For the last month, the focus of many around Tar Heel athletics has been on the amazing run of the basketball team in the NCAA Tournament. However, on Saturday the attention will shift back to the gridiron as the Mack Brown and the Tar Heel football team close down spring practice with the #TyleeStrong Spring Game in Kenan Stadium starting at 3:00 PM. Here is a look at the player to watch and battle to watch for each position group on Saturday afternoon.
Player to Watch: Conner Harrell
It appears as if the true freshman early enrollee might be out of the starting quarterback race heading into this game, but it will be intriguing to see what he can bring to the table. There is a reason that he took home the High School Football America National Player of the Year award for this past season and hopefully he can show a little bit of that on Saturday and show why some believe that he might be the most underrated quarterback in the 2022 recruiting class.
Battle to Watch: Starting QB
As I mentioned above, it seems like Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye have distanced themselves in this race and while Saturday probably won’t be the final chapter, it is certainly a significant one. Both quarterbacks should see a significant amount of reps in the two-hour window for the game to be in and the hope from Brown needs to be that the defense can put these guys in some tough situations that he talked about when previewing the battle back in early March. There is a rumor that one of the two is standing out heading into this game and if that is true and that player can shine, this battle may be over before we even get to fall camp.
Player to Watch: George Pettaway
There was a lot of excitement around the running back duo that the Tar Heels signed in the 2022 recruiting cycle and Pettaway, the early enrollee between the two, is seeming to justify that excitement. Brown has talked highly of his speed and versatility throughout the spring and while Brown has been hesitant to name anyone else a part of the rotation outside of British Brooks, it feels like Pettaway is the closest to cracking it. I expect to see a lot of reps for him on Saturday and think he could be one of the stars of the day and lock up that spot in the rotation.
Battle to Watch: No. 2 RB
It will be interesting to see what the depth chart looks like behind Brooks throughout the day. I feel pretty confident that Pettaway will see some significant reps, but there is a big group behind him that will also be looking to earn a role in this backfield. DJ Jones and Caleb Hood battled hard for the backup role behind Ty Chandler this past year, but were both too banged up to make a consistent contribution back there, opening the door for Brooks to break out. With both healthy, they are probably the favorites to win the battle to be that third running back in the rotation. It will also be interesting to see if Kamarro Edmonds, who Brown raved about before the beginning of spring practice, has made the progress needed to be a factor as well.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Player to Watch: Bryson Nesbit
Nesbit will be one of the most intriguing players to watch on Saturday because of the uncertainty about what exactly his role will be. Brown said last week that the staff has been using him at wide receiver with the depth issues that the team is having there, but there was already the thought that they could use him a little in the slot. His ability to win the 50/50 ball, which was a big part of his success at the high school level, can't be discounted, especially with the struggles this team had last year in the redzone.
Battle to Watch: Second Outside Starting WR
This has been an ongoing battle since last offseason and it is still one that is looking for answers as we enter Saturday. Part of the solution here will likely be moving Josh Downs outside sometime, which is something that Brown mentioned a few times in the past month, but they are counting on guys like Justin Olson, J.J. Jones and Kobe Paysour to step up. With what Brown has said, it doesn’t feel like anyone has really been able to separate themselves so far, but this will be a chance for someone to stand out like Antoine Green did a year ago before eventually breaking out in the fall.
Player to Watch: Zach Rice
There are a lot of different guys who will be interesting to watch here, but I have to go with the 5✮ early enrollee Rice. Both him and fellow true freshman early enrollee Trevyon Green have received a good amount of praise so far in camp, but one thing that was said early in the spring was that they are still adjusting to the speed of the game. With Rice, Brown said that the tools are there as expected, so it will be interesting to see if he has adjusted to the speed and which unit he plays with the most.
Battle to Watch: Starting C
It seems like every spot on the offensive line is up for grabs at this point, as it is really just about finding a way to get the best five on the field. The battle at center will go a long way towards doing that. Both Brian Anderson and Quiron Johnson are back and healthy after fighting trough injuries throughout the majority of last season, but are in a battle with grad transfer Corey Gaynor, who Brown has been extremely complimentary of so far in camp. If one guy can lock themselves into that starting center job, that could allow the other two guys to get some looks elsewhere in the line in the quest to find that best five.
Player to Watch: Noah Taylor
Taylor has been one of the guys that has shined the most according to the reports coming out of camp and Saturday will be a chance for him to show out at the new JACK end spot. The Tar Heels need their defensive ends to be more productive this season in both pass rushing and run defense situations and are looking for new leaders defensively as a whole. Taylor could be one of the more productive members of the new look Tar Heel defense on Saturday.
Battle to Watch: Starting POWER End
The fiercest battle that seems to be raging right now on the defensive line, at least from a distance, is the one at the POWER end position between two of the players on the defensive line with the most upside. Jahvaree Ritzie has been splitting time between this spot and defensive tackle and is battling Des Evans, who is looking to finally break through after struggling to earn a consistent role in Jay Bateman’s defense in his first two seasons. It feels like this battle will be a determining factor for what the defensive line ultimately looks like this season because it feels like Ritzie will be playing a big role somewhere along the unit.
Player to Watch: Power Echols
We got to see a little bit of what Echols could do in a significant role late last year against Wake Forest and South Carolina, but some fans might be a little cautious about getting too excited after what happened with Eugene Asante last season. Brown has raved about the physicality of Echols, though, and hopefully he can show some of that on Saturday.
Battle to Watch: First Rotational LB
At this point, nothing has been confirmed about the depth chart, but it seems like a near certainty that Echols and Cedric Gray will be the starters there. The battle here looks like it will be for that first rotational spot behind these guys between two extremely athletic guys who provide a ton of intrigue. RaRa Dillworth is the guy most expect will win this battle and rightfully so with his sideline-to-sideline ability and pure athletic skill. However, true freshman early enrollee Sebastian Cheeks has received some significant praise this spring, as well, giving him a chance to earn those reps, as well. Saturday will show whether or not this is a legit battle and will also showcase the depth that the team has here.
Player to Watch: Dontavius Nash
Nash was given the opportunity to play first team reps with all of the injuries that the team is dealing with at safety and has run with it. He has been one of the standouts of this Tar Heel defense the entire spring and Saturday could go a long way towards showing if he will be pushing for the starting job again in the fall when the veterans return.
Battle to Watch: Starting NB
Both of the safety spots will likely be up for grabs in the fall, but with all of the guys that are out with injuries, those battles will have to wait to play out. Meanwhile, the battle for the starting nickelback spot is raging as we speak between Obi Egbuna and DeAndre Boykins. The nickelback spot was an important one in Chizik’s defensive scheme in his first stint in Chapel Hill. Finding a starter here would be huge because of the struggles that the team has had at the position outside of Ja’Qurious Conley (who the team needs at safety) the last few years.
Player to Watch: Jonathan Kim
Kim will be expected to step up and replace Grayson Atkins, who quietly became one of the more consistent kickers in the conference. Brown hasn’t talked that much about Kim so far this spring, so it will be interesting to see what he can do now that he is the full-time kicker.
Battle to Watch: Starting P
This is a battle that popped up out of nowhere when Brown mentioned it a week ago. Ben Kiernan has done a solid job as the starter for each of the past three years, but he is now being pushed by Cole Maynard. Both guys should get a chance to punt on Saturday and should show if Maynard actually has a chance to win the job.