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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is months away from the biggest season of his life, one filled with extra scrutiny and NFL questions, not to mention the everyday expectations that come with leading a program waiting for its breakthrough.
Everyone around Maye knows what awaits him this season as one of the top prospects in the 2024 NFL draft. It is why coach Mack Brown made sure to consult Maye when hiring a new offensive coordinator, why Brown brought in multiple offensive assistants with NFL coaching experience, why Brown has done everything he could think of to ensure Maye will succeed given the stakes.
Maye just shrugs it all off when asked whether he feels pressure going into such a crucial year. In fact, his answer is downright surprising.
“I think with last year, I feel like I had probably more pressure than I feel coming into this year,” Maye told ESPN recently. “Last year gave me a lot of confidence as the year went on. The more reps I got, and especially the more games we started winning, I was getting pretty confident.”
That answer speaks to not only who Maye is, but how he has responded during an offseason filled with change. Given all the talk about his potential heading into 2023, it is easy to forget that at this point last year, Maye was in the middle of a quarterback competition with Jacolby Criswell — one that was not resolved until fall camp.
It became clear why Maye won the job after the opener against Florida A&M, in which Maye threw for 294 yards and became the first UNC quarterback to throw five touchdowns in his first start. He followed it up with a 352-yard, four-touchdown performance in a wild 63-61 win over Appalachian State that put opposing defenses on notice.
From there, Maye led North Carolina to the ACC championship game while setting single-season school records for passing yards (4,321), completions (342) and attempts (517), earning ACC Player of the Year honors and becoming a Freshman All-American.
So yes, it is understandable why Maye feels less pressure going into this year — even amidst NFL draft expectations that start with him being taken No. 3 overall in the first mock draft from ESPN’s Todd McShay. Maye has already proved to himself, his coaches and teammates he can put in the work and perform at an extremely high level. The fun part is next — improving enough to not only cement his spot as one of the top quarterbacks in college football but take his team further than the ACC championship game.
Losing four straight games to end last season still bothers Maye, especially the ACC championship game loss to Clemson. North Carolina has not won an ACC football title since 1980, and as the son of a former North Carolina quarterback, that bit of trivia is not lost on him.
Maye did not take any shortcuts this spring. The truth is, he could not afford to. A few days after the ACC championship game loss, offensive coordinator Phil Longo left to take a job with Wisconsin. Speculation swirled that Maye might leave North Carolina, though he quickly made it clear he was not going anywhere. Coach Mack Brown later said Maye “turned down a whole lot of money” to stay.
“I love this university and the way Coach Brown and the staff treat me,” Maye said. “This is my dream school, and this is where I want to play. That stuff got overblown, but at the end of the day, I want to play here. There’s really no question.”
With Maye returning for a crucial redshirt sophomore season, Brown had to pick the right offensive coordinator. To do that, he asked Maye to be involved in the decision, a rarity within most player-coach relationships.
Said Brown: “I brought him in here and asked, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘I need somebody to teach me more. I need somebody to talk about quarterback mechanics, my throwing motion, time in the pocket and all those things.'”
Brown arranged for Maye to speak to the candidates, including Chip Lindsey, who spent last season as offensive coordinator at UCF. Lindsey was the head coach at Troy for three seasons and spent time previously as a coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Auburn, Arizona State and Southern Miss. Maye and Lindsey hit it off during their phone conversations, making it easier for the two to hit the ground running when Brown hired him as coordinator.
In addition, Brown brought in former Cleveland Browns coach Freddie Kitchens as run game coordinator/tight ends coach and noted quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen as a volunteer offensive analyst, fresh off four years in Tampa Bay — the last three spent with Tom Brady. In his NFL career, Christensen also served as offensive coordinator for Peyton Manning and quarterback coach for Andrew Luck.
“That’s just another layer of a guy that’s coached the best quarterbacks to ever play,” Brown said. “Then you’ve got the guy who coached Baker Mayfield as a head coach at the Cleveland Browns. So, I think Drake got what he wanted. He got plenty of eyes on him to help him with every little thing that he needs to do to get better.”
Inheriting a player like Maye and an offense ranked No. 3 in ACC scoring, Lindsey joked the objective is simple: “Don’t screw things up.”
Lindsey runs a similar offense to what Longo did at North Carolina, using quick tempo and spread principles. Brown did not want to deviate away from that. After all, Maye threw for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns a year ago.
Where Brown is hoping the offense looks a little different is in the running game. North Carolina had a difficult time establishing the run with its backs a year ago. Maye did his part, ranking second in the nation in quarterback scramble yards with 561. But while elusiveness is one of Maye’s qualities, North Carolina does not want him running the ball nearly as much this season.
“Quarterbacks that are mobile, you kind of let them have to be who they are,” Lindsey said. “That’s how they’re successful. At the same time, I’m talking with him more about, ‘I don’t want you to leave your feet and dive here. I want you to go out of bounds here and understand the situation.’ He’s receptive to that. If we run the ball better, I think that will help.”
Maye is firmly on board with that plan, even if it means fewer passing yards.
“Running the ball, it just makes it so hard on the defense with our passing game and our guys on the outside,” Maye said. “It opens up play-action, it makes it easier for us especially in the red zone. The O-line wears ‘Run the dang ball’ shirts around. Running the ball is the key to winning the game. With our explosiveness in the pass game people overlook that, but you have to be able to do both.”
Things broke down for the Tar Heels in the final four games last season up front — where they simply could not run the ball consistently and did not adjust to the way defenses started to play them. With Maye throwing the ball all over the field, teams began blitzing far more to slow him down. In the final six games, teams blitzed 36% of the time, compared to 30% in the first eight games. North Carolina went from averaging 41.2 points per game in the first eight games to 24.7 points per game in the last six.
North Carolina ended up allowing 40 sacks, ranking No. 102 in the nation a year ago, but some of that was on Maye, too, and that was an emphasis during spring practice. “We told him, ‘Stay in the pocket, don’t drift into pressure,'” Brown said. “Because some of the sacks we got were us drifting into pressure.”
Roughly translated, this means there are many areas for Maye and the offense to improve coming off a record-breaking season.
Lindsey said he will give Maye more freedom than he had last season to make checks and calls at the line of scrimmage. The two have spent hours going over the best plays to run, what works best not only for Maye but for his teammates. During spring practice, Lindsey often called at 9 p.m. so they could go over everything that happened.
“I’ve leaned on Drake heavily for that,” Lindsey said. “You’ve got to have that belief from the coach and the player in what you’re doing. I say, ‘Talk to me about how you guys ran this play.’ And there’s some things I like and there’s some things that I didn’t. And I think Drake and I have done a nice job of kind of meeting in the middle on some of those things and meshing them together.”
Maye also said Lindsey coached him hard during practices, something he wanted. He was adamant he should not be coached any differently because of what he did last season.
“I think Coach Lindsey has done a nice job getting on me, same as the other guys,” Maye said. “At the end of the day, I’m still a 20-year-old kid back there. So it’s not like I’ve got all the answers. I try to be coachable. And I think he’s proven that he’s got a successful offense.”
Maye will be without his top two receivers from last season, Antoine Green and Josh Downs, both drafted by the NFL. But the Tar Heels brought in two transfers in Tez Walker and Nate McCollum, who both impressed during spring practice. The Tar Heels also return two tight ends to play a factor in the passing game in Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit.
There is no question things will look different for the Carolina offense. There is always risk with any coaching change or new hire — especially with a first-round prospect leading the way.
Maye tries not to think two steps ahead. He reminds everyone there still is an entire college season to play.
“I think the big thing this season, all that stuff, obviously you dream about and you wish and you hope for, but at the end of the day, if you don’t win games, you won’t be in any of those talks,” Maye said. “So I’m just going to do my best to stay working on my craft and not lose sight of what got me here and just keep doing the same things that I did last year when I was competing for the starting job.”