CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Few football teams were more disappointing in 2021 than North Carolina, which opened the year ranked No. 10 in the country, and the Tar Heels finished 6-7 after a miserable bowl loss to South Carolina. But that loss, star receiver Josh Downs said, was a turning point for a team that’s hoping to make up for last year’s mistakes in 2022.
“That was embarrassing,” Downs said of UNC’s 38-21 loss in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. “That got a fire in me. In that locker room after the game, we had a lot of dudes stand up and say we’re not doing this next year. We’re getting this together right now rather than waiting a few weeks. We’re doing this now.”
After a strong 2020 season that culminated with a trip to the Orange Bowl, UNC was one of last offseason’s trendy picks as a potential playoff contender. The wheels came off quickly with an opening-week loss to Virginia Tech.
Things got worse from there.
UNC was a 14-point favorite against Georgia Tech but was crushed 45-22. The Heels lost 35-25 to Florida State despite being an 18-point favorite, then ended their regular season by blowing a 10-point lead with two minutes to play against rival NC State. The loss to South Carolina — as a 12-point favorite — was the final straw.
“People were angry,” linebacker Cedric Gray said. “You could see it on our faces in the locker room after the game. It was a very sick feeling.”
Downs said numerous players — including himself and tailback British Brooks — made speeches in the locker room admonishing teammates for a lack of effort in the loss to South Carolina.
In the weeks leading up to the bowl game, Downs said some players made comments that they weren’t interested in even playing, and that mentality filtered onto the field.
“We had some guys who talking crazy like, ‘I don’t even want to play,’ and it showed out there,” said Downs, who finished with 101 catches and 1,335 yards last season. “We got smacked. And I didn’t want to be a 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’re taking up space. You might be the best, but there’s somebody else who wants to be here.’ I was just fed up at that point.”
So, too, was coach Mack Brown, who said he spent much of last season worried that his team expected to win on reputation rather than effort, recalling times he yelled at players for not hustling in practice, only to be ignored.
“I wanted to tell them all to go to hell,” Brown said about his mindset after the bowl loss. “And I don’t do well when I’m mad, so I kept my mouth shut.”
The next morning, Brown said, he fired defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and, within five minutes, called Gene Chizik and offered him the then-vacant job.
“We had to change some things,” Brown said. “It wasn’t fair to our team to lose [games] like that.”
The roots of the issues, Brown said, were the offseason hype.
“The expectations were higher than we were good, but we should’ve played better and we should’ve coached better. That goes back to me,” said Brown, who won the 2005 national championship at Texas. “It wouldn’t have been at Texas because we were used to it. Our guys weren’t used to it.”
He has made a point of tempering expectations for 2022, and that combined with Chizik’s defensive intensity and the increased accountability from leaders such as Downs, Brooks and Gray has the Heels feeling like there’s a genuine opportunity to make up for last season’s failures.
Downs said the team established a leadership council that meets several times a week, and they’ve focused on building better team chemistry and effort.
“Just holding guys accountable, being tough and giving passion to the team are our three main attributes we want to live by every single day,” Downs said. “Compete with your brothers but also love on your brothers. A lot of people have been working, and there’s a lot of competition.”