CHAPEL HILL — Junior tight end Eric Ebron can be the life of North Carolina football practices cracking one-liners, always smiling but this time his joy was of the sarcastic nature.
Its been the best two weeks of my life, Ebron said last week midway through UNCs preseason training camp.
Then Ebron beamed a wide, over-the-top smile that drew some laughter. He paused and then told the truth.
Its been the hardest two weeks of my life, he said, the smile gone. Coach (Walt) Bell is relentless. Coach (Larry) Fedora is even more relentless. Coach (Blake) Anderson I mean, my whole offensive staff is relentless.
Football coaches arent known for coddling, especially in the preseason. The UNC staff has been especially tough on Ebron, who at 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds is among the Tar Heels most physically imposing offensive players.
Bell, the tight ends coach, and Anderson, the offensive coordinator, have constantly pushed Ebron through the preseason. Good hasnt been good enough. Ebron, after all, was good last season 40 catches for 625 yards and four touchdowns but Fedora and his staff believe he didnt come close to reaching his potential. They expect more.
Ive been putting a lot of pressure on him since the day I got here, Fedora said Friday. And the expectation level from my part has always been high for him, and theyre going to continue to be. And Im going to continue to put as much pressure on him as possible, because I think he responds better that way.
Some coaches, at least publicly, downplay expectations for a player. With Ebron, Fedora has done the opposite.
Even before preseason practice began, Fedora made clear what he expected from Ebron this season: 12 touchdown receptions. More would be acceptable. Anything less than 12, Fedora said, wouldnt be.
I dont think nothing of it, Ebron said. I think I have all of the ability in the world to get it done. Not to be cocky, but I dont think anybody has the ability to prevent me from getting that goal that we set for me and he set. ... So I dont see no thought, no struggles, no stress upon getting 12 touchdowns.
Twelve touchdown receptions would represent a significant increase from a season ago. All but one of those four touchdowns came during the first three weeks of the season.
The Tar Heels struggled in the red zone last season, converting about 61 percent of its trips there into touchdowns. If UNC is to solve its red zone woes, it figures Ebron would play a large role in the solution.
Thats where we need to get him the ball more, Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner said. And Coach Anderson does a great job of game-planning, as far as ways that we can do that. And every week we have plays to get him the ball in the red zone, and were going to split him out wide sometimes.
Renner described Ebron as one of the most dynamic tight ends in the country, but Fedora and his assistants havent been content to let Ebron rely on talent alone. Which is why the preseason has been so difficult on him.
Fedora doesnt want Ebron to stop smiling, necessarily, or to stop being jovial. Those characteristics, Fedora said, are who he is.
Youre not going to take a guy thats a happy-go-lucky kind of guy and make him a serious guy, and we dont want cookie-cutter guys in this program, Fedora said. I want him to be who he is. I want him to perform at the highest level that he possibly can.
Ebron said he changed physically in the offseason, gaining about 20 pounds without losing speed. The combination, he said with a smile, looks illegal like it shouldnt be on the field.
Mentally, though, his transformation continues.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter