Leading up to Saturday's Orange Bowl matchup between No. 13 North Carolina and No. 5 Texas A&M, the Orange Bowl has held press conferences featuring players and coaches from both teams to discuss the game, UNC's players who opted out, Texas A&M's mentality after missing out on the College Football Playoff and more. Here are the key points and most interesting notes from this week's meetings to get you caught up before the big game:
Monday, Dec. 28, 2020
Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond opened Monday's meeting saying he has been weighing his options in terms of entering the 2021 NFL Draft or returning for another year with the Aggies but hasn't made a decision yet.
"I think just where everybody's focus is, we just want to win this game," he said. "We want to win, finish off the season strong and then kind of move on from there and decide what everybody else is going to do."
When asked about who sticks out on the North Carolina defense, Mond pointed to UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt before explaining that the Aggies are preparing for whoever fills in for the opted-out redshirt senior — Eugene Asante is expected to shoulder that burden — along with the rest of the defense.
"I would say the closest thing (to UNC in the SEC) schematically is Arkansas," Mond said. "Arkansas, who we played and kind of posed some kind of fits, just with the front that they were playing. But I think that playing in the SEC and playing against some of the top talent and so many different schemes, I think we're kind of — we can go against a four-down team, three-down team and pretty much trust our roles that coach (Jimbo) Fisher has instilled in us."
Offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey added that the Aggies were not expecting any players to opt out of the Orange Bowl and anticipated that the team would be at full strength for the game.
While Texas A&M addressed the media on Monday, UNC head coach Mack Brown held his usual game-week press conference with reporters. The Tar Heels opened their meeting announcing that defensive backs Storm Duck and Obi Egbuna were being evaluated to determine what their availability will be for the Orange Bowl.
From there, Brown expectedly addressed the fact that North Carolina would be missing its two leading rushers, leading receiver and leading tackler against the Aggies, saying his "job is to help all of these young players (...) have better options when they get done with their playing careers here."
"We would not be in the Orange Bowl without them," he added.
Following Brown's comments, UNC's co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman hopped on the Orange Bowl's press conference and dove into what he likes about Asante ahead of what is expected to be a huge opportunity on a national stage for the young linebacker.
"I think Eugene can really run. He's really athletic," Bateman said. "...Everybody on our defense, everybody in our defensive staff is extremely confident in Eugene. Not just in this game but in the next however many years we have him. We're very confident in Eugene and he should be very confident in himself. He's really worked hard to get himself to this position."
Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020
The following day's meetings featured members of the Texas A&M's defense and offensive players and staff for the Tar Heels.
Being one of the few remaining standouts on UNC's offense still playing in the Orange Bowl, sophomore quarterback Sam Howell naturally came up quite a bit.
"I wouldn't say he reminds me of anybody that we've played, but what I can say is that he is a unique QB, and he does have a good arm," Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal said. "He does decide to run it when he has the chance when it's given to him, so just being able to stop him is going to be a major key."
In the wake of UNC running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and receiver Dyami Brown opting out of the bowl game, UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo told reporters that the Tar Heels will be adjusting their game plan a little to mold it around the new players filling in on offense, but he was adamant that North Carolina isn't looking to "reinvent the wheel" on that side of the ball.
He also added that after Williams made the decision to forgo the game, that left him with about 30 touches to redistribute throughout the offense. Specifically, Longo said he's looking at Dyami's younger brother, Khafre Brown, Emery Simmons and Antoine Green to step up at wide receiver.
Senior receiver Dazz Newsome will be one of the starters who needs to have a big game for the Tar Heels to be productive on offense. And when asked about why he chose not to opt out of the bowl game, Newsome reminded reporters why he's crucial to UNC.
"I'm a ball player," Newsome said, "so I want to play.
"If (Longo) gives (all 30 touches) to me, I'll take it," he added. "...You've just got to make plays when the ball comes to you."
Friday, Jan. 1, 2021
The final Zoom press conferences of the week featured the two head coaches, Fisher and Brown.
For Brown, the biggest topic of conversation was what an Orange Bowl berth means to such a young team. True first-years Tony Grimes, Clyde Pinder Jr., Desmond Evans, Ja'Qurious Conley and Myles Murphy have all seen snaps this season, and their first postseason experience will be a New Year's Six bowl.
"I talked to all the freshmen last night at different times and said, 'you do understand that not everybody gets to go to the Orange Bowl in their life, so come on, man, this is pretty cool,'" Brown said. "...This is more about where we want to be and where we're going, and that's what they've got to understand."
Meanwhile, circling back around to players who opted out, Fisher confirmed that the Aggies did not have anyone opt out of the Orange Bowl. He also said the team was "all good to go" when it came to COVID-19 testing.
All that's left now is for these two teams to take the field in Miami on Saturday night.
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