Dealing with the unknowns of a season opener tough on coaches like UNC’s Mack Brown

How well will North Carolina play Saturday in the season opener against South Carolina?

“I don’t know,” UNC coach Mack Brown said Monday.

That wasn’t Brown being coy or disingenuous. He was being honest.

As a head coach, Brown has prepared football teams for openers since 1983 at Appalachian State – the Mountaineers won at Wake Forest 27-25 in Brown’s first game,

After all the pregame planning, the chef preparing the App State team meal got mixed up on the menu and served hamburgers and hot dogs. Call it a different kind of opening-game mistake.. The next week, after making the necessary corrections, it was back to pregame steaks.

Such is the nature of opening games. The speed of the game changes from practice. Coaches must adjust, often on the fly. Sometimes, the game can be decided when a team’s placekicker blows an extra point late in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the score.

“Coaches are the worst,” Brown said. “We’re all paranoid and all concerned and look at every problem that can possibly come up and the unknowns.”

One big unknown the Tar Heels continue to deal with is the eligibility status of wide receiver Tez Walker. A preseason All-ACC pick, Walker is being denied instant immediate eligibility by the NCAA as a two-time transfer despite playing only for Kent State before transferring to UNC this year.

Brown said Walker, who attended NCCU prior to Kent State but didn’t play due to the Eagles’ 2020 season being canceled due to the COVID pandemic, may be able to speak directly to the NCAA committee this week about his appeal and situation. Walker continues to practice, and Brown said he will travel with the team to Charlotte, his hometown, for the game at Bank of America Stadium.

“Tez was really down after practice yesterday,” Brown said. “We’ve told him, ‘You plan on playing and we’re going to plan on playing you.’ And we’ve got to have two game plans, one with him and one without him.”

North Carolina coach Mack Brown watches his team during their first day of practice on Wednesday, August 2, 2023 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown watches his team during their first day of practice on Wednesday, August 2, 2023 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Tar Heels’ opener could be determined by any number of factors. It could be UNC’s Drake Maye scrambling to throw a late TD pass or Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler doing the same. It could be UNC linebacker Ced Gray forcing a game-changing fumble, or USC blocking a field goal, or confusion in the secondary that leads to a busted assignment and winning play.

“Most people will mess up more stuff Saturday night than we fix,” Brown said. “That’s what happens. … Most opening games are like bowl games. They’re lost more than they’re won.”

Playing a high-quality team like South Carolina will allow the coaches to get a quicker gauge on the players. They can see how they react to the bright lights and in this case the big stage of an ABC telecast.

“You never know about your team until you’re in the fourth quarter early in the season and you see how they respond,” Brown said.

Brown said the Heels would take a “no excuses, no regrets” approach to the 2023 season. He will expect more of his coaches and himself.

There will be no head-hanging from the head coach when things go awry in games, he said, which can send the wrong message to the team. Poor body language, by anyone, won’t be tolerated. There must be more positive energy, he said.

“I’ve got to do a better job after losses of learning from them and picking it up for the next week, because I don’t do that very well,” Brown said. “I think of all the things I do, that’s the worst. I feel like I’ve let everybody down when we lose. I’m horrible at that.

“I said I was going to be better at that when I came back and I lied. I’m not and I need to be.”

Brown said he wants the Heels to take a three-pronged approach to both the opener and the season. Each of the three is vital, he said, to ultimately be successful, and one could almost hear him saying it again Saturday in his pregame talk in the locker room.

“This team needs to be really tight Saturday night – tight together, tight-knit and great communicators, because it’s going to get tough,” he said. “You better be confident, because if you go into a national TV game without confidence it’s going to show up fast. And the third thing is you better be tough, mentally tough and physically tough. If you do those three things you’ve got a chance to win every game.”

Injury update

UNC said Monday that tight end Julien Randolph, a freshman from Ashburn, Virginia, has been lost for the season with a lower-body injury.