The Tar Heels are now just a week and a half away from the end of spring camp, which will conclude next Saturday in Kenan Stadium with the spring game. On Tuesday afternoon, Mack Brown provided some insight into some major battles and his concerns with the NCAA’s current handling of eligibility. Here are the biggest takeaways from Coach Brown’s most recent meeting with the media.
Offensive Line Depth Continuing to Impress
One of the areas that the Tar Heels were hoping would be a strength of this team in 2021 was the offensive line and so far in spring practice that seems to be the case. The team has been without Joshua Ezeudu, which was a concerning headline heading in, but it has allowed some other guys to step up. Counting Ezeudu, the Tar Heels had seven guys that they felt the staff appeared to have trust in coming into the spring and the good news is that an eighth has emerged. Coach Brown went out of his way once again to mention the fact that William Barnes has made major progress and is one of the surprises this spring. “We’re really excited about William,” said Brown on Tuesday morning. “”He could go in the rotation with the blue team today and that is not something he could have consistently done in our previous two falls.” Barnes' emergence leads the group of depth pieces that are attempting to add their name to the list of players that the staff can, but Brown did say that the entire second offensive line unit as a whole has shown major improvement so far this spring. Another thing that is adding to the depth is the fact that much like Ezeudu did a year ago, guys like Quiron Johnson and Marcus McKethan have been working at multiple positions along the offensive line. Returning all five starters from a year ago set the expectations high for this unit this spring and the emergence of depth behind them have the confidence at a spot that it hasn’t been in a while.
Backup Quarterbacks Making Some Plays But Decision Will Be Made in the Fall
The position that a lot of fans will likely be focused on during next weekend's spring game will be the battle for the backup quarterback job. Brown was asked about the battle to this point in the spring and didn't have a ton to offer, but did give a few notes on the situation to this point. It started with the second-year sophomore Jacolby Criswell, who Brown said played well on Saturday despite missing some throws. ”Jacolby is better than he’s been in the year that he’s been here.” True freshman Drake Maye has apparently shown some flashes, but Brown says he might be forcing the issue a little right now. ”Drake is like Sam when he got here. You can tell he is trying so hard. He’s pressing a bit right now.” Redshirt freshman Jefferson Boaz, the guy who seems to be forgotten in most of these conversations, also received some praise for some nice throws he has made so far. This battle will likely come down to Criswell and Maye, but as Brown reiterated on Tuesday, this is a battle that will be decided in the fall, not here in the spring.
Running Back Room Still Up in the Air
There was one position that Mack Brown admitted concerned him at this point of the spring and that is the running back position. Right now, there appears to be little separation between the group, but there have been some guys who have flashed. Brown seemed most impressed with senior transfer Ty Chandler amongst the group from his comments on Tuesday. “Everyday that I watch him he impresses me more,” said Brown of the Tennessee transfer. He pointed out the fact that Chandler is beginning to show his full repertoire of talent now, running well inside the tackles, showing nice speed on the edges and catching the ball nicely out of the backfield. Junior Josh Henderson had a strong scrimmage on Saturday and he is one of the most experienced competitors in this race. Another player who has had some nice flashes so far this spring is true freshman Caleb Hood, another player who had a solid scrimmage on Saturday. One of the favorites in the race, sophomore D.J. Jones, hurt his ankle once again on Saturday, leading Brown to say the focus with him right now is just to get him healthy. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Elijah Green is continuing to work on his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Just like at wide receiver, there are some options here, but Brown wants to start seeing some separation.
Middle Linebacker Has Some Pleasing Depth
In his first press conference of the spring, Coach Brown mentioned that one of the main battles he was keeping an eye on was the battle for rotational reps behind the starters at middle linebacker. “We’ve got to start forcing ourselves to play more guys at this position,” said Brown. Just like at every other position, the starters, mainly Jeremiah Gemmel, have spent more time on drills this spring than in team situations which has allowed them to get a good look at some of the depth pieces. Brown seems pretty satisfied with what he’s seen so far and from what he is saying it is much needed at the linebacker spots. “We’ve got to start forcing ourselves to play more guys at this position,” said Brown a year after Gemmel and fellow starter Chazz Surratt played over 700 snaps a year ago. Brown is excited with what he has seen from the true freshmen, who are picking up things quickly and playing well. The returning depth pieces of Khadry Jackson and Cedric Gray have also been doing some good things according to Brown and with the staff looking to expand rotations, this might be their chance to earn the first significant reps of their career. This is another position group where the battle for reps will likely extend well into fall camp and maybe even into the season.
True Freshman Defensive Linemen’s Impact Being Felt
Another one of the points that Coach Brown went out of his way to make it known on Tuesday was the continued search for pass-rushing threats on the defensive line. He said that the staff is currently in the process of evaluating the group that they have in camp and will also look at the guys coming in the fall to find the best unit to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The duo of Jahvaree Ritzie and Keeshawn Silver might be part of the solution here. “Jahvaree has just been killing it,” Brown said of the early enrollee on the defensive line on Tuesday. “He’s been all over the place.” As for Silver, Brown said he hurt his ankle in the second practice of the season, but he has continued to practice hard and Brown is looking forward to seeing him at full strength in the near future.“Those two young guys both have a chance to be superstars,” Brown said on Tuesday. If they continue to play at the level they have been so far, it’s hard to imagine that road to stardom won’t get off to a strong start this season.
Concerned About the Scholarship Situation For Next Year Leaving 2022 Prospects Without Opportunities
Coach Brown expressed plenty of frustrations with the NCAA as a whole, but maybe the most passionate rant came on the scholarship situation for the 2022 season. ”If they cap us at 85 next year, they’re either going to force people to run off some players, which some will do across the country, or they’re taking scholarships away from young people who have worked hard their whole lives and deserve the opportunity. It’s not fair to the kids.” Brown doesn’t understand why the NCAA approved the extra year of eligibility for this season after many of the teams around the country played a bulk of the schedule. “We could have had the same rules, could have had the same redshirt rules,” Brown told the media on Tuesday. Brown also worries about the ramifications down the line for programs in the years to come, as he feels it could have major effects on the senior in a few years. This is definitely a problem that the NCAA needs to address, but the big question is will they?