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Nate McCollum's breakout performance helps UNC football to third consecutive win

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UNC junior wide receiver Nate McCollum (6) after making a touchdown during the football game against Minnesota on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Kenan Stadium. UNC beat Minnesota 31-13.

After UNC’s 31-13 win against Minnesota on Saturday afternoon, head coach Mack Brown had one thing to say about Nate McCollum.

“He became Josh Downs for us today,” he said. “He was the guy, the go-to guy.” 

Sophomore quarterback Drake Maye echoed Brown's sentiment, likening the junior wide receiver's ability to find open space to that of former UNC standout Downs, whose 22 career receiving touchdowns is a program second-best.

It's easy to see why.

McCollum, a transfer from Georgia Tech, racked up 165 receiving yards and 15 catches — just one away from tying UNC's single-game record for receptions — on Saturday to carry the Tar Heels to a third consecutive victory. McCollum's spatial awareness and knack for getting open helped expand UNC's air game, as Maye finished with 414 passing yards, almost matching his combined 477 passing yards in the first two games this season.

McCollum had only played limited snaps prior to Saturday due to a lower body injury and had never started for North Carolina.

"Last week [against Appalachian State], we just weren't sure," Brown said. "We weren't sure how much he could do. We didn't want to put him back out there and get him hurt again. And then after the game, he said, 'You know I could've played more tonight.'"

Before Saturday's game, McCollum confided in Maye that he was “itching to play.”

“Once you hear that from anybody, you know you're expecting them to be clicking on all cylinders,” Maye said. “[McCollum] showed that tonight.” 

After catching just one pass against the Mountaineers, McCollum immediately set the tone on the opening drive against the Gophers. Maye targeted him five times, the final pass being a 46-yard deep ball for UNC's first touchdown.

Despite his dominant performance and chemistry with Maye, McCollum still wasn't sure about being compared to Downs.

“A lot of people say that,” McCollum said. “But I just think I’m my own player." 

He knows the Indianapolis Colts wide receiver well — the two Georgia natives grew up playing on the same baseball team and faced off against each other in high school football, he said. He also knew that in coming to UNC, he would be asked to fill Downs’ shoes, a role that he told reporters in January he would want to "step in" to.

However, McCollum wants to make a name for himself at North Carolina.

With his injury seemingly resolved, coupled with fellow transfer wideout Devontez ‘Tez’ Walker being sidelined due to eligibility issues, McCollum looks to be the go-to slot receiver for Maye.

Graduate defensive back Armani Chatman praised his teammate after the game, telling reporters on Saturday that McCollum's hard work is paying off. 

Still, in his mind, UNC hasn't "arrived yet," he said. 

“We can definitely be the best team in the country,” he said. “Not even just the ACC. I tell the guys all the time, ‘This team can go 15-0, like you could win a national championship with this team.”’

And, as the go-to receiver, it might just be McCollum helping to lead that charge. 

@PeaceGwen

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Gwen Peace

Gwen Peace is the 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer. Gwen is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and peace, war and defense.