Hope springs eternal for college teams in NC

A look at the state’s Division I teams as spring practice ends

East Carolina's Mason Garcia (10) runs the ball while being pressured by Samuel Dankah during ECU's spring game Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. (Scott Davis / The Daily Reflector via AP)

Spring in North Carolina is known for its inconsistency, with bitter cold bringing back memories of winter and sweltering heat foreshadowing the summer to come, often on the same day. Spring is also a time for college football to give a sneak preview of what’s ahead when the season hits its stride in the fall.

Many of the college teams across the state are coming off seasons as up and down as the spring temperatures across the state. They used their two weeks of spring practice to start to sort out question marks on their respective rosters and get a sense of which players will step up and help replace departed talent in 2023.


Over the three-week span that ends this weekend, virtually every major program in the state will finish the spring season with their annual scrimmages. Here’s a look at what’s taken place in the spring games that have been played so far and a look ahead at the teams that are still finishing up on the practice field.

Wolfpack getting defensive

NC State got a taste of the undependable spring weather in North Carolina, kicking off its spring game last week in rainy, 48-degree weather. The result was a sloppy game that was dominated by the Wolfpack defense.

They say if you don’t like the weather in North Carolina, wait a few minutes, and it’ll change. The same could be said of NC State’s starting quarterback last season. The Pack ran through four different players at QB1 last year. Two of them — Ben Finley and MJ Morris — were back for the game, joined by Brennan Armstrong, a graduate transfer from Virginia, where he was one of the ACC’s passing leaders in 2021.

Competing against Sam Hartman, Devin Leary and future NFL players Sam Howell and Kenny Pickett, Armstrong led the conference in passing yardage two years ago. Now reunited with his former offensive coordinator Robert Anae, hired by State coach Dave Doeren over the offseason, the Pack hopes Armstrong finds his old form.

He finished 14 of 28 for 127 yards in the spring game, throwing two interceptions, one of which was returned for a score, and no touchdowns. Finley also threw a pick-six, but the big news from the brother of former Wolfpack starter and current NFL passer Ryan Finley is that he entered the transfer portal after the game, apparently not liking his chances of beating out Armstrong for the job. Morris avoided any interceptions and had an impressive 62-yard touchdown pass for the team’s offensive bright spot.

Big shoes to fill at ECU

East Carolina also played its spring game a week ago, and the Pirates hope to build on their first bowl win since 2013 this season. There’s no truth to the rumor that Holton Ahlers quarterbacked that team to its bowl win a decade ago. Ahlers, who left after five record-breaking years as the ECU starter, left the biggest vacancy on the Pirates’ depth chart.

Alex Flinn looks like he’s up to the task of replacing Ahlers. He went 19 of 22 for 173 yards in the game, leading the team on three scoring drives — one a 59-yard pass to Jsi Hatfield and the other a 62-yard keeper. Flinn led all rushers with 68 yards on four attempts. Freshman Javious Bond also gave ECU fans reason to believe in the team’s ground game, rushing for 64 yards on six carries, including a 60-yard touchdown run.

Mason Garcia had 152 yards on 17-of-29 passing but was victimized by a pair of interceptions as the ECU defense had a big day. Four Pirates defenders had multiple tackles for loss and seven defensive players recorded a sack. Jamari Young, with three TFLs and two sacks, was the star on that side of the ball.

The game featured an interesting incentive, with the Gold team defeating the Purple, 17-9, and earning a postgame meal of steak and shrimp. The losing side, according to coach Mike Houston, would be served beanie weenies.

What dreams Maye come

UNC won nine of its first 10 games last year and became the league’s final Coastal Division champion before dropping four straight to close out the year. The Tar Heels bring back quarterback Drake Maye, who earned mention as a dark horse Heisman candidate before the late-season spiral. Maye and the Heels will try to find the magic of the first part of last year as they return to the field in 2023. Maye looked in midseason form in the Blue-White game, completing 10 of 13 for 156 yards and two scores — a 35-yard pass to Tez Walker and a 13-yarder to Nate McCollum.

Those names may not sound familiar to Carolina followers. Both were transfer portal additions — Walker from Kent State and McCollum from Georgia Tech — after UNC lost its top two receivers from last season, Josh Downs and Antoine Green, to the NFL.

The UNC secondary, which was the team’s Achilles’ heel last season, was rebuilt, with many of last season’s key players departed and replaced with transfer portal additions. The secondary held up well in the spring game, and the defensive line appears to be deep and productive, which should help reduce the amount of time the secondary needs to defend. Offensive line, which struggled against the pass rush in the game, and running back, where no one has stepped forward from a crowded group, appear to be the biggest question marks.

Sam I am not

The Demon Deacons held their spring game on Saturday, and all eyes were on the quarterback spot. Sam Hartman left for Notre Dame after rewriting the Wake Forest record book, and the Deacs are now led on offense by Mitch Griffis. He made a statement that he’s ready for prime time with a 19-for-29 outing that produced 319 yards and two touchdowns, and that’s with several drops by his receivers and several holding and pass interference calls on the defense that moved his team but didn’t add to his stat line. Coach Dave Clawson said that he completed nearly 80% of his passes over the spring practice sessions.

Griffis will be supported by perhaps the best set of targets in the ACC. Donavon Greene returns and was a spring game star with three catches for 111 yards and a score. Sophomore Wesley Grimes, who had four catches last year, had 10 grabs for 157 yards. Taylor Morin added a touchdown.

And the rest

App State finished its spring practice in March and didn’t hold a game. Joey Aguilar and Ryan Burger appear ready to battle in fall camp for the starting quarterback job. Duke looks to build on a successful debut season for coach Mike Elko and will hold its spring game this weekend. Charlotte, who has a new coach in Biff Poggi and a new conference with the move to the American, will enter its new era with a spring game this weekend as well. Then we have a three-month break before late summer leads us into the 2023 season.