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UNC football ready to ‘prove it’ in season opener at Virginia Tech

UNC football ready to ‘prove it’ in season opener at Virginia Tech

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When coach Mack Brown came out of retirement in 2019, he did so with the firm belief that he could mold North Carolina into a top-10 football program.

That he has done so in the preseason polls (No. 9 in USA Today/Coaches and No. 10 in The Associated Press) heading into Friday’s season opener at Virginia Tech, is one sign that his vision is well within reach. That the Tar Heels beat the likes of Clemson for Greensboro Grimsley defensive tackle Travis Shaw and got quarterback Drake Maye to flip his commitment to Alabama is another indication.

But those accomplishments, which are no small feat, are largely circumstantial. Brown said its time for the Heels to deliver the tangible evidence on the field.

“I never dreamed we would be talking about the things we’re talking about right now, but that’s just talk,” Brown said. “Now it’s time here … we’ve got to start proving this stuff. We’ve talked enough, time to win. And if we don’t win Friday night doesn’t mean the season’s over, it means we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’ve got too many question marks right now that aren’t answered to start anointing ourselves for something big.”

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The holy water is on ice for now, but Carolina does believe it is on the verge of something big this season. The Heels were picked to win the ACC Coastal Division in the league’s preseason media poll and potentially challenge Clemson for the conference title.

Last season, expectations proved to be a bit too much. When the Heels reached a No. 5 ranking heading into its game at Florida State, they bought into the hype a bit too much. It resulted in a flat performance to start the game that they never recovered from in a 31-28 loss.

But thanks to that performance, offensive guard Josh Ezeudu said they’ve matured and can handle the expectations heading into the season opener.

“We know what the what the media is talking about and how highly ranked we are right now,” Ezeudu said. “So we know we have to go in and every day of practice and every game, too, we have to prove it, that we that we deserve to be there. So we’re excited also to have a chance to prove that.”

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Defensive end Tomon Fox views the opener as a game that can set the tone for the season, especially on the defensive side. The last two meetings with Virginia Tech, Carolina allowed 43 points — in its six-overtime loss — and 45 points last season.

Fox said the Heels want to establish an expectation of how they’re going to play.

“It’s really a statement for us just to know who Carolina is this year, like what’s our identity, and putting it out there for everybody to see,” Fox said.

The Heels still have some things they have to prove to themselves first. One of the question marks Brown referred is who will replace the production at the skill positions on offense. UNC lost a pair of 1,000-yard running backs, a 1,000-yard receiver and a receiver who had 1,000 yards in 2019.

Sophomore receiver Josh Downs gave a glimpse of his potential to fill the void left with his Orange Bowl performance of catching four passes for 91 yards and a score against Texas A&M. He’s among the list of receivers poised to have a breakout year.

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Graduate transfer Ty Chandler proved to be a capable running back at Tennessee against a grinding SEC schedule. He’ll be sharing carries with freshman Caleb Hood and sophomore D.J. Jones. It’s largely unknown what the Heels can expect out of the running game, but quarterback Sam Howell is looking forward to the possibilities.

“I’m just really excited to see what we got,” Howell said. “We really don’t know what type of type of team we have. We’ll know pretty soon on Friday night.”

Brown is excited too, not just about playing the Hokies, but the bigger picture about the direction of the program.

“This program is here to stay,” Brown said. “Whether we win Friday night or not. And whether we have a great season this year or not. Or whether we’re (ranking) 10 or not at the end. Or whether we’re playing Clemson for the championship. I’m excited about where we’re headed.”

UNC at Virginia Tech

When: Friday, Sept. 3

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Time: 6 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Betting line: The Tar Heels are favored by 5.5 points.

Series history: It’s the 18th straight meeting between the two teams, and the Hokies lead the overall series 24-13-6.

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