Drake Maye Dazzles in UNC Debut

CHAPEL HILL, NC — Midway through the first quarter, on third-and-nine at North Carolina’s 39-yard line, UNC redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye burst through a big hole on a draw play and followed a lead blocker before juking and evading four would-be Rattlers tacklers for a sensational 42-yard run. On the next play, Maye hit the tight end Kamari Morales for a 19-yard touchdown pass for Carolina’s first touchdown of the 2022 season. Displaying both touch and accuracy, the throw was placed perfectly over two Florida A&M defenders for a score.

Those two plays announced what UNC has at quarterback in Maye, who was named the starter on Monday and then put his name in the record books on Saturday.

What followed vs. FAMU was an offensive display complete with sharp passes, backyard dealings, and a box score-stuffing stat line. When he wasn’t hitting tight ends for back-to-back touchdowns or spreading the ball to a young group of promising receivers, he was scampering down the field or flying through the air on a helicopter-style scoring attempt.

In Carolina’s 56-24 win over the Rattlers, Maye became the first UNC quarterback to throw for five touchdowns in the first game of the season and the first to throw for five touchdowns in his first career start.

He was impressive as a passer, dishing the ball to 10 different pass catchers and throwing touchdowns to four different receivers. Composed and confident throughout the game, a three-and-out to open up the contest did not rattle the freshly minted starter.

“I was a little anxious and I get nervous before every game regardless of who it is. So it felt good to be out there with the guys,” Maye said. “I think y’all can see we’ve got a lot of talent, just need to put it together… There were some first-game jitters. I just kind of told myself that I’ve been practicing a year and a half for this. All this work I’ve done, it’s gonna pay off. Just trust the process and trust my teammates.”

Said head coach Mack Brown“I was very proud of Drake. One of the best first games I’ve ever seen. He was poised. He was accurate. His running ability was good. We did not have a sack. We had very few penalties… he is a competitor… Some of (no sacks) was Drake getting the ball out of his hands so fast, because we’ve changed some things offensively and moved the quarterback some. And some of it was his ability to move around in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield and make throws.”

UNC QB Drake Maye vs. Florida A&M on Saturday night in Kenan Stadium (Photo: Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina)

Liquid finished the game 29-for-37 for 294 yards and five touchdowns. He had a 189.7 QB rating. He hit Morales for the first score and then went back to the tight end room for a touchdown Bryson Nesbitt late in the first quarter. Maye showed off a little backyard football in the second quarter when a redzone play broke down and he used his legs to get outside the pocket, keep the action alive, direct traffic, and hit a streaking Gavin Blackwell in the endzone for his third touchdown of the night.

Maye called his pass to Morales his favorite throw of the day. “I got hit a little bit in the face. The ball didn’t come out great, but just sneaked right over the defender,” he said.

On his 42-yard run in the first quarter: “It was a designed play. We have one look and then we take off. It’s a draw. That’s the Sam (Howell) Special. Sam was the best at it. Just trying to be half as good as Sam on the draws. Last year, he was an animal.

Star receiver Josh Downs caught Maye’s fourth and fifth touchdowns. Downs finished with nine catches for 78 yards and two scores.

“We got a special player in 11,” Maye said about Downs. “They were kind of bracketing him or two-on-one. I think we’re probably going to see that a lot, trying to take him out of the game, but he’s a special player.”

Downs expects to see double teams this season, but Maye and UNC adapted and spread the ball around. Seven different receivers caught two or more passes.

“I think that’s kind of the way the game worked out,” Maye said. “Coach drew up some plays to get our guys the ball and they just happened to be open. Some of them I could have gunned in there a little more, but now I’ve got some things to work on.”

Maye wasn’t perfect. And he knew that. He missed some throws high and he missed some low. He underthrew Josh Downs on a goal-line pass that was rushed due to the pressure of FAMU’s defensive line. He failed to connect on any deep balls, instead taking what the defense gave him and getting the ball to playmakers across the middle and in space. Maye’s longest pass play on Saturday was 33 yards to the tight end John Copenhaver.

“I think I could work on doing some more deep balls. I struggled. A couple were inside and one was actually outside, so I need to keep building that connection with them,” Maye said. “I’ve been playing with these guys. I played second team with a lot of them last year, so we’ve got some stuff going and need to get that rhythm going.”

Maye knows there is room to improve and while you want to take the first game in week zero against an FCS opponent with a grain of salt, it became clear early that UNC has its starting quarterback of the present and future.

“He is very accurate. He’s got great vision. He’s a good decision-maker and he’s big. He’s 6-5, so he can see and he’s 220 (pounds). So he looks thin, but he’s really not. He’s a big guy that obviously can really run,” Brown said. “I think the thing that surprised us the most is how fast he is, and we saw that some in his summer work because he won a lot of the races in the summer. And I told those defensive backs and wide receivers, ‘Drake’s beating you, man, the quarterback is beating you.’ And they said, ‘His legs are longer.’ But they knew that and they watched him in the summer, so they knew that he’s got some special skills.”

Beyond the physical talent and the accuracy, Maye was confident and poised. The stage was not too big. He played to the moment and provided soothing promise for a football program and a fanbase coming off three seasons spoiled by the best quarterback in school history in Sam Howell. On Saturday, the torch was officially passed from Howell to Maye, from one Charlotte area signal-caller to another.

“They’re both gamers,” Downs said comparing Howell to Maye. “They keep their poise at all times. Drake smiles a little more than Sam. But they’re both great mentally. And they are gamers. They are the same breed cut from that same cloth.”

This is what Brown expected from Maye when he recruited him out of Myers Park High School and convinced him to flip his Alabama commitment to UNC. The in-state kid, and UNC legacy leading the flagship program to wins on the field.

“I think when you’re raised in a family where a brother won a baseball national championship, a brother won a basketball national championship, dad was a quarterback here and very good and competitive. And he’s the younger brother, those older ones beat him down. He had to compete to have a place in the room,” Brown said. “I think like Sam, he thinks this is what he’s supposed to be doing. He grew up thinking, ‘I’ll be the quarterback of Carolina.’ And when he committed to Alabama, I said, ‘I’m hanging on, man and you don’t need to be anywhere but here. This is a place where you need to be in school.’ And I think he has a chance to be real good.”

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