North Carolina aims to contend in ACC despite QB uncertainty

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Mack Brown’s rebuild at North Carolina appeared ahead of schedule with a top-10 national ranking to open last season, only to see the first true setback since his return for his second stint with the program.

That led to changes for the Tar Heels — namely with the defensive coaching staff — along with self-reflection for the College Football Hall of Fame member.

“A really good, well-coached football team plays hard every week,” Brown said. “That’s what I pride myself on. We didn’t. We played up and down. … And that’s my responsibility.

“I’ve been more open with the coaches about that than you all. I’ve told them: ‘This was unacceptable, and we’re not going to do it anymore.’ That’s why I’m out here every minute pressing everybody to wake up and get back to where we were the second year.”

The Tar Heels spent most 2020 in the AP Top 25 and opened last year at No. 10 – “criminally overrated,” Brown says now – only to go 6-7 despite the presence of star quarterback Sam Howell.

With Howell in the NFL, the Tar Heels have a position battle between third-year sophomore Jacolby Criswell and redshirt freshman Drake Maye to determine who gets the first shot at targeting star receiver Josh Downs (1,335 yards, eight TDs).

UNC needs a step forward defensively from a unit returning seven starters, including Ray Vohasek (24 starts) up front and Tony Grimes (17) in the secondary. There’s also the arrival of coordinator Gene Chizik, who led a turnaround once before at UNC.

Expectations won’t be as high after being picked third in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division.

“We had a lot of hype around us last year,” Downs said. “So this year we’re kind of under the radar right now and a lot of people are counting us out.”

HANDLING THE QBS

Criswell and Maye have combined to throw 35 career passes.

“With Sam, when he became the guy, everything was let’s be simple, let’s get him ready for an opening ballgame as a true freshman,” Brown said. “These two have been here. … We’re worried about them separating, so we’re bringing it all.”

CHIZIK’S WORK

Chizik was Brown’s defensive coordinator at Texas when the Longhorns won the national championship for the 2005 season. He also worked at UNC under Larry Fedora, taking a defense that allowed 497.8 yards and 39 points per game in 2014 and cutting those numbers to 435.9 yards and 24.5 points — a key reason the Tar Heels won the Coastal Division in 2015.

This time, he’s taking over a unit that surrendered 32.1 points last season under Jay Bateman, finishing with a late collapse at North Carolina State followed by a bad start in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl loss to South Carolina.

“We’re all going to run to the ball,” linebacker Cedric Gray said. “We’re all going to tackle, and we’re all going to execute what he tells us to do.”

Changes included the return of Charlton Warren, who worked under Chizik at UNC before, as defensive backs coach.

GROUND GAME

The Tar Heels lost a 1,000-yard rusher in Ty Chandler. Fifth-year senior British Brooks was set for more work before suffering a season-ending lower-body injury in Saturday’s practice.

Before that injury, Brown had pointed to freshmen George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton as offering potential. That could be more important now.

FINISHING

The Tar Heels are 7-12 on the road in Brown’s second stint, with eight losses in nine games decided by seven or fewer points.

“That’s poor coaching,” Brown said, adding: “If we’d have won those tight games, we’d be a top-10 team. And we haven’t.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Tar Heels open with a “Week Zero” home game against Florida A&M on Aug. 27, followed by road games against Sun Belt Conference opponents that played in bowl games last year. The first comes Sept. 3 at Appalachian State, which won at UNC in 2019, followed by Georgia State the next week.

The Tar Heels also host No. 5 Notre Dame on Sept. 24 before playing Virginia Tech in their ACC opener on Oct. 1. UNC closes at home against 13th-ranked rival North Carolina State on Nov. 25.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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