Scrimmage gives Tar Heels taste of coming regular season

With less than two weeks to go until the opener, UNC got a chance to simulate game day

Following Saturday’s scrimmage, UNC coach Mack Brown said the defense’s pass rush needs to improve and the offense will need contributions from young players. (Photo by Matthew Fedder / courtesy of UNC)

North Carolina held a dress rehearsal for the regular season with a scrimmage on Saturday.

While that is standard procedure for college teams to make sure players are ready for a game-day environment, never has it been more necessary than this season.

The COVID-19 pandemic has scrambled normal operating procedures, affecting everything from the stadium environment to the sideline benches.

With so much different, coach Mack Brown is trying to make sure his players are as comfortable as possible.

“We actually had our in-game production. We had music that will be playing throughout the ballgame,” Brown said. “Our players voted on the music to make sure they had the music they wanted in each situation during the ballgame.”

While the season will start without fans in the stands, the team got approval to use recorded crowd noise.

“We actually pumped in crowd noise during the scrimmage as well,” Brown said. “It’s very disappointing to me and our players that we will not be able to have fans at our games in September. And our fans have been unbelievable. Seven percent of our season ticket holders have either donated their money back or rolled their purchase over to 2021. That’s an unbelievable number at a time where we are with our economy. I applaud our fans. I apologize to you that you won’t be at the games. We’re going to have to bring our own energy.”

With social distancing so highly prioritized during the pandemic, some changes had to be made to the normal sideline setup.

“We went back through our COVID guidelines during the game Saturday night,” Brown said. “We told our players, ‘During the game (on the field), you don’t have to wear your mask. You don’t have to wear your shield, but when you come off the field we’re going to require you to have a helmet on or wear a mask at all times.’”

In previous seasons, the bench area — or “coaches box” — covers the 50 yards between the 25-yard lines on each side. They’ve added an additional 20 yards to help players spread out.

“They’ve extended the coaches box from the 15-yard line to the 15-yard line,” Brown said, “but we’re also having to try to figure out the guys that aren’t going to play as much, where do they stand? How do they social distance? The other thing that was difficult the other day with that sideline scattered out so much is that you do a good job with your substitutions and special teams. Those guys are scattered out a lot more than they normally would be. They’ve got masks on. So it’s harder to hear.”

Then there’s the actual on-field action. Brown broke down each of UNC’s units following the dress rehearsal.

Special teams: “Punters and kickers have been good, not great. We want to pick up in that area. Coverage has been really, really good. Return was poor. We didn’t do a good job of that last year or Saturday.”

Defense: “We’re closer to two-deep on defense than offense. We can really run. We’re a much faster defense than this time last year. The most improved position is definitely the secondary. The thing we’re not doing as well as we’d like is pass rush. We’d like to be able to get a pass rush with just four players, instead of (defensive coordinator) Jay Bateman having to send a bunch of extra people and forcing us to play man coverage.”

Offense: “We were much better on Saturday. I’ve really been pleased with Garrett Walston. He’s doing a really good job for us at tight end. Our older guys are playing well, but we don’t have the same depth right now as we do defensively. We’ve got to find younger guys that can play at a high level.”

That quest will be made easier by the NCAA ruling that preserves a year of eligibility for everyone that appears in a game this season. In other words, players will not use up a year by playing (or opting out) during this uncertain season.

“The eligibility rule is something that’s really strange for coaches and players,” Brown said. “All of our guys can play this year and it doesn’t count as a year. You don’t have redshirting, or another way to say it is they’re all redshirted but can play. So (freshman) Jon Adorno, our backup center, can play in four games, six games or all 11 games and can still be a freshman (next year). All of our seniors, if they decided they can’t make the NFL or can’t get drafted at a high enough level, they can all come back next year.”