Division I college football programs all across the state are holding their annual spring practice with an eye on preparing for the upcoming 2021 season this fall.
At North Carolina, they’re looking even farther into the future.
The Tar Heels ensured the continuity of their staff by extending the contracts of coach Mack Brown and all 10 of his full-time assistants.
The new deal will keep the nation’s only active Hall of Fame coach in Chapel Hill at least through the 2025 season while his assistants are now locked in for the next three years. The school also announced Tuesday it had added former Tar Heels and NFL running back Natrone Means as an offensive analyst. Means played at Carolina from 1990-92 during Brown’s first stint with the Tar Heels.
“We’re proud of what our football program has accomplished over the last two seasons,” Brown’s boss, athletic director Bubba Cunningham, said in a statement announcing the contract extensions. “Carolina Football is on a great trajectory and much of that can be credited to our coaches.
“We’ve worked hard to build continuity with this staff, and we’re seeing the benefits of that on the field, in recruiting, and in the community. We are excited to watch this talented coaching staff continue to lead this program forward.”
Brown is one of only six active coaches that have won an FBS national championship, having done so with Texas in 2005. He will be 74 years old if he stays through the entire length of his contract.
And he has every intention of doing so.
“We said, because Sally and I love UNC and Chapel Hill so much, this is the only place we’ll coach and we plan on doing that as long as we’re having fun, impacting the young men in our program and giving Carolina football the best chance to win,” Brown said. “We also wanted to ensure that our coaching staff’s compensation is consistent with our competitors, so we can achieve the stability we believe helps in developing a consistent winner.”
UNC had won only five games combined in the two seasons before Brown came out of retirement to return to the program he built into a national power from 1988-97. But it took just two seasons for him to get the Tar Heels to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
With quarterback Sam Howell and many other key players returning from last year’s Orange Bowl squad, to go along with a recruiting class ranked among the nation’s top 15, expectations are even higher for this fall.
In order to live up to the hype and seriously challenge for both the Coastal Division and ACC championships, Brown and his newly re-signed staff will have to find replacements for 1,000-yard rushers Michael Carter Jr. and Javonte Williams, along with leading receiver Dazz Newsome.
It’s a process that began on Tuesday with the first of 15 spring workouts, as allowed by NCAA rules.
While UNC is just getting started with its spring practice, in-state ACC rivals NC State and Wake Forest are already well into their offseason drills.
The Wolfpack began its workouts on March 8 looking to build on the momentum of a bounce-back eight-win season.
Not only does coach Dave Doeren’s veteran team return 20 starters — including potential first-round NFL draft pick Ikem Ekwonu on the offensive line and leading receiver Emeka Emezie, who chose to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted to all players by the NCAA — but starting quarterback Devin Leary has also been cleared to return after missing the final seven games because of a broken leg.
“Having Devin back for spring ball is a big deal,” Doeren said during a spring Zoom conference. “You always love having your starting quarterback leading you on the field in your practices. It’s good to see him not just being healthy, but the mental space he’s in right now is outstanding.”
Like UNC and State, Wake Forest returns nearly everyone from last year’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl team.
With nine super seniors using their extra year of eligibility and a new group of incoming freshmen enrolling early, coach Dave Clawson has a luxury this spring he hasn’t had in previous years with the Deacons.
“Hopefully this will encourage competition and help us get that elusive depth that we are always searching for here at Wake Forest,” Clawson said.
While Clawson is happy to have more players than usual on the practice field, his counterpart at Duke — David Cutcliffe — is just happy to have any players working out again.
The Blue Devils’ spring practice, which began Feb. 26, was paused after just three sessions because of a COVID-19 cluster identified within their program. The team, which is looking to find a new starting quarterback and five defensive starters, resumed activities Friday.
Last year’s starting quarterback, Clemson transfer Chase Brice, has made another move, this time to Appalachian State, which began its spring drills Tuesday.
East Carolina began its spring practice Saturday, delaying the start by a week because of the storms that came through the state, while Charlotte is set to get underway this Friday.