Penalties are another point for improvement. UNC has conceded 91.33 penalty yards per game, fourth-worst among the 76 Division I teams that have played a game this year.
“Brown’s definitely been all over those,” Howell said. “Before almost every period of practice, he makes sure to address the penalties. When you get into close games, that can be the difference, so we want to make sure we’re paying attention to those.”
When asked about the difference in energy with a limited capacity of fans in attendance, senior running back Michael Carter said the team loves having the fans back, but the energy doesn’t come from them.
“Our energy comes from the locker room,” Carter said. “It’s up to us to create that edge.”
To keep that focus and energy, the players hold each other to high standards and push each other in practice like it’s an actual game.
“You go back and watch replays of the game,” Carter said, “and these receivers are blocking down the field like their heads are on fire. You got Dazz Newsome on the edge blocking (Virginia Tech linebacker) Dax Hollifield, and then he gets past them, and he goes back to block him again, just because he cares about me that much.”
Perhaps the best example of the family-like culture is Mitch Mason, the team chaplain who has been away from the team battling a nervous system issue. Before Thursday’s practice, Mason delivered a video message to pump the players up.
“He’s a staple in our Tar Heel family,” Carter said. “He means a lot to me, and he’s helped me and other people through tough times. He’s always an encouraging person, even when he doesn’t know you need it. It was an emotional moment for me just to see that, even though he’s going through a tough time, he’s so selfless, and that’s inspiring.”
The Virginia Tech game also saw the return of versatile offensive lineman Joshua Ezeudu, who helped the UNC offense rush for a combined 399 yards (9.3 yards per rush) and allow just one sack. Ezeudu said he had missed being out on the field with his teammates, and explained his secrets to playing multiple positions on the O-line.
“(This offseason), I learned about the different positions," Ezeudu said. "Sometimes, I’d watch a right tackle in the league. Sometimes, a right guard. A left guard. A left tackle. Really just picking from all of them and using it in my skill set.”
UNC’s opponent this Saturday, Florida State, might be 1-3-0 and unranked this season, but the Tar Heels aren’t underestimating their opponents. To them, FSU’s record doesn’t reflect the team's talent, especially on defense.
Howell highlighted how well the team blocks the run game, and Ezeudu praised how big and talented FSU's defensive line is. Regardless of their record, North Carolina isn't taking the Seminoles lightly.
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