By Michael Melvin
Something positive needed to happen for North Carolina. With 6:18 left in the third quarter, the Tar Heels were staring down a 22-21 deficit to the surging Flames of Liberty. After avoiding a halftime deficit by punching in a rushing touchdown with 28 seconds left in the first half, Carolina had done little else to help their cause in the opening 8:42 of the second half. Four Tar Heel third quarter drives resulted in a combined 32 yards, two turnovers, zero points, and a sense that the box in the win column beside Liberty was unnervingly close to being unchecked. It was evident as Marquise Williams and the Tar Heel offense trotted back onto the field that the game was on the brink of a drastic shift in one direction or the other.
Now, flash back to March of this year. It’s 6 in the morning and the temperature is cold enough to warrant toboggans and gloves. North Carolina players and coaches wipe their eyes as they gather together in a dimly lit circle to break out of the final Blue Dawn huddle of the spring. Sweat drops hit the turf, a steam cloud forms above the heads of the players, and the final inspirational words before spring camp are uttered as the group attempts to gather its collective breath. Among those in the cluster of squeezing bodies is now-sophomore Mack Hollins. As the huddle breaks and the Blue Dawn title is retired until next February, the team walks back toward Kenan Stadium under the glimmer of sunlight. The locker room doors open and teammates pile into their respective cubbies, exchanging sweaty jerseys for shower gear and clean clothes. Jerseys of all colors slowly begin to fill the laundry pile. Some red, others white, and even still some blue. But amongst the variety of color-coded jerseys is one color in limited and rare volume: Black.
“Getting a black jersey is just crazy,” said T.J. Logan, “It’s like a myth: It doesn’t happen.”
Players quickly begin flooding out of the doors of the Kenan Football Center and toward a beautiful day in Chapel Hill. As Hollins changes and joins the stream of his teammates, he drops his jersey– a black one – into the pile and heads to class. Jerseys worn by players during the Blue Dawn period correspond to levels of achievement based on performance, speed, and effort shown in the morning workouts over a period of several weeks. The hierarchy of achievement rises from red to white to blue, and finally black. Being awarded the black jersey represents the highest possible honor for the Blue Dawn period, something of which Hollins was a distinguished recipient.
“That’s a hard work thing. Coach Fedora says you don’t have to come in first, you don’t have to be the best, but you have to give your best. You always have to go one hundred percent,” said Hollins. “The weather doesn’t matter, the time doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you’re putting in work.”
After joining UNC as a walk-on athlete in 2012, Hollins embodies the meaning of hard work. The Rockville, Md. native has proven himself as a poster child for the slogan “earning your keep” by enduring position changes, overcoming injuries, and fighting to gain everything that he has been granted. “My hard work allowed me a chance to get on the field. My hard work is the reason I’m at receiver getting playing time,” said Hollins. “I think without it, I wouldn’t be getting any of this, so my hard work is what actually gives me the opportunity to make catches and make plays and contribute to the offense.”
Hollins was the special teams captain in 2013 and has since earned a scholarship and No. 2 spot on Carolina’s wide receiver depth chart this season. “Last year I was all special teams and I got a few reps here and there at receiver, but nothing big,” admitted Hollins. “Spring practice was big for me. I got more reps at receiver, I got opportunities, and I just took advantage of them.”
Spring back to Liberty. The 22-21 Flames lead stared Carolina in the face as they attempted to reorganize themselves for what was sure to be a potential make or break series. Williams and Hollins jogged to their spots on the field, exchanging words as the offense settled in for its fifth drive of the quarter. “We came off the sideline and they called a run-screen option. Quise told me ‘Hey, I’m going to let the running back get this to let him get rolling.’ I said, ‘Come on Quise, it’s going to be open. If it’s open throw it to me,’” said Hollins.
Williams took the snap and read his cues, staring down the running back screen before lasering a throw across the field in the direction of Hollins. Surprised to find the ball headed in his direction, Hollins quickly extended his hands to haul in the pass for his first career reception and a seven-yard gain. With no time for celebration, Hollins and the offense rushed up to the line for a hurry-up 2nd and 3 snap. Williams took the ball and without any hesitation flung it in the direction of Hollins again. “We ran the same play, but this time Jack had a real good block and sealed the guy inside,” said Hollins. “I had a big lane, so I just took off and it opened up. As soon as I got past Jack I knew I was going to score.”
Hollins took the wide receiver screen down the sideline for a 33-yard, game-changing touchdown that altered the landscape of the game in a matter of seconds. In a way, the sophomore’s first career catch and first career touchdown in consecutive plays was almost a prophetic fulfilment of words from Fedora’s weekly press conference this week. “Mack Hollins is going to make plays for us at receiver on top of what he does for us on special teams,” Fedora said Monday.
Nothing Fedora could have said that day would end up being truer. The tides shifted in favor of the Tar Heels, and a game that was looking dicey just minutes before was soon completely out of Liberty’s reach. Carolina rattled off 28 points in a 3:49 span in the third quarter to take a commanding 49-22 lead. All of the momentum that Fedora’s team harnessed in that four minute period were a result of the spark created by Hollins’ long touchdown reception.
“You know, he is a great special teams guy for us, and all of his hard work has translated to the offensive side,” said Ryan Switzer. “When Mack had his opportunity he made the most of it, and I’m very proud of him because he deserves it.”
The lesson that Carolina can take away from Saturday’s game is that they have to bring a hard-working, “earn your keep” intensity in all facets of the game. Hollins lived that mentality during early morning workouts when he earned the black jersey, but he also showed it off on Saturday with his game-changing touchdown. When Carolina begins to face tough road games and conference opponents, finding sparks of energy from players like Hollins will be crucial to shifting momentum and determining the success of the team’s 2014 season.