Mack Brown held a football practice Monday night and invited some guests -- North Carolina students and fans.
At a time when football coaches are super secretive and generally paranoid about everything, and especially this close to the start of a season, Brown basically threw open the gates at Kenan Stadium and let everybody in who wanted to see the Tar Heels. It was a pleasant night after a strong storm system blew through the area, and some took him up on the offer to drop by Kenan and take in an open practice.
With a camera crew following his every step, Brown moved about the field while Ford ads shone brightly above on the Kenan signage boards -- “Drive It Like a Tar Heel” -- and the whole thing had a bit of the feel of a reality-TV production.
Brown, wearing a portable mike, kept practice moving, his voice booming out at times when the loudspeakers weren’t cranking out songs that likely are not on any of the coach’s playlists. In one drill, the running backs cut between pads while an assistant coach whacked at the ball with a boxing glove on his hand.
“I was excited because I’ve never done anything like this,” junior running back Michael Carter said of the open practice. “It was a good experience for me and a good experience for my teammates. And a good experience for the fans.”
Many eyes Monday night were on the quarterbacks and freshman Sam Howell, who Brown said Sunday was the first-team QB. It has been a competitive preseason camp in many ways as Brown and his staff have tried to change the culture around the program, and Howell -- for now -- has the edge on Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder.
Howell, bearded, wearing No. 7, has good size at 6-1 and 225 pounds and appears to have good acceleration, a quarterback light on his feet who has an accurate arm and easy throwing motion. A four-star recruit from Monroe, he set a state prep record with more than 17,000 career yards and more than 200 touchdowns at Sun Valley High.
That’s a lot of yards and scores but Howell has impressed his UNC teammates, they say, with his maturity, poise and apparent leadership qualities.
“You’ve really seen him grow up through the camp since he got here,” tackle Charlie Heck said. “Coming in as an early enrollee, he was quiet, he was shy, but he’s really stepped into his role of being the commander of the offense.
“He’s done a great job this camp running and passing. He came in ready to play. He competed every day. He gained the respect of the room. I respect the heck out of him.”
Heck is a senior -- and a big one at 6-8 and 315 pounds -- and his words carry extra meaning. While Howell is a freshman, he has made a quick impression in fall camp in the way he carries himself and takes charge of the offense.
“He’s very calm,” senior tight end Carl Tucker said. “For being a freshman, he’s very relaxed in the backfield. He doesn’t show much emotion. And being a quarterback and being so young and having this be the first year that Mack is back and just having the talent he has is unbelievable.”
Howell was not made available to the media on Monday. That will come later. It was up to his teammates to do the talking this night about the quarterback situation.
“Obviously we had to choose one and I hate it for the other two, but they’ve got good spirits, too,” Carter said. “Out of Sam I’ve seen young leadership and that comes with the territory. Quarterbacks have to be leaders. He’s not just leading to be doing it. He’s trying his best to lead his way, which may not always be super vocal. He also holds himself super accountable, more than most freshmen would.”
Brown, in his first season back in Chapel Hill, scheduled some preseason practices to simulate game days as much as he can. The Tar Heels open the 2019 season against South Carolina in Charlotte on Aug. 31, with a 3:30 p.m. start, so Brown has held some afternoon workouts in the heat.
UNC’s first home game, against Miami on Sept. 7, will have an 8 p.m. start on the ACC Network. Monday’s practice began at 8, giving the players a feel for a game under the Kenan lights.
“They’ve done what we’ve asked them to do. They’ve had a tremendous camp,” Brown said in addressing those in the stands who stayed until the end. “We will see you in Charlotte. And for you who can’t get to Charlotte, let’s fill Kenan Stadium in a couple of week here against Miami.”
UNC fans are in store for a new stadium feature this year, beginning with the Miami game. UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham announced Monday there will be beer and wine sales at all home games.