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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is months away from the biggest season of his life, one filled with extra scrutiny and NFL questions, not to mention the everyday expectations that come with leading a program waiting for its breakthrough.

Everyone around Maye knows what awaits him this season as one of the top prospects in the 2024 NFL draft. It is why coach Mack Brown made sure to consult Maye when hiring a new offensive coordinator, why Brown brought in multiple offensive assistants with NFL coaching experience, why Brown has done everything he could think of to ensure Maye will succeed given the stakes.

Maye just shrugs it all off when asked whether he feels pressure going into such a crucial year. In fact, his answer is downright surprising.

“I think with last year, I feel like I had probably more pressure than I feel coming into this year,” Maye told ESPN recently. “Last year gave me a lot of confidence as the year went on. The more reps I got, and especially the more games we started winning, I was getting pretty confident.”

That answer speaks to not only who Maye is, but how he has responded during an offseason filled with change. Given all the talk about his potential heading into 2023, it is easy to forget that at this point last year, Maye was in the middle of a quarterback competition with Jacolby Criswell — one that was not resolved until fall camp.

It became clear why Maye won the job after the opener against Florida A&M, in which Maye threw for 294 yards and became the first UNC quarterback to throw five touchdowns in his first start. He followed it up with a 352-yard, four-touchdown performance in a wild 63-61 win over Appalachian State that put opposing defenses on notice.

From there, Maye led North Carolina to the ACC championship game while setting single-season school records for passing yards (4,321), completions (342) and attempts (517), earning ACC Player of the Year honors and becoming a Freshman All-American.

So yes, it is understandable why Maye feels less pressure going into this year — even amidst NFL draft expectations that start with him being taken No. 3 overall in the first mock draft from ESPN’s Todd McShay. Maye has already proved to himself, his coaches and teammates he can put in the work and perform at an extremely high level. The fun part is next — improving enough to not only cement his spot as one of the top quarterbacks in college football but take his team further than the ACC championship game.

Losing four straight games to end last season still bothers Maye, especially the ACC championship game loss to Clemson. North Carolina has not won an ACC football title since 1980, and as the son of a former North Carolina quarterback, that bit of trivia is not lost on him.

Maye did not take any shortcuts this spring. The truth is, he could not afford to. A few days after the ACC championship game loss, offensive coordinator Phil Longo left to take a job with Wisconsin. Speculation swirled that Maye might leave North Carolina, though he quickly made it clear he was not going anywhere. Coach Mack Brown later said Maye “turned down a whole lot of money” to stay.

“I love this university and the way Coach Brown and the staff treat me,” Maye said. “This is my dream school, and this is where I want to play. That stuff got overblown, but at the end of the day, I want to play here. There’s really no question.”

With Maye returning for a crucial redshirt sophomore season, Brown had to pick the right offensive coordinator. To do that, he asked Maye to be involved in the decision, a rarity within most player-coach relationships.

Said Brown: “I brought him in here and asked, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘I need somebody to teach me more. I need somebody to talk about quarterback mechanics, my throwing motion, time in the pocket and all those things.'”

Brown arranged for Maye to speak to the candidates, including Chip Lindsey, who spent last season as offensive coordinator at UCF. Lindsey was the head coach at Troy for three seasons and spent time previously as a coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Auburn, Arizona State and Southern Miss. Maye and Lindsey hit it off during their phone conversations, making it easier for the two to hit the ground running when Brown hired him as coordinator.

In addition, Brown brought in former Cleveland Browns coach Freddie Kitchens as run game coordinator/tight ends coach and noted quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen as a volunteer offensive analyst, fresh off four years in Tampa Bay — the last three spent with Tom Brady. In his NFL career, Christensen also served as offensive coordinator for Peyton Manning and quarterback coach for Andrew Luck.

“That’s just another layer of a guy that’s coached the best quarterbacks to ever play,” Brown said. “Then you’ve got the guy who coached Baker Mayfield as a head coach at the Cleveland Browns. So, I think Drake got what he wanted. He got plenty of eyes on him to help him with every little thing that he needs to do to get better.”

Inheriting a player like Maye and an offense ranked No. 3 in ACC scoring, Lindsey joked the objective is simple: “Don’t screw things up.”

Lindsey runs a similar offense to what Longo did at North Carolina, using quick tempo and spread principles. Brown did not want to deviate away from that. After all, Maye threw for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns a year ago.

Where Brown is hoping the offense looks a little different is in the running game. North Carolina had a difficult time establishing the run with its backs a year ago. Maye did his part, ranking second in the nation in quarterback scramble yards with 561. But while elusiveness is one of Maye’s qualities, North Carolina does not want him running the ball nearly as much this season.

“Quarterbacks that are mobile, you kind of let them have to be who they are,” Lindsey said. “That’s how they’re successful. At the same time, I’m talking with him more about, ‘I don’t want you to leave your feet and dive here. I want you to go out of bounds here and understand the situation.’ He’s receptive to that. If we run the ball better, I think that will help.”

Maye is firmly on board with that plan, even if it means fewer passing yards.

“Running the ball, it just makes it so hard on the defense with our passing game and our guys on the outside,” Maye said. “It opens up play-action, it makes it easier for us especially in the red zone. The O-line wears ‘Run the dang ball’ shirts around. Running the ball is the key to winning the game. With our explosiveness in the pass game people overlook that, but you have to be able to do both.”

Things broke down for the Tar Heels in the final four games last season up front — where they simply could not run the ball consistently and did not adjust to the way defenses started to play them. With Maye throwing the ball all over the field, teams began blitzing far more to slow him down. In the final six games, teams blitzed 36% of the time, compared to 30% in the first eight games. North Carolina went from averaging 41.2 points per game in the first eight games to 24.7 points per game in the last six.

North Carolina ended up allowing 40 sacks, ranking No. 102 in the nation a year ago, but some of that was on Maye, too, and that was an emphasis during spring practice. “We told him, ‘Stay in the pocket, don’t drift into pressure,'” Brown said. “Because some of the sacks we got were us drifting into pressure.”

Roughly translated, this means there are many areas for Maye and the offense to improve coming off a record-breaking season.

Lindsey said he will give Maye more freedom than he had last season to make checks and calls at the line of scrimmage. The two have spent hours going over the best plays to run, what works best not only for Maye but for his teammates. During spring practice, Lindsey often called at 9 p.m. so they could go over everything that happened.

“I’ve leaned on Drake heavily for that,” Lindsey said. “You’ve got to have that belief from the coach and the player in what you’re doing. I say, ‘Talk to me about how you guys ran this play.’ And there’s some things I like and there’s some things that I didn’t. And I think Drake and I have done a nice job of kind of meeting in the middle on some of those things and meshing them together.”

Maye also said Lindsey coached him hard during practices, something he wanted. He was adamant he should not be coached any differently because of what he did last season.

“I think Coach Lindsey has done a nice job getting on me, same as the other guys,” Maye said. “At the end of the day, I’m still a 20-year-old kid back there. So it’s not like I’ve got all the answers. I try to be coachable. And I think he’s proven that he’s got a successful offense.”

Maye will be without his top two receivers from last season, Antoine Green and Josh Downs, both drafted by the NFL. But the Tar Heels brought in two transfers in Tez Walker and Nate McCollum, who both impressed during spring practice. The Tar Heels also return two tight ends to play a factor in the passing game in Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit.

There is no question things will look different for the Carolina offense. There is always risk with any coaching change or new hire — especially with a first-round prospect leading the way.

Maye tries not to think two steps ahead. He reminds everyone there still is an entire college season to play.

“I think the big thing this season, all that stuff, obviously you dream about and you wish and you hope for, but at the end of the day, if you don’t win games, you won’t be in any of those talks,” Maye said. “So I’m just going to do my best to stay working on my craft and not lose sight of what got me here and just keep doing the same things that I did last year when I was competing for the starting job.”

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Mays, Negro League tributes abound at Rickwood

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Mays, Negro League tributes abound at Rickwood

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As Ajay Stone strolled around historic Rickwood Field and gazed at tributes displayed in honor of Willie Mays and other Negro Leaguers, he clutched a cherished memory under his arm.

It was a picture from 2004 of Mays holding Stone’s then-10-month-old daughter, Haley, who was wearing San Francisco Giants gear. In Mays’ hand was a chunk of a chocolate chip cookie, which he was handing over for Haley to eat.

“Willie gave her that cookie,” Stone remembered. “She had no teeth. But we took the cookie and we kept it in her stroller for a year and a half. The great Willie Mays gave it to her, so it was special to us.”

Stone and his wife, Christina, traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to be in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday for a moment they deemed just as special.

It was hours before Rickwood Field hosted its first Major League Baseball game, with the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Giants, 6-5. The game, which MLB called “A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” was meant to honor the legacies of Mays and other Black baseball greats who left an enduring mark on the sport.

MLB planned a week of activities around Mays and the Negro Leagues, including an unveiling ceremony Wednesday of a Willie Mays mural in downtown Birmingham. Those tributes took on a more significant meaning Tuesday afternoon when Mays died at 93. As news of his death spread throughout Birmingham, celebrations of his life ramped up.

You could hear the celebration at Rickwood Field on Thursday even before arriving: the rapid thumping of a drum echoing from inside the ballpark, excited murmurs from fans skipping toward the music and frequent bursts of laughter.

Inside, there were reminders of history all around.

There were photos and artifacts of baseball Hall of Famers who played at the 114-year-old ballpark, including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. The original clubhouse of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, where Mays got his pro start in 1948, was open. A memorial of Mays was at the front, with bobbleheads, a signed glove and his Black Barons and San Francisco Giants jerseys on display.

Outside, fans stood in line to hold a baseball bat used by Mays in 1959. They took photos sitting inside an original bus from 1947 that was typically used during barnstorming tours by Negro Leagues teams. They danced to live music and ate food from concession stands featuring menu boards designed to reflect the look and feel of the 1940s.

Eddie Torres and his son Junior wore matching Giants jerseys as they took pictures inside the ballpark. They’re lifelong Giants fans who came from California for the game.

“I never even got to see Willie Mays play, but as a Giants fan, you knew what he meant to the game of baseball,” Torres said. “My son, he’s only 11. Willie Mays had such an effect on the game that even he knew who Willie Mays was.”

Musical artist Jon Batiste strummed a guitar while dancing on a wooden stage near home plate just before the first pitch. Fans stood as former Negro Leaguers were helped to the field for a pregame ceremony.

Shouts of “Willie! Willie!” broke out after a brief moment of silence.

For Michael Jackson, sitting in the stands at Rickwood Field reminded him of the past.

The 71-year-old Jackson played baseball in the 1970s and ’80s with the East Thomas Eagles of the Birmingham Industrial League, which was a semi-professional league made up of iron and steel workers that was an integral form of entertainment in Birmingham in the 20th century.

Jackson’s baseball journey took him to Rickwood Field many times. After all these years, he was just excited that it’s still standing.

“It’s nice seeing them redo all of this,” he said, “instead of tearing it down. We played in the same ballpark they named after Willie Mays out in Fairfield [Alabama]. And then I had my times out here playing at this ballpark. It’s all very exciting.”

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Judge returns with HR, Torres exits in Yanks loss

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Judge returns with HR, Torres exits in Yanks loss

Aaron Judge returned to the New York Yankees‘ lineup Thursday against the Baltimore Orioles and hit his major-league-leading 27th home run of the season.

Judge, playing two days after being hit on the left hand by a pitch, hit a 395-foot two-run homer to right center in the third inning off Orioles starter Cole Irvin. Judge added an RBI single in the fifth, but the Yankees were blown out 17-5 to drop the three-game series and see their lead over the Orioles in the American League East sliced to a half-game.

Judge started in center field and played seven innings before being lifted.

“It felt good,” Judge said. “There’s still some swelling, some soreness and stuff like that, especially on foul balls, but if you square it up, it feels pretty good.”

The Yankees also had second baseman Gleyber Torres exit in the fifth inning because of tightness in his right groin.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he didn’t believe Torres suffered “anything major.”

“It just started to tighten up on him, and I think just being cautious with it, kind of getting him out of there,” Boone said.

Torres committed his major-league-leading 11th error when he failed to field a grounder by Jordan Westburg in the top of the fifth. Ben Rice was on deck when his spot in the lineup came up in the bottom half. Oswaldo Cabrera moved over from third base to replace Torres, DJ LeMahieu shifted from first to third and Rice entered the game at first base.

A free agent at the end of the season, Torres has struggled this year. He hit his seventh homer in the second inning and is batting .221 with 28 RBIs.

Judge sat out Wednesday as the Yankees lost 7-6 in 10 innings.

He was struck by a 94.1 mph fastball from Baltimore starter Albert Suarez during New York’s 4-2 win Tuesday night. The slugger left the game an inning later. X-rays and a CT scan were negative, though Boone had said Judge had some swelling and discomfort.

“Playing a division rival, a must-win game to try to clinch the series,” Judge said. “So we got to be out there.”

Judge is batting .306 and also leads the majors with 67 RBIs. The 32-year-old outfielder is a five-time All-Star and was the 2022 AL MVP after hitting 62 home runs to break the AL record of 61 by Roger Maris set in 1961.

In 2018, Judge missed 45 games with a broken right wrist after he was hit by a 93.4 mph pitch from Kansas City‘s Jakob Junis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Orioles’ ‘incredible’ hitting drives rout of Yankees

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Orioles' 'incredible' hitting drives rout of Yankees

Cedric Mullins hit a two-run homer to spark a six-run second inning, Gunnar Henderson reached base four times, and the Baltimore Orioles knocked out rookie pitcher Luis Gil early in a 17-5 rout of the New York Yankees on Thursday.

On a 90-degree day, the Orioles improved to 5-2 against the Yankees and have now gone unbeaten in 22 straight series against American League East opponents, a major league record. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Orioles surpassed the mark set by the Atlanta Braves (1998-2000) and Cincinnati Reds (1975, 1969-1970).

The 17 runs also marked rare success for the Orioles against the Yankees. It was their second most in a road game against New York and tied for the third most overall, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They scored 18 in a nine-win run in the Bronx in June 1986.

“Really proud of how our guys went in this series. The way we came out and swung the bats today, that was incredible,” Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde said. “So many hard-hit balls there early, just really, really good at-bats.”

Baltimore also improved to 19-7 against the AL East this season and 51-27 since the start of last season.

“I don’t know what kind of statement we’re making,” Hyde said. “I know teams think we’re a good team, and our record shows it and the way we’ve been playing against our division and how we’ve been playing baseball in the last couple of years.”

Henderson doubled twice among his three hits to extend the majors’ longest active on-base streak to 27 games and his hitting streak to a career-high 13 games. He also added an RBI groundout in the sixth.

Ryan Mountcastle had a bases-clearing double and an RBI single in the ninth off New York catcher Jose Trevino. Anthony Santander hit a three-run homer for his MLB-best 10th home run this month as the Orioles moved to within a half-game of first-place New York.

Ryan O’Hearn added an RBI double and drove in four runs, while Austin Hays hit a two-run homer in the seventh as the Orioles collected 19 hits and scored their most runs since an 18-5 win at Cleveland on June 6, 2021.

“I’m really proud of our guys not buying into too much that comes from outside noise and things like that,” O’Hearn said.

Gleyber Torres hit a solo home run before exiting with a groin injury and Aaron Judge hit his major league-leading 27th homer by lining a two-run shot in the third off Baltimore starter Cole Irvin. Judge also had an RBI single in his return from a one-game absence after getting hit on the left hand in New York’s 4-2 win Tuesday.

But the Yankees lost back-to-back series for the first time this season.

“They’re about as formidable as there is, and the first couple of series, they’ve had their way with us,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “They’ve had the upper hand.”

Irvin allowed five runs and five hits in 4⅔ innings. Bryan Baker (1-0) relieved him and was credited with the win.

Gil allowed seven runs and eight hits in a career-low 1⅓ innings.

“They got after him today and didn’t miss some heaters in the center of the plate,” Boone said. “That’s been uncommon.”

Henderson opened the game with a double over right fielder Juan Soto‘s head and scored on O’Hearn’s two-strike single. Mullins blasted a slider into the right field seats for a 3-0 lead, and Mountcastle chopped a double past third baseman Oswaldo Cabrera down the left field line to make it 6-0.

After Torres and Judge connected, Santander went deep in the fifth off Tim Hill, who signed with the Yankees before the game.

Gil’s short outing ended New York’s streak of 76 straight starts of at least four innings to start the season. It was the seventh-longest streak in baseball and the longest in the American League since the Chicago White Sox did it in the first 89 games of 2006.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Orioles: OF Colton Cowser did not start after being plunked on the elbow pad Wednesday. … 3B Jordan Westburg went 2-for-5 after sitting out Wednesday because of left hip discomfort.

Yankees: OF Jasson Domínguez will miss at least eight weeks with a strained left oblique. He was injured on a check swing during a game for Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes/Barre on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Orioles: Grayson Rodriguez (8-2, 3.20 ERA) opposes RHP Jake Bloss in the opener of a three-game series at Houston.

Yankees: LHP Carlos Rodón (9-3, 3.28) faces Atlanta LHP Chris Sale (9-2, 2.98) in the opener of a three-game interleague series Friday in the Bronx.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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