Wednesday was the first day of fall camp in Chapel Hill, as the Tar Heels took a crucial step towards the season opener against South Carolina. Let's take a look at some of the biggest storylines from the first day with some important notes from today's practice and the best quotes from head coach Mack Brown afterwards.
“We’re going to work more with the white team against the blue team and alternate those groups a lot more”
We heard this from Brown back in the summer and it appears that this is one of the biggest focuses of the staff here in the fall. The biggest reason why is because of the need for more competitive depth that will hopefully lead to more players playing and less looking toward the portal at the end of the season like we saw this offseason. Finding that depth could also allow for the staff to have shorter leashes when guys make mistakes and actually use the bench as a motivating factor like Brown has been saying they want to do for years.
“We are in most places, we are not at linebacker”
This was in response to Tar Heel Illustrated’s Andrew Jones asking a question about that competitive depth throughout the roster. The linebacker corps has works to do at establishing the depth that they want with the youth of the unit behind the two starters. Redshirt freshman Sebastian Cheeks missed most of last year due to injury and did get to participate in the spring. Deuce Caldwell only saw garbage time snaps a year ago and we haven’t heard much about him so far this offseason. True freshman Amare Campbell flashed as an early enrollee, but he still has work to do before he can become a part of the rotation.
“We talked about it every year and then we play six. We’d may play seven but we’d like to play eight at least.”
The search for more depth along the offensive line has been a frustrating one for the past few years and it seems like things are in a similar spot this year. This is looking more and more like it will be a six man unit for the majority of the season unless a guy or two can emerge in the next few weeks. Trevyon Green, Zach Rice and Diego Pounds are names worth keeping an eye on, but it’s hard to be confident it will happen before the season starts.
“We’ve got a four game season and then we’ve got an open date, we’ll start over, but you get better. Get better at what you do everyday.”
The focus right now for this 2023 Tar Heel team is on improving themselves before they start thinking about South Carolina. Brown says that there are plenty of areas to improve upon and that they need to continue building an edge. Eventually the team will turn their focus to that opener against South Carolina, which is just one month away, but right now is one doing the little things that you are supposed to do.
“He’s maturing, he’s growing up, he’s trying to be a leader. He is doing all the things.”
Travis Shaw showed some really nice promise late last year and has undergone a transformation this offseason to try to take another step. Brown confirmed to the media today that he is down to 340 lbs. from his freshman weight of 375. With his size, it’s hard to see him playing a ton of plays, but right now the focus is on getting him to play ten snaps at a time as opposed to three or four like a year ago. The good news is, he seems to he stepping his game up across in his second season on campus, including his approach to the came. The door is open for Shaw to pounce, especially at nose tackle and from all indications, he is doing what he needs to so that he can play a significant role this year.
“All the pieces are here for us to be good, it’s on us as coaches to put ‘em in the right place and get them to play up to the level that they can and we’ve got a chance.”
Brown said earlier in the presser that this is just a better-looking team than a year ago and it wasn’t just based on their headshots. He pointed to the experience that they have on the roster and the considerable difference in depth that most positions have from a year ago, such as the tight end position. The depth is there at a lot of other position groups with the younger guys, the staff just has to be able to develop starting here in camp. He also likes where the team is athletically, saying that they don’t have players that are too heavy and it shows how well they have been moving around this year. As we have been saying for years, it feels like the talent is in the program, it’s on the coaches to find a way to get the most out of it, which they haven’t done in the last couple of years.
“Freddie’s tough. He gets after ‘em. I do believe that he will be a major factor in us being tougher in the running game.”
The Tar Heel run game will be coordinated by Freddie Kitchens, former NFL head coach and offensive coordinator and a childhood friend of Chip Lindsey. Brown says Kitchens expects a lot from every element of his running game, especially the position he coaches, the tight ends. When the Tar Heel offense was at their best under Phil Longo, they were able to run the football and they simply weren’t an efficient running team the last couple of years. With how important running the football is to Lindsey’s offensive system and a defense that needs to be on the field as little as possible, having a strong running game is crucial for this offense’s success this year.
“We’ve got to stop the run better on early downs and then get penetration and get after quarterbacks.”
It’s no secret that this defensive line has to be better this season for this defense to have any chance and it starts with what they do on first down. The unit wasn’t able to get the penetration that they needed to in either run or pass downs and that has to change this season. If this unit can find a way to win up front and make plays on first down and put pressure on the quarterback to get off the field more times than not on third down, this defense has a chance to be the average unit that this team need them to be.
-Malaki Hamrick and Will Hardy were the only two players who did not practice on Wednesday. Hamrick was declared out for the season after suffering a lower-body injury back in the spring. As for Hardy, Inside Carolina’s Adam Smith reported that he was off to the side on an exercise bike rehabbing a setback to the lower-body injury that he suffered at the end of last year.
-The blue team offensive line unit on Wednesday consisted of Corey Gaynor (C), Jonathan Adorno (G), Willie Lampkin (G), William Barnes (T) and Spencer Rolland (T). This is different from the first team unit that we saw in the spring with Ed Montilus out and Jonathan Adorno in.
-The blue team defensive line in the 11-on-11s consisted of Myles Murphy (NT), Jahvaree Ritzie (DL3T), Kaimon Rucker (JACK) and Des Evans (POWER). Noticeably absent from this group of starters is Kevin Hester Jr., who started nine games a year ago for the team, and Florida State transfer Amari Gainer, who was raved about back in the spring for his efforts.
-Gavin Blackwell was the guy that spent the most time with the blue team along with Tez Walker and Nate McCollum. Kobe Paysour did see some time out there, but it appears that the staff feels that Blackwell is the better fit at that second outside receiver spot than Paysour.
-McCollum, George Pettaway, Alijah Huzzie and Grady Sherrill were the guys that were fielding punts for the team on Wednesday as they search for Josh Downs’s replacement. McCollum returned punts a year ago for Georgia Tech with some relative success, while Huzzie did the same at East Tennessee State with even better results. As for Pettaway, he didn’t return punts last year, but what he did late in the year as a kick returner is why he is getting a look here.
-True freshman receiver Christian Hamilton, who closed the spring strong, was taking some snaps with the blue team today. This doesn’t mean that he will necessarily see the field a bunch this season, but the fact that he is seeing snaps with that group at all shows you the impression that he has already made on this coaching staff.
-Brown told reporters that the staff will spend two hours in meetings breaking down the tape from today with the players to tell them what they did well and where they need to be better. He says that this is where they can dive into the little intricate things, like hustle plays, and show guys what they are being told by the staff when they are on the field.
-Figuring out the running back rotation is something this staff has to do again this preseason, but it won’t be an easy task. With the injury issues that the team had a year ago at the position, Brown said that they have to be strategic about how they practice with the running backs. There will be a lot of thud used to keep guys healthy and the backs will have to be able to create some separation with it.