Mack Brown Press Conference: Red Zone Improvement, Senior Day and Building Depth

Brant Wilkerson-New

Mack Brown met with reporters on Monday as the Tar Heels begin preparations for their final home game of the season, playing host to Mercer for Saturday's (3:30 p.m., RSN) Senior Day game.

Here's what the North Carolina coach had to say:

Opening Statement

It’s been an unbelievable year, one that I’ve never been a part of, but I’m proud of their fight and proud that they hang in there and they’ve put themselves in position to win. Now, we as coaches have to find ways to take that next step and win those games because they’ve been so close, but the future is really, really bright.

We’ll have Senior Day this weekend for these guys that have tried so hard, and excited for them that they’ll have their last game in Kenan, but at the same time, we’ve got 12 new enrollees coming in January and that will be a great start for the future because these guys are putting us in a position where we’re relevant again, we’re in every ballgame with a chance to win and people understand how hard they’re playing. Like we said, we as coaches just need to finish it.

Offensively, we’ve done a lot of great things this year; I’m really proud of Sam. The last three weeks, we haven’t done a good job in red-zone and short-yardage, fourth-down offense. We were doing so well with that early in the year, so we’ve got to go back and look at the last three weeks. We’ve played good defenses but we also still have to score in the red zone; that’s keeping us from winning.

We had three deep passes we didn’t connect on last week and red zone offense, and I think that was the biggest deal for us. Offensively, we’re taking care of the ball, we’re turning it over very little and that’s keeping us in ballgames but we have too many negative plays and too many sacks, so offensively, we’ve got to do a better job in the red zone.

I felt like we really needed to be aggressive on fourth down this year; we started out doing a great job, we haven’t done as well as of late, so you can’t go for them if you’re not going to make them. That’s something I’ve challenged the offensive staff with and Pitt was one of the best teams in the country at sacks, but we gave up five sacks and we can’t do that as well.

Really proud of Antonio Williams. When Javonte Williams went out, Antonio stepped up and had a great game and he’s had a tremendous  attitude. I think he’s been the hardest worker on this team, he’s had the best attitude of anybody in my estimation on this team and I’m really, really proud of him. For all those young guys that weren’t getting the amount of reps they needed to, this guy never griped; he stepped up, he’s been a team leader the entire time and when his time came, he was ready and produced. Very, very proud for him and of him.

Also proud of Dazz Newsome; he’s really stepped the last few weeks and become the type of player we knew he could.

Defensively, I think we’re not the defense we were against Clemson and even Georgia Tech earlier in the year. I attribute that to the youth we've had to play in the secondary; we’ll probably start two true freshmen and a redshirt freshman on Saturday with DeAndre Hollins and Storm Duck, and we’re going to start Don Chapman instead of D.J. Ford. Myles Dorn has had his hands full back there trying to direct traffic and get everybody in the right place, but he’s done a really good job of that. Again, it bodes well for the future when you start looking at the youth that we’re playing, but we’ve still got to get more pressure on the quarterback, we’ve got to force more turnovers, and we’re not getting enough pressure on the quarterback. Like the offense, right now, we haven’t played very well in red zone defense the last three weeks and that’s an area we definitely have to pick up.

From Jay’s standpoint, it’s hard to call defenses when you’re trying to protect young guys in the secondary and that’s something that we battle each week and we’ve played some good quarterbacks here lately and the guys have taken advantage of that, but we’ve got to finish strong.

Special teams has been good; it hasn’t been great. We’re not changing games in special teams, we’re not hurting ourselves. We won the field-position battle last week with Pitt; we’ve done that about every week, but we’re not doing anything significant in our special teams. That’s why I think we’re an average team. We’re right down the middle. Every week we come out with our objectives and we’re about 50/50, so you can see why we’re coming down to the last drive of the game or overtime each week.

Mercer on Senior Day, Coach Lamb is a very good coach. He was a very good player at Furman. I don’t know him, our coaches do, they’ve all been around him. His dad was a prominent high school coach in Georgia and he was the high school relations guy for a long time at Georgia when Stacy Searels was there, and a lot of guys have coached against Coach Lamb and obviously, he does a good job. I went back and looked at their Power Five games, and they had a tight game with Auburn a couple of years ago, it was 24-10 and another tight game with Georgia Tech, so this is about us.

We’ve got to get ready to play, we’ve got to get better in some areas. It’s like a playoff game for us; we’ve got to win two games to get to a bowl game, it’s very obvious, it’s out there for us. Our fans have been unbelievable; I’m really, really proud of them. We’re a few tickets away from selling out, so I really want to challenge our fans to come see us on Saturday and thank these seniors for everything they’ve done, trying to fight to get this thing back to where we all want it to be and have a fun game on Saturday.

Our seniors, they’ll be the captains this week, they’ll lead the Bell Tower Walk. Everything we do this week will be about our seniors, since this is their last game at home.

Sam Howell has had a great season, but why hasn’t that translated to more wins?

I think the biggest thing is we haven’t done as good a job as we need to in the red zone; that’s coaching and that’s on us. We started well, but we haven’t’ done as well lately, so we’ve got to go back and figure out why.

The same thing on defense; we’ve give up too many plays in the secondary, we’re not getting the sacks. I don’t think it’s about Sam; Sam has put us in position to win, so I’m really proud of him.

What’s the key to more red zone success?

I think you’ve got to run the ball more consistently. We had our chances (Thursday). When we turned it around, the defense holds Pitt to a field goal and that’s a win for us right now. We drive the length of the field, we’re 1 and 10 at the 11, the first play we run, I think we lose two yards. So then, you’re behind the chains when you’ve got to score a touchdown to win, and I felt like then, we were going to win the game and the offense had to win the game at that point.

Then, you go to overtime and the defense has a 3 and 15; that’s when you win the game, and we didn’t. Nothing I can do about that, but that’s when you win a game. Then the offense comes back and the same thing in overtime, we have a loss on a run and we throw it three times and get it incomplete. To me, we’ve got to do a better job … we’ve got to design better plays right now in the red zone, in the running game and play action. We had one play action in the red zone wide open for a touchdown and the tight end falls down; he slips, nobody out there. That’s what we’re doing to keep us from winning games. We’re not making that play — which is a touchdown — because we slip; we can’t slip. We’re not making the play on 3 and 15 because maybe they held us, maybe, ‘I didn’t quite get there.’ We’ve got to get there, you’ve got to make those plays and that’s what’s keeping us from winning.

Is it important to try to get young players in this week if possible?

We’ve played more guys the last two weeks on defense which has helped us; we’re not playing guys on offense. We’ve played enough running backs, we’ve played enough receivers, we’ve played enough tight ends; we’re not playing many offensive linemen.

Defensively, we actually played Jahlil Taylor a lot last week, we played Ray (Vohasek) some, so we’re getting more guys in the game. We need to get Tomari Fox back in, he didn’t play Saturday and that’s something we’ve got to do to work him back in. We played Hopper more, we’re obviously playing everybody we’ve got that’s healthy in the secondary; they have no choice, we’re forcing them in there. DeAndre Hollins has done an amazing job to transfer over to corner and play as well as he’s played for the three weeks he’s played there.

I think that is a key; it’s not about this weekend. It’s about us developing more depth and our games have been so tight, it’s been really, really hard. We keep telling the kids, until you gain trust in practice, then we’re not going to play you in the game; we can’t because every play makes so much difference to what we’re doing. We have very little margin of error with this team and that’s one of the things, these 12 freshmen are going to have to play when they come in and this recruiting class is going to have to play, and probably a lot of these recruits that we’re bringing in, especially on the defensive side, are going to have to play and play early.

Is a benefit of the close games the fact that young players know they’ve truly had to earn playing time?

Absolutely. I think our entire team knows exactly. We’ve been very direct with them, we’ve been honest with them. They know exactly where they stand and what they have to do if they’re going to step up and play.

Has Antonio earned more carries?

I think so. Those three backs are really good and it really doesn’t matter which one of them is in. Antonio has been the other guy because he’s on every special team and he’s been our best special teams player, along with everything else he does. I think that’ll be something we’ll just have to look at on Saturday and we’ve got to see how healthy Javonte is as well.

What does Senior Day mean to you?

Our first day that we got here … the first thing that we said is, ‘We’re not going to talk about rebuilding, because this is about seniors and you guys, the last two groups of seniors didn’t finish well; they’re not going to remember their senior year in a really bright, positive, glowing way that we all like to.’ What people do is say, ‘How were you as a senior? How’d you do? How’d you win? Who’d you beat?’ and all that kind of stuff. I wanted our seniors to do that and our seniors will be known for the group that got this headed back in the right direction, they have done that. Now, we need to finish right for them.

My experience is that the Saturday senior day is very, very emotional and usually, seniors don’t play as well early as they need to. I see all of them cry … I say, ‘Cry after the game when you win; don’t cry before the game, man, because if you cry before the game and you stink, then you cry after the game because you lose.’ We want happy tears on Saturday, we don’t want sad. We want it to get where it is a really special day for our fans to come and say thank you and for our seniors to remember this the rest of their life.

Which seniors have made the biggest impact on you?

It’s really special or me to coach Myles Dorn because of his dad. How cool is that? I would think that very few, if any, coaches have been able to coach the dad and the son and have both of them start and both of them be really good players.

Charlie Heck, playing all year with a broken hand. Unbelievable. He could have laid down, he could have been the senior that said, ‘I’m going to be drafted, so I don’t care about this team.’ He’s missed very little practice, much less games.

Jason Strowrbridge has played most of the year with a high ankle sprain.

Antonio Williams, I’ve talked about. I’d hire him today. He’s going to try the NFL; if that doesn’t work, he’s going to try TV. If that doesn’t work, which I think both could work, I’m going to hire him to do something because he’s one of the neatest young people I’ve ever been around in my life. Every day, he’s upbeat and he picks me up when I’m down. He’s just a special young man.

How important was it to get that buy-in from the seniors?

I haven’t felt any dissension, I haven’t’ felt any second-guessing at all. I’ve hated walking in there on Sunday when they’ve played their guts out and lost the games and having to talk to them, and what we do every Sunday is show them why. ‘Here’s why we didn’t win the game, here’s why we did win the game and here’s what we’ve got to do to win it, if you didn’t, and here’s what makes teams win games.’

They’ve been ready to play every week. I didn’t think we were as passionate with Wake Forest and App State, but they tried hard. I think we’ve been passionate every other week and that’s really hard to do … I think that’s been the blessing about this team for me and this staff is everybody is trying so hard to get this thing fixed and everybody wants to win.

At the first of the year, we won two quick ones and we lost a bunch of guys and we haven’t been as good, but they’re still fighting and I’m seeing now the appropriate disappointment with a loss and that’s part of learning to win.

Early, I thought, ‘Eh, we were OK; we did good.’ Now, they’ve been really devastated after the last couple of losses where they knew they had chances to win and then, we’ve been very direct with them to show them on video, ‘This is the reason we lost the game. Here are seven reasons, seven plays we lost the game.’ We’re down to plays now instead of games. I really, really appreciate that they’ve been ready to play every week.

How soon did you know the seniors bought in?

We met with the seniors and just sat down and talked to them. The seniors and the leadership committee have been very important for this group. I met with them again yesterday and said, ‘This is a really important game for us. We need to be ready to play, we need to have a great week of practice, we need to keep getting better.’ And they’re all bought into that. It hasn’t been any second-guessing at all. This has been a team that has had very little issues, very few guys late, very few guys in trouble. They have tried everything they can do to win, and that’s why I’m so excited about the possibility of them finishing strong.

On this transition compared to the first time here and Texas...

We have a lot better chance here than the first time I got here. The first time I got here we were really bad. We had some good offensive players. But we didn’t have a defense at all. And we weren’t in a lot of those games. In fact what we had to do in those games is find positive things that we did better, because we weren’t going to win. So we got wins out of, ‘Well, we got more first downs than they did this week’ and ‘We got three turnovers, that’s a win.’ So we had to find wins. This team has got it down to where they just want to win. They understand. We’re trying to win games. We don’t care about stats. We don’t care about anything else except winning games and finding a way to win.

How is this transition as compared to those culturally?

This transition was very similar to the transition we had at Texas. They were 4-7 the year before we got there. They had some good offensive players, they had had the worst defense in the history of Texas football the year before. We were able to come out with Ricky Williams and win nine that year. This is a year we could’ve won nine. We had our chances, we just didn’t do it. And that’s on me, and that’s on our coaches. I’ve been really, really hard on our coaches to understand that don’t blame players, don’t blame culture, don’t blame injuries – anything you use as an excuse except we need to find a way to help these kids win games better.

On the pressure to get bowl eligible now vs. the start of the year...

I feel pressure every day to do everything right in this program, on and off the field. And I think we’re doing things right off the field. We’re close on the field. We’re so close. So the pressure to beat South Carolina, nobody thought we were going to. But we did. Then the pressure to beat Miami, nobody thought we were going to, then we did. Then everybody thought we might beat Wake and App State, and we didn’t. Then nobody thought we had a chance against Clemson, we nearly did (win), and we beat Georgia Tech. So it’s been an up-and-down year with expectations because the kids have probably exceeded expectations.

If they win on Saturday, they’ve won as many games as we’ve won here the last two years. So they’re definitely making progress. Everybody that watches them knows there’s a great future and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. But I feel pressure every day at practice that we practice really hard and they stay healthy. I feel pressure every day as a coach that I have put a staff together and a coaching group together that is paying back this university and these kids to give them an opportunity to win every game. And that’s just the pressure I’ve put on myself. I put a lot more pressure on myself than anybody else could.

Javonte Williams is approaching the 1,000-yard mark. Does that matter in recruiting?

No, I think it’s better that we can sell running backs on (that) three have played this year, three are really good and all three are successful than the accolades of one.

You know, I went through the Ricky Williams Heisman stuff. How much do you play him? When do you pull him out? When do you keep him in? I think he gained 324 yards or something against Iowa State one day. They were mad at me, but he hadn’t gained many yards against Kansas State the week before, so I was trying to balance winning the game, not being obnoxious and running up the score, with trying to help Ricky win the Heisman. Because I thought winning the Heisman at Texas would be really important for us that year. We needed to get to a bowl and we needed to win the Heisman, because we weren’t very good. And that would give us things moving forward. This team needs to get to a bowl. They’re playing hard. In fact, you can see how they didn’t even know how many you needed. I knew he had done a good job. And I didn’t even realize until after the game that Antonio had over 100 yards Saturday.

Those are great, I love the individual accolades for kids. But the only stat that matters is winning. It’s the only one. Vince Young, we lost a game to Oklahoma 12-to-nothing. We didn’t score. And Vince and I had a hard conversation that week and the next week about, he’s wanting to throw more. And I made the statement then and I stand by it today: the only stat that matters is winning. Quarterbacks will be remembered for their wins and losses, not for their numbers.

That’s what it’s all about with Colt McCoy. I’m trying to get Garrett Gilbert ready to play, but Colt was up for the Heisman so you’re trying to leave him in long enough, we’re beating people badly enough, when do you take him out? When do you take Vince Young out? You’re ahead 35-nothing at halftime. I always said we put the starters in to start the second half just so we can make sure they understand the game’s not over at halftime. But then all of a sudden you look up and they’ve scored twice more very quickly and you’re ahead 52-to-nothing. And then you put your backups in, you don’t want to throw. So that’s all balancing a game within (?). I have not had that issue this year, where I’ve had to worry about running up the score or putting guys in and throwing late.

But I do believe that the most important thing absolutely is winning, and I do believe when you put your 2s in, you should let them play. I used to run the ball, try to get the game over with. And it did not prepare our backup quarterback. And that was poor on my part. I was worried more about the other team being embarrassed than I was preparing our team. And that wasn’t smart on my part. So if we ever get to a point where we can do that again, we’re going to let our white team play.

On where Sam Howell can take the program in the future...

I think the future is unlimited. I think we’ve got a chance to be really good. If you look at it, you lose a few players on offense and that’s it. And the offense has been really good. And we will go back and improve our red-zone offense. I think we scored five out of seven times against Georgia Tech in the red zone. We have done it well. We just need to go back and re-emphasize it and do it better again. Walston’s stepped up at tight end, he’s playing most of the time. Nick Polino’s played very little because of his broken ankle. And Charlie Heck’s the only other senior. Bargas is playing some at tight end. We lose very, very few seniors, not an offensive lineman for two years, which is really interesting. But I think the future’s going to be great. I’m really excited about our offense moving forward.

On the future for the defense...

You look at, we’re going to lose some good players. We lose more players on defense. I may not get them all right quick, you lose Cater, you lose Strowbridge, you lose Crawford, you lose Dorn. Patrice is coming back. So I think that’s it, right? That are playing a lot, anyway. So what you’ve got to do is you’re going to have to replace some of the interior guys. You’ll have guys like Fox and Hopper on the outside that will have a chance to be the guys there. We’ve been trying to redshirt Chris Collins, he only played in four games so we haven’t played him the last five or six. And then at linebacker, with what you’ve got, we’re really excited about the two young ones behind the two we’re playing.

They just haven’t played. We need to play them. We’re talking about: we’ve got to get them in the game some, but we think they’re both good players. And then you’re going to sign some good ones. And they could be here in spring. So your front seven will be interesting. But I think they’re going to be athletic and young and get after it. I like Ray, he’s made some plays. Jalil’s made some plays and doing some good things. I like Tomari Fox. I think he’ll be a good player moving forward. And in the secondary, you’ve got your transfer from Virginia Tech in Bryce Watts, you’ve got your transfer from Clemson in Kyler McMichael, you’ve got your transfer from Auburn in Cam Kelly, who will be back. Then you add to that all that we’ve got coming back that are playing right now, and then Patrice coming back. We should have a chance to be really good in the secondary next year. I think we’ll definitely have a better team next year. I think we’ll have a lot of those great young defensive players coming in that we’ve recruited, some real speed on offense. And then I think we’ll be special in two more years.

On Eugene Asante...

He’s doing really, really well. He’s real fast. He’s got very good instincts. He made some great plays on kickoff coverage Saturday and we think he’ll be a special player. We just need to get him in the game. And he was hurt because he came in late, so he missed all the conditioning and the strength from the summer. So he just needs to get bigger and stronger, that’s the most important thing.

On wearing the championship ring today...

I’m supposed to wear it every time. I really thought about Vince Young is going into the Hall of Fame in about a month. I thought I would wear it for the next month in his honor.

On wearing the ring and whether he talks about what it means with the team...

When I worked at Oklahoma and Coach Switzer won a couple, he said: ‘When you win your national championship, get your ring big and gaudy enough that everybody will see it when they walk in, they’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ You’ll say, ‘What do you mean? What are you talking about?’ (motioning ring hand around) So I think the guys at Texas did that with the big No. 1 on it. I think the guys know that we’ve been there, and they know that we know what it takes to get there. So we haven’t talked about it a lot. We’ve talked about the process of winning and what you have to do every day to practice hard. We’ve had to go back through and emphasize you have to do it every day in practice and what you do in practice is what shows up in a game. So we’re learning how to win. And I think that’s why we’re so close and we’ve had those opportunities. If you’re a positive Carolina fan, you can say: we could’ve won every game. And that’s true. If you’re a negative Carolina fan, you could say: they could’ve lost every one but Georgia Tech. Everything else has come right down to the end. So that’s true. I’m on the positive side.