UNC QB Drake Maye willing to absorb big hits to win

Want to see Mack Brown cringe? Let Drake Maye tuck the ball and run it.

And Maye will run. It’s a part of who he is as a quarterback. He’s also good at it.

“He’s just so smooth and he’s fast, too,” Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said this week. “He’s deceivingly a fast guy for a big guy.”

Maye is a fearless type, and super competitive. He watched Sam Howell run at and through people when Howell was UNC’s quarterback and Maye, following Howell’s lead, is willing to pay the price.

“It’s just my mentality,” Maye said Tuesday. “You never saw Sam run out of bounds when a first down was near. I need to do a better job, but at the same time I’m going to leave it all out there and I’m not going to change that.”

Brown doesn’t expect him to change but that it is the “price” part that Brown has to worry about when it comes to Maye. He’s among the nation’s best at his position – “He’s got the whole package,” Narduzzi said – and Maye’s value to the No. 17 Tar Heels and the UNC program this season is almost immeasurable.

Maye also is Pitt’s problem this week. The Heels (3-0) face the Panthers (1-2) in their first ACC game and Maye, who threw for five TDs last year in a 42-24 win over Pitt, again is the focal point of the Panthers’ defense.

The Panthers will come after Maye with a hard pass rush – Narduzzi is an aggressive type, especially with his defense. There will be times Maye runs out of the pocket and throws and other times when he brings the ball down and takes off with it.

“We love his competitiveness but he’s also got to be smart,” Brown said. “There’s a fine line between being competitive and smart.

“Everybody is trying to hurt him.They want him out of the game. Let’s be smarter, let’s not be stubborn.”

Maye has learned to slide when contact is coming. Wide receiver J.J Jones said Tuesday that he is among those thinking “Go down! Go down!” when Maye gets that look in his eye running the ball.

“I love Drake, I love seeing him run and I love him being a hard-nosed runner, but if he can get down, he needs to get down,” Jones said, smiling.

In the double-overtime win against Appalachian State, Maye tried to run for a two-pointer in the second OT. He launched himself toward the end zone and was body-slammed to the ground well short of the goal line.

Against Minnesota last week, Maye ran to his right and headed toward the sideline marker, determined to squeeze in the last yard or so for a first down. He was met, rudely and brutally, by linebacker Devon Williams before he got to that marker.

A lot of folks in Kenan Stadium, and not just Brown, probably cringed seeing that hit.

“It’s a grown man’s game and that one hurt,” Maye said. “I told No. 9 afterward, ‘I’m not sure how many dudes have hit me like that.’ That one hurt. …

“I could have done a better job on the sideline of avoiding a cluster of big dudes trying to take my head off. But I definitely woke up on Sunday morning and felt that one.”

At 6-4 and 230 pounds, Maye has the size to absorb such blows. The sophomore did not come out of the game after the Williams hit, saying that never crossed his mind.

“It’s part of the game, part of the position that I play,” Maye said. “You’ve got to hang in there. You see guys on Sunday taking hits, guys in college football taking hits. We’re always the one on the highlight films when we’re getting blown up and smacked.”

Maye was the Heels’ leading rusher last season with almost 700 yards, scoring seven touchdowns. He also had a team-high 184 carries and was smacked around more than a few times.

He’s still a big threat to run, but the Heels have solid running backs in Omarion Hampton and British Brooks, and the wide receivers now include Nate McCollum, the Georgia Tech transfer coming off a huge game against Minnesota.

Maye likes to “throw the rock,” has he puts it, but the Heels do have balance.

A year ago, Pitt linebacker Tylar Wiltz said before the UNC game that the Panthers might treat Maye as they did former Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham, who was injured against Pitt.

“We’re going to hit him hard just like we hit Malik, and if he doesn’t get up that’s not our problem.,” Wiltz said to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“We see how that worked out,” Maye said Tuesday.

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.

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