Expectations, new faces mark start of camps

New coaches at N.C. schools are trying to set a tone, while returning ones assess lineups for 2019

The winner of the NC State quarterback battle will be able to rely on veteran receivers like Thayer Thomas this season. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

Preseason football camps opened at most colleges around the state on Friday. But according to new/old North Carolina coach Mack Brown, who’s been around long enough to know about such things, the real preparations for the upcoming seasons don’t start until the players start hitting one another a few days later.

“When you learn to swim, you’ve got to have a pool. When you learn to play football you’ve got to have pads,” Brown said at the Tar Heels’ first practice and his first back at UNC since 1997. “The first two days you are trying to get organized, you are trying to see who is conditioned, you are trying to look at your new guys and see what they look like because you haven’t been out on the practice field with them.

“You’ve got to play game speed every day in practice against other good players on your team and then you become a more confident football team.”

It’s an evaluation process that’s especially important for teams breaking in new coaches, a group that also includes East Carolina, Appalachian State, Charlotte and NC Central in addition to the Tar Heels.

Not that NC State’s Dave Doeren and other established coaches at Duke and Wake Forest aren’t as anxious to see their players finally don pads and start going at one another with full contact.

“It’s good to see guys finish plays,” Doeren said. “It was fun to see guys tackle and today we found out a little bit. … There’s more on the line. Those guys are going to play to the whistle. There’s a lot of straining going on.”

The competition among the Wolfpack figures to be even more intense than usual this summer because of the turnover the team experienced after its second straight nine-win season in 2018.

Gone is starting quarterback Ryan Finley, All-American center Garrett Bradbury, leading rusher Reggie Gallaspy and 1,000-yard receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers — all of whom are currently in NFL camps.

There are several key holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, as well, providing opportunities for nearly everyone on the practice field. That includes true freshmen such as highly touted running back Zonovan Knight, defensive end Savion Jackson and wide receiver Keyon Lesane.

Of all the position battles starting to heat up, none will capture as much attention as the competition for the starting quarterback job between sophomore Matthew McKay, redshirt freshman Devin Leary and prized recruit Bailey Hockman, a junior college transfer who started his career at Florida State.

Although McKay came out of the spring as the early frontrunner, based primarily on the limited snaps he took in relief of Finley, Doeren made it clear Tuesday that the starting job for State’s opener against ECU won’t be decided anytime soon.

The good news is that even with the loss of Harmon and Meyers, whoever wins the job will have an experienced group of receivers to throw to. It’s a group that includes junior Emeke Emezie, sophomore Thayer Thomas and graduate transfer Tabari Hines.

“They’ve been rotating throughout camp,” Doeren said of his quarterback trio, adding that he’ll start establishing a more defined pecking order “when they tell me by their play.”

UNC’s Brown is taking a similar approach to his unsettled quarterback situation, which, like State, has three players vying for one leadership position.

The difference is that in Chapel Hill, two of the candidates — redshirt freshman Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin — got meaningful game experience before getting hurt last season while a third, incoming freshman Sam Howell, is the crown jewel of Brown’s first recruiting class.

“We have told the quarterbacks, every pass you throw is either getting you closer to moving up or down, so they have more pressure than anybody else to get it fixed,” Brown said. “You’ve got to press your quarterbacks and make them do things that they are going to have to do in order for us to have a great season. You can’t hide them.

“We are going to be demanding of them. We are going to put them in really tough situations and see which one comes out.”

At ECU, Mike Houston isn’t just putting his quarterbacks in tough situations in his first camp with the Pirates.

The former James Madison coach began putting his players through a rigorous physical regimen right from the opening whistle in an attempt to establish a tougher, more resilient culture than the one that led to three straight 3-9 seasons under the previous regime.

“There ain’t gonna be any tapping out. There ain’t gonna be any not practicing, then playing,” he said. “All those habits that have been here for the past several years, they ain’t gonna be here. They’re going to understand that.

“You can have expectations, that’s all fine and good. But if there’s not a commitment to back up those expectations, then they’re false. They’re fake and we ain’t gonna be about that.”

Duke’s David Cutcliffe is taking a similar approach to his team’s early workouts.

“It comes out here on this grass,” Cutcliffe said. “This is the only place the seeds of victory will grow. They don’t grow on game fields. It becomes competitive. I want to know who will fight to win, I don’t want lip service. In these reps, a freshman has a chance to show us that he is a better fighter to win the game. It has been our focus right now and it is a huge part of being a really good program.”