All offseason, Mack Brown and the Carolina football program emphasized the Tar Heels’ desire to go from good to great. Early this season, after UNC scraped by App State in double overtime, Brown told reporters he’d stopped using the phrase, wanting to see the growth rather than just talk about it.
And when Carolina shot out of the gate at 6-0 and broke into the AP Top 10, it appeared the Tar Heels were ready to make that jump.
Instead, UNC played it out in reverse, going from great to good to whatever the heck Saturday night’s loss at NC State was. It’s almost a mirror image of last year’s late-season collapse, which also included a loss to the Wolfpack in the season finale. For a team which spent months making sure that didn’t happen again, it’s a stunning demise.
“I don’t know where this came from,” said senior linebacker Cedric Gray. “I thought this was something we talked about all offseason, all throughout the year: never get complacent when we’re high. After Week 6, things started trending downhill for us. I think we’re 2-4 in our last six games. Just not good football.”
For Gray and others on the team, the coming weeks before Carolina’s bowl game will bring some critical decisions. Players will meet with Brown and assistant coaches to discuss their futures in Chapel Hill, including whether or not they will be spending next season somewhere else. For Gray, the question is whether or not he even suits up for the Tar Heels in the bowl game, or elects to prepare for the NFL Draft. Gray said after Saturday’s game he hasn’t made that decision yet.
Quarterback Drake Maye has the same decision to make, and it’s one which could decide the future for several NFL franchises hungry for a new signal caller. Maye has been quiet on his plans all season long, and that didn’t change Saturday night.
“I’m not really sure,” he said. “Obviously, this team means the world to me, this university. I’ve gotta sit down with my family and make some decisions. At the end of the day, being a Tar Heel and playing in Carolina blue has meant the world to me. Dream come true. We didn’t finish out the right way, but we may have another chance to do that.”
Maye and Gray are evaluating the pro option, but according to Brown several other players have been contacted through the transfer portal already. Carolina saw a mass exodus following last season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and it seems as if the head coach is bracing for another busy offseason of “Portal Kombat.” For his part, Brown confirmed he would be sticking around in Chapel Hill.
But it’s not just players who have the right to explore their options. Assistant coaches will meet with Brown as well to discuss both the season as a whole and whether or not they will take another job. Last fall, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo both departed before Carolina’s bowl game, and defensive backs coach Dre Bly was let go soon after. Brown would not commit to any sweeping changes on his staff, but did say he’d grade every coach in his charge.
“At the end of the year, I ask our players to be honest with us and I always ask our assistants to be honest with us,” Brown said. “If you’re looking at another job, let me know. Because if you look, I’m gonna look. And I’ve got a lot of evaluating to do, so I’ll look at everything we’ve got. And that happens over the next month.”
It could be that the Tar Heels look completely different whenever and wherever they take the field in the postseason. At quarterback, linebacker, receiver, running back and elsewhere decisions will be made which will shape Carolina’s action plan for 2024.
But after Saturday’s disaster in Raleigh, perhaps a hard reset is exactly what’s needed.
Featured image via Eli Melet
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