CHAPEL HILL, NC – Drake Maye is about to get a new best friend.

It’s not quite clear yet who it will be. He’ll get a better idea Saturday after North Carolina’s annual spring football game.

But if things go the way coach Mack Brown and his newly revamped staff are envisioning, the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback won’t have to use his strong right arm to do all the heavy lifting for the Tar Heels’ offense.

“What we’ve got to do is what we’ve said we were going to do and that’s run the ball better, because the running game is a quarterback’s best friend,” Brown said Tuesday as he and his team put the finishing touches on preparations for Saturday’s scrimmage at Kenan Stadium.

“Even if it hurts Drake’s numbers some, he’s going to be throwing more touchdowns and getting hit less. So I think he’d like that, for sure.”

Maye tied for the ACC lead in touchdown passes with 38 as a redshirt freshman last season while setting school records for passing yards (4,321), completions (342) and attempts (517).

But he was also sacked 40 times, the 3rd-highest total in the league. Most of those came late in the season after opponents, realizing that UNC was either unable or unwilling to run the ball, began loading up their defenses specifically to limit the eventual ACC Player of the Year’s effectiveness.

It’s no coincidence that the Maye’s production dropped significantly as a result, leading to 4 straight losses to close out the season after starting 9-1.

Statistically, at least, the Tar Heels’ ground attack wasn’t terrible. They ranked in the top half of the ACC at No. 6 with an average of 153.5 yards per game and a respectable average of 4.3 yards per carry.

Those numbers are deceiving.

Take away Maye’s team-leading 698 net yards and 7 touchdowns, much of which came on unplanned runs, and the rest of the team managed only 103.6 per game. That would have landed UNC 14th in the league, ahead of only a Boston College offense whose backs did more walking on the sideline than running downfield.

In this era of college football free agency, the simple solution to the problem might have been cleaning house and bringing in an entirely new stable of fresh legs.

But Brown didn’t do that. The cast of characters is essentially the same as a year ago.

It’s the scheme and the leadership that are different.

In addition to bringing in Chip Lindsey from UCF as his new offensive coordinator, Brown also hired former Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens to lead the ground attack and Randy Clements as offensive line coach.

“We’re running more plays than we did,” Brown said. “We basically were a 4-play running game team for the past 4 years. And we feel like change is good, sometimes. So you just add a different flavor with Chip and Randy. We’re more of a downhill running game.”

Now that the Tar Heels have settled on a plan of attack, the next step is to decide on who they’ll pick to execute it.

There’s no shortage of candidates.

Junior Elijah Green (558 yards, 7 touchdowns in 2022), sophomore Omarion Hampton (401, 6), junior Caleb Hood (250) and sophomore George Pettaway (93, 2) are all back in the mix, as is graduate British Brooks, who was slated to be the No. 1 option last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury before the opening game.

Because Brown plans to utilize a “2 plus 1” backfield rotation, the competition this spring has been intense.

Green and Hampton have emerged as the frontrunners heading into Saturday’s scrimmage. But that’s mainly because they’re the healthiest of the bunch. Pettaway is sidelined with an ankle injury while Brooks and Hood are limited to “no contact” roles as they continue to work their way back from injuries suffered last season.

“The ones that are healthy are the ones that are going to play right now,” Brown said. “It’s hard to play this game when you’re hurt. So what we’ve got to do is plan on the guys that are healthy playing. Then if the other guys can step up and make a difference, we’ll probably need to scrimmage more in the fall to see who would separate. And it usually takes care of itself.”

UNC needed all the backs it could get last year because of a rash of injuries.

The problem is that there are only so many carries to go around. And not everyone is going to be patient enough to stick around for their number to be called. 

With the NCAA transfer portal getting ready to open back up on Saturday, there’s a better than even chance that the herd will thinned at least somewhat by the time the Tar Heels return to Chapel Hill to begin preparations for their Sept. 2 season-opener against South Carolina in Charlotte.

“That’s what the transfer portal is for,” Brown said. “If somebody’s not happy with their playing time, then they have a chance to go somewhere else. I do think that’s the good thing about the transfer portal. If a guy’s working and he’s not the guy and he wants to be the guy, we’ll help him go somewhere else.”

Those who stay figure to get more opportunities to carry the ball than they did a year ago.

And in the process, become Drake Maye’s new best friend.