With four games remaining, the North Carolina football team is entering the home stretch of the regular season.
In a player press conference on Tuesday evening, graduate jack Chris Collins was asked if he would be tuned in to the first reveal of the College Football Playoff rankings later that night. As a self-proclaimed “college football fan in general,” he said would be watching, which likely made the eventual No. 17 ranking that much more satisfying.
“To still be a contender in November? That’s something I’ve been dreaming of,” Collins said.
Entering the new month, the Tar Heels face challenges beyond just the added pressure of being a top-20 team. In the team's 42-24 win over Pitt last Saturday, three starting players — graduate jack Noah Taylor, junior defensive end Desmond Evans and sophomore running back Caleb Hood — suffered season-ending injuries that will force the team to close out the year with a revamped lineup.
The loss of these players may change the team on the field, but in the Tar Heels' upcoming game against Virginia, they will head to Charlottesville with complete faith in the next men up.
Junior defensive lineman Myles Murphy, who had his own struggle with an ankle injury against Georgia State, believes first-year Travis Shaw and sophomore Jacolbe Cowan can make an impact on the defensive line. Murphy specifically commended Shaw’s improvement since the beginning of the season and mentioned that offensive linemen “can’t move him.”
With the Tar Heels adapting to these changes, head coach Mack Brown wants the team to stay focused and has told them to stay off social media. Despite this new adjustment, the players understand his reasoning.
“During this time of the season, people don’t really lock in, people tire,” Murphy said.
Such a mindset could be especially destructive this week with UNC on the road, where it has a pattern of narrowly escaping with close wins. To build dominance, the team will look to establish its mostly non-existent running game, which will be even more difficult with Hood's absence.
With the lineup in a state of flux, Brown praised Elijah Green as a role model earlier in the week. After starting on all four special teams units over the course of the season, Green led the group of running backs in carries and scored a touchdown against Pitt.
Green will start at tailback against the Cavaliers, and although his additional responsibilities remain unclear, the sophomore running back is ready to make an impact.
“Wherever I’m needed, I want to be there to help the team,” Green said. “So if I need to do all four, I’m going to do all four. If they take me off, then that’s that.”
Following four straight losses to Virginia, UNC came away with a 59-39 shootout victory in Chapel Hill last season. Although this year's away matchup should present more difficulty, redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye said he’s proud of the team’s 4-0 road record.
“I don’t know if we’ve necessarily taken over anybody’s trap. We’re squeaking in there with some wins, but that’s all that matters,” Maye said.
A win this week would give the team five road victories, which would match a mark last set in 1997.
While the upcoming game combines pressure from rankings, a road atmosphere and shifted duties, both Collins and Green said the team’s mood is optimistic, and Collins believes the key to being successful through change is consistency.
“Don’t try to be a superstar, don’t try to be anything that you’re not,” Collins said. “Just go on in and do your job.”
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