Thursday was the eighth practice of the spring for the Tar Heels as they steam towards the spring game on April 15th. The team is now a little over midway through the fifteen practice schedule and certain position groups are locked in position battles, while others are beginning to find answers. Here is a look at some of the storylines around the Tar Heels as they turn to the second half of spring camp.
Transfers Immediately Shining
The Tar Heels went to the transfer portal this offseason in search of players that can be major contributors for a team trying to navigate a major crossroads. So far, it seems like they have found the help they were hoping to find. Brown raved about edge rusher Amari Gainer and what he has been doing so far this spring in a role that he has not played before off the edge. That is huge for this team that sorely needs pass rushers to step up after a brutal season a year ago. Brown penciled Willie Lampkin in as the starter at right guard, complimenting him for the physicality that he brings to the table even at a smaller stature. Both Devontez Walker and Nate McCollum were expected to play significant snaps and are thriving so far in spring, drawing a ton of praise from everyone including Brown. The guy who might just be the best of the whole group, though, is FCS transfer cornerback Alijah Huzzie. Brown could not stop talking about the play of the East Tennessee State transfer both on the outside and in the nickel. As he did in the first couple of seasons of his career, he is playing the ball well and it seems like there is a real chance that he could earn a starting job or even in the slot if DeAndre Boykins struggles in coverage again this season.
Four Standing Out Amongst WRs
With Josh Downs and Antoine Green both departing from the receiver room and not a ton of experience behind them, there was some uncertainty about the outlook for this season. With Walker and McCollum thriving and Kobe Paysour and Gavin Blackwell standing out amongst those returning from 2022, this unit is in good standing. Brown said that foursome has really separated themselves from everyone else in the spring and it looks like they will handle a bulk of the snaps in the room along with J.J. Jones when he returns from injury. It is a bit shocking to not see Andre Greene Jr. in there, but Brown did mention that he is showing some flashes, so don’t count him out to factor into the rotation before the season starts.
Offensive Line Improvement Lies on Veterans’ Shoulders
The Tar Heel offensive line is set for another season of uneasiness after the finish to the 2022 season and the revelation that much of the unit will remain the same. Four of the five starters are returning this season and all are expected to not only play a major role but start for the team again. Those four allowed a total of 15.0 sacks and 144 total pressures a year ago, with center Corey Gaynor being the only one to allow less than 20 total pressures by himself. The biggest area of concern is left tackle where senior right guard William Barnes will be making the move despite struggling in mightily pass protection in the second half of the 2022 season. Barnes allowed two sacks and 27 total pressures a year ago at right guard, sixteen of which came in the final five games of the season. The hope was that others in the room would be able to emerge and that could certainly still happen, but it is hard to be hopeful that this year will see much improvement over last.
Competitive Depth Hoping to Help Revive Defensive Front
In order for the Tar Heel defense to take a necessary step forward this season, they simply have to get better production from their defensive front. Last year’s unit was one of, if not the worst, defensive front in the history of the program, ranking 130th in sack percentage, 119th in sack percentage on obvious passing downs and 114th in stuff rate. With the addition of Ted Monachino to the coaching staff, the hope is that he can help some of the veterans correct some of the issues that plagued them a year ago. The other thing that Tar Heel fans should be hoping for this offseason is that some of the depth players will start to factor in and so far so good. Brown said on Tuesday that both Jacolbe Cowan and Beau Atkinson have been playing well at the power end spot and Kedrick Bingley-Jones is finally healthy and has been making plays in the middle. Add in the return of Tomari Fox to the mix after missing all of last year due to suspension and this is a room that should have plenty of competition throughout the spring and into the fall.
Conner Harrell and Tad Hudson Will Battle For Backup Quarterback Job
All signs have been pointing to Drake Maye being a top pick in the 2024 NFL Draft since early last season and his performance at Tar Heel Pro Day last Monday only bolstered that thought. With Jacolby Criswell hitting the transfer portal, there is now an important battle going on at backup quarterback to help set the stage for next offseason. Conner Harrell was handling the bulk of the snaps for the team early in camp, but Brown said on Tuesday that he will be battling true freshman early enrollee Tad Hudson moving forward. Harrell is still the favorite here, but the fact that there is even a battle here is intriguing because of what it could mean moving forward.