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Heel Tough Blog: Questions Abound for Tar Heels As They Hit Heart of Spring Practice

Tar Heel Athletics

The Tar Heels returned to the practice field week following the spring break period the prior week. With the team now sitting a third of the way through the spring, the focus has now become about finding answers to a multitude of questions that Mack Brown talked about in his most recent press conference.

The most important question that the team must solve is the one about the toughness of this group. Brown said on Tuesday that the narrative is that this team is soft, especially when it comes to the run game on both sides of the ball. He said that they are challenging this year's defense to finally stop the run, something they simply haven’t done since he returned to campus. In order to accomplish this, the defensive line has to start winning the line of scrimmage more consistently and take the pressure off of the back seven.

As for the offensive side of the football, the team needs to quell the narrative that they aren’t a team that can down in the mud and win the line of scrimmage, primarily in the red zone. This all starts with the offensive line, who had issues protecting the quarterback again in 2022 and was simply dominated in the red zone late in the season. It’s on the shoulders of new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and new offensive line coach Randy Clements to establish a more physical mentality to the side of the ball that should lead to more success on the ground and in the red zone as they did in 2020.

Defensively, there are many other questions outside of stopping the run that remain unanswered. The defensive front is full of guys that need to prove something after an abysmal season a year ago. The loss of Malaki Hamrick, a promising young pass rusher for the season, won’t make that quest to find solutions any easier. At linebacker, Hamrick’s injury is blow to the depth that this unit already lacked prior and that has Brown extremely concerned. The rest of the spring needs to be focused on determining if the young group that they have behind Cedric Gray and Power Echols is capable of playing if needed or if the team will need to go back into the transfer portal to find what they need once spring practice concludes.

The biggest question, though, might be on the back end of this unit where Brown simply said “we are looking for safeties” on Tuesday. The team is so desperate to find help back there that converted running back D.J. Jones could get a serious look there this year if the staff likes what they see. This is still a unit that isn’t fully healthy, with both Giovanni Biggers and Will Hardy out for the entirety of spring practice, but they need others to start stepping up and being more consistent.

Elsewhere in this secondary, there is a lot of encouragement about how things are going. At corner, the concern is about the depth at the position, but the trio of Marcus Allen, Lejond Cavazos and Alijah Huzzie are currently rotating and seem to be playing well. Brown was also very complementary of Dae Dae Hollins, who has apparently done some good things for the team out of the nickel and outside at corner this spring after flirting with the transfer portal.

On the other side of the ball, the biggest question is the offensive line and what it will look like when the team takes the field against South Carolina in Charlotte. Four starters from the unit do return from last year and Coastal Carolina transfer Willie Lampkin will also enter the fray, but Asim Richards early entry to the NFL Draft has left a hole at left tackle. Brown said that the unit still needs to find the depth that they have been pushing to develop there for years, but the most important thing that this has to do is find the best five starters. If not, this unit could be the downfall of this offense like it has been in the past two years.

Backup quarterback is another spot where Brown wants to see someone step up and take the reigns in the battle to replace Drake Maye if he was to depart at the conclusion of the 2023 season. Conner Harrell entered the season as the favorite to win the job left behind by Jacolby Criswell and so far he has taken the bulk of the snaps with the second team so far in the spring. A strong finish to the spring could allow him to wrap up that QB2 spot before the team even gets to fall camp.

Sticking with the offensive side of the football, the questions about the wide receiving corps following the departures of Josh Downs and Antoine Green may already be answered. Incumbents Kobe Paysour, J.J. Jones and Andre Greene Jr. provided a good starting spot for the unit even before their additions in the transfer portal. The performances of Devontez Walker and Nate McCollum were seen as impactful moves at the time and they have not disappointed. Brown says that those guys have looked good so far in camp and have solidified the position along with true freshmen Christian Hamilton and Paul Billups II who have flashed so far in the spring. This unit looks as if it will once again be a strength of the team.

As you would expect for a team that finished the season on a four-game losing streak, there are a lot of questions that surround the Tar Heels entering this season. Some of these questions appear have some early answers, but all of these will be interesting to watch during Saturday’s open practice and April 15th’s spring game.


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