For the first time in November, Kenan Stadium was buzzing with Tar Heel fans as the team hosted their annual spring game. This year’s event had some extra special circumstances, as the event was dedicated to junior wide receiver Tylee Craft who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer last month and was in attendance with several other cancer patients who were in attendance. The game itself ended in a 14-14 tie but went the way of the offense with the alternate scoring system 42-30. Here is a look at the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s game as the team now heads back into the offseason for the summer.
All Three Quarterbacks Thrive
Heading in, it felt like this may have been a quarterback battle that had widdled down to a two-man race, but Saturday showed that is not the case. All three of the quarterbacks that took significant reps had strong days, led by Jacolby Criswell, who didn’t see as many reps as the other two guys but clearly had the best day. Criswell finished the day a perfect 6-6 through the air for 104 yards and a touchdown, leading the offense on a scoring drive in each of his two drives. Drake Maye saw the most action through the air, throwing for 113 yards and a touchdown on 9-12 passing, showing off some nice ability on the move and sorting through his progressions well. Conner Harrell saw the most action of any of the quarterbacks, finishing 4-7 for 30 yards through the air and carrying the ball six times, but for a loss of 17 yards. The statistics don’t do his day justice, especially since his biggest play was called back due to an illegal man downfield. While he showed some nice things, especially for a true freshman, it still feels like this battle will ultimately come down to Criswell and Maye based on what we saw today.
Backfield Provides Some Interesting Options Behind Brooks
The unit that may have had the best day besides the quarterbacks was the running backs. British Brooks looked good in the early carries that he had, but the attention was on the guys behind him that are battling to separate themselves. True freshman George Pettaway was the guy being talked about the most coming in, but he had the quietest day of the group. That allowed a guy like Elijah Green to shine, as the rarely talked about junior had a huge day, leading all players in rushing with 61 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. DJ Jones also had a solid day for himself, showing some nice patience and running hard between the tackles. Late in the day, Kamarro Edmonds was able to shine against some of the deeper depth on the roster, ripping off four carries for 50 yards, including a big 34-yard where he showed off some nice quickness in the open field. The only negative for this unit was the fact that Caleb Hood couldn’t play on Saturday, but the good news is that there are some really promising options in the backfield. Now the question is, can they establish the separation that they need to in fall camp?
Offensive Line Shows Nice Promise
We talked about the struggles of the team’s second defensive line unit, but a large part of those was because of the performance of the offensive line. The first team offensive line unit looked really good on Saturday, anchored by new starting center, Corey Gaynor, in the middle. True freshman Zach Rice got the start with the first team unit and looked really good while working with that group. The second team offensive line group wasn’t nearly as powerful as the first team group, but led by Brian Anderson and Quiron Johnson, that group had a solid day, as well. You can’t get too excited because this is a spring game, but after last year, it’s hard not to feel at least a little encouraged by what this position showed on Saturday.
Secondary Still Has a Ways to Go
Part of the reason that the quarterbacks may have been able to have as much success as they did on Saturday was because of a secondary that is still a work in progress. To be fair, this is a unit that still has some guys that are working through injuries and picked up another key one when Dontavius Nash went down early in the day, but the group that was available was picked apart. The second team unit saw the majority of the struggles on the big plays allowed, but neither defensive back group was really able to contest passes the way that they will need to be able to to show improvement from last year. This is a unit that will hopefully look different when fall camp starts with all of the players back from injury and additional true freshmen that will be joining the team, but is more of a work in progress than the unit that Chizik and Warren inherited back in 2015.
Defensive Depth Still a Work in Progress
One of the things that were fairly obvious was the drop off from the first defensive unit to the second defensive unit. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t every position group (the backup linebackers, RaRa Dillworth and Sebastian Cheeks both looked pretty good), however, the majority of that second unit struggled to provide much resistance. The defensive line was pushed around almost the entire afternoon by the first team unit and the secondary, as we told you above, also had their issues throughout the game. Injuries have played a role here, but there is no denying that this is a team that has to stay healthy on the defensive side of the football this year if they want to take a step forward from last year.