All posts by Brooke Pryor

NCCU’s Ryan Smith drafted by Tampa Bay

When his phone rang early Saturday afternoon, former NCCU cornerback Ryan Smith wasn’t sure what he’d hear on the other end of the line.

A NFL prospect with a rising stock, Smith had heard from plenty of teams over the first three days of the NFL draft, but none of them were offering him spots on their squads quite yet.

“The Browns called me this morning before the draft even started to say they hope they could get me,” Smith said on a video conference. “I’ve been getting a lot of those phone calls.”

So when Tampa Bay called him early in the fourth round, Smith wasn’t sure what they had to say.

But the Buccaneers weren’t calling to talk about the possibility of acquiring the 5-foot-11 Maryland native in future rounds — they wanted him now.

“When they said, ‘Ryan, we’re going to make you a Buc, my heart dropped.’ I just, I don’t know what I did,” said Smith, who graduated from NCCU in December. “It was amazing.”

With the 10th pick in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft, Smith became the 42nd NCCU player to be selected in the NFL draft, and only the second in the last 25 years after Greg Peterson was also selected by Tampa Bay in 2007.

Earlier in the draft, Tampa Bay picked up another cornerback with first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves.

Smith was the second MEAC player taken in the 2016 NFL draft after South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was selected by Pittsburgh in the third round.

Since attending the NFL draft combine in February, Smith’s draft stock continued to rise. More than 20 NFL scouts attended NCCU’s pro day in March and he attended at least five private team workouts, including one visit with Tampa Bay.

After he didn’t hear his name called in the first two rounds, Smith woke up Saturday morning frustrated and disappointed.

“I woke up crying and got on my hands and knees and started praying,” Smith said. “I felt that frustration yesterday. I really thought I was going and I was disappointed. I’m only human so I really felt that. I kept the faith and when my name got called early fourth round, (my mom) just started crying. She was hugging me for five minutes. Really embraced the moment.”

Growing up as a basketball addict, Smith never had dreams of playing in the NFL. But thanks in part to genetics and his mother’s insistence that he play football with his younger brother Tre, Smith eventually gave up his basketball dreams in favor of the gridiron.

“I wanted to play basketball,” he said. It was just my love, but as you get older, I’m not that tall. I’m only 6 feet. I didn’t have a big chance to play basketball so football took over, and I loved everything about it.”

Because he only played one year of varsity football, Smith wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, and N.C. Central was the only school that offered him any scholarship money. But once he got to Durham, Smith turned a partial scholarship into a full ride and became one of the most prolific defensive backs in school history.

Over the course of his career, Smith moved from safety to cornerback and finished with a school record 168 solo tackles in his four-year career. He was also one of the team’s best kick returners averaging 28.1 yards per kickoff return in in his senior season.

Smith’s versatility made him an attractive prospect for the Bucs, who said he would start working out as a safety once he arrives in Tampa Bay next week.

“They’re big on special teams,” Smith said. “They like my quickness, my burst and my attitude on the field. When I talked to them today, they said they were going to start me at safety. It’s no big deal … I’ve played safety before, it’s nothing new. They asked me how I could return and help special teams, I did that as well in college. I’m going to do what I have to do. I’m going to get right for real.”

Playing at a smaller school meant Smith wasn’t often in the national spotlight, and he was fairly unknown entering the NFL combine. But through hard work and determination, he was able to impress scouts and earn that draft day phone call.

“Nobody knew about North Carolina Central — I didn’t when I came out of high school,” Smith said. “But look what found me. If you make some noise, they’re going to find you no matter where you go. It’s going to be some doubts and you’ve got to work your way up through that, but that’s life. People are going to doubt you, but just stay positive and work and people are going to find you. Dreams do come true.

Bulls’ Snell recalls blur of MLB debut

DURHAM — Blake Snell remembers last weekend in snapshots.

For two days, his life was a blur.

First, there was a phone call from Durham Bulls manager Jared Sandberg, summoning him to the lobby of their hotel in Norfolk, Va. to tell the 23-year-old southpaw that he was moving up to the big leagues for a spot start the next day in New York.

Within two hours, Snell was packed and headed to the airport. He remembers flying into LaGuardia and sitting in an Uber for an hour as it crawled through the boroughs to Yankee Stadium.

And then? Snell isn’t quite sure.

His memory is full of flashes; of the Rays players in the clubhouse, of manager Kevin Cash on the field, of playing catch before the game.

“It all just went so fast,” Snell said. “It doesn’t even feel like it happened to be honest.”

That’s when his family and friends took over, supplementing his memory by snapping pictures to constantly document the Seattle native’s first trip to the big leagues and the Big Apple.

“I just told them, just take a bunch of pictures because I don’t want to do it,” Snell said. “I’m gonna be pretty busy. So they did all of that and then at the end I got them all. It was pretty cool to see how many pictures I had and what I enjoyed. I’ll never forget it.”

Snell got an extra day’s rest before making his major league debut against the Yankees, putting together a dazzling five-inning performance that included a strikeout of his childhood idol, Alex Rodriguez. That moment flashes in and out of his mind too, but a family member managed to capture the moment forever.

“One of my friends had [a photo] when I struck out A-Rod, a photo of him when he was turned around and looking and arguing about it,” said Snell, who struck out six and only allowed one run on two hits in his MLB debut. “It’ll probably go somewhere in my house. Growing up, I was like ‘A-Rod is a god.’ I always thought he was the best player in the world. So I when I got to face him, I was like, ‘This is crazy.’

“It’s at the back end of his career, he’s not like in his prime, but he’s still a god. I’m gonna say that. It was really cool to see, to be able to do that and face him.”

And then, as soon as the weekend transpired, it was over, and Snell rejoined his Triple-A club in Durham.

The trip to the big leagues was a relief, a weight lifted off of the organization’s top pitching prospect. Now, he’s just focused on getting back in the groove with his first start since rejoining the team earlier this week. In Friday’s loss, Snell pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up four runs on four hits while striking out six. But with any luck, he’ll be back in the majors soon enough, with a little more time to document his achievement.

“Hopefully it helps him relax a little bit because he’s not be wondering when he’s going to get called up or anything like that,” Sandberg said. “He got called up, and now he’s back here. His time is definitely coming. The way he pitched up there, his time is coming.

Bacon-wrapped baseball at the Bosh

CHAPEL HILL — Did you hear the one about the vegetarian who went to Bacon Night?

He won a year’s supply of bacon.

No, seriously.

Freshman Quinn Rhodes went to UNC baseball’s second annual bacon night promotion Tuesday night with his friends, and despite being a lifelong vegetarian, he entered a drawing for a chance to bring home the bacon for a full year just for kicks.

By pure ironic happenstance, his name was one of two pulled out of the pot for a chance to race around the Boshamer Stadium bases at the end of the fourth inning for the rights to bacon and bragging rights.

But before he and fellow contestant James “Jammin’” Altman could start sprinting, they had to don bacon costumes, which happened to just be laying around the stadium after the breakfast for dinner promotion a week earlier.

Quick reminder: That’s a vegetarian. In a bacon costume. Running his heart out for a year’s supply of free bacon that he won’t eat.

UNC freshman Quinn Rhodes races around the bases to try to win a year's supply of bacon from Smithfield Foods during the UNC vs UNC Wilmington baseball game at Bryson Field on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Rhodes, who is a vegetarian, won the race and said that he would give the bacon to his friends. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
UNC freshman Quinn Rhodes races around the bases to try to win a year’s supply of bacon from Smithfield Foods during the UNC vs UNC Wilmington baseball game at Bryson Field on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Rhodes, who is a vegetarian, won the race and said that he would give the bacon to his friends. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

And to top it all off, he won the dang thing in a near photo finish.

“I just came with my friends because they were excited about the bacon,” he said, still trying to catch his breath afterwards. “So I’ll be sure to use this on them.”

Another lucky fan at UNC’s 10-9 win against UNC-Wilmington also won a year’s supply of bacon — no exercise required — through an old-school raffle draw. He grabbed his book of Smithfield bacon worth more than $350 and dashed (probably to the nearest grocery store).

Along with the year of bacon giveaway, Smithfield donated 200 pounds of bacon to the promotion night, and with it, UNC went hog wild.

Bacon-wrapped grilled cheese. Bacon-wrapped corn dogs. Bacon tots. Bacon Cheeseburgers. BLTs. Swiss cheese and bacon on sourdough. Everything single thing you could ever want with bacon.

I thought about sampling every time on the menu in the name of journalism, but in the name of my arteries (and my wallet), I settled for the free bacon-wrapped grilled cheese being distributed to the first 400 UNC students through the gates, or really anyone who wandered up to the tent — like me.

I saw a picture of it on Twitter before arriving, and when I got my hands on the real one, I was initially a little let down. The sandwich, well, really only half a sandwich was distributed from a cooler in Chick-fil-A esque sandwich bags. Not nearly as glamorous as I’d hoped such a dish would be. Would the bread be soggy? Would it be good cold? How long had it been sitting here anyway?

But when I took my first bite all of my doubt and disappointment was erased.

The bacon was savory and soft without being too fatty and the cheese melted into the bread, which adhered it to the bacon, making it the perfect amalgamation.

Resisting the urge to finish the sandwich in less than a minute used up nearly all of my self control for the month. It was pure bliss.

After I finished eating and maybe licked my fingers (a lady never tells), I stood, stunned for a minute and turned to a few people standing nearby with their sandwiches, discussing our shared religious experience in hushed tones.

It truly was something to behold. Peak America, celebrating the perfect wedding of its favorite pastimes — baseball and bacon.

UNC releases amended NOA

CHAPEL HILL — A newly released amended Notice of Allegations from the NCAA doesn’t allege any wrongdoing in the UNC men’s basketball and football programs, instead focusing on misconduct in the AFAM department from 2005-2011 and impermissible academic assistance administered by Jan Boxill to the women’s basketball program from 2003-2010.

The revised document, which is largely similar to the first NOA delivered to UNC in May 2015, comes nearly eight months after UNC submitted more possible violations related to the women’s basketball program and men’s soccer program to the NCAA related to the investigation in August.

“Probably the only explanation is this is maybe the most complicated, involved case in history, certainly in our history,” said UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham, explaining the delay in receiving the amended NOA. “ There’s been a ot of reporting and investigation. The NCAA is completing their work by releasing their notice … The volume and the time is probably why it’s lasted this long.”

The first document specifically named the men’s basketball and football programs for receiving the extra academic help along with women’s basketball. However, the revised document, released Monday afternoon and replaces the old one, does not have any mention of the two programs in the five allegations of Level I violations.

From the first document’s lack of institutional control allegation:

The AFRI/AFAM department created anomalous courses that went unchecked for 18 years. This allowed individuals within ASPSA to use these courses through special arrangements to maintain the eligibility of academically at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. Although the general student body also had access to the anomalous AFRI/AFAM courses, student-athletes received preferential access to these anomalous courses, enrolled in these anomalous courses at a disproportionate rate to that of the general student body and received other impermissible benefits not available to the general student body in connection with these courses.

That phrase was absent in the amended document. Women’s basketball, however, was mentioned five times.

Wayne Walden, an academic advisor for the men’s basketball program at both Kansas and UNC, was mentioned in the first NOA for his correspondence with Debbie Crowder, but his name was not found in the amended NOA.

The lack of men’s basketball and football in the new notice of allegations is a huge break for the two programs as they’ve gone through recruiting struggles with the cloud of unknown allegations hanging around Chapel Hill. With the disappearance of the two programs from the NOA, the likelihood for dramatic punishments like scholarship loss and vacated wins drops significantly.

Cunningham wouldn’t comment on the absence of the two revenue programs, instead focusing on the five serious allegations that the school still faces.

“My concern are the five violations or alleged violations that we have to respond to,” Cunningham said. “As far as being surprised, I’m concerned about the five that I have. We’ve got five Level Is, lack of institutional control and failure to monitor. That’s where I’m going to spend my time and focus.”

Cunningham did note that the investigation has limited recruiting for the athletic teams, but said the student-athletes have handled it well.

“I do think that the length of time that the investigation, the internal investigation, the external reviews and investigations that have been done have been taxing and draining on the institution, have hurt us in recruiting in a couple different ways,” Cunningham said.”But the thing i’m encouraged by is the student-athletes and the success we’ve been having lately … The NOA ranges from 2003-Aug 2011, we’re looking at a difficult period in our history. The current student athletes have done a remarkable job athletically and academically.”

Men’s soccer, which reported a possible recruiting violation in the new information sent in August, was not named in the new NOA. The program has already been adjudicated through the NCAA enforcement staff and was issued a Level III violation and has some recruiting restrictions, Cunningham said in a teleconference Monday afternoon.

The original tag of ‘impermissible benefits’ given to athletes is now being termed ‘impermissible academic assistance,’ pointing directly to former philosophy professor and women’s basketball academic counselor Boxill for her extra aide to women’s basketball players.

Boxill was named in the second allegation of the 2015 NOA, but in the amended edition, her efforts to assist the women’s basketball program are the primary focus of the first allegation.

Along with 32 mentions of her name in the amended NOA, the NCAA specifically details 14 instances of Boxill’s impermissible academic assistance including adding content to athletes’ papers for classes and completing quizzes.

Boxill resigned from the university in March 2015.

The second and third allegations of the new NOA target the lack of cooperation of Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro, the two primary people in the AFAM department responsible for coordinating independent study-style ‘paper’ classes that required little to no work or attendance and inflated grades. Both were the subjects of allegations in the first release.

The fourth allegation deals with the lack of supervision of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, Boxill and AFAM department from 2005-2011.

From the amended NOA:

The nature of these anomalous courses went undetected or was known and not addressed due to the institution’s failure to sufficiently monitor the department’s operations and students’, including student-athletes’, enrollment in such courses. The department did not adequately document independent study course offerings, and the college of arts and sciences failed to effectively address the use of these courses by students, including student-athletes.

Despite concerns by some at the institution that Boxill’s relationship with the women’s basketball student-athletes may have been too close, the institution did not monitor Boxill or determine whether her conduct violated institutional rules or NCAA bylaws. As a result, Boxill provided extra benefits in the form of impermissible academic assistance to women’s basketball student-athletes over multiple years.

The fifth allegation, same as the fifth in the original document, charges UNC with a lack of institutional control for failure to monitor everything laid out in allegations 1-4.

From the amended NOA:

When individuals brought concerns to the attention of then leaders both on campus and within athletics, those leaders had multiple opportunities to investigate the AFRI/AFAM course anomalies and student-athletes’ exposure to those courses. However, the institution failed to exert control when it did not recognize and sufficiently investigate these practices. Both campus and the athletics department administrators’ reactions and responses to those opportunities were inadequate and ineffective, creating the conditions and opportunities that made possible the violations described in Allegation Nos. 1 and 4. As a result of the failure of leadership and the lack of corrective action, problems within the AFRI/AFAM department and athletics were allowed to continue for multiple years.

Further, the institutional leadership did not provide adequate guidance and supervision to those employed within ASPSA. Because of this failure in leadership and oversight, those charged with providing academic support for student-athletes did not believe their actions or the actions of the AFRI/AFAM department were inappropriate. The institution’s failure to take necessary steps to provide adequate oversight of the anomalous AFRI/AFAM courses resulted in an investigation, analysis and ultimately disciplinary action taken against the institution by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, its accrediting agency.

“I think that all of the things we have done on our campus for the last four years, since we had our final adjudication in March 2012 was to shore up policies and procedures and make sure to see how we attend to all the by laws and make sure we operate within the principles of the NCAA,” Cunningham said.

“Failure to monitor and institutional control are things we’ve worked on for four years. We feel confident in our systems but we’re always concerned that we’re human and we make some mistakes. As we respond to that allegation, we’ll dig deeper into what they believe are the underlying factual informations that they believe support those allegations and try to minimize our risk going forward.”

The penalties for these allegations likely won’t be determined for some time since UNC has until July 24 to respond to the NCAA — 90-day window — followed by a 60-day window for the NCAA to respond and a Committee on Infractions hearing after that before making a final ruling that UNC can then appeal.

Though he wouldn’t speculate on a timeline or possible punishments, Cunningham said that now is an appropriate time to consider self-imposing punishments.

UNC amended NOA release primer

There’s a new Notice of Allegations floating around UNC right now. If this feels familiar, it’s because UNC received its initial NOA May 20, 2015 and released it publicly June 4, 2015.

UNC is expected to release the amended and redacted NOA later today and will have a teleconference this afternoon.

That 2015 document outlined five allegations against the university stemming from independent study-esque classes in the African American Studies Department that required little to no work or attendance and may have disproportionately benefited student-athletes for nearly two decades.

A 2014 investigation conducted by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein found the classes, mostly run by AFAM department manager Debbie Crowder with a rubberstamp from former AFAM chair Julius Nyang’oro, affected an estimated 3,100 students from 1993-2011. Half of those students were athletes.

The roots of this investigation trace back to a 2010 investigation of the football program that found a handful of students who benefitted from cash and other impermissible benefits from agents.

The five allegations detailed in the 2015 NOA are all Level I violations, “a severe breach of conduct because the violations seriously undermine or threaten the integrity of the NCAA Collegiate Model and the presumption of lack of institutional control violations as Level I.”

The first allegation states that from the 2002 fall semester through the 2011 summer semester, student-athletes were given impermissible benefits that weren’t generally available to the entire student body, specifically extra assistance in enrolling and completing independent study-esque classes in the AFAM department largely run by department manager Crowder that were used to inflate GPAs. Some athletes were also allowed to exceed the number of independent study credits countable toward graduation.

The second allegation specifically names Jan Boxill, former philosophy professor and women’s basketball academic advisor, for giving impermissible academic assistance to the team between April 2007 and July 2010.

The third allegations names Crowder for her failure to cooperate in the investigation in 2014 and 2015. In the document, the NCAA writes that she violated “principles of ethical conduct when she failed to furnish information relevant to an investigation of possible violations of NCAA legislation when requested to do so by the NCAA enforcement staff and the institution.”

The fourth allegation names Nyang’oro for the same reason as Crowder. The NCAA tried to interview him five times while the organization attempted to talk with Crowder three times.

The fifth allegation slaps UNC with the lack of institutional control violation for an inability to monitor Boxill and the AFAM department.

After receiving these allegations nearly a year ago, UNC had 90 days to file a response. But instead of sending in a response to each of the allegations, the university discovered more potential allegations as it parsed through nearly a million documents for public release. The possible violations included more impermissible benefits given to the women’s basketball team by Boxill and recruiting violations by men’s soccer.

With the introduction of new material, the NCAA had to reevalute the old NOA and send out a revised list of violations. Which brings us to where we are now: sitting, waiting and writing.

There’s no use in speculating about the contents about the new NOA, but it is curious that UNC is releasing the document the same day it supposedly received it. Either there isn’t a lot of new information to redact or the school had the document for much longer than it let on.

UNC receives amended NOA

CHAPEL HILL — UNC received an amended Notice of Allegations from the NCAA and will release the document as soon as possible, the university confirmed Monday morning.

Before the new NOA can be released publicly, it must be partially redacted by the university’s legal team.

In May 2015, UNC received the original notice of allegations in the long-running academic-athletic scandal that stemmed from no-show classes in the AFAM department that may have disproportionately helped student-athletes. But after UNC turned over new information to the NCAA in August — days before the deadline to respond to the NOA — the NCAA had to reevaluate the original NOA.

UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham told reporters in an August teleconference that the new possible violations uncovered were similar to the previously reported impermissible benefits in the form of extra academic help given to the women’s basketball by former professor and women’s basketball academic counselor Jan Boxill.

Potential recruiting violations in men’s soccer were also included in the new report to the NCAA.

Men’s basketball and football were not mentioned in the newly uncovered information.

Now that UNC has the amended NOA, the university has 90 days — until July 24 — to respond followed by a 60-day window for the NCAA to respond. Then there will be a Committee on Infractions hearing to determine the possible punishments followed by a final ruling. But UNC can appeal the final ruling, potentially stretching the date for final resolution to 2017.

Meeks, Jackson declare for NBA draft, don’t hire agents

CHAPEL HILL — Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks will enter the NBA draft but not hire agents, North Carolina announced Friday afternoon.

“Justin and Kennedy have our complete support in taking this step,” head coach Roy Williams said in a release.” Any player who is thinking about playing in the NBA next season should gather as much information as they can about their possible draft position. We will continue to support and assist them over the next month to obtain the information that will help them decide whether they should remain in the draft or return to UNC next season.”

The pair, who were regular starters on last year’s team, had until April 24 to declare for the draft, and they can withdraw their names by May 25 and return to school if they haven’t hired agents. By declaring for the draft, the two are eligible to be part of the 70 players invited to the NBA Combine, held in Chicago May 10-15.

Point guard Joel Berry II and forward Isaiah Hicks are not declaring for the NBA draft, according to a report by Inside Carolina.

Williams predicted that at least a couple of his players would test draft waters in his season-wrap up press conference last week.

“I think that some of our guys will try to go to the combine, will declare and not hire an agent, and see how they play in the combine,” Williams said. “And I have no problem with that.

“If I were the father of some of our players, I’d get them to do the same thing.”

Jackson, a forward/guard hybrid, averaged 12.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in his sophomore campaign while Meeks put up 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game during his junior year.

Trubisky officially UNC’s starting quarterback

CHAPEL HILL — For the first time in three seasons, there’s no quarterback controversy in Chapel Hill.

Unlike the last two seasons when he’s waited until the fall to announce his starter, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora officially named Mitch Trubisky the starting quarterback Friday morning.

“I thought Mitch did a good job this spring and didn’t just assume he was going to be the starter. He worked extremely hard and earned it,” Fedora said in a release. “We always want to have competition at every position. Mitch is the QB with the most experience returning, but he worked hard this spring, competed every day and deserves to be the starter.”

The reality of UNC’s situation became pretty apparent after presumed second-stringer Caleb Henderson threw three interceptions in last week’s spring game. Considering Trubisky completed 13-of-22 passes for 148 yards, one touchdown and one interception, it was pretty unlikely he’d be anywhere other than top spot on the depth chart when the season opens against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game on Sept. 3 in Atlanta.

Despite the lengthy path to the job, Trubisky has been Fedora’s guy all along. Graduating early from Mentor (OH) to enroll at UNC in January 2013 as a part of Fedora’s second recruiting class, Trubisky was handpicked to run the coach’s uptempo offense.

But with Williams’ talent and support from the locker room, Fedora was forced to keep Trubisky in the wings until Williams exhausted his eligibility.

Though this year’s quarterback competition was very much contrived, it’s not the first quarterback controversy Trubisky’s been part of. He and Williams engaged in a very real battle during Trubisky’s redshirt freshman preseason. Fedora refused to tap a starter until Sept. 1, 2014, an ‘or’ appearing between Williams’ and Trubisky’s names on the depth chart until after both quarterbacks played in UNC’s season-opening wallop of Liberty.

Williams, who replaced injured Bryn Renner as the starter midway through the previous season, earned the nod, but Trubisky still appeared in 10 games during his first season.

Trubisky was often inserted for the third offensive series of games during the 2014 season, and he completed 42-of-78 passes for 459 yards.

Last year, Fedora halted the third series rotation, and Trubisky’s
playing time became more irregular. Fedora benched Williams in favor of

Trubisky in the second quarter of an early season game against Delaware,
because he apparently just enjoys creating controversy at the position.

But two days later, Fedora reaffirmed his commitment to Williams and kept Trubisky in a reserve role for the rest of the season. (Williams and the UNC offense shredding through the ACC schedule didn’t hurt matters.)

Trubisky made appearances in nine of 14 games last season, but he became more efficient and completed 40-of-47 passes for 555 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added 101 yards on the ground and scored three rushing touchdowns.

“I learned a lot,” Trubisky said of his time as backup. “I think mostly just patience, being patient for my opportunity and just doing my role to help the team. It’s all about the team, and just executing and doing what I’ve got to do for the team, just being a team player. It’s not about me or my playing time, it’s about the success of the Tar Heels, and that’s what I’m about.”

With Williams exhausting his eligibility, it was in the team’s best interest to hand the keys over to Trubisky.

Though he’s never started a game, by playing in 19 games during the first two seasons of his career, Trubisky is far from a rookie stepping into a new role.

“We don’t feel that he’s a newcomer by any means,” wideout Ryan Switzer said. “Mitch has been one of the leaders since he stepped on campus. That’s just his personality. It’s not any different for us when we step out on the field. Everybody has their full faith and confidence in him and not that we’re trying to put any pressure on him, but we believe that he can get it done. He’s shown that he can so we definitely feel like he’s mentally and physically prepared as well.”

Switzer, who’s also Trubisky’s roommate, says underneath all the humble team-first talk is a confident quarterback who’s ready to take the reins.

“He’s always been a team-first guy,” Switzer said after the spring game. “I think that with that being said, he does believe that he is the best option for us going forward. I feel like he thinks this is long over-due and he’s ready to take the reins of this team.”

Paige gets Iowa homecoming

DURHAM — Marcus Paige finally got a homecoming game after all.

It might be called the Carolina ACC Barnstorming Tour, but Friday, the group of ACC senior all-stars left the state for a quick trip to Marion, Iowa to play at Linn-Mar high school, Paige’s alma mater, Saturday.

“I think they mentioned it to me at the beginning of the year,” Paige said after a barnstorming stop at Durham’s Northern High School. “I was like, ‘that sounds like a good idea,’ and then I kind of forgot about it until the schedule came out and my high school was on there. I was like, cool. I was pretty excited about it.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams tried to give Paige a homecoming game during the season when he scheduled a trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa to play Northern Iowa Nov. 22, 2015. But when Paige broke his right hand in an early November practice, he was sidelined for a month and missed his chance to play in front of a hometown crowd.

Thanks to an uncharacteristic trip outside state lines with the barnstorming tour — an ACC tradition that originated in North Carolina 37 years ago — Paige has another chance to not only play in Iowa, but to play in his old gym for the first time since he wrapped up his senior season four years ago.

“I’m just happy I get to go home and see my family, see my dogs,” Paige said.

Paige, Brice Johnson, Joel James, Tony Ebunga, Spenser Dalton and Justin Coleman have played with the group of seniors from UNC, Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest coached by Phil Ford who are stopping at nine North Carolina high schools.

Every player doesn’t travel to every stop, but all six Tar Heels played against a group of locals in front of a very pro-UNC crowd in Durham last week.

“There’s a lot of support,” Paige said. “We’ve been to some towns and stuff and seen a lot of people who might not get a chance to come to a game. So Tar Heel nation is out here, and it’s very fun to see everyone and travel the state, especially because I’m not from here.”

After five stops in places like Rockingham and Ronda, Paige got a chance to not only go back to his home state, but also act as a tour guide for a couple of his former UNC teammates who had never been to Iowa.

“It’s too far away, none of them will come all the way to Iowa,” Paige said. “It’s hard to convince someone to come to Iowa. It’s not necessarily a tourist location or anything like that. It’s not a tropical climate, but it’s a good place and I’m happy they’re coming with me this time.”

Broin’ out with Chase Rice

CHAPEL HILL — Within my first 10 minutes inside Carmichael Arena Saturday night, I saw a Blue Cup raised by a manicured man on stage and a smuggled Bud Light cracked open by a man in a cowboy hat beside me.

A vaguely recognizable song covered by some country twang pumped through the speakers, prompting the half-full arena to mumble along to words they used to hear on top-40 radio a couple years ago.

Ah yes, I must be at a bro-country concert.

Wearing a custom No. 44 UNC basketball jersey, Chase Rice belts it out at Carmichael Arena Saturday. (Brooke Pryor/NSJ)
Wearing a custom No. 44 UNC basketball jersey, Chase Rice belts it out at Carmichael Arena Saturday.
(Brooke Pryor/NSJ)

And yes, bro-country is a real genre, quarterbacked by the likes of Florida-Georgia Line and tonight’s headliner, Chase Rice. It’s a sub-genre of country music, the kind that would make Johnny Cash roll over in his grave. The originally written songs are about drinking, hot girls, college and religious come-to-Jesus-moments sung by dudes in snapbacks with megawatt smiles, perfectly groomed stubble and gelled hair who spend a lot of time cruisin’ and crushin’ it down on some dirt roads.

I’ve been to a handful of country concerts — Brad Paisley, Sugarland, Little Big Town — but Saturday night was my first bro-country concert experience, and aside from a couple moments of hard eyerolls, it was a lot of fun. I don’t know that anything I saw was worth a $35 upper level general admission ticket, but for the $8 student ticket to Rice’s Back to College at UNC’s Spring Jubilee stop, I’d consider it to be a fun Saturday night pregame.*

*Alcohol wasn’t actually for sale at the event, which makes it a pretty sobering pre-bar activity. But more on that later.

The crowd was a sea of girls in cowboy boots and dresses and men in either khakis and button-downs or blue jeans and cowboy hats. It smelled faintly of old beer and sweat, a combination that must have been achieved by people who went straight from the spring football game in Kenan Stadium to the concert headlined by the former UNC linebacker (which qualifies this as loosely related to sports, therefore vaguely relevant on a sports website).

When I walked in, second-opener Chris Lane was a few songs into his set. Right now the self-proclaimed Carolina boy from Kernersville has a six-song EP out and one song, Fix that’s starting to build steam, checking in at No. 32 in iTunes top-100 country songs. I missed Lacy Cavalier, a 19-year-old newcomer who just put out her own EP.

Other than Fix, I didn’t recognize any of Lane’s original songs, but he was all about doing covers of hip hop and pop songs, apparently a staple of any good bro-country artist. I’ll admit that I loved when he covered old Backstreet Boys and N*Sync, but I nearly walked out of the venue when he tried to pull off a country-fied Whip/Nae Nae. There are songs that should never, ever be covered by a country artist and that’s at the top of the list.

Brooke Pryor/NSJ
Brooke Pryor/NSJ

Once Lane closed on Fix, we waited for about 30 minutes for Rice to come out. In the time it took to change the set and tune the instruments, the pit area, available only to current UNC students who purchased floor-specific tickets, went from 40 percent full to about 70 percent capacity. Floor tickets weren’t available to the general public and people who purchased lower level seating weren’t allowed to move down to fill in the empty space, leaving awkwardly empty space in prime seating (standing?) areas for Rice’s homecoming tour stop.

Rice brought a fun energy from the moment the curtain dropped, athletically bouncing and running around the stage throughout his whole performance. He sang songs about margaritas and guacamole — and in case you weren’t sure, he sure loves to drink, especially in Chapel Hill.

Brooke Pryor/NSJ
Brooke Pryor/NSJ

Remember when Miley Cyrus kept talking, joking and singing about how she was so 4/20 friendly during her MTV Video Music Awards hosting gig? We get it, you love weed.

Rice toed that line with constant drinking references, which probably would’ve gone over a lot better had Carmichael actually been able to sell beer. Instead, the crowd held up cups of pepsi and sprite when both Rice and Lane asked their fans to raise a glass. Not quite what they were going for, but good try, y’all.

Of course, there were a couple covers, highlighted by Rice’s take on fellow North Carolinian Eric Church’s Smoke and two Blink-182 covers

The best moment of the night was when Rice put on a custom No. 44 UNC basketball jersey, his last name stitched on the back, and sang his nostalgic North Carolina anthem, Carolina Can. With lines about faded blue denim on Franklin Street, He’s Not cups, and James Taylor, the song was obviously the crowd’s favorite singalong of the night.

From there, Rice kept the jersey on the rest of the night, slowing it down for his ballad Jack Daniels and Jesus before building the tempo up for a Ready Set Roll finale.

Rice performed nearly all of his hits, with one notable one absent from the set list. Rice released a new single, Whisper, Feb. 5, and it has nearly 5 million plays on Spotify. At No. 94, it’s Rice’s highest-ranked song on the iTunes Country chart. It seemed kind of odd that Rice didn’t come out for an encore performance to promote the new song.

After a set of nearly an hour and a half, Rice wrapped up around 11:15 — just in time to go crush a Blue Cup.

Brooke Pryor/NSJ
Brooke Pryor/NSJ