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North Carolina Football: Tar Heels' 2021 Spring Preview

Sam Howell, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

North Carolina Football: Tar Heels' 2021 Spring Preview

After two seasons that have sparked immense hope for the future,North Carolina’s administration extended head football coach Mack Brown's contract through the 2025 season. What has occurred on the field the past two seasons is only part of the story. Brown brought an energy to a program that had won just five games in Larry Fedora's final two seasons and that excitement has carried over into recruiting as the Tar Heels have assembled consecutive top-15 classes.

But at this stage of Brown's career, that extension is not the most important thing. He is undoubtedly focused on making sure Carolina lives up to the hype that will surround the team entering the 2021 season. UNC spring practice opens this week and here some things to watch regarding the very talented Tar Heels.

5 Storylines to Watch During North Carolina's Spring Practices

1. Who will Sam Howell target?

North Carolina is blessed to have one of the best quarterbacks in the country returning for his third season as a starter. But Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome will be preparing for the NFL draft when Carolina's spring sessions commence, so a new batch of receivers will have to replace their 2020 production — 109 catches, 1,783 yards, and 14 touchdowns. Veteran Beau Corrales will be around to provide leadership following an injury-plagued 2020 season, while the game-breaking potential will come from youngsters like Josh Downs, Emery Simmons, and Dyami Brown's younger brother Kafre.

2. And who will run the ball?

Brown and Newsome's departures may not be as big as the loss of the Heels' star running backs. Javonte Williams and Michael Carter each rushed for more than 1,100 yards in 2020 while combining for 50 receptions and scoring 33 total touchdowns. Expecting more of the same from new players is beyond a pipe dream, but the rushing attack must at least be serviceable enough to make Howell's life easier. Ty Chandler arrives as a transfer from Tennessee bringing loads of experience, though he may not possess the big-play skills of Carter and Williams. Touted freshman Kamarro Edmonds won't enroll until this summer, giving holdovers British Brooks and Josh Henderson a chance to carve out a niche this spring.

3. Offensive line vs. defensive line

All five starters are back along the offensive front and that is a very good thing. Likewise, the entire defensive front seven returns short of star linebacker Chazz Surratt. That sets the Heels up for some very interesting battles this spring. With both sides being so experienced, each rep of ones against the ones should be a great test for both sides. The on-field battle of tackles Jordan Tucker and Joshua Ezeudu going against the Fox brothers (Tomari and Tomon) on the edge should be especially exciting to watch.

4. Generating more big plays on defense

Carolina's defense was interesting when it came to pressure. The Heels tied for third in the ACC in sacks with 36, but they were 10th in TFLs with 69. That means that the Heels only had 33 tackles for a loss that weren't the result of a sack. Also, Carolina only forced 11 turnovers, which was last in the ACC. Considering this is a group that has so many returning starters, defensive coordinator Jay Bateman will certainly have his unit working on creating negative plays and taking the ball away.

5. Looking to the future...

Everyone will be interested to see freshman early enrollee Drake Maye. The quarterback from Charlotte comes in with all the high school accolades and held offers from Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, and Ohio State. It is quite possible that with another big season Howell will be off to the NFL and Maye will assume command of the Tar Heel ship. As it is with the Carolina team in general, this spring will be a time to see if Maye is capable of living up to the hype.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.

(Top photo by Jeffrey A. Camarati, courtesy of