Tar Heels look for strong start

UNC opens its season by hosting Florida A&M

Receiver Josh Downs is the top returning weapon for an inexperienced Tar Heels offense that enters the season with a new starting quarterback. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

UNC opens the fifth season of Mack Brown’s second tenure in Chapel Hill on Saturday night when it hosts Florida A&M.

After losing some key pieces of last season’s team and suffering some serious injuries to a few veteran starters, the Tar Heels will be looking for several young players to pick up the slack.


One is quarterback Drake Maye, who Brown announced on Monday would be the team’s starting quarterback against Florida A&M over Jacolby Criswell.

“At the quarterback position, Drake will walk out there first,” Brown said. “We feel like that competition has been outstanding. Both can play, but Drake has earned the right. I’m not going to get into why and what because it’s very close and we’re pleased with both of them and both will play at some point during the year.”

With UNC’s career leader in passing yards, touchdowns and single-season touchdowns Sam Howell gone to the NFL, Maye will have a tall task in trying to fill his shoes.

To make the task even more daunting, Maye will have limited veteran targets to work with, especially with senior Antoine Green out with a shoulder injury for another four-to-eight weeks.

Maye will, however, have junior wide receiver Josh Downs, who recently collected Preseason All-American second-team honors, and graduate tight end Kamari Morales. The duo was first and second in receiving touchdowns, respectively, last season.

On the ground, the Tar Heels’ offense will also be starting in a hole at running back after projected starter British Brooks suffered a season-ending lower-body injury at practice last week.

“D.J. Jones will walk out there first,” Brown said. “British [Brooks] would have done that, but obviously we lost him last week.”

Jones played in nine games last season, finishing with 60 carries for 253 yards and 12 receptions for 55 yards.

“D.J.’s been good since he’s been here,” Brown added. “He’s smart, he can protect, he can catch, he’s real fast and he’s doing a better job running up inside behind his pads.”

The offense has a lot riding on little experience, and Brown is hoping to figure more out about his team come Saturday.

“We still have a lot of questions that will be answered on Saturday because we have so much inexperience,” Brown said. “We’re very talented, but we’re very inexperienced. They’ve performed well in practice, we like what we see, we’ve got a lot of question marks and they will be answered Saturday night at 8:15.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the Tar Heels will be relying on a bit more experienced group to rebound from an uncharacteristically bad season. The hope is old but new defensive mastermind Gene Chizik can again turn around the UNC defense.

“I had a long meeting with them yesterday talking about the ups and downs of a season,” Chizik said. “How we respond to things and what we’re going to be like if we’re down 21 in a game. What’re we going to be like if we’re up 21 in a game? Because it’s all about a standard. It’s standards, not circumstances. We can’t play to circumstances, we have to play to standards — and that’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of trust between players and coaches, and I think going into this game we’ve got that.”

Facing off against the Heels, the Rattlers are a talented group that finished second in the SWAC East with a 7-1 conference record and 9-3 overall record.

Led by quarterback Rasean McKay, who threw for 2,457 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2021, the offense also features Xavier Smith, who was a first-team All-SWAC receiver last season with a team-high 713 receiving yards last season. Running back Bonnett Bishop rushed for 972 yards a year ago.

On the other side of the ball, the Rattlers feature a few more all-conference players. Linebacker Isaiah Land was named the SWAC’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, while cornerbacks BJ Bohler (first team) and Javan Morgan (second team) shore up the secondary.

“Florida A&M has been one of the top programs in football history,” Brown said. “Coach (Willie) Simmons has done a tremendous job. They won nine games in 2019, they didn’t allow them to play in 2020 because of COVID, and then last year they won nine games and went to the playoffs. Those are all positive things. And the tough thing is they have 25 transfers, so we have no idea who’s gonna play. For an opening ball game, we’re not sure about our guys and we’re not sure about their guys.”