CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Leadership and success in football act in unison.
With every great team, position group or unit, there’s always a leader behind the masses that initiates the charge.
After last season’s disappointment, head coach Mack Brown knew something had to change within his program to help UNC hop back on its upward trajectory. So, the hall of fame head coach revamped and revitalized a group that has been a part of his teams for years — a leadership committee.
“The leadership committee this year has made a big difference,” junior linebacker Cedric Gray said at the ACC Football Kickoff on June 21. “Last year the leadership committee would just be guys who would vote on stuff. I think this year we’re taking it to the next level of how we can be leaders of the team.”
Alongside Gray stand a mixture of budding, young talent and multi-year veterans to round out the 15-member committee. With its range of voices and experiences, the committee enables players like sophomore Power Echols and graduate transfer Corey Gaynor to exchange ideas.
Likewise, the bond formed within the group over the offseason has molded into a togetherness that stretches past the committee’s weekly meetings.
“We meet once a week, but we’re always texting and FaceTiming in our group chat,” senior running back British Brooks said. “This year is the first year that we’re actually putting effort into it.”
While most of the committee’s members were scholarship players from their first day in Chapel Hill, Brooks stands as the only former walk-on of the group.
Brooks passed up on his only Division I offer from Charlotte and instead enrolled at North Carolina. After earning a walk-on spot with the Tar Heels in 2018, the Gastonia, N.C. native slowly worked his way up to becoming a two-year special teams captain.
Because of his experience as the lead voice of the special teams unit, Brooks is sticking to his roots as he prepares to pilot the running back room this season.
“I’m still in the special teams' room,” he said. “I’m still being vocal and giving the young guys tips. I’m taking that same energy into the running back room.”
Likewise, Gray has been tasked with a similar challenge this offseason, as the team leader in tackles last season looks to fill the lead linebacker position.
In his two seasons at UNC, Gray has seen Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel move on to the NFL at the position he’s slated to play this year. Gemmel’s strong leadership in particular helped him earn the nickname “The General.”
Heading into this season, Gray is using the examples of those before him to take command over the defensive side of the ball.
“I’m holding guys more accountable this year,” he said. “Last year we were letting little things slide, as far as people not coming to lunch or not getting their tutoring done. As a leader, I’ve honed in on those things and have a standard.”
Arguably the most notable member of this year’s leadership committee is Downs, a first-team All-ACC honoree a season ago. Like his teammates, the Biletnikoff Award watch list member pointed to last year’s absence of a lead voice as one of the main triggers for failing to live up to expectations.
And with the leadership committee set in place and taking hold over this year’s Tar Heels, North Carolina believes it's on its way to rewriting last season’s woes.
“We’re weaving out guys who are not here for the right reasons and getting everyone on board,” Downs said. “Overall, we’re just a voice for the team. I think last year we didn’t have a set voice to get everybody together.”