Future bright for UNC football

The annual spring game showcases the Tar Heels’ youth

Rising sophomore receiver Josh Downs is one of the players UNC quarterback Sam Howell will look to this fall to replace the targets given to Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown last season. (Jeffrey Camarati / UNC Athletics)

The NFL Draft will kick off Thursday, and the focus in Chapel Hill will be on the players that the Tar Heels are losing to the League.

Last weekend, however, the Tar Heels wrapped up spring practice with the annual spring game, and the focus was on UNC’s future.

It’s a future that appears to be very bright, indeed.

“This will be a tremendous video for us here in a couple hours,” coach Mack Brown said of breaking down game film from the Blue-White scrimmage, “where we can start looking at the guys that we need to separate at every position, but specifically the young ones.”

The Tar Heels will undoubtedly miss running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, receiver Dyami Brown and linebacker Chazz Surratt, who should all hear their names called in the NFL Draft. The cupboard they leave behind, however, is far from empty.

One area where the Tar Heels don’t need an influx of new talent — at least for one more year — is at quarterback, where Sam Howell demonstrated that the loss of so much skill position talent won’t impact his ability to get the ball downfield. Howell was 6 of 10 in the spring game for 118 yards and a touchdown.

UNC quarterback Sam Howell threw for 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions in his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. (Jeffrey Camarati / UNC Athletics)

Howell had a 48-yard bomb to Josh Downs, who showed that the Heels won’t be lacking in targets for Howell. In addition to Downs, a rising sophomore, UNC receiving was led by Antoine Green, who had two catches, including Howell’s touchdown, and rising sophomore Emery Simmons, who pulled in a 44-yarder.

“I think we can continue to see how good Josh Downs can be,” Brown said. “He’s really fast. He’s quick. He’s tough. He gets open. He can catch. I couldn’t see the first ball. I don’t know if it was a drop or not, but he made some outstanding plays. We’re continuing to be pleased with Antoine Green.”

The Heels may not need any help at quarterback, but they’re getting some. The spring game marked the UNC debut of Drake Maye, an incoming freshman who enrolled early. A former Alabama commit, Maye instead will play at his father’s alma mater — Mark was UNC’s starting quarterback in the mid-1980s.

The younger Maye was 3 of 8 for 19 yards and showed mobility in the pocket. On one play, he sidestepped the pass rush, bought time and hit sophomore Justin Olson for a 40-plus yard completion on the sideline. It was waved off, however, when referees incorrectly ruled Olson out of bounds before he caught the ball.

Maye also FaceTimed older brother Luke — a former Tar Heel basketball national champion — after the game to get his feedback on Drake’s performance.

Maye will get the chance to battle sophomore Jacolby Criswell for the backup job.

“I think both of those guys can be really good,” Brown said. “So that’s exciting that they’re here. I’ve seen some really good plays by both of them. And they’re gonna have a load to replace the guy that we’ve got now.”

The Tar Heels will need to replace most of the production at running back, where Carter and Williams depart. Ty Chandler got his first carries wearing blue after transferring from Tennessee. He had 10 yards on two rushes.

“I am really, really impressed with Ty Chandler as a person, a leader. He’s fit in,” Brown said. “He’s made the transition well. I saw him in the dressing room. I don’t think he knows the fight song yet because he was struggling with it a little bit. So that’s gonna be fun as we get ready to get him going. These guys are gonna have to help him step up. But he’s fast. He’s strong.”

Early enrollee Caleb Hood had 35 yards, and returning backups DJ Jones and Josh Henderson each rushed for scores.

Hood, a former quarterback, is making the transition to running back.

“There was a third down and four. He makes eight, and I thought there were about three there,” Brown said. “So that’s gonna be really fun to watch him because every snap he takes is from his transition from quarterback to the running back. He’s going to get better. I compare him to the Chazz Surratt experiment. Every day Chazz plays, he’s better.”

The Tar Heel defense, which began its youth movement last year when several up-and-coming linemen were worked into the rotation, continued to show signs of being just as special as the offense next season.

“On defense, there’s Des Evans,” Brown said. “Des Evans has had a great spring. He’s becoming a better pass rusher at 6-foot-6, now he’s 265. So that helps us. Jahvaree Ritzie of the young ones has rushed the passer really well this spring. Both those freshman linebackers I think can be really good. And our trial and error right now, with Ja’Qurious Conley as safety and Don Chapman at nickel, we feel like is working. So we’re making a lot of progress, we feel like, in that area.”

On a team loaded with veteran talent, youth is being served, which bodes extremely well for the future of Carolina football, even as the parade of Tar Heels past head to the NFL.