With the announcement of Hubert Davis as the new men's basketball head coach on Tuesday, Mack Brown's weekly press conference was pushed back to Wednesday of this week, this time with the added bonus of the coordinators, offensive coordinator Phil Longo and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, meeting with the media for the first time this spring, as well. Let's take a look at our major takeaways from the three press conferences that took place regarding Tar Heel football on Wednesday afternoon.
Linebacker Room Donated in Honor of Quincy Monk
Brown started his press conference with the announcement that another position room was set to be named after a former scholarship player for the Tar Heel football program. This one was special, though, as he addressed the fact that the team’s linebacker room will be named after the late, great Quincy Monk. Monk was a four year player for the Tar Heels from 1998 to 2001 and broke out as a senior to lead the team with 125 total tackles leading to him being drafted in the seventh round of the 2002 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. He would suffer a stroke in 2015 and during his recovery, it was discovered that he had an aggressive form of cancer called adenocarcinoma. Unfortunately, just a few months after his cancer diagnosis on November 24, 2015, Monk would pass away at the age of 36 years old. The Quincy Monk Inside Linebacker room was donated officially in March according to an article by Lee Pace on GoHeels.com yesterday after donations from twelve of his former teammates.
Staff Will Encourage Players to Get the Vaccine
One of the first things that Brown touched on in his press conference was with the fact that vaccines are now available to those over the age of 16, the process of players and coaches getting the vaccination will be beginning in the near future. Brown says that he and the staff will encourage the players to get the vaccines, but it will not be required to be a part of the team. Currently, he says he is in the process of finding out the guidelines of what they will have to do for staff members and/or players who opt not to get the vaccine, something that the NCAA hasn’t released official guidelines around just yet.
Beau Corrales is Back to Practice
With the coordinators following him, Brown did not give much away in terms of player news, but this was the one significant nugget that he did mention in his opening statement. Corrales is still working his way back from sports hernia surgery that he had following the season after a hernia ended his 2020 season after the Florida State game. Brown said that Corrales is not back to full speed, though, working at “three-quarters” speed as of right now. With Brown continually saying that the staff is currently letting the younger players take the bulk of the reps in practice, they are probably not in a rush to get Corrales back. Brown did not rule out the possibility of Corrales returning to full speed work or playing in the spring game, but at the least, Brown says he will be ready to go for summer workouts.
Having An Open Conversation with Players About Their Roles
One of the more interesting notes that came out of Brown press conference was the one about the transfer portal and how the staff is getting themselves prepared ahead of the looming transfer portal entry deadline. Brown said that sometime shortly after the conclusion of spring camp, the transfer portal will close and that right now the staff is preparing for that. Right now, he says that the staff is having conversation with players about their roles and if they’ll be satisfied with said roles. The main thing that Brown and the staff are hoping this will do is keep them from being caught off guard by a transfer portal entry in the next few weeks.
All of the Running Backs Have Flashed So Far
When it comes to the offensive side of the football, the biggest question mark heading towards the 2021 season is the running back spot and that was the first thing that Longo addressed on Wednesday. The Tar Heel offensive coordinator didn’t give much clarity on the situation, but did voice his pleasure with the group as a whole. “It’s a great room because everyone is talented, smart and competing hard,” said Longo. While the spring game may give a peak at who might have created a little bit of separation in this room, it more likely that there won’t be much clarity here until the fall.
Josh Downs Continues to Thrive
One of the names that Mack Brown has focused on a lot so far this spring has been sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs. Longo, like Brown, has been impressed with his play so far this spring following his tremendous performance in the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M. Longo said on Wednesday that he actually went back and watched tape of Downs from the season because he was wondering if he should have been playing him more. He said that the bowl game was a result of the work that both Downs and wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway put in last year and he says that he has seen more growth and maturity from the young slot again this spring. He went as far as to compare him to one of his former receivers, Elijah Moore, who was one of the best wide receivers in all of college football a year ago. With Dazz Newsome now graduated, there is nothing standing in the way of Downs becoming a superstar.
Offensive Line Depth
A lot of people are focused on the veteran starters that the Tar Heels are returning on the offensive line this season, but as Longo was talking about on Wednesday, the depth this unit has is the best it has been in a while. Longo said that last year, the unit had seven guys that they could trust at all times, but that he thinks this year’s team could have nine. As Brown mentioned earlier in the spring, William Barnes has had a strong spring and has added himself as the eighth guys who can play at any time, while Longo says that there is a group that is battling to become that ninth guy. “There are three or four guys that are flashing, that are showing some good things, showing some progress and we’re hopeful one of those gives us that ninth guy going into September.” If that guy emerges, it would be just the fourth time in his time as a coach that Longo says he’ll go into a season with nine guys who can play significant snaps when needed.
Defense Overall Continues to Make Strides
This biggest step towards making this defense competitive once again when Brown arrived back in November of 2018 was to add talent to a unit that simply lacked it at the time. Now, just two and a half years later, the staff has done a tremendous job of adding talent and has some wondering, with the level of guys that they have been able to land defensively, if this unit can compete at the highest level. “The front seven is more physically aligned with what you need to be able to compete at the highest level of college football,” said Bateman on Wednesday, something that has been echoed by Brown so far this season. The back end of the defense has made plenty of strides, as well, mainly in experience because of how injuries have piled up back there in each of the first two seasons under this staff. That has left the team in a position though where, as Bateman alluded to on Wednesday, this team has five corners capable of playing significant snaps. Bateman is happy with the talent that is now in place, saying it has them much more prepared to use every aspect of the defensive system that he wants to run.
Creating More Turnovers is a Major Focus This Spring
Brown was asked about creating turnovers in his press conference, but it was even more of a focus in Bateman’s meeting with the media. While the Tar Heels have shown major improvements defensively over the past couple of seasons, the one area where they are still lacking is in the turnover department. The Tar Heels have created 32 turnovers in the first two seasons, but a majority of those have come in spurts and just nine of those turnovers were fumble recoveries. Bateman points out that the youth is part of the reason that this has probably been the case. With the unit continuing to gain more experience and confidence, guys will be more willing to be aggressive and go for the football. Bateman also believes that the key to creating turnovers begins by stopping the run and making the opponents passing game predictable. “Better run defense will generate more opportunities for turnovers and more opportunities for turnovers will generate more turnovers.”
Secondary’s Confidence is Spurring the Defense as a Whole
When it comes to the units on this Tar Heel team that have benefited the most from having spring camp this year, the secondary definitely has the strongest case to be the one it has helped the most. Entering spring camp this year, just two players, Trey Morrison and DeAndre Hollins, had taken part in a spring camp in their collegiate careers, but this spring has allowed the unit as a whole to take major strides. “Those kids are so much more experienced and so much more able to handle the adjustments,” said Bateman of the unit on Wednesday. “The entire defense is more confident because of their confidence.” As we mentioned above, there are a horde of corners that the staff seems confident can contribute if needed and Bateman mentioned that there is also plenty of competition at safety. He told the media that there are guys that have played major roles before that know they must play well or they won’t play. That is great to hear from the Tar Heel defensive coordinator, especially after the struggles that the team had at the position late in the season in 2020.
Cam’Ron Kelly Working to Become More Consistent
One of the safeties in that secondary that is looking to show how much he has improved in junior Cam’Ron Kelly. As Bateman pointed out on Wednesday, there were some games in 2020 where Kelly played at an elite level and other games where he simply struggled. Bateman seems encouraged, though, as he points out that this is Kelly's first chance to really work on bettering his play after not being able to practice until the fall as a true freshman after transferring from Auburn and spring taking away his sophomore spring practice. Bateman says he just needs to see a more consistent player in Kelly this season because safety is one position where inconsistencies are hard to overcome. With the competition that he is facing at safety, he has to be able to step up if he wants to be able to play this season, according to Bateman. The good news is, Bateman seems pleased with what he has seen. “I think you’re seeing a much improved player out there right now.”