North Carolina travels to South Bend for the chance to get a statement win over No. 11-ranked Notre Dame. Before worrying about the opponent across the field, however, the Tar Heels appear to need to resolve some internal conflict.
The team entered the season ranked in the top 10 but then suffered an opening week upset loss at Virginia Tech. Even bigger surprise losses at Georgia Tech and home against Florida State have left the Heels 4-3 on the year and 3-3 in the ACC.
As the team hit its bye week last week, UNC fans were very vocal in their displeasure over how things have gone. Coach Mack Brown’s comments following the FSU loss, about how the media overrated them coming into the year, did nothing to calm the storm.
Fans can be expected to fly off the handle when things don’t go well. But as the team’s goals of a College Football Playoff berth, a chance to compete for the ACC title or even a return trip to the Orange Bowl have faded, there appears to be plenty of hard feelings inside the locker room as well.
While the team has denied persistent rumors of a “rift” among the players, the time off from game prep for the bye week appears to have given some of the disgruntled Tar Heels a chance to think about the future.
The team had three players leave via the transfer portal in the one-week span. Wide receiver Khafre Brown — the younger brother of Dyami, who starred for the Tar Heels before entering the NFL Draft last season — was the first to leave. The speedy playmaker got few opportunities on the field in the early going. He played in just two of the first seven games and had one catch — a 75-yard touchdown — after getting 15 for 337 yards as a freshman last year.
Defensive lineman Clyde Pinder was next to go. After playing in five games last year as a freshman, Pinder had seen the field just once this year as a host of young linemen have passed him on the depth chart.
On Monday, running back Josh Henderson entered the portal. Like the first two transfers, Henderson has seen his playing time shrink this year. He’s gotten into just two games and carried the ball five times. The team has also landed commitments from two big-time running back recruits for next season and anticipate having six running backs on the roster.
Someone claiming to be Henderson’s uncle took to social media, criticizing the coaching staff on UNC Facebook groups following the news about Henderson’s departure.
“My nephew didn’t leave because of (any) recruits,” Daniel Candya, who has posted about being Henderson’s uncle for several years, said on Facebook. “People do not believe the hype. It’s a lot of politics going on in the program, and kids being lied to. Please respect the young kids and the decisions they make, and for the future players THAT WILL BE LEAVING.”
He later said the UNC coaching staff “are like car salesmen.”
With that hurricane of a distraction swirling, the remaining Tar Heels are preparing for a trip to one of college football’s toughest venues.
Mack Brown addressed Henderson’s transfer, although Candya didn’t post his comments until later in the day.
“We said last week what we would do is sit down with every young man and go over exactly where we feel like he is right now in our program and the projections for him,” Brown said. “So most of the guys that leave are leaving because they want to get more playing time or they want to be the featured player at their position. And it’s our job to be honest. And tell them exactly how we feel about where they are right now and where they are moving forward.”
Brown also appeared to hint at a rift, twice mentioning players not being on board when discussing Henderson’s transfer.
“Josh is a great young man,” he said. “And he’s done everything right in this program. And I told him yesterday that I understand completely and that we will help him go where he would like to go. And at the same time, if a guy’s not totally into trying to win the game at Notre Dame, then he shouldn’t be on the trip, either. So that’s what you do with the transfer portal, you try to handle it. … If someone’s not completely bought in and it helps, you know, at the end of the year how many scholarships you’ve got available with this crazy roster management. … So we wish Josh luck.”
So, coming out of a week off that seemed far from restful, the Tar Heels will try to get on the same page against the Fighting Irish.