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UNC Football: Highlights from the 2021 ACC Kickoff

Vaccinations, Sam Howell, and the overall progress of the program highlight this year’s event for the Tar Heels.

NCAA Football: ACC Kickoff Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday was the first day of the 2021 ACC Kickoff event, and it was a day that had its fair share of moments. Representing Carolina at the event were head coach Mack Brown, Sam Howell, Jeremiah Gemmel, and Tomon Fox. There usually isn’t anything extremely groundbreaking that comes out of these events, but this year was a little bit different for not only the ACC, but the Tar Heels in general.

Let’s go ahead and get the ACC part out of the way: the new commissioner of the conference, Jim Phillips, was the first to speak during the event and answered questions about COVID, as well as the NIL. He informed the media that over half of the conference have exceeded the 85% vaccination threshold, which is how “herd immunity” is being determined within programs. Even better, some schools in the conference have mandated that students get vaccinated in order to return to campus (UNC is not one of them).

From there is when things started to go downhill. Here’s what Phillips had to say about vaccines:

“Personally, I believe vaccines are critical to the protection of all and achieving the goal of eliminating COVID-19 and its variants,” he said, “but I also deeply respect that it’s a personal choice.”

We have heard many people in the wild proclaim that getting a vaccine is a personal choice, and while that is for all intents and purposes true, Phillips ignored one massive elephant in the room when he made his statement: NC State. The Wolfpack are only a couple of months removed from getting yanked from the College World Series because a few players on the team tested positive for COVID-19. State fans were infuriated, though in typical fashion they chose to blame the NCAA rather than the players not being vaccinated. I digress, the point is that this all could set the ACC up for another season of potential chaos. How do we already know this? Because Phillips has no idea how to handle teams that experience outbreaks during the season.

Seriously, read what he has to say:

Bear in mind that today is July 22nd, and that two out of the three vaccines that are available to the public have to be spaced out between doses over the course of a few weeks. By waiting a “couple of more weeks”, the ACC has basically set itself up for some teams to experience some serious issues right out of the gate if they haven’t handled this situation properly. We shall see what ends up happening, but right now I personally don’t have a lot of faith in Phillips’ game plan. Perhaps he should take a page out of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s book:

Anyways, onto the Tar Heels. When it comes to the COVID situation, Mack Brown said during his presser that his team is really close to reaching the 85% vaccination threshold. Here is the full quote:

We’re not at 85% for herd immunity with our entire team yet. We’re getting really close. We have encouraged everybody to get it. Some, as we know, across our country and our world do not want to get it. We understand that. That’s fair. Our job is to educate; their job is to make personal decisions. That’s the way we do for the NFL; that’s the way we do with everyone in our program.

But we have a great plan in place with what we’ve got to make sure that we get the numbers right in each meeting room for 85% herd immunity and our training table, in our locker room. That’s what we’re going to do. 85% herd immunity we’ve been told means you can go back to a normal process. Maybe the unvaccinated people have to wear a mask still, and the vaccinated ones can wear a mask if they want that as an option. That’s in our football building and in our football program.

Moving onto football, Mack Brown was very optimistic in everything that he said about this year’s team. He believes that Bubba Cunningham has been extremely accommodating since he returned to Chapel Hill, which has even included paying his assistant and positional coaches as much as possible so that they are not leaving for monetary reasons. It’s an extremely sound strategy, and the entire point of it is to create continuity within the program, which is something that was lacking during the Larry Fedora era.

Another big part of the program’s turnaround according to Brown has been the fans. Here’s what he had to say about how things turned around when it came to packing Kenan Stadium:

Secondly, I challenged our fans to buy in. People said fans aren’t coming to the games. I said, C’mon, fans, you want to be a good football program, you have to be a good fan base. We sold out every game, one of seven teams to sell out every game in 2019. We’ve already sold all of our season tickets, which is amazing after the very difficult year most people have had financially over the last year.

Shifting gears to the players themselves, Mack Brown spoke very fondly of Tennessee transfer, Ty Chandler. Brown said that Chandler in his eyes is somewhere between a Michael Carter and a Javonte Williams, as he can run the ball inside, has good speed, and has “tremendous” hands. What was fascinating was that one of the reasons that he acquired Chandler was because he didn’t want to go into the opening game at Virginia Tech with running backs that hadn’t played before. We all know that attention to detail is how Mack Brown won a national championship title with Texas, but it’s no less exciting knowing that he is covering all of the little details going into this season with the Tar Heels.

Last but not least, there is Sam Howell. Mack Brown believes that Howell is set up to have a fantastic season, but does acknowledge that there is a lot surrounding his star quarterback. Here’s what he had to say about the expectations surrounding Howell, and how he plans to help him navigate the season:

Sam is so good. He’s about winning, knows we have to have another quarterback to go in the future. We’ll navigate that with him. Whether it’s name, image and likeness, the awards you’re going to get, it’s about your ball, it’s not about your brand. If we play well, if Sam is going to play great, if we play well enough as a team around him, and we have a chance to win a lot of games, he’ll be right in the mix of that Heisman thing regardless of what we say or do. If we don’t play well as a team, it will drift away.

The media asked Howell about what he felt about the new receivers and running backs that would be stepping in for the players that the team lost to the NFL, here is what he had to say:

Yeah, I mean, they certainly know the situation and the role they have to fill. But like I said, all those guys in the running back room and the receiver room, they have a really big chip on their shoulder. They’re kind of tired of everyone talking about who we lost instead of talking about who we got coming in this year.

They’ve worked so hard. It’s been a good challenge for me try to get those guys developed into the players we want to see this fall. They’ve done a really good job of that. They’ve worked so hard.

I’m just really excited for those guys to get out there this year and show everybody what they got because they’re really talented players and nobody is giving them the credit they deserve. They haven’t done anything yet, but I know they will this fall, so I’m super excited for them.

After listening to Mack Brown and Sam Howell speak yesterday, it’s clear that confidence is at an all-time high in the Carolina locker room. They have an extremely tough task ahead of them to open the season, as Blacksburg is an extremely tough place to play in, much less for the first game of the season. Sam Howell has shown time and time again that he's not afraid of the moment, and that is exactly the kind of mental toughness that this team is going to need to achieve their goals this season.

Let us know how you’re feeling / expecting going into the 2021 season, and also check back in with us as we will start releasing our positional previews in a couple of weeks.