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UNC football faces uncertainty with skill positions after #TyleeStrong spring game

Elijah Green (21), sophomore running back, works to make a play during UNC football's spring scrimmage on April 9, 2022, in Chapel Hill, NC.

Mack Brown decided to make a change to the North Carolina football team’s spring routine.

The 70-year-old head coach incorporated a point-based competition, pitting the offense against the defense. Coming into Saturday, the score was tied, and the #TyleeStrong spring game was going to settle it.

In an intense, fast-paced scrimmage, the offense came away with the 45-32 victory. While many individuals showed flashes of excellence, Saturday’s exhibition left a lot of uncertainty around the program, especially among the offensive skill positions.

Junior receiver Josh Downs, who led the team last season with 1,335 receiving yards, made an early statement that he’s still an elite offensive weapon.

He showcased his strong chemistry with sophomore Jacolby Criswell, connecting on a 40-yard bomb into the red zone and a 12-yard touchdown reception. He also made a big play with redshirt first-year Drake Maye, another potential starting quarterback, darting past the secondary until he was wide open for a 38-yard catch and score.

Aside from Downs — who finished the day with four catches for 95 yards — no other receivers contributed much to the offense’s overall point total.

Senior Antoine Green made a nice contested grab for a first down but only had two other receptions. The only young receiver to make a big play was redshirt first-year Kobe Paysour, who caught the ball in stride for a 62-yard score, but the play was called off due to a penalty.

With new recruits Andre Greene and Tychaun Chapman ineligible to play, UNC’s wide receiver room was noticeably thin on Saturday, as it was throughout spring practice.

“(The quarterbacks) don’t have to throw to 15 to 20 different people,” Downs said. “They’re only throwing to like eight different guys and we’re really getting comfortable as a group. It does put a little toll on our legs, but it’s spring right now, so it’s not too big of a deal. We have until August to recover.”

Contrary to the wide receiver group, the running back room is crowded. But no one has emerged as a clear-cut starter.

Senior British Brooks got the bulk of the early carries, but Elijah Green had the most productive afternoon. The sophomore tallied 61 yards on nine carries and a touchdown that gave the offense an insurmountable lead over the defense. He showcased his quickness, darting past the defenders through the middle of the field for a 36-yard gain.

Despite a quiet afternoon, first-year running back George Pettaway impressed the coaching staff enough to warrant consideration for playing time.

Saturday was one of the only practices where he didn’t have a breakaway run. 

“He’s a lot stronger than he looks because he’s so quick and people think he’s light,” Brown said. “He’s got a really strong lower body, and he’s run over some people this spring.”

While more players on the offense stood out, Brown was hesitant to award them with the overall head-to-head victory due to the defense’s purposely limited playbook.

“I thought it was very unfair to the defense today," Brown said. "They’re not going to win with a vanilla defense."

Despite his coach's words, Downs believed otherwise.

“We took care of business,” he said. “So, we won the spring.”

While the results may be disputed, Brown’s new point-based approach brought a competitive edge on both sides of the ball, giving the Tar Heels some much-needed motivation after a disastrous season.

That newfound drive showed in a spring game full of strong hits, broken tackles and a desire to win.

“Every day, we’ve been tallying points,” junior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “Every play — from first downs, tackles for losses, sacks — all meant something throughout this spring, and it really brought the best out of everybody.”

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