Mack Brown met with reporters after Wednesday's practice to provide a final update before North Carolina plays host to Virginia on Saturday night.
Here are the highlights from the conversation.
The injured players are practicing. They're doing a good job; we’ll have to watch this video today to see if they’re well enough to play, we’ll have to let the trainers check them tonight to see if they’ve got soreness. Jace Ruder probably will not play, but the other guys have a chance to play because they're doing a good job.
The guys are upbeat, they’re excited; they haven’t been in this position in the last couple of years, so it’s fun for them, for a game to mean something in November. That’s fun. I love the excitement of our fanbase, I love the fact that the game again Saturday night is sold out and people are excited. I thought probably we had great enthusiasm and crowds when I was here before; the stadium is more conducive to noise. I didn’t even think about that, but with both ends full, it’s a lot more loud than when I was here before, because our stands were little in the end zone.
Virginia is really good. You always concern yourself about Joe Reed; he’s a great returner, not a good returner. Their quarterback is one of the best in the country, their defense is second in the league (in sacks) and we haven’t done a great job protecting. They bring a lot of different people and they do a really good job with their schemes, so this ought to be a great challenge for us and a fun contest.
Does that include Nick Polino?
Yeah, he actually practiced inside today and he did a lot of different things, so we’ll watch that today. Number one, you’ve got to know it’s safe for them and the doctors said it’s safe. Then, you’ve got to know that they feel comfortable enough that they can plant and move around and do a good job and then you’ve got to know they can help us win; those are the three questions.
Where is Polino practicing?
We played him at center and guard, left guard, so he played both.
How much better is the secondary with Duck and Morrison Back?
It’s just the experience that helps and then you add Storm Duck, who was out here. That gives you more bodies and gives you more experience. What Dre Bly and Jay Bateman did with DeAndre Hollins on Saturday was unbelievable; I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen a guy that’s never played there, they said, ‘OK, come on, we’re alright; we’re alright.’ I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know that we are.’ They put him in positions to make plays and he did a good job. At least now, we’re developing some depth back there again
Has Storm Duck practiced this week?
He did today for the first time. He didn’t yesterday, but that’s good for him.
If Duck and Morrison are back, how will Hollins fit in?
I think the biggest thing is depth. It gives us some depth to let them play and what people are trying to do because we blitz a whole lot is hit the fade ball … that’s really hurt us and we’ve got to play it better. The guys that can play that play better are going to play.
What is the biggest challenge this week vs. Virginia?
I think the biggest challenge will be stopping their quarterback because very few people do. He’s really good. He’s a great athlete but he’s also throwing the ball now. I’ve just watched him over the past few years, even on TV, and there’s just plays that he makes that aren’t there and he makes it time and time and time again. You’ve got to try to keep him in the pocket and make him throw the ball.
The second thing is, they’re so multiple up front on defense. Their two ends are two of the best ends in the country. They’re 6-5, 6-7, they’re really hard to defend. They do a great job with schemes inside and they bring so many different people and we haven’t managed that well, so staying away from the negative play because of their movement in their front seven, to me, is going to be a big part of this game.
How has Noah Ruggles practiced this week?
It’s really interesting; since he made the two Saturday night, he hasn’t missed a kick and we’ve gone down to the last kick of the game every day. In fact, he did it twice today. We had one-minute drill at the end and he kicked a long field goal to win the game that was right in the middle. Confidence is such a powerful thing and right now he’s very confident.
When you have a group that believes in their coordinator, how much more is he able to get out of them?
I think it’s the key to coaching. I heard Bill Belichick say one time, ‘An assistant coach or a head coach should give his players advantages over the other team. I’m supposed to make the players better and give them advantages by scheme.’ Our players feel like our coordinators do that and that’s really, really cool and if you don’t have that, then what’s he worth? I’m not going to listen to my coach if he doesn’t help me get better. They all want to beat the guy across from them, so if you can help me do that, then I buy in.
Saturday night, with him calling the last play, that even helped more because they know now, ‘Coach knows what he’s doing, ‘So if we do what he says, then we’ve got a chance to win.
What about with a head coach and his coordinator?
A whole lot, because I called a fade. I was wrong. I said, ‘I’m going with you next time.’ … We’re in a precarious position right now. This is a team that hasn’t won for two years and all of a sudden now they’re playing for a game that really matters late in the year, so we’ve got to manage this. We haven’t been here before; this is new ground for us. I’ve told them, ‘Don’t try to do too much, don’t play the game on Tuesday and Wednesday; still got to play the game on Saturday. You’ve got to be excited but don’t get so excited and giddy you don’t prepare.’
So far, they’ve done that. I’ve been very impressed. I think this has been our two best practices of the year, back-to-back, and that’s good.
Do you sense a different type of buzz on campus?
I do. I think this game checks all the boxes. It’s ACC Network, it’s 7:30 at night, it’s a sell-out. I walk every day on campus and students are pumped and, ‘Great game, coach. Can’t wait until Saturday night.’ I know so many of the boosters and I think everybody is excited this time of the year for football. Even Don McCauley said, ‘This is so cool, to have a game of this magnitude in November.’ This is fun and I think that’s the biggest thing right now. I think our fans are having fun and we probably haven’t had that in a while.
What does walking the campus do for you?
It’s fun for me, it’s fun for me to see the students and see them smile. I smile at all of them and say hello and some of them look at me like I’me weird, but most of them smile back. Being on a college campus gives you a lot of energy because you think about your life back then, you think about your children, you think about your grandchildren coming to college.
It’s really fun for me to get out and spend that hour just walking around by myself and turn my music on and smile and enjoy being on campus. So many people don’t get to do that very often and I get to do it every day and it’s really cool.
What's the difference in the stadium now vs. your first tenure?
I just don’t remember it being a factor, I don’t. I’m sure it was. I remember all the buzz for the Florida State game when they were No. 1 and were No. 4 and I remember the students were there early and all that. Our students are coming early, they’re loud, they’re making a difference. The crowd is into it on third down, they’re helping us. There’s been a whole lot of false starts here because people can’t hear.
We talk about silent counts, people are clapping now; you’ve still got to hear. The noise that our fans are making in the stadium have made a difference in the energy for our team but they’re making a difference, I think, in critical situations for the other team. I think it’s huge and I just don’t remember ever walking out of here and saying, ‘Our crowd changed this game,’ and I’m doing that now. I’m just really enjoying it. Of course, there’s 14 seconds left when we win the game, but everybody singing the fight song, 50-something thousand singing the fight song at the end of the game, that’s really cool stuff … I just think football is supposed to be fun and that’s what’s happening right now. I told the players today, ‘Thank you for letting us have fun, thank you for letting the community have fun, letting the state have fun.’
Then, it affects your recruiting. We’re doing really well in recruiting and I think those kids come to the game and they see the excitement of these fans and they say, ‘Wow, I want to be a part of this.’ Recruiting, when you bring somebody in — and we had 102 of them in here this weekend — you want them to build memories while they’re here that they want to be a part of. That’s all recruiting is, ‘I like this, I want to be a part of this, Coach.’ And then they want to come and we have the academics, so you put the environment, you put the football, you put the fun that the guys are having all together and Jeremy (Sharpe) and those guys are killing it on social media.
It did worry me that Jeremy told me there were 28,000 likes when I became the winningest coach in North Carolina football history and there were 280,000 likes for me dancing. Now, that’s not right. That’s just wrong somewhere in there, so thank you Jeremy, for bringing that up.
You said you had retired from dancing after South Carolina. What brought you back?
They pulled me back out and Sally wants to win bad enough she said, ‘Do whatever they want.’ I can’t help it now. After a win they say, ‘OK, come on,’ so I have to. I’m trying to do better with a go-to move. Coach Williams said the other night … he came to the radio show and he said he saw my dancing it was really ugly. That was really wrong of him, but he’s right.
Would you win a dance-off with Roy Williams?
In fact, Coach (David) Cutcliffe said a couple of weeks ago, he’d like to have a dancing with the stars with me and Roy and him. I saw him dance on Twitter, I saw Roy dance on Twitter; I’m the first one down, so no. I’ll let them have a dance-off. I’m not in that deal. I’m only dancing when I’m forced to in the dressing room after a win, and it’s amazing how many times Jeremy can find that to put it out. Sally has even quit bringing it up. Early, South Carolina, she said it’s really bad and she said you’re really embarrassing yourself. I said, ‘I got it, sweetie; I won’t do it anymore.’ Now, she doesn’t care; she wants to win.