Spring football, pro days take center stage in ACC

The early end to basketball has shifted attention to pigskin

UNC running back Michael Carter performs a drill during the Tar Heels' pro day Monday at the school's indoor practice facility in Chapel Hill. (Jeffrey A. Camarati / courtesy of UNC Athletics)

Football spring practice often has to live in the shadow of March Madness in the state of North Carolina. This year, however, with the hardwood season coming to a premature end for every basketball program in the state, fans and media are turning away from arenas and toward the whistles and horns emanating from football practice fields.

While spring ball usually focuses on the season to come, this spring features a chance for many area schools to look backward as well. With the NFL Combine canceled due to COVID-19, the pro days traditionally held at each school now represent the only chance for draft hopefuls to make an impression on NFL scouts.

The league converged on North Carolina starting this week. UNC and Duke held their on-campus pro days on Monday.

The Tar Heels had plenty of offensive talent displaying their wares for the assembled NFL brass. Running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome all expect to hear their names called, and Brown appears to have done the best job of boosting his NFL stock. Linebacker Chazz Surratt represented the defense, and a pair of former Heels, running back Jordan Brown and tight end Brandon Fritts, also were showcased.

NFL scouts and coaches also got a glimpse of the future, as current Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was called upon to throw passes during offensive drills, helping his skill position players to look good.

Howell is the main reason that a feeling of optimism surrounds the 2021 Tar Heel team as it works its way through spring ball. The Heels are looking to replace the skill position talent they lost and will have several young players ready to expand their roles on defense.

Over at Duke, while Gunnar Holmberg was putting forward his case to win Duke’s starting job — the fourth different starting quarterback in as many years for the Blue Devils — seven former Blue Devils showcased for the league.

Cornerback Mark Gilbert took the biggest step forward. After battling lower-body injuries that have kept him off the field for most of the last two-plus years, Gilbert showed that his speed hasn’t been affected too badly, running a 4.36 time in the 40. Fellow DB Michael Carter II also helped himself, running a 4.30 time in the 40.

Ends Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II are also expected to generate NFL interest, although Rumph wasn’t able to participate in several drills due to a nagging injury. Duke also showcased tight end Noah Gray, offensive lineman Devery Hamilton and running back Deon Jackson.

Meanwhile, Holmberg was the clear frontrunner at quarterback as spring practice came to an end in Durham. He said the team will add wrinkles to the offense allowing him to throw on the run and do more run-pass option plays, in the model of Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes.

NC State was next, holding its pro day on Tuesday. The aspiring NFL stars from the Wolfpack roster are going with a “less is more” approach to draft prep. Offensive lineman Joe Sculthorpe will tip the scales close to 10 pounds lighter than his playing weight, while defensive tackle Alim McNeill is down 15.

After dieting and working out following the season, McNeill joked that pro day represents “time to feast, time to eat.”

The pair of linemen are joined by tight end Cary Angeline.

Over on the practice field, the 2021 team has far more stability at quarterback than during the 2020 season. Bailey Hockman’s transfer made it clear that the Wolfpack will be Devin Leary’s team going forward. Leary has declared himself 100% back from the broken leg that cut his season short last year, and his fellow offensive players say he’s become more of a leader and more assertive in his communication in the huddle and during timeouts.

Wake Forest takes center stage on Wednesday. Edge rusher “Boogie” Basham will be the highlight for NFL scouts, but Wake will also showcase wide receiver Sage Surratt and former quarterback Jamie Newman, who transferred to Georgia but never played for the Dawgs after opting out of last season.

Looking forward, the Deacons’ offense returns quarterback Sam Hartman, the entire offensive line and several key receivers. Defense was the first thing coach Dave Clawson mentioned, however, when discussing what had impressed him most early in the spring. The Deacs have holes to fill in the secondary and at linebacker, but Clawson likes what he sees from both units.