Updated: Mar 25
Tuesday morning, the Bill Koman Football Center was home to the Tar Heels first spring practice session of the 2021 season, as the team took their first step towards one of the most highly anticipated seasons in program history. Afterwards, a very content Mack Brown spoke to the media about his team after the first day of spring practice and we give a look at some of the important things to take away from what the head coach of the Tar Heels had to say on Monday.
Team Looks Bigger, Stronger and Faster
It may have been the first day of spring practice, but Mack Brown was extremely excited by the team that took to the practice field on Tuesday morning. “For a first day, it was as good as it could possibly be,” Brown said in his presser on Tuesday. “Today was the best practice that I’ve been around since we’ve been here” Brown was thoroughly impressed by the physical aspects of the group, saying his group has a lot of skill and size, especially on the defensive line. Even though they looked bigger, Brown was pleased with how fit his team looked as well, saying the team looked more fit than they did when they departed campus a year ago. Brown seemed pleased with the start of a spring where one of the biggest focuses will be to build depth, primarily on the defensive side of the football. “The biggest goal of spring practice is to develop a two-deep where there is no drop off.” Brown definitely has the talent in place with back-to-back strong recruiting classes to keep progressing on the defensive side of the football and believes it should go a long way towards helping them win games like Notre Dame and Texas A&M from this past season.
Mack Sets Goals for Both Sides of the Ball
While this Tar Heels team accomplished a lot in his second year on campus, Mack Brown set some lofty goals for each unit in Tuesday's presser. He started with a defense that he hopes can take another step forward and help this team win some close games this season, something they were unable to do in late season losses to Notre Dame and Texas A&M in 2020. Brown points to the fourth quarter as the place where that begins. “In the fourth quarter people ran against us and we have to play more people so we don’t get worn down as easily.” Brown and the staff are determined to get this defense to force more turnovers, something they’ve been looking to do since their first day on campus, and get more sacks based off of individual plays made rather than by scheme. On offense, Brown acknowledged that the team took a step forward in the red zone and on third and fourth and short, but wants to continue to grow in those areas this season. He also wants to be able to limit sacks this season, something that starts with quarterback Sam Howell getting the ball out of his hand quicker, and finishing better in the fourth quarter than they did in some late season matchups a year ago where the offense sputtered a bit despite having plenty of opportunities. On special teams, Brown hopes that bringing in Larry Porter, who will also help as assistant special teams coach while handling the running back coach duties will allow this team to become one of the top in the country after struggling there these last couple of seasons. He hopes they can become a unit that can win this team some games this season, as well.
Nothing Has Changed with COVID Protocols
The Tar Heels came back to campus with a renewed energy and excitement it seemed from what Brown was saying on Tuesday despite still having to deal with the many of the same COVID protocols from a year ago. As Brown detailed to the press, the team still has to test negative in the two tests that they take each week and must do a temperature check everyday before they check in to the building. Players are still required to either be wearing their helmet or their mask at all times while on the practice field, something that Brown said he started his practice on Tuesday by emphasizing. With the uncertainty of just how quickly this pandemic will tail off, Brown says that he and the staff continue to talk to all of the guys about the importance of being safe and taking care of their health during this time. He also says he has stressed to his team just how important this spring practice is, especially after last year, and to treat this spring camp like they are in-season in terms of how they are taking care of their health. With some key departure and the need to continue to build depth to win at a high level, you can see where there is such a focus on doing everything they can to keep this team on the field this spring.
Defensive Line Competition Might Be the Best of the Spring
There are set to be some great position battles, as we told you about in our position battles article earlier this week, but there was one that Mack Brown told the media might be the best of them all on Tuesday. While he said there will be some good competition at both running back and safety over the next few weeks, he pointed to the defensive line as the spot that will produce the best competition. ”Those guys were so quick this morning,” said Brown of the unit on Tuesday afternoon. ”We have a chance to have as good a competition at that position as I’ve ever been around.” There are so many good young pieces down here that Brown says this unit could maybe be two, even three-deep across the board and why not with some of the players that are in place. Myles Murphy, who saw an uptick in snaps as the season went along, has completely changed his body according to Coach Brown and he is excited with what he saw from the true freshmen Jahvaree Ritzie and Keeshawn Silver, as well as redshirt freshman Kedrick Bingley-Jones, who the staff seems excited about as he returns from a lower leg injury that cost him his true freshman campaign. That’s not to mention the group of starters already in place with guys like Tomari Fox and Raymond Vohasek, who appear as if they will be able to stay a little fresher this season right from the get go, and some other talented depth options like Clyde Pinder Jr. and Kevin Hester Jr. who will be battling for reps, as well. With how well this Tar Heel staff has recruited the defensive line since taking over, it should come as no shock that the team is on the precipice of becoming one of the top defensive line units in the entire country.
Backup Linebacker and Offensive Line are Wide Open
As we mentioned above, there are plenty of interesting position battles to keep an eye on this offseason, but Mack Brown did talk about two that were a little unexpected that he thinks will be some of the best in spring camp. Backup inside linebacker is the one that he talked the most about, as guys like junior Khadry Jackson, sophomore Cedric Gray and true freshmen Raneiria Dillworth and Power Echols will be battling for reps at. ”Everyone behind Gemmel and Asante is an unknown,” said Brown of the group on Tuesday. While he likes what he has seen from Jeremiah Gemmel and new full-time starter Eugene Asante, he says that one of the focuses for this group is to have multiple guys ready to go just in case there is an injury that occurs. “We don’t want to let an injury to Jeremiah or Eugene ruin our season.” The other position, which Brown only mentioned briefly, was the backup offensive line group, one that still remains largely unproven to this point. This was such a big focus for Brown a year ago in fall camp, as he was hoping to find ten guys that he could trust to play significant snaps if he needed them to. With the emergence of Quiron Johnson, who’s flexibility will be huge once again this season and Ed Montilus and Jonathan Adorno, who he named as players that he trusted heading into the year last year, it would appear that the teams enters the spring with that number at eight. Junior William Barnes seems like the most likely player that could be added to that group next, but keep an eye on guys like Wyatt Tunall and Cayden Baker, as well to potentially add their names to that list this spring, too.
Mack Says the Expectations are Welcome
There is no denying now that the Tar Heels will have some lofty expectations both amongst its own fanbase and nationally as they head into the 2021 season. This is a team that is currently being ranked inside of nearly every early offseason top ten and that is something that Brown is ready to take one. “That is what we want. We want everyone to want to win every game and expect to win every game.” With that, he does understand that it will be a challenge at the same time. “Our expectations are high, our standards are very high, but at the same time we understand that we have holes to fill.” Those holes that he is referring to are mainly on the offensive side of the football, where the team lost one of the most productive running back tandems in program history this offseason, along with two of the program’s top wide receivers of all-time statistically. Even with those losses, Brown appears to believe this is a team that can get back inside that top ten this season and hopefully stay there. “We’re sniffing around being a top ten team, but we’ve got to do it consistently.” In order to do that, the Tar Heels will have to be able to win more of those close games that they weren’t able to a year ago. “We got in some games where we had chances to win and we didn’t. Now we’ve got to finish those.” Brown said he was told by someone that had seen the Tar Heels ranked No. 7 in a preseason ranking that that was too high for this team, but Brown seems motivated to prove that person and many others wrong this upcoming season.