UNC head coach Larry Fedora indicated after Friday night's scrimmage in Kenan Stadium that he was pleased with the team's improved energy and leadership compared to last Thursday's workout in Charlotte.
"(It was) much better than last Thursday (in Charlotte), actually," Fedora said. "I thought the energy level was really good tonight. It didn't matter if something bad happened or not. I saw guys emerging, leadership. I saw people stepping up."
"I saw people talking to their teammates. They learned from last Thursday when it was the first time (this spring) the coaches were off the field. And they were very much improved tonight."
The defense in particular came out on a mission---a mission to fly around and hit.
It was a physical scrimmage in which the UNC defenders, frustrated after giving up multiple big plays to the Tar Heel offense in Charlotte March 28, played considerably better and largely controlled the line of scrimmage.
"They (the defense) played with more passion. That's the only way you can play. You can't play any other way. I mean, if you don't play with energy and passion and enthusiasm, you're going to struggle. Because the offense is going to make some plays. You've got to be able to just put it behind you and move on," Fedora said.
Fedora said he got a sense from his players that they were much more ready for Friday's scrimmage than the one at Mallard Creek High the week before.
"I can do it (see if the team is fired up to play) just by watching how they come out on the field, you know. Between series, the way they come out on the field, you can tell a lot about how they feel and what's going to happen that series. And there was just a whole lot more life in the way we attacked the field this scrimmage," Fedora said.
Several UNC defensive players, including Kareem Martin, Norkeithus Otis, and Nathan Staub, got sacks, and Tim Jackson had multiple big plays as well, including a tackle for loss on running back A.J. Blue.
Safety Kameron Jackson added a 'dump' tackle that energized the defensive sideline, while interior defensive linemen Ethan Farmer and Allen Champagne each had big hits.
"It was great to see Tim Jackson and Kareem out there talking, and Travis Hughes really talking. And even the young guys, (Nathan) Staub, taking that role on at that (Mike linebacker) position, and really communicating, doing a great job encouraging his teammates," Fedora said.
It wasn't all bad for the offense, as Khris Francis broke off a 20-yard touchdown run, Bryn Renner found Quinshad Davis for a 32-yard scoring pass, and Mitch Trubisky nailed fellow newcomer Jordan Fieulleteau for a 70-yard touchdown strike.
The play of the January enrollees on Friday---a quartet of offensive players including Francis, Trubisky, Fieulleteau and R.J. Prince---was especially pleasing to their head coach.
"All four of those kids (the true freshmen), it's been a great advantage for them to be here and get 11 days of practice and go through offseason and go through Blue Dawn. They have matured tremendously just in a short period of time," Fedora said. "You don't get to see (R.J.) Prince, but he made some nice blocks out there."
While he was pleased with the defense and the play of the rookies, Fedora clearly isn't happy yet about the punt returning situation, saying, 'No, not yet,' when asked if he had seen growth in that area since Charlotte, where there were multiple fumbled punts.
Francis annoyed the UNC coaches by watching one punt sail over his head, losing the Tar Heels over 10 yards of field position. There weren't as many botched punt returns, but there weren't any big plays either on Friday.
And while the Tar Heels are solidifying their depth chart with just four more workouts this spring, Fedora implied after Friday's scrimmage that much more has to be determined in regards to the final pre-training camp two-deep.
"Yeah, maybe so at a certain couple of positions (we're solidly two-deep), and then there's some positions where a lot of things are still up in the air. We've got a lot of guys," he said.
"The way we're training this team is that everyone of these 'twos' is going to step on the field and play for us next year. That's the way we're planning, because we know through injuries something like that is going to happen. We're expecting every one of those guys to have to play," Fedora continued.
UNC was initially supposed to scrimmage at Greensboro's Grimsley High School Friday evening, but inclement weather in the area on Thursday left the Whirlies' football field waterlogged.
"Talking to them (GHS officials) all night, they had standing water on the field and on the sidelines. When they walked it this morning there was still water coming up when they were walking on the field," said Fedora.
With a field that was destined to become a treacherous mudpit if the Tar Heels played on it, Fedora and the Grimsley officials made the early-morning decision to call it off.
"We had to make a decision at 7:00 this morning, and they (the Grimsley High officials) didn't feel like (the field was game-ready)," Fedora said. "I just didn't want to take a chance of getting over there and getting somebody hurt. Not having the footing that we were going to need to get a good scrimmage in. And so we just decided to come back over here."
Naturally Fedora would have preferred to get the scrimmage in at Greensboro, but clearly the Tar Heels didn't sit idly by as they conducted a 140-plus play workout in the twilight at Kenan Stadium.
"It was disappointing (not to go to Greensboro)," said Fedora. "I know there were a lot of fans over there who were planning on being there today. I hate that for them."
Earlier this week offensive coordinator Blake Anderson spoke with Tar Heel Illustrated about the benefit of the away scrimmages for that very reason---getting UNC fans out to a workout when they otherwise wouldn't be able to see a spring session first-hand.
"Anytime you can get out and go where the fans are---a lot of people can't drive to us, so we go to them---I just think hopefully it will create some excitement," Anderson said.
"Maybe some people that typically wouldn't get to see us in the offseason get a chance to. And we think maybe they will come to a game this fall."
When the Tar Heels went to Charlotte late last month, a trail of some of the top recruiting prospects in the Queen City and its suburbs convened at Mallard Creek High.
There were going to be plenty more recruits in Greensboro Friday, which is another slight letdown that they couldn't make the road trip.
"Obviously it's good for recruits. We're able to get out in front of people that wouldn't be on campus," Anderson said.
Another benefit in the coaches' eyes to working out away from Chapel Hill is the opportunity to build some skills on traveling.
"It simulates a road game for our players," Anderson said. "Having to get up and go somewhere that is out of your comfort zone and prepare to play. And so you kind create a little bit of an adversity atmosphere for them and see how they handle it."
"There's a lot of good things that come from it. It would be obviously a lot easier just to practice here, but it benefits a lot of people (to travel some)."
With just four spring workouts left this year, including next Saturday's Spring Game inside Kenan, there won't be another opportunity for an away scrimmage this year.
But Tar Heel fans can rest assured that they're going to get a chance to see UNC in action away from Chapel Hill regularly in future years.
From an initial idea to have a single away scrimmage last April (that scrimmage, also at Mallard Creek, was rained out), to expanding to two sites in Fedora's second year, it looks as though this concept is taking route and will be a regular part of spring football seasons under Fedora at UNC.
It's clear that this UNC staff really likes the idea of getting away from campus for spring practices, and they're going to continue promoting and tweaking this concept in the coming years, which could very well mean further expansion of the out-of-town workouts.