Yesterday, Mack Brown took questions via Zoom from sports reporters that had one eye on the (hopefully) upcoming football season, but another eye focused squarely on the swath of viral destruction in Chapel Hill. Four COVID-19 clusters on campus in the span of three days forced UNC to abandon in-person classes, pushing all students to pre-arranged remote learning. This has made national news with coverage from the Washington Post and the New York Times, and is another false start towards a potential fall football campaign.
While some regular students are stumbling into the semester practicing social distancing on campus, then partying in frat houses after class, the football team has been doing remarkably well within their unofficial bubble. Mack Brown pointed out that many players on the team have been at this since spring, practicing stringent social distancing, taking online classes only, and abstaining from activities outside of the football complex. He said, “Our players and our staff understand that we’ve got three months here where we cannot go outside for social reasons if we want to have our football season.”
Coach was pleased with the University’s decision to move exclusively to remote learning, as it will help create a better bubble for the football team, and will not require any adjustment from the football players school-wise. All players were already strictly enrolled in online classes.
When asked about the COVID-19 clusters that were discovered just one week since the return of regular students, Mack Brown said, “After watching this [COVID-19] for six months, I’m surprised that people are surprised that students are going to have some positives. It’s happening everywhere in the country.” He did think that some good would come out of the national media attention on UNC, saying:
“When people have positives and there is publicity like we’ve gotten, now they’ll be more careful. It gets better faster than if you get comfortable with it. You cannot get comfortable with this virus. It’ll jump up and grab you. You’ve got to wear your mask and you need to stay around people wearing a mask. And you’ve got to wash your hands. And our players understand that now.”
There was another Zoom meeting between the coaching staff and players’ families. Mack Brown said that he laid out what safety parameters were in place to protect the players. He did not take any questions from the families regarding personal concerns, as he didn’t want there to be any pressure from other families with differing opinions, instead, leaving them contact information for them to privately discuss afterwards, should they choose. As of yesterday, Mack Brown has not had any follow-ups. Currently, the number of players that have opted out of the upcoming season due to safety concerns stands at three.
Football wise, Mack said that COVID-19 has forced the team to cross-train certain players across multiple positions in preparation for the season. A quick example is that most of the offensive line is learning multiple positions on both the left and righthand sides of the line. In addition to building normal squad depth, this will be useful should any player pop positive during a weekly COVID-19 test, causing them to miss games.
He also said that he is committed to putting his best 11 players on the field at all times. If this means a cornerback is better than all of his safeties, he’ll look for a way to put that cornerback in at safety. To that end, he spent considerable time praising Trey Morrison, and said that he is learning five positions; both safeties, both cornerbacks, and nickelback.
Mack also said that Chazz Surratt may move to defensive end on 2nd & long and 3rd & long situations. Part of this is that Mack and Jay Bateman want to move Surratt around the field in order to give offensive coordinators more to think about and to give Chazz more chances to make plays on the quarterback. Another part is so that sophomore linebackers Khadry Jackson and Eugene Asante can get more snaps, as they’ve impressed during preseason practice.
The team as a whole is playing a lot faster than last year, and this will show itself the most on special teams. Mack believes that special teams will make a difference this season, whereas last season they were hoping not to allow any mistakes or take any unnecessary injuries.
UNC’s first week of classes was an unmitigated disaster, let’s not pull any punches. Fortunately, it appears that the Carolina football program that learned some hard lessons in July is in a better place now and stands a puncher’s chance at seeing this season through. Mack Brown stated unequivocally, “I am confident that we will play.” His program is taking all serious steps towards seeing that predication come true, and have done so with diligence and discipline. If anyone can keep Carolina’s football season from becoming a clusterfuck, it’s Coach Mack.