When the North Carolina football team runs out onto the field for its season opener at Virginia Tech on Friday, the Tar Heels will be a team characterized by lots of hype and lots of uncertainties.
For head coach Mack Brown, one question stands above the rest: What will the offense look like after losing many of last season’s stars to the NFL Draft?
“That’s the biggest question mark about this team that will be answered Friday night,” Brown said in a press conference on Monday. “Can we replace the 4,000 yards of offense that we lost, and who will be doing it?”
Part of that answer may lie in an unlikely figure — the quiet, reserved Ty Chandler, a graduate transfer from Tennessee who joined the program just over a week after the Tar Heels’ appearance in the Orange Bowl.
The absence of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter left a gaping hole of experience in the running back room, which is exactly why Brown looked to Chandler after the transfer portal opened up in January.
“We’re not big on transfers, but we did feel like we needed that experience in that room,” Brown said.
But Chandler didn’t come to UNC to take up the Herculean task of replacing Williams and Carter. Earlier this preseason, in response to questions about his Tar Heel predecessors, he said he’s “just coming in to be Ty Chandler.”
“I’m a humble person and I like to keep it that way,” he said. "I just want to come in and play football how I know I can play and be the teammate I know I can be for the guys in that locker room and just be myself.”
'Football is football'
Chandler was a key component of the Volunteers’ offense ever since he arrived in Knoxville in 2017. As a sophomore, he led the team in rushing yards and was effective in the passing game, racking up seven touchdowns — four rushing and three receiving — to lead all position players.
But following that season, Chandler’s production started to decrease as new backs came into the fray, and he eventually decided to use his extra season of eligibility elsewhere after Tennessee went just 3-7 in 2020.
“I did my time and enjoyed it,” Chandler said. “It was a learning experience that taught me a lot and I'm grateful for it, but at the same time I'm grateful to have this opportunity here with Coach Brown and the rest of the team.”
One may think that UNC’s fast-tempo, pass-heavy offense would be a rough transition for Chandler, who hails from a conference vaunted for its defenses and proficiency in the run game.
But Chandler has been open about his embrace of offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s scheme. Both he and his coaches have noted how hard he's worked to learn the system this preseason, and Chandler has little worries about the stylistic differences of ACC football.
“Really when it all comes down to it man, football is football," Chandler said. "It’s played at a high level no matter where you go, SEC or ACC.”
'Teach them all that I know'
Brown said in Monday’s press conference that Chandler, Caleb Hood and D.J. Jones were the three running backs he expected to play against the Hokies. Jones saw the field sparingly last season with only 11 rushing attempts, while Hood, a true first-year, has yet to play a snap at the collegiate level.
Chandler is truly an elder statesman among them, and his proficiency in things like pass protection and lining up in the slot should prove invaluable to his greener teammates.
“Just his maturity and his experience and his approach to this opportunity was phenomenal,” running backs coach Larry Porter said. “I thought he brought a lot of wisdom to the group.”
He may be quiet, but Chandler is dedicated to improving himself and his teammates like no other. He was voted onto this season’s leadership committee, an accomplishment Brown called “one of the best compliments you can have on our team.”
“Whatever (my teammates) need from me, I’m here for it — whether it's life, football, whatever,” Chandler said. “I'm trying to teach them all that I know and just pass down knowledge: studying the game, respecting the game. I'm an open book.”
But despite his experience, Chandler knew very little about how the team actually operated when he got to Chapel Hill.
The exchange of information between him and his teammates became a two-way street. As Chandler learned UNC’s offense and studied film with his fellow backs, the younger players got the opportunity to learn the nuances of the game from him.
“I thought our team did a great job extending the hand of brotherhood, just accepting him and embracing him for who he is,” Porter said. “I think that has allowed him to be comfortable and truly become the best version of himself.”
'Be comfortable being uncomfortable'
Although Chandler's short time in Chapel Hill may not make him the most outspoken presence in the locker room, he leads by example as a lifelong student of the game.
His father, Chico, played at Ole Miss, and when Ty was a child, they would watch the Rebels play with Eli Manning under center. It was Chico Chandler who taught his son many of the aspects of football that Chandler now imparts upon his teammates.
“Just hearing my dad talk about the game, respecting the game, how it should be played, and him training me, that just gave me an opportunity to see a lot of different perspectives of the college football world,” Chandler said.
As Chandler prepares for his first game as the lead back of the No. 10 team in the nation, he knows the challenge that lies ahead — facing Virginia Tech on the road, one of the toughest draws a team can be dealt to open the season.
Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia is well-known for its home-field advantage and is notorious for its high altitude and raucous fans. The university announced this summer that it would be opening up to full capacity for the 2021 season, and tickets are already sold out for Friday night.
Being back in that type of atmosphere may feel like a shock to some on the team, but one Tar Heel won't be rattled.
“You got to be comfortable being uncomfortable," Chandler said. "Going to hostile environments is something you live for. That’s always exciting, to go into someone else's stadium and play.”
And Chandler has about seen it all in terms of hostile environments. He’s played in Tuscaloosa, Athens, Auburn and Gainesville. Nobody else on UNC’s roster can claim that sort of pressure – even last season’s Orange Bowl had capped attendance.
“He's been in those games, he's not going to get big eyes,” Brown said. “He knows what to do and that's the reason we signed him."
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