North Carolina coach Mack Brown: ‘I want our fans to get excited about coming back out for football’
More than five months — 140 days to be exact — have passed since North Carolina’s football team last played a game. It ended in a loss to rival N.C. State and a brawl in the endzone, capping what was unquestionably one of the most disappointing seasons in recent program history.
Larry Fedora was fired after seven years, and Hall of Fame coach Mack Brown was re-hired to coach North Carolina 22 years after his last stint there.
Since that game on Nov. 24, 2018, things have changed, including a new coaching staff, a new playbook, and most importantly a new attitude.
There’s optimism around North Carolina’s program that things can turn around and it can become a winning team again.
North Carolina running back Antonio Williams feels it. He said everyone bought in quickly and it shows in the improvement the players made this spring.
“Guys were tired of losing and we wanted something new,” said Williams, who was second on the team with 504 rushing yards in 2018. “We knew that what (Brown) had to offer us was a winning strategy. We were told we could win if we just followed him. So why would you not buy in?”
The Tar Heels will have their first opportunity to showcase their new team with Saturday’s spring game at 5 p.m. at Kenan Stadium.
The scrimmage will be “Carolina” versus the “Tar Heels,” and it will be divided into two halves, 30 to 35 plays per half. There will be two, two-minute breaks in the first half, a 15-minute halftime, and a two-minute break in the second half.
Much of the focus on the spring game will be on the quarterbacks and whether one has separated himself from the others. Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo want to air the ball out this year, an area the Tar Heels struggled last year.
The Tar Heels rotated five quarterbacks last season, because of injuries or poor performance. One of those quarterbacks — Nathan Elliott — left the program before spring practice to become a graduate assistant at Arkansas State. Another — Chazz Surratt — decided to switch positions.
That left the Tar Heels with two returning quarterbacks.
Sophomores Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder are battling with freshman Sam Howell, all with little to no playing experience.
Fortin, who is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, played in four games and started one last season as a freshman. He suffered a knee injury early in the year but returned. He completed 32 of his 65 attempts for 388 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
Ruder, who is 6-1, 203 pounds, played in only one game as a freshman before injuring his shoulder. He completed four of his five pass attempts for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Howell, who is 6-1, 225 pounds, is considered one of the top players in the country coming out of Monroe. He was rated the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the country by 247sports.
The quarterbacks have not been made available to speak to the media this spring.
Brown said in March that he was looking to get at least two quarterbacks ready to play by the fall.
“You’ve got to score points to win,” Brown said. “Which one of those guys can get the team in the end zone the most is the one that’s going to play.”
But quarterback isn’t the biggest question North Carolina faces heading into the spring game and beyond. Brown said the biggest concern is the depth with its front seven on defense. The Tar Heels have to replace a huge chunk of their defensive line from last season’s team. Four defensive lineman who played significant snaps last season have graduated. They are also thin at linebacker.
Linebackers Cole Holcomb and Allen Artis both graduated and outside linebacker Jonathan Smith is not playing this spring while he focuses on academics.
The Tar Heels will likely have to rely on younger players.
“I told the coaches we’ve got to coach them up,” Brown said. “It doesn’t matter whether they think they’re experienced or even talented, get the guys playing hard, get them in the right place, and they’ll play better than even they have in their past and think they can play.”
That’s what Brown has tried to bring to this team — a belief that they can be better than they have been in recent years. The spring game will be their first opportunity to show it.