CHAPEL HILL — This morning marked the first time in more than 20 years that Mack Brown coached North Carolina through an August football practice.
The mood was upbeat as Carolina wrapped up its first preseason workout, splitting time outdoors on a steamy morning and working inside their sparkling new practice facility.
Here’s what Brown and the Tar Heels took from the first day of training camp:
A new era
Dazz Newsome pointed to the positive encouragement while Antonio Williams said everyone was on the same page, moving full-speed ahead.
Toe Groves said that the fast-paced Tar Heels have somehow hit a new gear.
“The one difference that I would say is the pace we go,” he said. “We go from team to whatever is next, and it’s like (fast) the whole day.”
Whatever each player pointed out as the biggest change on the first day of fall camp under Brown, it ultimately comes back to confidence — a word that nearly everyone used in some form.
“That’s something we haven’t had and it’s even evident when you ask the players, they say, ‘We’ve got to get more confidence, we’ve got to get more confidence,’” Brown said. “When you’re in better shape and your body is better and you feel better about yourself, you can have more confidence.”
After Carolina went 5-18 with a number of fourth-quarter collapses in the past two seasons, the staff has been proactive about trying to build confidence in late-game situations. During summer workouts, that meant stopping the action and making everyone aware they were coming down the stretch.
That continued today, when practice stopped and the whole team gathered at midfield before the “fourth quarter” of practice.
“We’re in condition, we’ve got to the energy to do it, we know what to do, but you’ve got to have a strong mind to finish the game,” running back Michael Carter said. “The best teams, the fourth quarter is their best quarter and that’s been the difference, that they’ve emphasized it so much and it’s going to pay off.”
Ride the workhorses?
There’s no doubt that running back is Carolina’s strongest position on offense, and potentially, on the entire roster.
The lighting-quick Carter’s 597 yards led the Tar Heels last season, while Williams wasn’t far behind with 504 yards and a team-best five rushing touchdowns as Carolina’s best option between the tackles. Over the final two weeks of the season, Javonte Williams came on strong, rushing 33 times for 176 yards and four touchdowns.
As a three-man battle works out at quarterback, Williams is happy to provide stability in the backfield.
“I wouldn’t call it a burden,” he said. “I think if we just do our job, things will work out how they should work out. If they want to lean on us and we’re moving the thing like we should be, yeah, they can lean on us.”
Ultimately, Williams feels like he and the experienced stable of running backs will help the quarterbacks focus simply on playing quarterback.
“We know what we’re looking back as running backs,” he said. “We can help them get a little bit off their plate before the snap and allow them to just think about what they’ve got to do.”
It’s only one day of practice, but the Tar Heels didn’t come close to fumbling any information on the quarterback battle.
Sophomores Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder are expected to split practice reps with blue-chip freshman Sam Howell, and teammates have stuck to the company lines.
“Man, all have the potential to be elite quarterbacks and I think we have a very good problem of having to decide between the three,” Williams said. “They’re all really good guys and really good quarterbacks.”
Groves was equally as diplomatic.
“All of them have poise when they’re in the game,” he said. “All of them are confident in their arms, confident in the reads that they make. It’s tough to distinguish between the three because they’ve all got great qualities.”
Himself a member of the media for the past several years at ESPN, Brown understands the interest.
“It’s a story for you all. I’ve been through this; it’ll be asked every day until and then when we do, it’ll be asked why and why’d he (win),” he said. "It’s a question all your fans are asking, so it is real, but you don’t want to do it too quickly and make the wrong decision.”
He was pleased with how his players handled the questions on Friday.
“What we did in the spring is said, ‘All three of them are good enough, and they’re all three talented enough, so be fair; let them work it out and don’t you start trying to coach,’” he said. “It sounds like they did a good job with that today.”