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Friday February 3rd

UNC football staying loose, focusing on fixing mistakes ahead of final games

UNC sophomore running back Elijah Green (21) prepares to make a touchdown at the homecoming football game against Pitt on Oct. 19, 2022 at Kenan Stadium. UNC beat Pitt 42-24.
Buy Photos UNC sophomore running back Elijah Green (21) prepares to make a touchdown at the homecoming football game against Pitt on Oct. 19, 2022 at Kenan Stadium. UNC beat Pitt 42-24.

As the North Carolina football players stood at the podium for their weekly Tuesday press conference, their presence hardly revealed the emotions of an 8-1 team ranked No. 15 in the nation and comfortably sitting in first place in the ACC Coastal Division.

Entering a matchup against in-state foe Wake Forest, the players spoke about the improvements they need to make entering the homestretch of the season. But rather than leisurely watching film — like one might expect from a team on a five-game winning streak — the group has stayed attentive and locked in, knowing it can still fix the small details.

“We didn’t focus on the little things as much as we needed to, but that gave us an edge on Sunday,” said junior defensive lineman Kaimon Rucker on last week’s game against Virginia. “When we watched it, definitely watched as a defense, talked about it as a whole.”

Rucker wasn’t the only player who talked about the “little things”. The team as a whole has been focusing in on mistakes as the Tar Heels look to clinch their first ACC Championship Game berth since 2015.

This upcoming week will be a test to their ability to fix mistakes that have been plaguing them all season. Rucker said that for the defense, that includes “poor eyes in a lot of different scenarios, and a lot of leaky yardage.”

The Tar Heels will head to Winston-Salem for a tough road matchup against the Demon Deacons, who are looking to recover from back-to-back conference losses to Louisville and N.C. State. 

According to senior defensive back Cam’Ron Kelly, the team is not discounting Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman despite the Demon Deacons' recent struggles. Kelly said the redshirt junior will be a challenge due to his ability to improvise on certain plays.

Kelly also said that a key for UNC is to put pressure on the defense by scoring early. He said it will come down to the mentality of the team leading up to Saturday, so that players are aggressive at the beginning of the game and not “just not waiting for things to get ugly to try to make it beautiful.”

Sophomore running back Elijah Green has also focused on correcting his mistakes, and added that such a mindset has been given to him by his father, Victor, who played 11 seasons in the NFL. In the Tar Heels' win over the Cavaliers last week, his work was rewarded, as he caught his first career touchdown pass.

Green arrived at UNC without noteworthy receiving skills, and remembered an ACC announcer who said he “couldn’t catch a cold in Alaska.” Prior to the team's win over Duke, Green had yet to catch a pass in a Tar Heel uniform.

Off the field, Green has trained to build this new skill, even tossing a tennis ball against the wall in his room to work on his pass-catching ability. His work ethic and strong performances echoes the rest of the team's mindset to improve in all facets of the game.

"Just because you have a weakness doesn’t mean that has to stay a weakness,” Green said. “You can always take that weakness and continue to develop it, keep working and turn it into a strength.”

The Tar Heels may be keeping their eye on the prizes that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean the work they put in throughout the week is a chore. 

Senior offensive lineman Asim Richards said the team likes to joke around in the locker room and with head coach Mack Brown. With the team continuing to climb into national relevance, the group hopes its positivity will take the Tar Heels to the next level.

“When you play with a good group of guys like this, you’re always gonna mess around,” Richards said. “You have fun with it. That’s what keeps you coming back every day.”  

@hamsinisiva3

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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