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Heel Tough Blog: Mack Brown Press Conference Takeaways- February 22nd

Jim Dedmon- USA Today Sports

On Tuesday afternoon, head coach of the Tar Heels, Mack Brown, met with the media to discuss the latest around the team as they close in on the start of spring practice on March 1st. Here is a look at our biggest takeaways from this pre-spring camp presser.

Injuries Shorthanding Team for the Spring

Brown was pretty candid about the fact that injuries will be a big factor for this team in the spring, especially on the defensive side of the football. Among those on the defensive side of the football that will have to sit out spring camp are major contributors like Ja’Qurious Conley, Giovanni Biggers and Dae Dae Hollins, who are all out for the entirety of spring camp. Meanwhile, a host of starters and key rotation players will be limited on both sides of the football. The defensive side of the ball will take the biggest hit in that department, as well, with Storm Duck, Kaimon Rucker, Don Chapman and Tomari Fox all expected to be limited to start the spring. The list also contains a lot of oft-injured names, such as Kedrick Bingley-Jones, Kendall Karr, Wyatt Tunall and Trey Zimmerman, all of whom miss spring ball because of ailments. In all, the Tar Heels will have eight players out for the entirety of the spring and six more who will be limited in some capacity at the beginning.

Limited Defense Looking For Right Fits

As you would have expected, Brown said that the spring will be focused on finding out where everybody fits on the defensive side of the football under the new scheme that Gene Chizik and Charlton Warren will be installing. Brown said on Tuesday that there will be movement throughout the spring in terms of where guys are playing as they assess each's strengths and where they can best help this defense. The most intriguing area will be the defensive line, where the focus will be on sorting out the former three-man front in terms of the new four-man look that this group will run. The most intriguing landing spots that Brown listed for guys as they enter camp are those of the two defensive line stars of the 2021 recruiting class, Jahvaree Ritzie and Keeshawn Silver. Ritzie will be at the defensive end spot that the staff is calling the POWER end along with Des Evans, while Silver will be looked at at nose tackle along with Kevin Hester Jr. to begin the spring. Also worth noting there is that redshirt freshman Gabe Stephens has landed at the JACK position after coming to campus as an athlete that really didn’t have a specific position. The same will happen at linebacker, where there could be more three linebacker looks early in drives and guys like Ethan West and Malaki Hamrick will be moving off the edges to play. With limited contact because of just how many injuries this team is working through at the moment, it will be hard to get a great feel for what this unit will look like come fall, but finding out the best fit for guys in this new system is certainly an achievable goal.

Search for Offensive Playmakers Continues

Brown once again talked about the fact that the Tar Heels were just never really able to replace the production that they lost at running back and wide receiver after the 2020 season and that search will continue into this season. At running back the Tar Heels lost Ty Chandler to graduation, leaving British Brooks, who took advantage of his extra year of eligibility, as the most experienced member of a loaded running back room that Brown wants to find three solid options from. Brooks looks to be the early leader in the room heading into camp based on his finish to the season and experience, but both D.J. Jones and Caleb Hood saw action this past season before succumbing to injuries and should also have a good shot to earn reps beginning in the spring. Brown also mentioned that he is impressed by what he has seen from true freshman George Pettaway so far and that redshirt freshman Kamarro Edmonds is ready to compete for reps after dropping 25 lbs. since arriving to campus. In the receiving corps, his goal is to have six players that they can comfortably rotate, a task much easier said than done considering that they never really came close to that last year. Josh Downs and Antoine Green both return and are expected to play a big role, with Brown saying on Tuesday that he wants to move Downs around this season. Justin Olson will be limited to start spring, but the team will need him to be more productive than a year ago and JJ Jones will be looked to as the main receiver that needs to take a step forward starting in the spring, especially when Olsen is limited early on. Brown is also looking to push for more out of Kobe Paysour, Gavin Blackwell and Tylee Craft, who were all deeper reserves this past season. Brown says this will be one of the thinner groups for the team in the spring and that there will be opportunities for the true freshmen that will join the group in June, Doc Chapman and Andre Greene Jr..

Quarterback Battle Will Likely Go Into the Fall

Brown didn’t talk a lot about the quarterback battle that will be one of the major focuses throughout the offseason, but he did mention that the battle will be very similar to the one that the team had back in the spring of 2019. The battle will start as a three-man race, just as in 2019, with sophomore Jacolby Criswell, redshirt freshman Drake Maye and, presumably, true freshman Conner Harrell, who is an early enrollee and will be with the team in the spring, fighting it out. Brown also said that the battle, like many of the other quarterback battles that have taken place under him in his time as a coach, will likely extend into the fall, which will hopefully allow each one of the guys to face some pressure situations to determine who has the advantage heading into the season.

Focus is on Readjusting Mindset

Resetting the focus for this Tar Heel football program was one of the first things that Brown mentioned when he opened up his media availability on Tuesday. He talked about the fact that the team didn’t seem to have the same edge that they did in the first two seasons because of how much they were talked about and praised in the preseason. Now the focus is on getting that chip back on everyone’s shoulders with the lack of expectations heading into this season and the majority of the major contributors having not yet accomplished anything significant. He also talked about how this team needs to start finding a way to win on the road, especially with a trip to Appalachian State in the second game of the season looming and presenting a tough test for this team that may still be trying to find itself at this time. Brown talked about how important discipline will be on both side of the ball after the team really struggled with that as the season progressed this past year. First down success will be another big focal point on both sides of the football, as both units had their inconsistencies there a year ago and both sides of the line must also show major improvements this fall. In terms of specific goals for each side of the ball, Brown said that the focus offensively will be finding a way to capitalize more inside of the lower red zone, an area where the team struggled a year ago, and that tackling better will be a big focus defensively, something that will be challenging to address with all of the injury issues that that side of the football is dealing with.


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