The Tar Heels opened fall practice on Thursday as they began preparations for the beginning of the 2021 season that now sits just over four weeks away. Following the conclusion of the first practice, head coach Mack Brown met with the media to discuss everything from handling the lingering COVID-19 virus to the state of the team’s tight end room. Here is a look at our biggest takeaways from Brown’s first presser of fall camp.
Brian Anderson Is Expected to Be Ready For Opener
This was probably the biggest piece of news that came out on Thursday. Anderson was reported to be in a walking boot earlier this week and did not participate in practice, but Brown revealed afterwards that he will be ready for the season opener in Blacksburg. In the meantime, Quiron Johnson, who took snaps in place of Anderson last year against Wake Forest, has been taking snaps at center according to Brown, as has Jonathan Adorno who took snaps at the spot last preseason. Other guys that Brown mentioned have taken snaps there included converted defensive end A.J. Beatty and walk-on Chance Carroll. Getting the third year starter back, though, is a huge benefit for the Tar Heels who will need that offensive line to step up early in the season with some major playmakers needing to be replaced.
Sam Is Still Going to Be Sam Despite Expectations
There is no denying that there are going to be a lot of expectations for Sam Howell heading into his junior season at Carolina. To go along with the fact that he is one of the Heisman favorites, he has landed on numerous preseason watch lists and was named ACC Preseason Player of the Year. The good news is that Mack Brown doesn’t think this is going to his head. Brown said on Thursday that there is definitely a confidence about him, but that he is determined to continue to build something special with the Tar Heels even beyond this year. Brown pointed to the fact that he has been working hard with the younger quarterbacks this offseason and has been adamant regarding NIL deals that the companies that he works with work with other players on the team as well. He also pointed to the fact that Howell has been a big help on the recruiting trail when the staff has asked him for help. There is definitely a quiet confidence about him heading into what may be his last season on campus, but it doesn’t appear there should be any worry that the pressure is going to get to Howell.
Running Backs and Wide Receivers Still Need to See Some Separation
Brown is never one to sugarcoat anything and he didn’t on Thursday when talk about the lack of separation at running back and wide receiver. “Lonnie Galloway and Larry Porter have the toughest jobs this fall,” he said. Brown was referring to the fact that both positions did not see much separation back in the spring, but will need to find some now to have guys ready to go for the opener. He didn’t seem too concerned about the wide receiver, pointing to the fact that there are a lot of talented options, including what he described as a “well” Khafre Brown, who missed most of the spring with an injury. As for the running backs, though, there wasn’t much said about them outside of Brown renewing his confidence once again in Ty Chandler, who he thinks should have no problem going into a hostile environment in Virginia Tech after playing in the SEC.
Tight Ends Are Expected to Be a Bigger Factor This Year
Brown hit extensively on the tight ends later in the presser, spending a lot of time on the fact that Garrett Walston should be receiving a lot more work this year in the passing game than in his previous seasons with the program. One of the main reasons Walston came back, Brown believes, was because of the extended role that he knew he was going to have this season with all of the pass catching options that departed from a year ago. Brown expects the tight end group as a whole to play a bigger role this season now that Phil Longo and John Lilly have more continuity with each other. That could allow a guy like Bryson Nesbit, who Brown spoke highly of following his first practice, to see a role at some point as well.
DL Group Is Most Improved Since the Staff Arrived
While Brown says the quarterback room has come a long way since he and the staff arrived in Chapel Hill a little more than two years ago, the unit that has come the farthest is the defensive line group. Brown talked Thursday about how the depth at the spot has made earning playing time down there more difficult and created less margin for error from guys down there. However, there is plenty of opportunity available with Brown wanting to rotate more this season in hopes of avoiding what happened late in the losses to Notre Dame and Texas A&M, where the group simply got worn down. Like all of us, Brown is simply excited to watch this whole thing play out over the course of fall camp.
Frustrating That COVID is Hanging Around But Have to Be Prepared
Brown was asked about his frustration with COVID still rearing its ugly head as we head towards the season with the Delta variant and predictably, he is fed up with it. While that may be the case, though, the head coach of the Tar Heels is focused on making sure that he and the staff are prepared for any of those types of scenarios that may arise again this season, whether it’s with a player or coach. That is one of the main reasons that, similar to a year ago, Brown’s strategy appears to be about spreading the reps out to make sure that the team is prepared for any scenario that may be thrown their way.
Vaccine Is a Personal Choice For Those Inside the Program
The ever polarizing topic that is the COVID-19 vaccine came up on Thursday and while Brown appeared to say that the team was at the 85% threshold needed to return to somewhat normalcy in the facilities, Brown said no one was forced into a decision. He said that following the vaccine's release, he did have a doctor from the CDC talk to the players, parents and staff about it and that conversations have been ongoing since. While he did admit that it does make things easier, he said that ultimately it is a personal decision and that the best thing he and the staff can do is find the best ways to educate the guys on them and the virus.
Surprised By Realignment of Texas and Oklahoma, But Not Worried
Brown admitted to the media on Thursday that he was surprised about Texas and Oklahoma’s move to the SEC, but said that he is more focused about how it affects the Tar Heels right now. Brown doesn’t think the athletic department should have anything to worry about right now, though. ”I feel like, from what I’m hearing, that we’re moving along with the ACC and things are great. Could something happen four or five years down the road? Sure. I always thought that this would happen before and I was in the middle of realignment back in like 08. I thought we were an hour away from going to the Pac-12 when we were at Texas and then all of it changed so it was real. And then there were talks of Texas and the ACC at that time. I knew that.” Brown continued by exuding plenty of confidence in the school even if things were to crumble with the ACC. “We are so lucky, we are an AAU university, so we’re one of the best academic universities in the country and that will hold weight if people start moving around to mega conferences. We have one of the best brands in the world. Our basketball’s great. Our football is on a surge. We have 28 sports and just about all of them are national sports. We have national championship coaches on our campus. If something changes, North Carolina will be one of the more popular schools across the continent that people will want to have involved in their process.”