Old coach breathes new life into UNC

There’s new attitude and fan interest, but now the games start

North Carolina coach Mack Brown returns to the field for real Saturday when the Tar Heels face South Carolina in the Belk College Kickoff at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — At the start of his first game-week press conference, UNC coach Mack Brown announced that only 500 tickets remained for Carolina’s home opener against Miami.

What a difference nine months makes. The Tar Heels’ unorthodox move of bringing Brown back to Chapel Hill after a 22-year absence — and a six-year retirement — seems to have paid off handsomely.

A program that was mired in mediocrity and fan disinterest has been revived by Brown’s return. Kenan Stadium underwent an extensive facelift, with a new players lounge, new high-tech locker room and artificial turf field. The Heels are moving up the recruiting rankings, and, as Brown’s ticket update underscores, fans are hitting the ticket booth hard.

For nine months, everything has come up Carolina.

Now the games start.

“Sally (his wife) once said I’d have the best job in the country, if it wasn’t for these games,” Brown joked.

The Tar Heels have a tough schedule, especially in the first half of the season. Carolina opens with South Carolina in Charlotte — UNC hasn’t beaten a Power Five team in the opener since Indiana in 1997, the last season of Brown’s first stint at Carolina.

Carolina then has a home opener against Miami, a game that looks a little more winnable than it did in the offseason following the Canes’ ragged opener against Florida. If UNC loses that game, an 0-5 start is possible, with games at Wake Forest and home against a very good Appalachian State team and defending national champion Clemson.

The Heels have a good nucleus of talent on both sides of the ball, but, as Brown has pointed out throughout camp, there’s not much depth in several key areas.

True freshman Sam Howell won the three-way quarterback battle in fall camp. Cade Fortin chose to transfer immediately, leaving the Heels with just two scholarship quarterbacks — both freshmen — to start the year.

Howell will have a deep pool of wide receivers to throw to, including Dazz Newsome, Beau Corrales and Dyami Brown. The running backs and tight ends will also be much more heavily involved in offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s new Air Raid Offense.

When the Heels do run the ball, the backs will get the chance to show why they’re the strongest unit on the roster. New London’s Antonio Williams, Michael Carter and Wallace’s Javonte Williams are all experienced backs with big-play ability.

The offensive line is young and shallow. There are only two seniors — Nick Polino and Charlie Heck — and no juniors on the roster. Brown has taken his experienced linemen to task for not being more vocal. “There’s not a guy who speaks in the offensive line,” Brown said. “They don’t speak.”

On defense, Carolina is using an aggressive blitzing attack that is the brainchild of new coordinator Jay Bateman. The defensive line will be anchored in the middle by the impressive tandem of Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge. Crawford returns from an injury that cost him most of last season, as does end Allen Cater, who will be playing a hybrid end/outside linebacker pass-rushing position this year. Tomon Fox will be the other end/linebacker, with his little brother Tomari, a true freshman, having the chance to also contribute on the line.

The true linebackers will miss last season’s leading tackler Cole Holcomb, who graduated, but they have an impressive new addition in former quarterback Chazz Surratt, who gained 15 pounds of muscle and has a chance to start the opener. Dominque Ross, who was a forgotten man last season, has also been reborn in the new defense.

The secondary has two proven safeties in Myles Wolfolk and Myles Dorn, as well as corners Patrice Rene and Trey Morrison. Bateman has the defensive backs cross-training at all positions in the secondary, however, the better to disguise and deceive when planning blitzes.

Special teams need to be rebuilt, with UNC losing last year’s punter, kicker and both long snappers to graduation while All-ACC return man Anthony Ratliff-Williams left early for the NFL. True freshmen will handle the punting and both snapping jobs (one of them manned by New London’s Drew Little).

North Carolina Tar Heels

2018 Record: 2-9 (1-7 ACC)

Coach: Mack Brown (244-122-1 career record, 69-46-1 at UNC)

Points Per Game: 27.4

Points Allowed Per Game: 34.5

Key Returning Players: Sr. RB Antonio Williams; Jr. WR Dazz Newsome; Sr. DT Jason Strowbridge

Key Departed Players: WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams; LB Cole Holcomb

Key Additions: Fr. QB Sam Howell; Fr. DE Tomari Fox

Key Game: Miami, Chapel Hill, Sept. 7