CHAPEL HILL — Mack Brown is as curious as anyone about how good his North Carolina football team might be. And he would love for someone on the team to step up and let him know.
But whether from shell-shock or shyness, no one on his team talks.
The returning coach knew he was inheriting a team with scar tissue from seasons past, a team that got its coach fired after winning only five games in two years and is a combined 0-7 against in-state rivals Duke, N.C. State and East Carolina.
He suspects the damage has been done. But he had no idea that it would render the players speechless.
“This team’s been very quiet,” Brown said today. “They’re not a vocal team. They laugh and cut up but they don’t call each other out. Coach-led teams are very average. Player-led teams are very good. The best teams I’ve ever coached, the players on the field and in the locker room handled all of it. They told them to shut up and do this and act right and play harder, and we’re working on that now. We’re still not there. We’re going to need that Saturday.”
The season begins in Charlotte against South Carolina, and the UNC coaches have screamed themselves hoarse waiting for someone, anyone, to step up and talk.
The freshman quarterback is yet to be that guy. Sam Howell will become the first true freshman to start an opener at Carolina. Brown is waiting for him to become a leader on offense.
“He’s not a vocal guy really,” Brown said. “He leads more with his actions.They said he was more vocal this summer. I know it’s there.”
Howell is the one guy on the team with no nightmares about what led to Larry Fedora’s firing or the return of Brown to UNC.
The coaching staff has tried to encourage the players that this team’s legacy will be this year.
“We’ve talked to our guys about this is about now,” Brown said. “It’s not about my past, it’s not about their past. It’s about what we do starting on Saturday. It’s a new era or whatever you want to call it, but their legacy will be this team, this year, especially the seniors.”
But it would be nice, Brown said, if someone would step up and say something. He was hoping it might be one of the running backs, senior Antonio Williams or junior Michael Carter.
But the program had a what Brown called “a women’s clinic” in June, and Williams was on a panel of players who answered questions from the women in the crowd. One of the questions was, “What is the biggest thing you have to overcome for this season?”
“He raised his hand very quickly and said ‘lack of confidence,’” Brown said.
Williams, who transferred to UNC from Ohio State, has been in Chapel Hill only one year.
Brown said Carter and the rest of the team seem to be a little too quiet.
“You take a guy like Michael, we’ve challenged him to step up and lead. Michael’s a real good player and maybe a better person. He’s very positive. He’s very upbeat. He’s still not the most vocal guy. We’re trying get them all to just pick each other up. There’s not a guy who speaks in the offensive line. They don’t speak. Nothing. Coach (Stacy) Searels was hoarse yesterday, and he said, ‘Would somebody please start talking?”
Brown said he thought that by now at least one player on the team would stir the others up. And he fears that the past might be a little too raw. As a result, this is a team with no vocal leader. That has the staff a little concerned.
“Usually one guy stirs them all up, but right now we don’t have that guy, Brown said. “We need a guy to stir the pot with those guys. This team is quiet. It’s just a team that I think probably a lack of confidence is why they’ve been like this. Now it’s time to be aggressive and go.”
He’s waiting for somebody to say it.
Somebody other than the head coach.
The season opener is days away, and there’s an increase in anticipation for Saturday and the home opener against Miami, for which there are only a few hundred tickets remaining.
But for all of the renewed excitement around the new era at UNC, there are crickets chirping inside the Carolina football program.