Sunday was the fourth day of Tar Heel fall camp in Chapel Hill and the second in pads for the squad. Unfortunately, since it was a weekend practice, there was no media availability afterwards, but the previous two practices did. Here are our biggest takeaways from what the six players who spoke had to say.
Closing In on Eight That Can Play on OL
One of the biggest challenges that the Tar Heels have had over the past couple of years has been to find the depth that their head coach wants along the offensive line. Brown reiterated to the media earlier this week that the unit is still searching there and is where they have been for the last couple of years. Gaynor, who is set to anchor the line this season, feels confident that the group is working toward developing that depth, though, led by the steps that he has seen taken from Diego Pounds this offseason. He was very complimentary of the footwork that he has seen from the sophomore and feels that he has what it takes to be a starter at this level. That would be huge for this team if that is the case, especially with the concern that we have about the two expected starters at tackle right now.
There is Confidence in Barnes at LT
William Barnes’s move from right guard to left tackle this offseason is one that has many terrified of what could be coming Drake Maye’s way this season. Not only is he kicking out to tackle after struggling in pass protection a year ago at right guard, but he is also going to the other side of the offensive line and will have to change from a right-handed stance to a left-handed stance. Gaynor spoke very highly of his veteran counterpart on Friday, saying it is remarkable to have someone as versatile as him out there. Still, it’s tough to feel overly confident in someone who struggled the way Barnes did at times last year at a spot that doesn’t demand nearly as much.
OL Getting More Physical as a Unit
Another thing that we have been hearing about from Brown for the last few years is the quest to get more physical along the offensive line. The last two years in particular have been tough sledding with way too many instances of the unit being bullied by physical defensive fronts. Gaynor said Friday that the unit is making progress with the search under the direction of new offensive line coach Randy Clements. One guy that Gaynor pointed to in specific was guard Jonathan Adorno, who has shown a nice physical and vaulted himself into the starting lineup because of it.
Paysour Splitting Time Between Slot and Outside Receiver
There are a lot of interesting battles that are going on right now in fall camp, but the most interesting might just be the starting outside receiver job opposite Devontez Walker. Kobe Paysour shined for the team in the games that he started in a year ago, but he did all of that while playing in the slot. The thought was that he would get the chance to move to the outside and become a starter, but it doesn’t appear that it is that simple. While Paysour did confirm that he is splitting his time between the two spots, he said that he is spending more time in the slot than on the outside. He also said that he prefers to play in the slot over the outside, but that he is willing to play wherever the team needs. All of this points to Gavin Blackwell, who took the majority of the snaps with the blue team at the spot on Wednesday, being the third starter at receiver for the team against South Carolina on September 2nd.
Paysour Doesn’t Feel Scorned, Ready for Competition
One of the things that many have probably been wondering about this offseason is the feeling of guys like Paysour after Walker and Nate McCollum were brought into the room from the portal. He was asked about this on Friday and said that he understands the move from the coaching staff. Instead of feeling like he got passed over, he sees this as a competition and he is ready for the challenge. It will be incredibly difficult for him to take snaps away from McCollum, but as Paysour showed us last season, the talent is there for him to do it.
Paysour Learned a Lot from Downs
Paysour hasn’t been a full-time starter for the team so far in his career, but he has been using his time in Chapel Hill to learn from the guy that was ahead of him on the depth chart. He told the media on Friday that he learned a lot from his time sitting behind Josh Downs the last couple of years and that showed when he played in place of him last year. One of the main things that he took away was how he ran his routes and he says that is something that has been a focus for him when he is on the field. Paysour has proved himself to be a tremendous route runner so far and that could be his key to still playing a major role this year if he doesn’t win that starting job on the outside.
Progress Being Made with Understanding Defensive Scheme
Understanding of the defensive scheme may very well be the biggest reason to have confidence that this defense will take a step forward this season. Biggers says that guys have a better knowledge of the concepts that Chizik and the rest of the staff are focusing on getting them to execute, something they did have last year because they were still learning. According to Biggers, guys know where they need to be and are cutting down on the mistakes that plagued them so much on the back end of this defense last year. Rucker says that the mentality of this defense is just different this year now that they have had time to adjust to the way that Chizik and his staff wants to do things. Echols agrees with those sentiments and says that the difference will be noticeable right away when the team takes the field in Charlotte.
DBs Have Chance to Be Really Good if Transfers Adjust Quickly
There are a lot of new faces in the Tar Heel defensive backfield this year that will determine the success of the unit this season. Adjusting to the new scheme quickly will be important, especially with the first game coming against a South Carolina team that will likely air it out a lot this season. Biggers was very complimentary of both Alijah Huzzie and Antavious Lane on Friday, pointing to just how hard those two in particular are working to learn what they need to help make this a more formidable defensive back unit again. The addition also makes this a much deeper unit across the board that can rotate a multitude of different players who have significant college experience. Biggers says that Huzzie has quickly become a leader in the room and is showing out with his play on the field. Lane just joined the team over the summer and is another guy who he says is working hard everyday to learn what he needs to do at both safety and the STAR position where he is seeing some snaps.
Staff Wants to Be a Little Bit More Aggressive with Coverages, But it Will Be Strategic
Tar Heel fans were begging the defensive staff to be more aggressive in coverage throughout the year last season, but we never really saw it. This year, it seems like the staff learned from their mistakes and are going to not be nearly as conservative in coverage as they were in Chizik’s first year back. Biggers says that the key to being more aggressive is being strategic to avoid putting themselves in situations to get beat deep down the field by go routes. The fact that the team is willing to press more, though, should keep them from getting picked apart in the short passing game the way they often did in 2022.
Amare Campbell and Sebastian Cheeks Are Both Capable of Playing
Campbell has been impressing folks since the minute he stepped on campus, including his teammates. Echols says that he has shown a lot of similarities to himself and Cedric Gray when he is on the field in terms of the aggressiveness and tenacity that he plays with. Campbell’s emergence has been huge for a linebacker room that is sorely in need of depth behind their two starters. He will have a battle on his hands to be that primary backup, though, with Sebastian Cheeks back from the upper-body injury that cost him most of last season and spring camp. Echols is confident that the redshirt freshman has what it takes to contribute after what he showed in camp last season. This will be an interesting race to monitor moving forward.
Goal is to Get Back to the ACC Championship
This was something that we heard Drake Maye say to the media when he was in Charlotte last week for ACC media days and Echols reiterated this as the goal for this 2023 season. He says this has been the focus of the team since the loss in the Holiday Bowl to Oregon back in December. In order to get back there, this defense will simply have to be better than it was a year ago, something that Echols is confident they can be.
Echols Has Been Working on His Pass Coverage
It’s no secret that Echols struggled when he was in pass coverage a year ago, but he has been working on improving himself in that area this fall. He says that while he feels that he has good footwork for a linebacker, his focus has been on positioning himself right pre-snap and understanding what is needed from them by the defensive backfield. Echols and Gray did a lot of really good things for this defense a year ago, but they will have to be better in coverage like the defensive backfield to take the step forward that they say they want to.
Devontez Walker Ability to Play the Ball is Amazing
While both of the transfer receivers are expected to have a major impact on this passing game, it’s safe to say that Walker is the one that folks are higher on heading into the season. He was named to the preseason All-ACC team by media earlier this week and Mack Brown has compared him to Dyami Brown, one of the best deep threats in program history, multiple times this offseason. Tight end Kamari Morales, who spoke with the media after Thursday’s practice, has also been impressed by the Kent State transfer. He has been very impressed by Walker’s reliable hands, saying he has only dropped one pass since getting to campus, and speed over the top. The best element of his game, though, according to Morales is his ability to catch the ball over his shoulder in stride. He says that it is best he has ever seen and if he is right, that could lead to some explosive plays for an offense that has been at its best when they have that true deep threat.
Staff is Utilizing All Three Tight Ends
The Tar Heels have one of, if not the best tight end rooms in the entire country this season. Morales, who is the school record holder for touchdowns in career for a tight end, is joined by Bryson Nesbit, who had the best receiving year by a tight end since Eric Ebron, and John Copenhaver, who proved he can affect the game as a blocker or a receiver last year. The question is how do you get all three of these guys who deserve playing time on the field? Morales says that the staff is working to do that right now, using both 12 (1 RB, 2 TE) and even 13 (1 RB, 3 TE) personnel at times which could be very beneficial for the run game this season.
If You Don’t Block, You Aren’t Going to Play
Morales talked about his love of new tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens, a notion that has been shared by many throughout the team this offseason. He also noted that Kitchens is very demanding of his tight ends, especially as blockers. According to Morales, he has told the guys in the room that if they do not block, they will not play. This may be the explanation behind why the first day of camp featured Morales and Copenhaver taking the majority of snaps with the blue team on Day 1 of camp. It is clear that the staff wants to run the ball better this season and there is a commitment from Kitchens to help them do that with his tight end unit.
Expect to See A Lot From Slimmed Down Travis Shaw
One of the most polarizing players on this Tar Heel defense this season is second year defensive tackle Travis Shaw. The former 5✮ prospect has slimmed down from 370 lbs. to 345 this offseason as he looks to build on the flashes that he showed late last season. Everyone who was asked about him on Thursday and Friday talked about how he has been able to wreak havoc on the interior of the defensive line this offseason, especially in the run game. The key, as Rucker said, is for him to get in the right shape to be able to play more snaps for this team because of just how impactful he can be when he is out there. The defense is in need of more consistency from their defensive front and Shaw could provide that if he can develop that stamina.
Tomari Fox is a Big Addition for This Team
One of the biggest additions to the Tar Heel defense this offseason wasn’t a true freshman or transfer, but rather a member of the team that was suspended a year ago. Fox rejoined the team in the spring after missing all of last year after a season long suspension due to a banned substance found in his locker last preseason. Rucker says that Fox gives this unit a versatile piece that can rush the passer and also make plays in the run game. He will be a big help inside at the tackle spots and could help the Tar Heels to get more pressure on the passer from the interior of the defensive line, something they weren’t able to do without him last year.