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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC football to open season against Florida A&M in HBCU Celebration Game

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The UNC football team runs out of the tunnel ahead of their game against Florida State on Oct. 9 at Kenan Stadium. The Heels lost 35-25.

On Aug. 27, North Carolina will kick off its football season against the Florida A&M Rattlers at Kenan Stadium.

The HBCU Celebration Game will mark the start of the season for both schools. It will be a weekend celebrating historically black colleges and universities, with Florida A&M’s world-renowned marching band, the Marching "100", in Chapel Hill for the game. 

Last year, the Rattlers opened their season with a 7-6 loss to Jackson State, coached by NFL legend Deion Sanders. Following the opening loss, the team picked up momentum by winning nine of its next 10 games. The team's sole loss in those 10 games was to South Florida, where the Rattlers fell 38-17. Ultimately, the Rattlers qualified for the 2021 FCS playoffs but suffered a 38-14 loss to Southeastern Louisiana University in the opening round.

Three FAMU players have consistently made preseason headlines and watchlists: Isaiah Land, BJ Bohler and Jah’Marae Sheread. The Tar Heels must be especially careful of Land, who was the FCS National Defensive Player of the Year last season. He led the FCS in sacks (19) and tackles for loss (25.5). Bohler was named to the Black College Football Player of the Year watch list along with Land after proving to be one of the best defensive backs in the nation in 2021. Meanwhile, return specialist Sheread led the FCS in yards per punt return with 19.9.

The Rattlers' defensive line has been key to their success and will remain consistent this season. The defensive line will return 13 players from the 2021 season, including Justin Cooks, Gentle Hunt and Stanley Mentor. As a redshirt first-year last season, Hunt recorded 27 total tackles and five sacks across 10 games.

On the other hand, FAMU’s linebackers have seen the opposite trend. Of the 15 linebackers on the roster this year, 12 are new to the program — a possible concern for FAMU in a season opener where players have yet to face competitive pressure.

The team lost last season's leading rusher, Bishop Bonnet, this season but will bring two up-and-coming running backs in Terrell Jennings and Jaylen McCloud. Running back coach Marcus Windham told FAMU Athletics earlier this month that Jennings and McCloud did well in runs, mentioning their size and physicality. He also noted that they have a lot to learn but have been improving quickly.  

UNC is Florida A&M’s only ACC opponent this season. The rest of the team's schedule consists of other FCS schools and conference opponents, including Alabama A&M, Mississippi Valley State and Grambling State.

It has been a few years since the Rattlers opened their season against a larger, non-conference opponent like UNC. In 2019, they played No.17 Central Florida in Orlando and lost 62-0. However, under head coach Willie Simmons, the team has consistently improved over the last several seasons. 

In addition to last year's 9-3 campaign that saw the team qualify for the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2001, the 2019 season was also quite strong. The Rattlers finished with a 9-2 record and ranked in the FCS Top 25.

Despite consistent improvement over the last few seasons and explosive defensive players on the roster, the Rattlers will face a highly-talented UNC team. With a long season lying ahead, both teams will attempt to start the year off on the right note by securing a victory in Chapel Hill.  

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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