Tar Heels look to kick disappointing habits with a dose of ‘PAT’

Passion, accountability and toughness are the buzzwords coach Mack Brown is using to motivate his UNC football team this season

UNC coach Mack Brown answers a question at the ACC's annual Football Kickoff media event in Charlotte on Thursday (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

CHARLOTTE — Mack Brown isn’t talking about kicking extra points when he makes references to a PAT this summer and fall.

It’s an acronym that has become the Hall of Fame coach’s mantra for his Tar Heels as they approach the upcoming season.

“We’ve come up with a little thing, PAT,” Brown said Thursday at the ACC’s annual Football Kickoff media event. “We’ve got to have more passion every week to play this game, you’ve got to be accountable in every little thing you do, and last is toughness. We’ve got to win games on the road, we’ve got to win tough games.

“I ask them every day, are you passionate about your grades, are you passionate about this team, about getting better? Are you accountable? I know. I see who’s going to class and who’s not, who’s showing up for meals and who’s not. If you’re not going to be passionate and not be accountable, you’re not going to be tough enough to play and help us win.”

The lack of those three elements were key reasons why, as far as Brown is concerned, his Tar Heels were among the nation’s biggest disappointments last season.

UNC came into the season ranked among the nation’s top 10, but thanks to a lack of consistency from week-to-week, an inability to win on the road and close out close games — most notably against rival NC State — it finished in the middle of the ACC’s Coastal Division pack with a 6-7 record.

While Brown was quick to take responsibility for the team’s struggles in 2021, star receiver Josh Downs exercised some of the accountability his coach is demanding by putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the players.

Specifically, he suggested that the Tar Heels paid too much attention to the preseason praise they were receiving and not enough attention on preparing for opponents they ended up taking too lightly.

“I feel like we overlooked some teams last year,” Downs said. “We had a cocky manner and we thought we were just going to run through people. That first game, we went out there against Virginia Tech and I was like, ‘Wait, these dudes are good,’ and we didn’t play up to the best of our ability.”

Downs vowed that the Tar Heels will be a better team this year, in part because the experience of 2021 has put a chip on their collective shoulders.

They also won’t have to deal with the high expectations that, in the words of their coach, made them “criminally overrated.”

“We’re not into the hype this year,” Brown said. “We’re just trying to get better and play to a standard.”

Feeding the Devils

When first-year Duke coach Mike Elko talks about changing the culture of his program — a goal echoed by fellow Coastal Division newcomers Mario Cristobal of Miami, Virginia’s Tony Elliott and Virginia Tech’s Brent Pry — he’s not just referring to things such as practice habits, weight room workouts and facilities improvements.

He’s also changed the way his players eat.

“The food is amazing now,” said 6-foot-3, 298-pound offensive guard Jacob Monk. “We’ve got a lot more options. It used to be just dinner stuff and now we have breakfast and lunch. Guys are gaining weight and getting stronger.”

The biggest change has been the shift of the team’s training table from the evening meal to earlier in the day, so players can eat breakfast or lunch.

Or in the case of some of the bigger Blue Devils, both.

“I go in there, sit down and eat and then I’ll grab something to go,” said linebacker Shaka Heyward. “I like breakfast a lot, but there’s a much better variety now than there used to be.”

Not only is there more of a selection, but according to 6-foot-3, 298-pound defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, the quality of the food has also improved.

“Honestly, the training table might be the best meal on campus now,” Carter said. “We tell them what we like. We get to cook a little there. It’s kind of interactive. My favorite training table meal is the chicken tenders. I don’t know what they do, but they are the best thing since sliced bread.”

While improving the menu might seem relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of trying to build a winning football program, Elko said it’s the little things that sometimes make the biggest difference when it comes to change.

“We told the guys that we’re going to ask a lot more of you, but were also going to try to provide you a lot more,” Elko said. “We talk about trying to build the best football program we can at the best academic school in the country, and that’s what we’re hoping to get done.”

A weighty proposition

Virginia Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield was so proud of his collegiate max lift of 380 pounds during a summer weight room session that he posted the video of it on Twitter.

His excitement, however, was soon tempered thanks to the social media post of an ACC rival.

“The funny thing about that is it’s 380, and then I got on Twitter and there was a guy from NC State, a freshman linebacker, who just pulled 405 the same morning,” the 6-foot-2, 236-pound senior from Shelby said. “Man, you guys are showing me up like that. It was crazy. It’s pretty good.”

Hollifield said he had nothing but respect for the Wolfpack freshman in question, 210-pound Colby Johnson.

Or anybody else committed to working hard as getting stronger.

“It’s great throwing up weights and having these attainable goals every day and going out there and getting better,” he said. “I love the team being brought into the weight room. You can definitely tell people are getting things out of it, people getting stronger, just looking more defined, looking more like football players each and every day.”