North Carolina officially began football practice on Thursday powered by a hip-hop soundtrack that propelled the players from one period of emphasis to the next with the exuberance and bounce the first day brings.
With the day nearly finished though, the soundtrack changed with a song out of place among the playlist. The Tar Heels use a different song to signal the fourth quarter every practice, but on Thursday it was meant to grab their attention.
Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” elbowed its way in-between JCole and DJ Khaled tracks. It just so happens to be the intro song Virginia Tech uses when it rushes onto the field in Lane Stadium as the crowd jumps up and down into a frenzy.
The song was played just as Carolina players and coaches held up four fingers to simulate the start of the fourth quarter. It was just a small reminder that all the hitting blocking sleds, chasing down tackling dummies and catching passes after running defenseless routes were for a reason. Their focus and execution has to stay at a high level with an ACC foe waiting in the opener.
“They’ve got one of the best fan bases and entrances with ‘Sandman’ in college football, so we won’t have to say a whole lot,” UNC coach Mack Brown said in a video conference after practice. “We’re telling them to ‘Get yourself ready, be a better player.’ ”
Brown’s third year of opening fall camp since his return to Chapel Hill has a much different feel than his previous two years. It has nothing to do with the NFL scouts present on Thursday and lurking around the quarterback group to document the actions of junior Sam Howell.
And it’s not just the raised expectations that the Heels believe they can compete for the ACC championship. Carolina is conducting itself with a greater sense maturity.
Brown is trusting in that while he summed up the mantra for this camp. He is leaning on the Tar Heels’ depth with the belief that more players are prepared so that there is no discernible drop-off between starters and reserves.
“We want you to play fewer plays, be more rested and get more production in fewer plays,” Brown said. “That will be one of the goals as we continue to move forward.”
Brown pointed to games against Notre Dame and Texas A&M where he felt like the Heels was just too fatigued in the fourth quarter and that’s where the games were lost. He wants their depth before the opener at Virginia Tech to be such that it even elevates their special teams.
Brown set a goal for this season to be able to win some games because of special teams play. He said they were just average last season.
“When you’ve got more depth, you should have better special teams,” Brown said. “You play better players on special teams, and you’ve got other guys that can rest people during the game. So that’ll be something we’ll continue to do.”
Carolina had more personnel movement than on a typical first day of practice, with many more players mixing in for snaps with the first team on both offense and defense.
Senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel has started every game the last two seasons. Coaches know what to expect from him. So they used sophomore Cedric Gray a lot more to take more reps when the first-team defense matched against the first-team offense.
Graduate transfer Ty Chandler is the presumed starter at running back. But that didn’t stop D.J. Jones, Caleb Hood and British Brooks from also sharing snaps in the backfield with Howell.
“We have a really mature team; I don’t think anyone is going to let the hype get to us,” Howell said. “We talked about early on. Everyone knows they hype surrounding our program, and I think it’s well-deserved, but the hype is not gonna win football games.”
Especially not against in Virginia Tech the opener. Carolina is just 4-13 against the Hokies since they joined the ACC in 2004 and its last win in Blacksburg was a 30-27 overtime win in 2015.
It may be the best way for the Heels to start this season because they have an opponent that will get their attention.
“It’s good to not play a lesser opponent just because there’s kind of a sense of urgency, going through camp,” Howell told reporters after practice. “... We know what the challenge is week one.”
Former players donate to UNC program
UNC football received several financial gifts from former players for naming rights to the rooms they once starred in. Hakeem Nicks donated to have the wide receivers’ room named after him. Da’Norris and Kiki Searcy donated to have the defensive back room named after them.
Trey Edge along with Brian and Courtney Chacos donated for the chaplain’s office to be named after Mitch Mason, who has struggling with an illness.
Kory Bailey, Doug Brown, Merceda Perry, Danny Davis, WiIl Chapman III, Richard Moore, Billy-Dee Greenwood, Anthony Anderson, Rufus Brown, William Bigham, Jeff Reed, and Joey Evans donated for the linebacker room to be named after Quincy Monk.
Jeb Terry gave money for the lineman of the week wall.
Jeff Saturday claimed naming rights for the Saturday Family Offensive Line room with his gift. Saturday played at Carolina during Brown’s first stint and graduated in 1997 before a long NFL career at center for the Indianapolis Colts. His son, Jeffrey, is currently a sophomore receiver for the Tar Heels.
“Jeff was a tough player here, he created an edge and he’s what you want your offensive line to be about,” Brown said. “I love him as a person.”