Drake Maye-led UNC football team hopes to dodge history, having lived through it twice

Drake Maye watched it happen, in uniform but merely a spectator, his first fall on campus. Then he was swept up in it last year, as a promising North Carolina season fizzled out. In both seasons, the Tar Heels faced high expectations — endowed in 2021, earned in 2022. In both, they failed to handle it.

And so in Maye’s third and presumably final season in Chapel Hill, he will try to succeed where both his predecessor and himself have faltered. North Carolina may not carry the top-10 ranking the Tar Heels did at this time two years ago, but they do have a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, just like Sam Howell. Maye played himself into that position last November. Then North Carolina played its way out of it.

As this team opens preseason practice on Wednesday, it can say two things its predecessors could not: It has tasted success and played for an ACC title, and it also knows what it feels like to let all that slip away.

North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) congratulates wide receiver Nate McCollum (6) after a pass reception for a touchdown during the Tar Heels’ spring football game on Saturday, April 15, 2023 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C
North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) congratulates wide receiver Nate McCollum (6) after a pass reception for a touchdown during the Tar Heels’ spring football game on Saturday, April 15, 2023 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C

As far as Maye’s concerned, that can only help this time around, and right off the hop against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium.

“We got on our high horse a little bit after clinching the Coastal against Wake,” Maye said. “And then from there kind of lost the close games we should have won. That put a sour taste in our mouth heading into this year. But we’ve got a chance to delete that, clear that from our memory, and start out hot here in Charlotte.”

If all this sounds a bit familiar, it really is. This may not have may not be quite as high as they were in 2021, but so many of the same pieces are in place: a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, a defense expected to show considerable improvement, as many pieces as questions at the skill positions.

That team crumbled under the weight of expectations, externally imposed but internally embraced. So much seemed to line up, only for everything to start falling apart in the opener at Virginia Tech, when North Carolina couldn’t protect Sam Howell or match the physicality of a Hokies team that would finish 6-7 and get its coach fired before the season was over.

Before September was out, after a baffling and inexplicable loss at Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels had tumbled out of the top 25, never to return. Losses to N.C. State and South Carolina closed out the season, as North Carolina went from trendy summer Coastal Division pick to sub-.500.

What was supposed to be the culmination of Mack Brown’s triumphant return ended up being a swing and a miss. And what was nearly a breakthrough season a year later — and a chance to win a first ACC title since 1980 — ended in disappointment as well.

The Tar Heels started 9-1, Maye played his way into the Heisman conversation and North Carolina played its way into the ACC title game, only to drop four straight — including another baffling loss at Georgia Tech, another rivalry loss to N.C. State and what was essentially a walk-off bowl loss to Oregon with an extra point banked off the upright.

North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) throws over Oregon defensive end Jake Shipley (90), left, and defensive tackle Keyon Ware-Hudson (95) during the first half of the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) throws over Oregon defensive end Jake Shipley (90), left, and defensive tackle Keyon Ware-Hudson (95) during the first half of the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

“What I’m learning is it’s really hard to go from two wins and five wins over two years to a mindset of you gotta play hard every week,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “Enough’s never enough. I felt like Sam’s team came back and they were eighth in the country and they were walking around with a little swagger and they weren’t ready to do that and they got hit in the face and didn’t respond very well, and that’s my fault. We allowed it to happen. You either coach it not to or you allow it to and we allowed it to.

“And last year, we sit there and we beat Wake Forest and we have a 17-point lead on Georgia Tech and we let it slip. We have got to have a tougher mentality about doing it every minute of every day to be a great team. We haven’t done that yet. That’s what we have to get to.”

Amid those games the Tar Heels probably could or should have won, there were a few wins they probably could or should have lost — especially the 63-61 shootout at Appalachian State — and the defense seemed to get better as their record got worse.

But there’s no question the players on this team have already gone through what their predecessors went through a year earlier. Unlike them, they still have a chance to profit from that experience.

“Those situations,” Brown said, “even losing that game with a 10-point lead with nine minutes left, should help us grow up and learn more about how to finish games.”

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