UNC football’s 2021 season kicks off with first spring practice since 2019
On Saturday morning, Kenan Memorial Stadium buzzed.
With the first week of spring practice in the books, UNC football’s 2021 season was officially underway.
“We’ve been talking about (spring practice) even since the season ended last year,” junior defensive back Kyler McMichael said. “Just being able to come out here for the first time with pads on and actually be able to connect, we were all looking forward to it.”
But it wasn’t just that the hundred or so members of the roster were back at the field. It wasn’t even that UNC was able to host a few dozen fans in the stands for the practice. The buzz was about the underclassmen who have been emerging as standouts so far in spring training.
It’s not a stretch to say there were some big question marks surrounding UNC football’s 2021 roster. With linebacker Chazz Surratt and UNC’s skill position superstars — running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown — heading for the 2021 NFL Draft, there are huge shoes to fill on both sides of the ball.
While there are still many preseason questions left unanswered, fans have a lot to look forward to with UNC’s young talent, especially with the second-year class.
“You see the potential in the (sophomore) players,” McMichael said. “We brought in a great class of kids, definitely in the receiving core. I’m excited to see what they do.”
Part of that key receiving core? Sophomores Khafre Brown and Josh Downs.
Watching the one-on-one drills at Saturday’s practice, it was impossible to miss the intensity between the receivers and cornerbacks. Before and after each drill, trash talk could be heard from the sidelines. But the intensity served a distinct purpose — heightening the Tar Heels’ ever-increasing desire to improve.
“We’re real fired up out there,” Downs said. “The energy is crazy. I’ve never been part of a team with this much energy. If you go out there and you’re slow, you’re going to get embarrassed. Everybody is giving a hundred.”
With a season in Chapel Hill under his belt, Downs’ goals this offseason were numerous: bulking up, working on his speed, becoming more explosive and improving his blocking against corners and nickelbacks.
But mostly, he wants to earn rising junior quarterback Sam Howell’s trust— to prove his dependability to his shot-caller.
“With Dyami and Dazz leaving, I want to step into that role and be one of the top guys on the offense,” Downs said. “I gotta have that swagger and that confidence out there to make plays because I know they’re counting on me. We got to fill that void.”
And there are certainly a number of voids to fill on the opposite side of the ball, as the defense is also seeing how big a role rising sophomores can play. Myles Murphy, Kedrick Bingley-Jones and Clyde Pinder Jr. are emerging talents on the defensive line, while Ja’Qurious Conley and Tony Grimes are staking claims in the secondary, despite having each played one season.
During every drill at Saturday’s practice, the defensive backs played with high intensity and energy — especially Conley, who Downs said is one of the hardest corners to play against. While Conley saw a decent number of snaps in 10 games last season and started in the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M, he wants to be the standout on defense in 2021, a feat he’s already accomplishing in practice.
“Just being able to show everybody that I’m Ja’Qurious Conley and I’m here to play,” the sophomore said of his goals this season.
With just a week of spring practice down, it’s too early to make any predictions as to the potential success of the upcoming season. But there is certainly trust and a spirit of togetherness among the group.
“It’s looking now like a more player-led, player-driven team,” McMichael said. “We’re holding each other accountable. I see a special group out of the players we have now, definitely the potential to be a top-10 team.”