On Monday afternoon, Phil Longo stepped up to the podium with a half-smile, a half-sigh of relief.
Before anyone could ask the North Carolina offensive coordinator how his team – the 10th-best in the nation – planned to move the ball this season, a simple two-word clarification was required.
Back, as in playing football games on the weekends, is factually true. The Tar Heels will travel to face Virginia Tech this Friday night.
But back as in something bigger? Like, establishing a national presence by potentially unseating Clemson, who won their sixth straight conference championship last December, to clinch UNC's first ACC title since Lawrence Taylor 41 years ago.
Hall of Fame head coach Mack Brown has reached the mountaintop of the sport before. Setting lofty goals isn’t a new task to him. But to his budding team, he understands the importance of balancing optimism with reality.
“Nobody can talk about winning the ACC championship until somebody beats Clemson, because they're the king, they've got that spot,” Brown said. “But I would say that we're way ahead of where I thought we would be going into season three.”
With over 4,000 yards of last year’s UNC offense now off to the NFL, the bulk of the offensive duties will be kept in the hands of junior Sam Howell, the Preseason ACC Player of the Year and Heisman candidate.
But for all the boxes Howell checks as one of the top signal-callers in the nation, if the Tar Heels want to be a great team, running the ball will remain a top priority. Gone are Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who could very well be starting on Sundays in a short time, but the running back room has been rebuilt with Ty Chandler, a graduate transfer from Tennessee.
Chandler is no stranger to starring in big games, formerly playing in the SEC each week, a conference dubbed by many to be the best in the nation. Although he has yet to take any game reps within Longo’s offensive scheme, his experience will be invaluable to the team’s young core of running backs.
Behind him, a player that has emerged as the rushing attack’s second option is first-year Caleb Hood, a former high school quarterback who has done nothing but impress since arriving on campus as an early enrollee this spring.
In his time adjusting to the position, Hood has bulked up to 230 pounds, a potentially dangerous pairing with his natural explosiveness.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise, and he’s trending upward in a very, very fast way,” running backs coach Larry Porter said.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Tar Heels were a tale of two halves in 2020. In the early part of the season, the defense dug the team into several holes, forcing Howell and the offense to stage a heroic comeback to have any chance of picking up the win.
But as the year progressed, a plethora of young talent began to earn more snaps and develop during the toughest tests of the season, most notably in bouts against top-10 teams in Notre Dame, Miami and Texas A&M.
Following the NFL departure of Chazz Surratt, a two-time First Team All-ACC selection, someone will need to replace his production in the middle of the defensive unit. Given his status as one of the team’s captains, senior Jeremiah Gemmel appears poised to take on that challenge.
Not all season openers are created equal, which the Tar Heels quickly were made aware of in January when they were informed their first assignment would come at an exuberant, sold-out Lane Stadium.
“You’re getting what you signed up for when you came to play college football,” Gemmel said. “The first couple plays, you’re going to have some jitters, but after that, it’s all just football.”
Yes, it might only be the first week of September. Resumes are solidified in the cooler days of November and December, and not all aspirations are dashed with a minor blip.
But in the most anticipated North Carolina football season of this millennium, Friday’s outcome will go a long way in determining if the Tar Heels are simply back to playing football games, or playing for something much, much more.