New energy, same questions for UNC football after spring training ends

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For North Carolina football, it truly felt like a season of new life was approaching as spring training wrapped up on April 19.

The schedule, once bloated with so much hype, is brimming with changes after a disappointing 6-7 campaign last year.

The departure of three-year-old starter Sam Howell to the NFL opened the door to the team’s first quarterback battle since head coach Mack Brown returned in 2019. Additionally, the team is bringing a highly ranked recruiting class and a strong transfer group, as well as former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik as assistant head coach for defense.

After a spot in the Orange Bowl in 2021 seemed to promise big things to come, UNC has been hampered by defensive hiccups and a battered offensive line.

The spring theme, according to Brown, was consistency.

“We failed to get a cohesive football team on the field,” Brown said. “This spring we had a consistent, disciplined football team that competed every day, and they had better discipline.”

Consistency is not an easy goal for a team with an overwhelming sense of novelty on both sides of the ball, as Chizik and offensive coordinator Phil Longo both corroborated after last spring training last week.

Chizik’s main objectives this off-season were to define the fundamentals and improve communication in the secondary.

“We have to be able to just take our talent, make sure they’re in the right places, make sure there’s no confusion and let them play,” he said. “So that’s where we’ll start.”

The defense was missing key players this spring, including senior defensive lineman Tomari Fox, who was suspended for the entire regular season for using a banned substance. Brown announced that the NCAA had denied Fox’s appeal, but said he would still be available to train with the program next season.

“I don’t think the penalty is fair,” Brown said. “Here is a young man who got advice from someone and drank something from a bottle that I would have drunk and then he wasted his whole year.”

Two other defensive stars, graduate lineman Ray Vohasek and junior defensive back Ja’Qurious Conley, both missed spring training due to injuries. Brown said he expects Vohasek to be back “100%” in the fall, but said Conley may be limited to fall camp.

Conversely, the offense was quite healthy this spring. Longo hasn’t held back his excitement about coaching a new group of quarterbacks next season.

He confirmed that redshirt freshman Drake Maye and sophomore Jacolby Criswell were the two players competing for the free spot behind center.

“There was a bit of spring ball advantage that I think we lacked last year,” Longo said. “And there was a bit of fun in the spring because we have young players in some key positions, especially at quarterback.”

All eyes were on Maye and Criswell in the spring game on April 9. Maye completed nine of 12 attempts for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Criswell completed all six attempts, throwing for 104 yards and a touchdown.

The team hopes to help the quarterback position next year by bolstering an offensive line that largely failed to protect Howell last season. In March, Brown hired a new offensive line coach in 34-year-old veteran Jack Bicknell Jr. He also brought in Harvard offensive tackle Spencer Rolland and Miami center Corey Gaynor through the transfer portal.

“(Our goal was) fewer sacks, fewer tackles for loss. We had too many penalties,” Brown said. “All were better this spring.”

@LucasThomae

@dthsports | [email protected]

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