New North Carolina head coach Mack Brown had an eventful first week on the job. Returning to the school he coached from 1988 to 1997, Brown began familiarizing himself with the current roster, assembling a staff and getting caught up on the recruiting picture almost immediately following his introductory press conference last Tuesday.
Here’s an early progress report on how Brown is doing on all three fronts:
Starting with the area that Brown appears to be having the most success — or at least the fewest glaring problems. Brown met with the current team immediately after his press conference and later told ESPN that it went well.
“Meeting the players today was so much fun,” he said on the one-hour Q-and-A session. “We had a blast.”
Brown then met with many of the players individually, saying that some were considering leaving for the NFL. In addition to junior Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who declared for the draft on Tuesday, that group likely includes receiver/return man, defensive linemen Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, running back Antonio Williams, tackle Charlie Heck and defensive back Myles Dorn.
While Ratliff-Williams was a likely candidate to leave early, the best news for next year’s team is that no one else has announced their plans to enter the draft yet. There also hasn’t been the mass exodus of transfers that might be expected after a coaching change.
While the players have been relatively quiet, their reaction on social media has been encouraging. Quarterback Jace Ruder tweeted, “Welcome to the show” with a popcorn emoji after meeting with Brown, later adding, “Time to work.”
Running back Michael Carter chimed in with, “Championship mindset.”
Defensive back K.J. Sails said, “Let’s get this thang rollin ! Either you wit us or you ain’t !” and Antonio Williams said, “I’m truly blessed man. As I sit and think, I realize that I’ve had the opportunity to play under Urban Meyer, Larry Fedora, and now Mack Brown.”
That doesn’t mean the Heels and Brown will avoid any roster attrition, but the early returns are encouraging.
The area where Brown admitted he was farthest behind has resulted in a flurry of activity in the first seven days of his tenure. On paper, the early returns were not encouraging: “I heard there’s 12 recruits,” Brown said at the press conference. “I don’t know who they are.”
Well, there are now only eight. Carolina had four decommits in the first week — fully one-third of the class, with two weeks to go until early signing day. It’s not clear whether they were all defections following the coaching change or if some were encouraged to look elsewhere as Brown tries to free up room for his own recruits.
Brown has reportedly been out hitting the trail hard and appears to be trying to shake loose some commitments from other ACC programs. Since UNC’s recruiting came under fire at the end of Fedora’s term, the decision to focus on other prospects at the expense of the current commitments is understandable.
Brown also continued UNC’s pursuit of Clemson grad transfer Kelly Bryant, who was scheduled to make his college announcement Tuesday night.
If anything could have knocked the shine off of Brown’s outstanding press conference performance, it was the early news on his assembly of a coaching staff.
While Brown refused to name any prospective coordinators or assistants at his press conference, former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was rumored to be returning in that role, and former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury was mentioned as a possible offensive coordinator.
Neither rumor panned out. At press time, Kingsbury was about to accept the same role at USC, and Chizik wasn’t either of the first two men introduced as defensive coordinator.
Greg Robinson, Brown’s DC his final season Texas who has been in retirement the last three years, was reported to be the choice as UNC’s defensive coordinator, sparking an outcry among fans online and, reportedly, players. The school quickly backed away from Robinson and announced that Tommy Thigpen — a former player for Brown and an assistant for Fedora this past season, was introduced as co-defensive coordinator, although the other co-coordinator has yet to be named.
Former Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford and Mississippi State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop are the latest names being mentioned for OC and DC, respectively.
Below the top level, however, the staff is taking shape.
In addition to retaining Thigpen, Brown announced three new hires. Former UNC All-American Dre Bly will return to the school to coach defensive backs.
Brown’s former assistant Tim Brewster will coach tight ends and coordinate recruiting. At FSU, Brewster was responsible for bringing in Dalvin Cook, Ermon Lane and Ryan Izzo. Combined with Thigpen, another highly regarded recruiter, the duo gives Brown a strong pair to get caught up on the recruiting front.
Tim Cross was also brought in to coach the defensive line after holding the same position at Air Force.