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Football Notebook: Takeaways from UNC's first spring practice of 2024

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The UNC football team runs a drill during the spring practice on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

The first of 15 spring practices for the North Carolina football team began on Tuesday morning. 

The practice was open to the media and displayed several adjustments made since the Tar Heels' 30-10 loss to West Virginia in the 2023 Duke's Mayo Bowl. As a result, here are a few observations from the practice concerning the upcoming quarterback battle, the impact of new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and North Carolina’s ground game ahead of the annual spring game on April 20.

It's notebook time.

QB Battle

With the departure of Drake Maye for the NFL draft, the UNC quarterback room has created a two-man race for the starting job between sophomore Conner Harrell and graduate transfer Max Johnson.

Harrell appeared in five games for the Tar Heels' last season before starting in UNC’s bowl game at the end of the year. Johnson played in eight games and started five last season for Texas A&M, finishing with 1,452 passing yards and nine touchdowns. 

“[Connor] and Max are going to have a great battle to see who is going to be QB1,” senior offensive lineman Willie Lampkin said. “I’m happy for both of them. I feel like they’re both great quarterbacks and both have great potential.”

During the intra-squad scrimmages, Harrell was the one to receive first-team reps with the offense. He displayed his deep-ball accuracy on one occasion and made plays with his legs like he did during his lone start in UNC’s bowl game. However, much like that game, Harrell’s poor pocket awareness led to a handful of simulated sacks within the scrimmage.

In regards to Johnson, the veteran received praise from his coaches for his footwork and pocket presence. However, the Georgia native had a handful of overthrows and out-of-reach passes that eventually led to an interception by senior defensive back Alijah Huzzie. Despite these troubles, Johnson appeared to make good reads across the field for a quarterback new to the playbook.

Whoever the starter may be by the regular season, one thing is for sure: the competition is infectious. 

“I feel like [the battle] is going to bring the best out of everybody,” Lampkin said.

Minister of Mayhem

It's easy to pick out the latest coaching hire for the Tar Heels.

Sporting his Bill Belichick-style cutoff sweatshirt, Collins is an energy machine. Ask any of the Tar Heels on the defensive side of the ball and they will tell you the countless ways their new defensive coordinator is intense.

“He brings a ton of energy to the table, and you have no choice but to match his energy,” Huzzie said. “He pumps up everybody and brings a light to the defense.”

On one occasion during the simulated scrimmage, a defensive lineman broke through the trenches for a would-be tackle for loss. Before the player got a chance to celebrate on his own, Collins was there banging on his pads with infectious joy. 

As for the X’s and O’s, Huzzie said the defensive coordinator has added more blitz packages and pressures to align with his disruptive mindset.

This was evident to Lampkin. At times, him and the other offensive linemen had trouble keeping the tenacious pass rushers at bay.

“They brought the intensity on the first day,” Lampkin said. “I felt like that’s what we need, especially in the trenches. Who is going to bring the energy, who is going to bring the best out of each other and that's what we need.” 

‘Run the damn ball’

With the return of junior running back Omarion Hampton, the Tar Heels may look to increase the star's workload without Maye in the offense. On Tuesday, Hampton was able to find holes for strong carries in both the scrimmages and drills.

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“We do a lot of similar things, just reading the holes is going to be the same,” Hampton said. “But I feel like they are opening up the holes a little bit better this year.”

Of course, the desire to establish a better run game is fully embraced by the offensive line. Lampkin said the motto for this upcoming season is “run the damn ball." That starts with a group of guards who are on the same page. 

To get there, Lampkin is providing the leadership. Offensive line coach Randy Clements used Lampkin to show correct technique in drills and be the example for the younger players on Tuesday.

“They didn’t have opportunities to play last year, because we had all the older guys playing,” Lampkin said. “So just off of today, I feel like we are going to make a big step to get ready for the season.”

@cadeshoemaker23

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com