Mack Brown’s observations following the Tar Heels’ first practice
The skies were cloudy late Friday morning, but there was just enough sun to make the day warm. As the North Carolina Tar Heels stepped onto the practice field for their first day of preseason training camp, there was a quietness -- perhaps a focus -- among the players.
After a 2-9 season last year, this was the moment they were anticipating. A chance to bring together everything they’ve been working on in the offseason as they prepare for their first game on Aug. 31 against South Carolina.
UNC football coach Mack Brown, who took over the program in November, liked what he saw in their first practice. He said his team has improved since the spring game.
On this day, most of the players who were injured in the spring were back on the field for the first time and appeared healthy.
“We’re deeper,” Brown said. “The guys are in better shape. They’re stronger. Coach (Brian) Hess and his staff did a tremendous job this summer.”
The players practiced without pads on Friday. The media got a chance to view the first 50 minutes of the two-hour practice. Most of that time consisted of players going through positional drills.
Here are some observations from the first practice:
There is more confidence at quarterback
Redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder and true freshman Sam Howell all threw Friday. They worked on footwork, hand-offs, touch passes, swing passes and a few deep balls. Each quarterback appeared confident and threw the ball well. But none really stood out more than the others.
Brown said there is no timeline on when he will select the starting quarterback. He also has not ruled out using two if one isn’t significantly better than the others.
Howell is everything everyone says he is
Howell, who was a four-star prospect and third-ranked pro-style quarterback in the country coming out of Sun Valley High in Monroe, is as good as advertised. He kept up with Ruder and Fortin, who are both a year older. He has good arm strength and demonstrated some touch on his passes.
Howell has as good a shot to start as the others.
“I thought that they did a good job,” Brown said of the quarterbacks. “With new receivers in some cases, it probably takes them longer on a day like this to get settled because they have more to do. But just watching them, they’re all three talented. All three good enough.”
At wide receiver, someone is going to have to step up
One of the biggest storylines this season will be who will take over as the No. 1 wide receiver. With Anthony Ratliff-Williams gone, there are a number of options including Dazz Newsome, Beau Corrales, Dyami Brown and others.
Each of the receivers worked some with the quarterbacks catching passes and running routes. Newsome, who led UNC with 44 catches last season, said he’s trying to take that spot.
“Most definitely,” he said. “We’re trying to out-beat each other. All of us are fighting for a spot, just like the quarterbacks are fighting for a spot.”
Newsome, who is 5-11, 190 pounds, had 506 receiving yards and two touchdowns to go with his 44 catches in 2018.
After gruesome injury in 2018, Antoine Green is back
It was good to see Antoine Green back on the practice field after he suffered a gruesome foot injury in 2018. The injury was never explained, but Green appeared to break his ankle last season in the third quarter of UNC’s game against Syracuse on Oct. 20, 2018.
Before the injury, the then-freshman, who was a four-star prospect in high school, was having one of his best games of the season. He had two catches for 32 yards, including a 23-yard catch.
Surgery on his foot started a long road to recovery. But on Friday, Green was back, and made a few catches in practice.
Running backs were about business
The running backs will likely be the strongest unit on the field. Junior Michael Carter was back from a hand injury he suffered in the spring. And both senior Antonio Williams and sophomore Javonte Williams appeared in good shape.
The three running backs were UNC’s best running backs last season, too. Having those three run the ball well will take pressure off the passing game, which is crucial in the Air Raid offense.
Strowbridge hasn’t missed a beat
Jason Strowbridge, a 6-4, 285-pound defensive lineman, was impressive in his first day back from injury, Brown said.
Strowbridge suffered a foot injury and did not practice in the spring. Last season, he was one of UNC’s best players. He had 36 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and a blocked kick.
“Strowbridge, I’ve never seen him before today, except on film,” he said. “He’s really quick and he’s big and he’s got the long arms for pass rush. Our guys had trouble blocking him in the pass-rush drills.”
Kicking game worries Brown
Brown is worried about the kicking game. He said the kicking was inconsistent. UNC kicker Freeman Jones, who was a senior last season, graduated, so someone new will have to step up.
“The kickoffs were good, but we missed a couple of field goals and that’s unacceptable in shorts the first day back,” Brown said. “So that’s really something we’ve got to consider.”