CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Drake Maye has put up big numbers all season for No. 24 North Carolina. Now he has a chance to lead the Tar Heels to something more: an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
The second-year passer has played so well that he stirred national buzz as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Those hopes dwindled after two straight losses for some late-season adversity, but he can still lead the program to its first ACC title in more than four decades in Saturday night’s matchup with No. 10 Clemson in Charlotte.
“It’s just literally a dream of going out in an NFL stadium, playing against a team the caliber of Clemson — it gets you anxious,” Maye said. “At the end of the day, it’s why you play the sport of football.”
North Carolina (9-3, 6-2 ACC) opened the season with uncertainty about how much they’d get at quarterback after the departure of star quarterback Sam Howell to the NFL. But Maye beat out Jacolby Criswell in a preseason position battle, then looked nothing like a youngster in his first season as a starter.
He leads the Bowl Subdivision ranks in total offense (373.0 yards per game) and is tied for fourth in FBS with 35 touchdown passes, just two behind national leaders C.J. Stroud of Ohio State and Clayton Tune of Houston.
Maye has also thrown just five interceptions on 440 attempts — a rate of 1.1% in an aggressive offense that pushes the ball downfield — and leads his team in rushing yards.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows plenty about Maye. The Tigers recruited him out of Huntersville, a town about 20 minutes north of Charlotte. Swinney said he expected Maye would end up with the Tar Heels as an instate product.
Maye did so after reversing a commitment to Nick Saban at Alabama.
“He is a very creative player, and a very confident and poised player,” Swinney said.
Maye led UNC to its first-ever 6-0 road record this season — all by seven or fewer points — and the last Coastal Division title in the league’s final year in the two-division format with a win at Wake Forest. But the Tar Heels have followed with losses to Georgia Tech on Nov. 19 and rival North Carolina State last Friday.
Those losses were the only games this season Maye hasn’t thrown at least two scoring passes.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo pointed to N.C. State’s veteran defense giving alternating looks to Maye. Sometimes it was applying more rush pressure to force Maye to get the ball out of his hands. Other times, it was dropping eight players into coverage to force Maye to be patient without as many deep looks.
“Our successful drives, I thought we did a great job of being patient,” Longo said. “And on the drives where we didn’t, I thought we weren’t patient. Maybe we forced a ball or we didn’t adjust our route the way we need to or hit the run where we needed to.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we get some of that from Clemson,” Longo continued. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that more in the future because it’s a way to maybe minimize explosive plays.”
UNC hasn’t won an ACC title since 1980, back when eventual NFL star Lawrence Taylor was the Tar Heels’ All-American linebacker. That was three years before Maye’s father Mark began his career as UNC’s quarterback and eight years before Mack Brown’s first coaching tenure began in Chapel Hill.
If Maye can lead the Tar Heels past the Tigers, he’ll have a championship run of his own to brag about with his brothers.
One older brother, Cole, was part of Florida’s run to the NCAA baseball title in June 2017. That came roughly three months after another brother, Luke, hit the last-second jumper to send UNC to the Final Four and ultimately win the NCAA men’s basketball title on the way to becoming an unexpected star.
“Team success at the end of the day is what counts in the family, that we brag about,” Maye said. “So I think an ACC championship, that’s a pretty big deal.”