CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The UNC Football team held its first official practice on Wednesday morning as the new-look Tar Heels continue their preseason slate in preparation for their season-opening matchup against South Carolina on September 2nd.
Here are five observations from the first few days of camp:
Strong Receiving Core:
With the absence of receiving duo Josh Downs and Antoine Green to the NFL, UNC was tasked with replacing their talent with new weapons ahead of the 2023 season. Kent State transfer Tez Walker and Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum arrived in Chapel Hill back in January to fill those gaps. The pair have proven productive for the Tar Heels thus far, with Walker being voted to the preseason All-ACC team on Wednesday. He was also the top receiver at Kent where he caught 58 passes for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns. McCollum’s role for the Yellow Jackets was two-fold, serving as both a receiver and punt returner. He wrapped up the 2022 season with 60 passes for 655 yards and three touchdowns. Both players have exhibited flashes of shiftiness and speed over these last couple of days with more to be seen from them in the coming weeks.
UNC can also look to its returning depth as it solidifies its rotation going into the season with players like Kobe Paysour, Gavin Blackwell, and J.J. Jones who combined for seven touchdowns last season.
On Wednesday, head coach Mack Brown mentioned that he wants to play six wideouts and rotate them. That being said, North Carolina also brought in three freshmen receivers – Chris Culliver, Christian Hamilton and Paul Billups II. Tychaun ‘Doc’ Chapman also returns for the Tar Heels as a redshirt-freshman.
Arrival of Freddie Kitchens:
After a three-year tenure with the Tar Heels, former tight ends coach John Lilly parted ways with the program to accept the same position with the Carolina Panthers back in February. Hired to replace him was former Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens, whose last coaching stint was with the South Carolina Gamecocks as a senior analyst in 2022.
Kitchens is expected to bolster UNC’s run game and has stressed the importance of physicality and run blocking within his position group. With over 20 years of coaching experience under his belt, Kitchen’s style of coaching— which includes sharing film from his NFL days— has made an impact on the TEs, including grad student Kamari Morales who says, “With Coach Kitchens, if you ain’t gonna be physical and hit nobody, you ain’t gon play. Straight up. So if you gonna be in a game, you’re gonna hit somebody or you’re gonna get dealt with. He changed the attitude of everybody in the room.”
Coach Brown also believes the addition of Kitchens will work well with offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and offensive line coach Randy Clements, both of whom joined the program in December 2022.
Return of Tomari Fox:
After a year-long suspension for banned substance use, defensive end Tomari Fox is back with the Tar Heels. He was suspended for North Carolina’s bowl game against South Carolina on December, 30th 2021 after testing positive for the unknown banned substance. Fox was unaware that the pre-workout supplement was not approved by the NCAA, but he is now putting all that behind him and eager to gear back up in Carolina blue.
Depth Concerns at Linebacker:
First-team All-ACC team captain Cedric Gray and Power Echols combined for 152 solo tackles last season – playing the majority, if not all, of the snaps from last season. With the injury of Sebastian Cheeks early last season, Coach Brown kept it real with the pair by saying that if they go out there and get hurt, the team doesn’t have the bodies to replace them. That being said, Cheeks is now healthy and available for the Tar Heels along with redshirt freshman Deuce Caldwell, who has six tackles and one sack under his belt. North Carolina also added Amare Campbell who is a true freshman. Cheeks and Campbell saw field time as reserves on Wednesday.
After the departures of several key pieces of its backfield, including Storm Duck and Cam Kelly to Louisville, UNC’s secondary now features some new faces with Virginia Tech grad transfer Armani Chatman and FCS All-American East Tennessee State transfer Alijah Huzzie now in the mix. Georgia State transfer Antavious ‘Stick’ Lane will also be available for the Tar Heels. These three join Marcus Allen, who holds the other cornerback spot, redshirt freshman Tayon Holloway and DeAndre Boykins, who switches between safety and nickelback. On Wednesday, Lane, Holloway and Boykins saw high snap counts.
Also part of this group is Don Chapman, who is entering his fifth year with the team. At practice Chapman made an impressive interception off a pass from Connor Harrell that was intended for Doc Chapman. He hauled himself in front of the ball and took off with it to end the play.
Coach Brown has said that the only player who is not available for practice right now is Malaki Hamrick, who is nursing a no-contact lower-body injury that he sustained in the spring. While he made some contributions as a freshman – appearing in 13 games at jack and posting nine tackles, five of which were solo – he was ruled out for the season despite being expected to step up in the fall.