With competitive football on display in Kenan Memorial Stadium for the first time in four months, North Carolina head coach Mack Brown probably didn’t need to ask his players to give it all they had.
But for a team with expectations as lofty as the Tar Heels’ — where anything less than an ACC Championship game appearance might be a disappointment — a little nudging certainly never hurt anybody.
“Everyone has to be going at 100 percent effort,” Brown’s voice rang through the stadium speakers. “If you’re not, we’ll sub in someone that is.”
In the Tar Heels’ first official intrasquad scrimmage of the spring, Brown’s words were taken to heart. Physicality and energy were on full display — hinting that the team is committed to taking the next step toward being one of the nation’s top programs.
One group that was playing with a high level of intensity was the defensive unit, specifically the defensive line.
In the team’s first two losses of the 2020 season, UNC allowed 241 and 210 rushing yards to Florida State and Virginia, respectively. As the year went on, many of the Tar Heels’ highly touted younger players began to receive more playing time, which helped limit the offensive production of three top-10 teams in the final month.
On Saturday, co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman continued the youth movement by giving a lot of reps to the defensive line’s underclassmen during the scrimmage, and they did not disappoint. Sophomore Myles Murphy and first-years Keeshawn Silver and Jahvaree Ritzie were flying into the backfield — stuffing the run and pressuring the quarterback with ease.
“We all try to help each other get the plays right,” Murphy said. “We’re competing and trying to make ourselves better.”
In addition to strong play from the defensive line, the Tar Heels’ defensive backs also appear to be trending in the right direction. Junior cornerback Kyler McMichael was targeted on a number of occasions and came away with several pass-breakups. Sophomore Tony Grimes was also quietly productive — simply because the quarterbacks wouldn’t throw anywhere near his vicinity.
Almost everybody played well, but arguably the most polarizing player on the defensive unit was sophomore Ja’Qurious Conley. The Jacksonville, N.C., native showed flashes of dominance near the end of his first season and has carried that momentum into the spring.
Conley is most frequently described as a nickel corner, but his physical tools allow him act as a Swiss Army knife and thrive in all parts of the field. On one drive during the scrimmage, he had both a key pass-breakup and quarterback pressure that likely would have been a sack in a game situation.
“(Conley) is my boy, man,” sophomore linebacker Kaimon Rucker said. “He can come inside as a linebacker because he’s big enough to play that position. He brings that speed off the edge and also drops back into coverage as a safety, so he brings a lot to the table.”
Although the defense was the main talking point on Saturday, the offense also got to showcase some new faces.
Following the NFL departures of former UNC running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter — who combined for over 216 yards per game on the ground last season — the Tar Heels are still trying to figure out how snaps will be allocated in the backfield this fall.
Ty Chandler, a graduate transfer from Tennessee, took first-team reps in the scrimmage and now appears to be the lead back. Close behind him, though, are returners British Brooks and Josh Henderson, who each had a significant role in the Orange Bowl.
These three players, along with a plethora of first- and second-year running backs, are unlikely to match the production of two NFL prospects right away, but if they develop throughout the season, it will be a massive boost to quarterback Sam Howell and the rest of the UNC offense.
“Once they get going, I think they’re going to be really good backs,” junior offensive lineman Asim Richards said. “I’m just excited to see them play.”
After showing improvement in each of the last two seasons, UNC hopes to continue its ascent in the coming months. Given the energy and effort that was demonstrated on Saturday, it is apparent that the Tar Heels are no longer content with simply winning games.
Instead, they expect to dominate whoever stands in their way.