Without Sam Howell, Mack Brown, North Carolina football embrace challenges ahead

One walk through the Kenan Football Center confirms that, no, this is not the North Carolina program that Mack Brown returned to four years ago. Be it the construction in the adjoining parking lot, the high-tech finishes in the futuristic lobby or the constantly revamped fourth-floor office that houses Brown’s collection of championship trophies and rings, change abounds in Chapel Hill.

Now, what comes of it?

That’s as much a question for the football facilities as for the program itself, which is entering Year 4 under Brown … or as some may call it, Year 1 A.S. After Sam. As in, post-Sam Howell, the Tar Heels’ record-setting quarterback of the past three seasons who expedited Brown’s second rebuild in Chapel Hill before vaulting to the NFL earlier this spring. Brown centered in on Howell — then a Florida State commit — almost immediately upon taking the job in the winter of 2018, and ever since Howell flipped to UNC a month later, the pair had been tied at the hip.

But now everything old is new again. Brown gets to go back to the drawing board, so to speak. And he’s arguably as excited as he has been since returning to UNC.

“You lose Sam, you lose some seniors who’ve been around a long time, and we absolutely started over,” Brown said during a May interview. “We’re back to where we were the first week that we got here.”

The biggest difference? A much higher jumping-off point these days, courtesy of three straight bowl appearances — and the trio of top-15 national recruiting classes they helped deliver. But Brown and his program aren’t satisfied with steady. They want serious steps forward. Going from a surprise 7-6 season in Brown’s first year back, to an 8-4 campaign the year after? That qualifies. Last year was a backstep. Partly because of the 6-7 record, partly because of the inconsistency week-to-week — but also partly because the program’s culture wasn’t as polished as the first two years.

“We’re not teaching these young people about life after football unless they have to compete and earn the right to play, and I think that slipped a little last year, and that’s on me,” Brown said. “I’m the one that starts with the culture, and it was so good for two years, so it just felt like last year there was more griping. It just wasn’t as smooth. It wasn’t all about winning and getting your degree and doing the things we needed to do.”

To get back on that track, and upward trajectory, Brown and his staff will rely on many of the inexperienced-yet-talented recruits they’ve roped in the past three seasons. Snaps, and starting jobs, are available aplenty. Proven contributors? Not so much. And there’s the little matter of replacing the most-decorated passer to ever come through the program.

“I like challenges. I love coming in and trying to fix things. We did so well (the first two seasons), that I’m disappointed in myself that we didn’t do as well last year,” Brown said. “I’m really pumped to get back at it … and all these kids are excited about getting us back to where we should be.”

Author: Lucy Green