Sapakoff: UNC's Drake Maye on facing NFL draft hype, and the Gamecocks

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CHARLOTTE — North Carolina head coach Mack Brown, during his Thursday turn at the ACC Kickoff media fest, marveled at the way his star quarterback gets “better and better and better.”
Even if Drake Maye doesn’t get a slight bit better in August, the redshirt sophomore is still 6-4 and 230 pounds worth of major motivation for a rebuilt South Carolina defense.
The Gamecocks lost cornerbacks Cam Smith and Darius Rush and defensive tackle Zacch Pickens to the NFL draft. They lost top edge rusher (and occasional pass target) Jordan Burch to Oregon and tackles-for-loss leader Gilber Edmond to Florida State.
They haven’t lost track of Maye’s ascent. From contender for the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback job 10 days before the 2022 season to the first North Carolina player since iconic linebacker Lawrence Taylor (1980) to win the ACC Player of the Year award to a popular projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft.
Maye along the way threw for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns while rushing for 698 yards.
No wonder ESPN just announced GameDay is coming to Charlotte for the South Carolina vs. North Carolina season opener on Sept. 2 at Bank of America Stadium.
Not exactly Eastern Illinois or Georgia State, the Gamecock foes in Shane Beamer’s first two seasons as head coach.
“What better way to start the season than getting the chance to go out on national television and compete against a team that’s really, really talented led by a fantastic quarterback,” Beamer said Wednesday. “Our guys are excited and we’ll really dive into North Carolina as we get closer to it, for sure.
“But, absolutely, when you start preseason camp I would imagine as you go through the dog days of preseason practice and you get in the middle of August and Game 1 seems like so far away, it’ll probably be a little bit more of an urgency this year maybe than in years past because of who we’re playing in Week 1.”
It’s a two-way, Carolina-Carolina road to 1-0 or 0-1.
Maye also is unusually motivated.
He and his friends got clobbered in their last Charlotte showcase, 39-10 against Clemson in the 2022 ACC Championship Game.
North Carolina lost last time to South Carolina. On the same field. Maye played briefly in relief of Sam Howell at the end of the Tar Heels’ 38-21 Duke’s Mayo Bowl debacle in 2021.
And all the NFL draft chatter.
“I can’t get caught up in the hype. I know the main thing is us winning games,” he said at the ACC Kickoff.
On playing on the same field with South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler in the opener: “Having a great quarterback duel makes it fun.”
It’s been a bumpy ride since North Carolina started the 2022 season 9-1. The Tar Heels finished 9-5.
The 9-1 part was super shaky. Six wins were by three points or less, including a 63-61 classic at Appalachian State.
Then came a rumor-filled offseason for Maye, sprinkled with talk of astronomical NIL offers.
No other schools, Maye insisted Thursday, reached out to him.
“And I didn’t talk to anybody else,” he said.
Eventually, it was just another summer of sharpening up for a football season by clashing with his brothers in various highly competitive activities.
Along with Drake, former North Carolina quarterback Mark Maye and his wife Aimee’s sons include Luke, a key member of the Tar Heels’ 2017 national championship basketball team; Cole, a member of Florida’s 2017 College World Series winner; and Beau, a current North Carolina basketball player.
Aside from the family, Brown is most impressed that Drake, soon after the 2022 season ended, asked the head coach for help in several areas of quarterback play.
New to the Tar Heels’ coaching staff:
• Chip Lindsey, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Lindsey, hired when Phil Longo left for Wisconsin, has been a play-caller at Southern Miss, Arizona State, Auburn and UCF.
“Obviously, that’s the great thing about having a new offensive coordinator in there. He is calling the shots, and you get to hear his perspective of things, maybe different from Coach Longo’s, and get the full swing of what two great offensive coordinators think,” Maye said.
• Freddie Kitchens, run-game coordinator and tight ends coach. The former Alabama quarterback and Cleveland Browns head coach was on Arizona Cardinals staffs for 11 seasons. And was a senior analyst on Beamer’s South Carolina staff in 2022.
“I was asking (Kitchens) the other day about Baker (Mayfield) and some of those guys he coached, their mentality and (how they are as) competitors,” Maye said.
• Clyde Christensen, senior analyst. A former Clemson offensive coordinator under Tommy West, Christensen over a long NFL career tutoring quarterbacks has worked with (in chronological order) Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston and Tom Brady.
Maye and Christensen have been watching film of all four of those guys.
“Just trying to pick up whatever I can from him,” Maye said.
Which brings up the No. 1 Drake Maye flaw.
“He’s a little bit like me,” Brown said. “We have to be careful with him because he is too hard on himself.”
That makes it harder on the Gamecocks.
But this isn’t Eastern Illinois. As they are well aware.

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