For North Carolina football, it truly felt like a season of new life would approach as spring practice wrapped up on April 19.
The program, once inflated with so much hype, is abound with change following a disappointing 6-7 campaign last year.
The departure of three-year starter Sam Howell for the NFL has opened the door for the team’s first quarterback battle since head coach Mack Brown returned in 2019. In addition, the team is bringing in a highly-ranked recruiting class and a solid group of transfers, as well as former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik as an assistant head coach for defense.
After an Orange Bowl berth in 2021 seemed to promise great things ahead, UNC was hampered by defensive hiccups and a battered offensive line.
The theme of the spring, according to Brown, was consistency.
“We didn't do a good job of getting a consistent football team on the field,” Brown said. “This spring, we had a consistent, disciplined football team that competed every day, and they had better discipline.”
Consistency is not an easy goal for a team with an overwhelming sense of newness on both sides of the ball, as Chizik and offensive coordinator Phil Longo both corroborated following the final spring practice last week.
Chizik's primary goals this offseason were to nail down the fundamentals and improve the communication in the secondary.
“We have to be able to just take our talent, make sure they're in the right spots, make sure there's no confusion and let them play,” he said. “So that's where we'll start.”
The defense was missing some key pieces this spring, notably senior defensive lineman Tomari Fox, who was suspended for the entirety of the regular season for using a banned substance. Brown announced that the NCAA denied Fox’s appeal, but said he would still be available to practice with the program next season.
“I don't think the penalty is fair,” Brown said. “Here's a young guy that got some advice from somebody, and drank something out of a bottle that I would have drunk, and then he loses his entire year.”
Two more defensive standouts, graduate lineman Ray Vohasek and junior defensive back Ja’Qurious Conley, both missed spring practice as they dealt with injuries. Brown said he expects Vohasek to be back “100 percent” in the fall, but said Conley could be limited going into fall camp.
Conversely, the offense was mostly healthy this spring. Longo didn’t hold back his excitement over the prospect of coaching a new group of quarterbacks next season.
He confirmed that redshirt first-year Drake Maye and sophomore Jacolby Criswell were the two players competing for the open spot behind center.
“There was a little bit of an edge to the spring ball that I think we lacked last year,” Longo said. “And there was a little bit of fun to the spring because we have some young players at some key positions, particularly at quarterback.”
All eyes were on Maye and Criswell during the spring game on April 9. Maye completed nine of 12 attempts for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Criswell completed all six of his attempts, throwing for 104 yards and a touchdown.
The team hopes to help the quarterback position out next year by bolstering an offensive line that was largely unsuccessful at protecting Howell last season. In March, Brown hired a new offensive line coach in 34-year coaching veteran Jack Bicknell Jr. He also brought in Harvard offensive tackle Spencer Rolland and Miami center Corey Gaynor through the transfer portal.
“(Our focus was) fewer sacks, fewer tackles for loss. We had too many penalties,” Brown said. “All of those were better this spring.”
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