CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — The first preseason practice had wrapped up, and North Carolina players gathered around coach Mack Brown for final on-field instructions. Drake Maye dropped to his left knee among them, resting his left hand on the facemask of his helmet laying next to him.

Fittingly, he centered the front row, teammates alongside and behind him in a semi-circle.

Maye is, after all, at the forefront here as a top NFL quarterback prospect, Heisman Trophy candidate and heart of the 21st-ranked Tar Heels’ hopes to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It’s all come in a rapid rise to stardom a year after being an untested talent battling for a starting job, so handling lofty expectations could prove as critical as any throw. Yet Maye sounds neither fixated on awards nor deterred by pressure, backed by a support system featuring a family full of athletes.

“I think it’s hard to kind of stamp Heisman as a goal of mine or goal of anybody, any players,” Maye told The Associated Press. “That’s something that kind of just comes your way based on how things fall throughout the season. And obviously it comes with winning. That’s the main priority.”

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Maye operated with smooth efficiency last year, both in attacking downfield and making plays with his legs. He tied for fifth nationally in touchdown passes (38), ranked sixth in average passing yardage (308.6) and was the Bowl Subdivision’s only 5,000-yard player in total offense.

During a six-game win streak that sent the Tar Heels to the ACC title game, he completed nearly 71% of his passes, threw for 18 TDs – including the final-seconds winner at Duke — against two interceptions and ran for four scores.

As numbers rose, so did attention. Then expectations. All await now, with UNC opening against South Carolina in Charlotte (Sept. 2) and pursuing its first ACC title since 1980.

He’s ready, armed with experience.

“Now I feel like I’m more comfortable and calm and collected going out there,” Maye said, adding: “I feel more pressure (about) not letting my guys down than kind of not proving myself on the field to the country.”

Sam Howell understands. In 2021, he was UNC’s star quarterback, possible Heisman candidate and NFL prospect with Maye the freshman backup. But it was a bumpy season; the Tar Heels sunk from a top-10 preseason ranking to finish 6-7.

Now with the NFL’s Washington Commanders, Howell has shared lessons learned with Maye. Mainly: lock onto football over distractions like possible awards or endrosement deals.

“He works super hard,” Howell told the AP. “Football just comes so easy to him, and he’s just so gifted. And when you think about his game, he really doesn’t have a flaw to his game. He’s got the height. He’s got the athleticism. He’s got the arm talent. He’s got the knowledge. … It’s him just developing more and becoming the best player he can be.”

Indeed, the reigning AP ACC offensive player of the year remains a youngster refining his game. That means quelling competitive urges to run through – or leap over – collisions when sliding is the better call. Being patient enough to not force a play. Shaking off missed throws or reads.

“It’s ongoing; I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle, just a challenge for myself,” Maye said. “They always say, ‘Next play, next play, forget about the last one.’ But the thing about those plays, one or two plays in clutch moments make the difference in the game. So I just try my best to move on but at the same time, learn from it.”

There was plenty to learn late last season, too.

The Tar Heels lost their last four, including to Clemson in the ACC title game and Oregon in the Holiday Bowl. It was a damper even as UNC hit nine wins for the second time since Brown’s first tenure ended when he left for Texas in 1997.

Maye responded by studying film of how teams defended him to be ready on the field. He leaned on family to help him off it.

His father, Mark, played quarterback for UNC in the 1980s. Older brother and roommate Beau has been a member of the Tar Heels men’s basketball team. Another older brother, Cole, was part of Florida’s run to the NCAA baseball title in June 2017.

And that same year, eldest brother Luke hit the famous March Madness jumper that sent UNC to the Final Four on the way to the NCAA title and turned him into an sudden star — the last being a topic of obvious interest for Drake these days.

Still, their mother, Aimee, said Drake is selective about who he talks to and how much he reveals, including shrugging off the idea of working with someone like a sports psychologist.

“As a mom, when I watch kind of what’s happened the past year since he was named the starter, I just think there’s got to be a lot going on in his brain as far as just the pressure?” she said. “Every time we talk to him about it, he’s like, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’”

Meanwhile, father and son have taken a different approach. Both said there was more pressure with last summer’s position battle, so Drake should work with the same mentality even as the Tar Heels’ unquestioned star.

That approach brought him here. It could carry him much farther.

“Last year was, hey, Drake needed to get on the field,” Mark said. “Hopefully that’ll help going into this year. But you know what? He seems to roll along — that’s really kind of his personality.”