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Quarterback battle and transfer portal moves loom over UNC football ahead of 2024 Spring Game

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UNC senior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) chases after UNC first-year quarterback Connor Harrell (15) as he runs down the line during the Spring Game in Kenan Stadium at on Saturday, April 15, 2023. 

This Saturday, make no mistakes about it, UNC football will have a game.

There will be 10-15 thud plays, with players going full speed until initial contact, then backing away. From there, head coach Mack Brown predicted 40-60 true scrimmage snaps will take place in true game format.

Coaches will call plays from the sidelines. ACC officials will be present. Yes, it’s an intrasquad scrimmage, but to Brown, that doesn’t take away from its competitiveness.

“So don’t gripe about not hitting enough if you don’t want to come,” Brown said. “I mean, you can stay at home without bitching, but don’t gripe because these are facts. We’re gon’ play football.”

North Carolina football's 2024 Spring Game will take place at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Kenan Stadium. Admission is free and fans can win prizes like tickets and signed footballs. Carolina Ticket Sales will be taking season ticket deposits starting at $315. But, more than the typical festivities, this game has real implications for the fall season as depth charts, a neck-and-neck quarterback battle and transfer portal additions are all being sorted out.

Here are two takeaways for the Tar Heels ahead of the spring game: 

Transfer portal still a factor as Brown looks to fill roster gaps

Brown made it clear on Wednesday — North Carolina is still actively searching the transfer portal for players to fill roster gaps. 

“We’re looking for a defensive lineman in the portal,” he said. “We’re looking for a quarterback in the portal. And we’re looking at a running back, offensive lineman, defensive back or linebacker if one becomes available that’s really good. If they can upgrade our team, then we’d do that.”

As with most programs across the country, Brown said UNC is tracking the portal daily to see who pops in. Most recently, North Carolina is in need of another quarterback thanks to the departure of Tad Hudson, who didn’t see game time as a Tar Heel.

Also among those leaving are cornerback Lejond Cavazos, safety Ayden Duncanson, and offensive lineman D.J. Geth. Cavazos, hampered by injuries, played sparingly last season, while Duncanson participated in one game. Geth, also a first-year last season, didn't make an appearance. 

However, financial constraints and competition from other programs pose challenges in the age of name, image, likeness. On Wednesday, Brown emphasized the importance of building team depth while navigating financial limitations, saying he’s working equally hard to build up UNC’s NIL collective Heels4Life, as he is focusing on coaching.

While a lot of progress has been made, Brown said the collective is still not where it needs to be to put the Tar Heels in a competitive spot in the portal.

“I’m fighting really, really hard with Heels4Life to make sure that our players have a fair shake with NIL,” Brown said. “I don’t want them just to stay here for money. I don’t want them just to come here for money. But I also think it’s very unfair of us to ask them to compete and us not try to help them.”

Max Johnson and Conner Harrell face off in quarterback battle

Graduate transfer Max Johnson and redshirt sophomore Conner Harrell are actively competing for QB1 and will look to increase their value on Saturday.

“Drake [Maye] was the guy this time last year,” Brown said. “The quarterbacks have had a tremendous competition this spring. They’ve been supportive of each other. I feel like either one can go in and win games right now.”

Through red zone, situations and two-point plays, Brown said the two signal-callers have received the exact same number of snaps in the spring season.

Johnson, who played at both LSU and Texas A&M, is a four-year veteran who’s appeared in 30 games and started in 22. Harrell, meanwhile, has appeared in just five games and made his first career start against West Virginia in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.

Who’s going to change a game and who’s going to win a game?” Brown said. “That’s what we’re looking for. So there’s a lot of excitement for Saturday but there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the guys because this is important to them. This isn’t a boring spring game where you can go out there and not work.”

@shelbymswanson

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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.