CHARLOTT, North Carolina. Few football teams have been more disappointing in 2021 than North Carolina, which started the year ranked 10th in the nation and the Tar Heels finished 6-7 after a crushing loss to South Carolina. But the loss, according to star wide receiver Josh Downes, was a turning point for the team, which hopes to correct last year’s mistakes in 2022.
“It was embarrassing,” Downs said of UNC’s 38–21 loss in Duke’s Mayo Bowl. “It set me on fire. We had a lot of guys in that dressing room after the game who stood up and said we weren’t going to do it next year. We’re getting together right now instead of waiting weeks. We’re doing it now.”
After a strong 2020 season that culminated in a trip to the Orange Bowl, UNC was one of the latest off-season fashion picks as a potential playoff contender. The wheels came off quickly after losing to Virginia Tech in the first week.
From there, things got even worse.
UNC was a 14-point favorite against Georgia Tech but lost 45–22. The Hills lost to Florida State 35–25 despite being 18-point favorites, and then ended their regular season squandering a 10-point lead two minutes before the game against North Carolina State. The 12-point loss to South Carolina was the final straw.
“People were furious,” midfielder Cedric Gray said. “You could see it on our faces in the dressing room after the game. It was a very painful feeling.”
Downs said many players, including himself and defenseman British Brooks, made speeches in the locker room chiding teammates for their lack of effort in the loss to South Carolina.
According to Downs, in the weeks leading up to the bowl game, some players made comments about not even being interested in playing, and that mentality seeped into the pitch.
“We’ve had guys screaming, ‘I don’t even want to play,'” said Downs, who finished last season with 101 catches and 1,335 yards. “We were slapped. And I didn’t want to be part of something like that, and we had to fix it.
“I’m like, ‘If you don’t want to be here, just leave. You are taking up space. You can be the best, but there is someone else who wants to be here.” I was just fed up at that moment.”
The same was true for manager Mac Brown, who said he spent much of last season worrying that his team expected to win through reputation rather than effort, recalling times when he yelled at players for that they are not in a hurry in training, but he was ignored.
“I wanted to send them all to hell,” Brown said of his attitude after losing the bowl. “And I feel bad when I’m angry, so I kept my mouth shut.”
The next morning, according to Brown, he fired defense coordinator Jay Bateman and five minutes later called Gene Chisick and offered him the then-vacant position.
“We had to change a few things,” Brown said. “It was unfair for our team to lose [games] like this.”
The roots of the problems, according to Brown, were in the offseason.
“Expectations were higher than we were good, but we had to play better and we had to coach better. That applies to me,” said Brown, who won the 2005 Texas national championship. “It wouldn’t be in Texas because we’re used to it. Our guys aren’t used to it.”
He has done his best to soften expectations for 2022, and this, combined with the intensity of Chiswick’s defense and the heightened responsibility of leaders such as Downes, Brooks and Gray, makes the Hills feel like the Hills have a real opportunity to catch up in last season.
Downs said the team has set up a leadership board that meets several times a week and they have focused on building the best team spirit and effort.
“Just holding the guys accountable, being tough and being passionate about the team are three of our main qualities that we want to live every single day,” Downes said. “Compete with your brothers, but also love your brothers. A lot of people are working and there is a lot of competition.”
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