bit of a margin between him and true freshman Drake Maye as they head into the summer.
Both of the Tar Heels’ freshman linebackers are worth keeping an eye on, but Dillworth especially with the raw skill set that he brings to the table. Both him and Echols have picked things up quickly according to Mack Brown and with Dillworth’s burst in open space and coverage ability he’ll likely be the guy that will have a chance to make more of an impact in his first season on campus. Saturday will be a chance for him to give Tar Heel fans a look into the future at what he can be in the middle of that defense.
Time: 3:00 PM
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Weather: 61 degrees, 90% chance of rain
TV: ACC Network