“Be the one.”
Whether you’ve seen it on a T-shirt or on the big screen in Kenan Stadium, UNC football head coach Mack Brown’s slogan for the team has defined this new era of Tar Heel football.
And the best season has yet to come.
In their 2020 campaign, the Tar Heels boasted a 8-4 record — the best the program has seen in five years — and produced five draft picks.
And with a promising Heisman candidate at quarterback, a total of 18 returning starters, and the No. 14 recruiting class in the nation, Brown’s team looks to become a top contender in the ACC this fall.
For North Carolina football, to “be the one” is more than just being the best version of oneself as an individual; it’s about holding oneself accountable to being one for the team.
This accountability is why junior quarterback Sam Howell has exceeded expectations in the program. Stepping into a leadership position last season, Howell threw an impressive 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
In his first two years as a Tar Heel, Howell threw more touchdown passes than former Clemson quarterback and No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence did in his first two seasons, 68 compared to 66. Just as Lawrence stayed through his junior year with the Tigers, this season will likely be Howell's last before declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft.
The dynamic passer is also a projected candidate for the 2021 Heisman trophy. While he's not the favorite, Howell faces comparable odds — 10-1 according to bet365 — to Georgia's JT Daniels and Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei.
Howell commands a powerhouse offense that will be backed by a fully returning offensive line, as well as veteran wide receivers like senior Beau Corrales and junior Emery Simmons.
In an effort to fill the gaps that Michael Carter and Javonte Williams left in the backfield, Ty Chandler, a graduate transfer from Tennessee, will use his experience at the collegiate level to guide a new generation of running backs.
Most of UNC’s defensive line will be returning for the 2021 season, supported by standout linebackers like senior Jeremiah Gemmel, junior Eugene Asante and graduate student Tomon Fox.
Middle linebackers Gemmel and Asante racked up impressive stats during their 2020 seasons, with Gemmel ranking second on the team in total tackles with 78 and Asante recording a career-high 10 tackles in the Orange Bowl in place of Chazz Surratt. Fox started all 12 games in 2020 and earned an All-ACC Honorable Mention with his seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
To kick-start their season, the Tar Heels will have an early test with a Friday night game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. UNC will also look to avenge last season's losses to Virginia and Florida State in home matchups in weeks three and six, respectively. Week seven will see a home game against Miami, UNC's most threatening competitor in the ACC Coastal Division.
Brown hasn't lost a season opener since his return to Chapel Hill, but the Hokies might just be his most difficult first opponent yet. In the intimidating Lane Stadium, a venue at which the Tar Heels have won only twice since 2004, Howell’s offense will need to buckle down against a solid defense that's returning eight starters and score crucial points to turn the game in their favor.
If UNC can win this early conference game, it will be on its way to compete with early preseason favorite Clemson for the top spot in the ACC, which could lead to another New Year's Six bowl appearance.
But it all starts with the motto, “be the one.” And with a deep roster and full stadium crowds, the North Carolina football team will look to do just that on September 3.