CHAPEL HILL — Coach Mack Brown gathered his players last week and told them he wasn’t pleased with how some of them were practicing.
Heading into their Sept. 28 game against No. 1 Clemson, the Tar Heels had their best week of practice. But on this day, Brown didn’t see the same focus. And he wasn’t having it.
He told his players that the coaching staff would grade practice film — and whichever players weren’t practicing hard wouldn’t make the trip to Georgia Tech.
“You either are playing hard or you’re not,” Brown said last Wednesday. “So if you’re not, we don’t need any hamburger eaters, stay here.”
When asked about the message, junior wide receiver Dazz Newsome of the Tar Heels said, “Oh yeah, he definitely told us that.”
It’s unclear whether he left anyone out because of that, but it appears the players heard the message loud and clear.
Last Saturday against Georgia Tech, UNC won 38-22, and led by as many as 23 points. It wasn’t the most comfortable win. At one point in the second half, Georgia Tech cut UNC’s lead to nine points.
But the Tar Heels responded.
“I thought they played hard tonight, I thought they played with passion tonight and did a lot of good things,” Brown said on Saturday. “(Atlanta’s) been a really, really difficult place for us to win. ... Really, really pleased with the way the guys played.”
The Tar Heels are 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the conference entering their off week. They have more wins this season than they had in 2018.
“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot more work to do,” said senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford.
Here are three things we know about the Tar Heels at the halfway point in their season:
1. Sam Howell is no ordinary freshman
Howell, a true freshman quarterback, hasn’t looked like one. Since Day One, he’s had the poise of a veteran. Howell, 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, engineered two fourth-quarter comeback wins in his first two games, and almost engineered three more.
There’s usually a growing period for freshmen quarterbacks. But Howell has been solid all year. Through six games, he has 1,544 yards, 15 passing touchdowns, three interceptions, one rushing touchdown, and is completing 63.1 percent of his passes.
Howell threw a career-high four passing touchdowns against Georgia Tech last Saturday.
“We said it since day one, ‘Sam is a baller,’ ” said junior wide receiver Beau Corrales. “Everybody on the team has faith in him, and it’s obvious he has faith in himself.”
Having faith in your quarterback is huge, especially in clutch situations.
2. The fourth quarter is where UNC shines.
You can never count out the Tar Heels, no matter the score, because the fourth quarter is where they’ve played their best football. It’s where Howell has been most effective. It’s where the running backs have run their hardest. And it’s where the defense has gotten stops.
UNC is ranked No. 1 in the country in fourth quarter passing offense (524 yards), No. 1 in fourth-quarter passing touchdowns (seven), and is tied for first with the fewest number of fourth-quarter interceptions (zero) thrown.
The Tar Heels are tied for sixth in fourth quarter interceptions (three), and their opponents have completed just 45.5 percent of their passes against them in the fourth quarter, which is 10th best.
That has translated into more points than their opponents in the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels have outscored opponents in the fourth quarter 72-31.
This gives North Carolina a chance to win each week.
3. The secondary is vulnerable
There is no unit on UNC’s team that has taken a worse beating than its secondary. Since July, three defensive backs — Bryson Richardson, Patrice Rene and Cam’Ron Kelly — have gone down with season-ending injuries. UNC junior safety Myles Wolfolk, who leads the ACC with three interceptions, is out indefinitely with a lower body injury.
Because of the injuries, UNC is relying on a lot freshmen and backups with little to no game experience. UNC freshman cornerback Storm Duck made his second career start, while freshman safety Don Chapman made his first against Georgia Tech. Both played fairly well. Chapman had two tackles and an interception. Duck had three tackles and a pass deflection.
True freshmen defensive backs Obi Egbuna and Giovanni Biggers also played against Georgia Tech.
UNC’s defensive back unit was already one of its thinnest entering the season. Four guys are out, and it’s only halfway through the season.