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Heel Tough Blog: Mack Brown Press Conference Takeaways- March 29th

@UNCFootball- Twitter

For the first time in over three weeks, Tar Heel football head coach Mack Brown sat down with the media on Tuesday to update his team’s progress in spring camp as the team prepares for next Saturday’s spring game in Kenan Stadium. Here is a look at some of our biggest takeaways from what he said.

Da’Norris Searcy and Ema Thake Hired to Staff

Brown started with the additions of Searcy and Thake to the team’s support staff. Searcy, the former Tar Heel safety from 2007-10 and an eight year veteran of the NFL, will take over the Director of Student Athlete Development role left behind by Ochuko Jenije, who had been in the role since 2015. As for Thake, she will take over as the Director of Football Performance Nutrition after Kelsee Gomes left the role back in January. Thake comes to Carolina from Washington, where she spent the last ten years, mostly with the Olympic sports. This won’t be her first time working with a football program, though, as she was a part of the nutrition for the Huskies football program from 2015-19. Both are a little more than a week into their new jobs.

Spring Game Dedicated to Tyler Craft

This was easily the coolest tidbit to come out of Brown’s presser on Tuesday. According to the Tar Heels’ head coach, the team voted to officially label next Saturday’s spring game in Kenan Stadium as the #TyleeStrong Spring Game. Brown said that his hope is that they can have Craft and some other special guests in attendance for the game.

Team Mindset Is In a Much Better Spot

Brown was asked about the team’s mindset after he talked about readjusting the team’s this offseason and Tar Heel fans have to be encouraged by his response on Tuesday. Brown talked about the fact that he was concerned about the team’s mindset from the start of spring last season and that he was just hoping that he would be proven wrong when the season started. This spring, though, Brown says he has seen a more focused team from the start and that the team has had two of their best practices of his second tenure in Chapel Hill over the past couple of weeks. The hope is that that heightened focus will carry over into the season as the Tar Heels look to put that underachieving 2021 season behind them.

Offensive Line Looking Good, Especially Gaynor

The unit where the Tar Heels need to show the most improvement this season from last is one that Brown said he was encouraged by on Tuesday. Brown said that the unit has looked good so far in camp, especially Corey Gaynor, the grad transfer from Miami. Brown continued to rave about his excitement with the fact that the team will have three guys at the center position that will have a wealth of experience after struggles at that position a year ago because of all the injury issues. Brown was also very complementary of the true freshmen early enrollees, Zach Rice and Trevyon Green, who could both be heading towards playing a role for this team in 2022.

Secondary Progressing But Still Banged Up

The injury issues in the secondary were a big issue for this team heading into camp and while things seem to be getting a little better, the Tar Heels are still extremely limited back there. Brown said that both Cam’Ron Kelly and Giovanni Biggers have returned to action, but mentioned that both are still in non-contact roles right now and that Storm Duck is returning to full action as well. Still, even with these guys returning in some capacity, Brown said that the first 30 plays of Saturday’s scrimmage were not full contact so that the limited guys could get on the field. It’s not a great sign that the group is still this banged up this late in camp, but this was the expectation for Brown heading into camp and will make fall extremely important for them and their growth.

Transfers and Illness Leaves Team Very Limited At Receiver

The defensive backfield isn’t the only spot where the Tar Heels are extremely limited depthwise this spring. The team entered the spring with some concerns here, but those concerns have grown with Tylee Craft having to step away from the team after his cancer diagnosis. With him out, the Tar Heels are lacking depth, primarily out wide, meaning some young guys have to step up. J.J. Jones and Kobe Paysour were the two guys that Brown pointed to and it’s important for them to start showing some signs, especially with Justin Olson limited. One of the solutions that Brown says the Tar Heels have experimented with is moving tight end Bryson Nesbit to wide receiver to try to help the cause, something that might be part of the equation anyways because of the threat that he could be catching 50/50 balls. Brown also said that they are moving Josh Downs around a little bit, which will prevent teams from being able to bracket him and will also allow for slot receivers like Gavin Blackwell and Tychaun Chapman to get on the field if they prove themselves capable. If this Tar Heel offense is going to take a step forward from this past season, someone has to step up here and become a consistent threat to join the weapons of Downs and Antoine Green. Brown says regardless there will be major question marks here.

Still No Real Separation at Running Back

Brown said prior to the start of spring camp that one of the biggest goals offensively was to try to find some answers at running back behind British Brooks and to this point, it doesn’t appear that there has been much change since the beginning of camp. Brown once again complimented the speed and versatility of George Pettaway and it feels like hen is getting closer to being a part of the rotation, but he has still only been in the system for a little less than a month. Outside of him, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else really standing out so far, but the good news is that D.J. Jones, who saw some significant snaps at the position in 2021 before the emergence of Brooks, is ‘well’. If Pettaway can continue to impress and become a part of the rotation, the Tar Heels should be fine, but as we heard a year ago and again this offseason, Brown would feel most comfortable with three guys that he can count on back there.

Travis Shaw Leads Improving Defensive Line Group

The defensive line was the unit that Brown talked about the most on Tuesday and there was a lot of positivity. Brown raved about the play of true freshman defensive tackle Travis Shaw, a great sign after there were some question marks about the shape that he was in following the shoulder surgery that cost him half of his senior season at the prep level. However, Brown says that Shaw has looked good and has been a menace to block so far. Brown was also very complimentary of the versatility of Jahvaree Ritzie, who has been a factor at both defensive tackle and power end, and the continued improvement of Des Evans, who is doing some good things at the power end spot. The player we’ve heard about the most from those around practice, though, is Noah Taylor, the grad transfer from Virginia, and Brown backed that up on Tuesday, pointing out how well he is fitting into that role as the JACK linebacker. There is a lot of positivity about where this unit is at right now, an encouraging sign for a team that needs to be able to establish more dominance up front to start moving things back in the right direction defensively.

Young Linebackers Showing Major Improvement

This is the unit that you should probably feel the most confident in right now as a Tar Heel fan when it comes to this 2022 team right now. Cedric Gray is back after his breakout season in 2021 and will be the leader of the group and Power Echols, who played a major role in the Wake Forest and South Carolina games, appears to have taken a step forward and is laying the wood according to Brown. The guys who have impressed the head coach the most, though, are the backup linebackers RaRa Dillworth and Sebastian Cheeks, who are both said to be showing significant improvement so far. This is as good of a two deep as the Tar Heels have had at the linebacker spot in recent memory.

Battle Developing at Punter

The battle that we expected on special teams was supposed to be kicker with Grayson Atkins departing, but instead three-year starter Ben Kiernan has a battle on his hands according to Brown. Kiernan has started at punter each of the last three seasons, averaging 42.7 yards per punt on his 139 attempts. Brown said on Tuesday, though, that he is receiving a push from redshirt freshman Cole Maynard. This will be an intriguing one to monitor during the spring game and into the fall if Maynard can continue his push.


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