Behind Drake Maye's surprising Heisman campaign

Drake Maye shines with 5 TDs in UNC's win vs. Pitt (1:53)

Freshman QB Drake Maye leads North Carolina to a 42-24 victory over Pittsburgh. (1:53)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- If genetics had been a bit more kind to him, Drake Maye might still be playing basketball but, "I was the runt of the family," he said.

His brothers, Luke and Cole, had a few years on him, and Beau, though only older by a year-and-a-half, grew quickly, while Drake lagged behind. On long car rides, Drake got the seat in the way-back, since he needed less leg room. When the Maye brothers played 2-on-2 in the driveway, Drake was the last one picked, and whichever brother drew the short straw whined about being stuck with the kid. When games got physical, which they often did, Drake would complain routinely that he'd been fouled -- his older, bigger brothers taking advantage of his smaller stature to push him around.

"I looked adopted," Drake said. "They all had beards."

That driveway basketball court was a proving ground for all four brothers, and in Drake's case, his size -- or lack of it -- ultimately proved valuable.

For one, he developed a healthy swagger. If he couldn't always beat his brothers, he could at least talk smack.

Luke figures he's played his youngest brother one-on-one in basketball maybe two dozen times in front of their house. Drake's won once, 11-9.

"He always says he's better than me," said Luke, who helped North Carolina to a national championship in 2017. "Which I think is pretty funny."

But because he didn't have the size to match up with his older brothers, Drake refined a different skill set. He learned to play smart. He was quick, with great court vision.

"He was always way faster, always more agile," said Beau, now Drake's roommate at UNC. "He's probably the best athlete in the family."

As fate would have it, those skills and that swagger were perfectly suited to playing quarterback, too.

Now a redshirt freshman at North Carolina, Maye looks a lot more like his brothers, a stout 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, but he still has all that agility. He sees the field and makes decisive throws. And he oozes confidence with every snap.

At a place like North Carolina -- a school even Mack Brown couldn't quite get over the hump at the apex of his 1990s success -- it hasn't always been easy to match confidence with results. The Tar Heels have had good seasons when no one expected it, and they've stumbled when the spotlight's been the brightest.

With Maye at QB this year, however, UNC seems to have found its sweet spot. The Tar Heels (8-1) are ranked 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings and are all but assured of a spot in the ACC championship game. Maye, meanwhile, has been a revelation, leading the country with 31 touchdown passes and topping Pro Football Focus' QB rankings and engineering a surprisingly serious Heisman Trophy campaign.

It's a path that began on that driveway court, with the runt of the Maye clan learning that losing simply wasn't an option.

"You're walking toward a door, and he'll race you there," offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. "He's just not used to doing something you don't have to win at."

MARK MAYE REMEMBERS chauffeuring Luke and a few of his AAU teammates to a tournament. Drake tagged along. He was maybe 8 or 9 years old.

The kids are talking about basketball, Drake suddenly chimed in.

"Where have you guys been offered?" he asked.

The boys rattled off a few names -- smaller schools Drake knew nothing about. He looked at his dad and shook his head.

"I know one thing," he told the car full of high schoolers. "Y'all better up your games."

Nearly a decade later, when his own recruitment was in full swing, Drake had no intentions of playing ball anywhere he didn't think he could win big, which made UNC an unlikely fit.

Mark was a two-year starter at quarterback for North Carolina, and he returned to the school in 1991, where he served as a graduate assistant under Mack Brown during Brown's first tenure with the Tar Heels.

Luke's shot to beat Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA tournament is one of the most indelible moments in Tar Heels basketball lore. Drake was in the stands for that game, and Luke remembers finding his youngest brother reenacting the shot afterward, promising to follow the team to Phoenix for the Final Four.

But in 2017 and 2018 -- Drake's freshman and sophomore years of high school -- the Tar Heels' football team was a mess. Under former coach Larry Fedora, the Heels won a total of five games over those two seasons.

More importantly, Drake had an offer from Nick Saban.

"I grew up going to games at Kenan [Stadium], going to the Dean Dome. I was a ball boy at a Duke-Carolina game," Drake said. "But Alabama, early in my [high school] career, seemed like something I couldn't pass up."

Drake remembers calling Brown to let him know he was committing to Alabama. Brown was "not too happy," Drake said. But Drake couldn't ignore the competitiveness that burned inside him.

"I want to win," Drake told Brown, "and I just don't see it [at North Carolina]."

"Well," Brown replied, "you're going to see it."

In that 2019 season, Sam Howell started at QB as a true freshman and the Tar Heels won seven games. The next season, Howell led UNC to the Orange Bowl. Brown kept pushing, and slowly, he found a pitch that Drake couldn't ignore.

"This is your state," Brown told Drake. "This is your family's place."

Two years later, Maye's passion for UNC got him into a bit of hot water. It was easily the worst moment of his 2021 season, and it came on a Tuesday. In a news conference, he was asked about his decision to come to UNC.

"Whether you want to admit it or not, growing up in Carolina, you're gonna be a Carolina fan," Maye said. "Some people may say State, but really people who go to State just can't get into Carolina."

This was not new material. In the Maye household, NC State jokes routinely made their way into casual conversation. But folks got mad, and Brown wasn't too thrilled about the bulletin-board material, so Drake had to issue an apology.

A day later, Maye bumped into his head coach on the elevator. He apologized again.

"I was just having fun," Maye told Brown, "but I know you have different responsibilities than I do."

Brown just nodded. How could he be mad? It's that love of Carolina blue that finally lured Drake away from Alabama and has the Tar Heels at 8-1 and poised for a shot at an ACC championship.

BROWN GETS ASKED a lot to compare Maye to the other QBs he's coached in his career, and he's given it some serious thought.

Vince Young, who finished runner-up for the 2005 Heisman, had this big personality, beloved in the locker room, and Drake has a lot of that, too.

Colt McCoy, twice a Heisman finalist in 2008 and 2009, was maybe the most accurate passer Brown ever saw ... until Drake made a push for that crown this season.

Howell put UNC on his back last season and carried the team to a bowl game nearly single-handedly, and Brown said few players he's coached were as competitive. Maye has that same burning intensity, and he even talks to Howell on a weekly basis to share tips and talk shop.

Truth is, there's no one thing that makes Maye special. He's the total package -- still raw and unrefined at times, but it's all there.

Longo was rewatching film of North Carolina's win over Pitt a few weeks ago. The Panthers spent much of the game playing two high safeties, but there were 17 plays when Pitt brought pressure, and that's when Maye had a chance to create a big play down the field.

"That's the chess match," Longo said. "And of those 17 chess plays, Drake won 16 of them."

This is the real magic of Maye's season, Longo said. Over the course of a game, UNC might run 80 plays, and on nearly every one of them, Maye will make the right decision.

"That's so hard to do," Longo said. "It's just human nature that you get bored, you lose focus, you get fatigued."

But not Maye. He's made his mark by being relentlessly consistent.

As a junior at Myers Park High, Maye threw 50 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

"Sometimes you can make the numbers tell a story that's not really true," said Maye's high school coach, Scott Chadwick. "But he threw two interceptions and we had just two other passes broken up. So he threw like 350 passes that year, and a defender touched four of them. If ever the numbers told a story, that's it."

Chadwick took Maye to a handful of 7-on-7 camps that summer. He figures Maye played in 30 games. He didn't throw a single INT.

Brown isn't exactly a devotee of analytics, but he understands the math and believes there's value in the philosophy. But he's been around long enough to also know the numbers only add up if you have the players who can turn a fourth-down play call into a work of art.

In Maye, Brown has a fourth-down Picasso.

This season, UNC has gone for it on fourth down 21 times and converted 16, the sixth-best rate in the country. Maye's numbers on those plays are downright magical. He's completed 8 of 10 passes for 132 yards and four touchdowns and converted five more fourth downs with his legs. On drives with a fourth-down conversion, UNC has scored 91 points. That's a season-altering tally for a team that's won five games by a touchdown or less.

"He's confident in it," Brown said. "He nearly lights up when he does it."

Maye's numbers when UNC is tied or trailing in the second half this season: 72% completions, seven touchdowns, no picks, 11.6 yards-per-pass with 19 rushes for 129 yards. No QB in the country has more second-half come-from-behind wins this season than Maye.

Maye has worked miracles -- not because of some unique talent, he said, but because, for him, every snap is a competition. The stakes are always high.

"He's a very humble kid but he has a tremendous amount of confidence and pride in what he does," Chadwick said.

The funny thing is Maye said he still gets nervous before every game. He can remember playing winless teams in high school, and in the locker room before charging out onto the field, the butterflies were there. His dad texts him before games now, Maye said, and reminds him to channel that energy into something positive.

"Don't downplay it, but realize that you're just out here having fun," Maye said. "I think it's good to have nerves. It says what you're doing means something."

IT'S A TUESDAY MORNING in early November and Maye is ostensibly talking about his suddenly realistic Heisman campaign, only it's not a subject he's entirely comfortable with, so instead, he shifts his focus like he's running through progressions to find an open receiver, until he lands on a topic he likes.

"The defense, in ACC play, it's been stout," he said. "They're allowing, what, 23.5 points per game?"

At this, he turns and looks for confirmation from UNC's sports information director. It's actually 23.25 points per game, but close enough.

"All those guys care about is winning," Maye said. "With Coach [Gene] Chizik coming in, they're just finding their groove. Me, I'm just distributing the ball."

To recap, Maye is distributing the ball to the tune of 31 touchdown passes, nearly 3,000 yards and completing passes at a 71% clip.

The defense, meanwhile, has hovered somewhere between mediocrity and repugnance for much of the season, thus making the success of nearly every one of Maye's throws feel entirely essential to winning football games.

So why is Maye so eager to talk up his defense rather than his own ever-expanding highlight tape?

It's not that he's against a little self-promotion. After he tossed two touchdowns in a win over Miami on Oct. 8 in just his sixth start, he made a point of noting in a family group chat that he had already racked up more TD passes (21) than his dad did in his entire UNC career (20).

And it's not that Drake isn't a believer in his own Heisman candidacy. People keep asking if he's surprised by all his success this season. Surprised? Heck no. When he was named QB1 in August, he saw the talent on the roster around him, considered his own ability and figured a Heisman campaign was entirely within reason.

It's just that, as nice as a Heisman might look in the Maye family trophy case, it probably wouldn't make the top shelf.

Cole won a national championship as a pitcher at Florida.

Luke won one in basketball at North Carolina.

Beau is on the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels basketball team now, and he's got a good shot at winning his own title.

"All of them could have [a national championship] and hold that over my head," Drake said.

That's the driving force for Drake right now. The Heisman would be cool, and his talent might get him to that stage in New York. But to get where he really wants to go, to where two of his brothers have already been, he can't go alone. So he's hyping the defense and his receivers and the young backfield and the improving O-line and a coaching staff that believes in him because, while he may be center stage, Drake wants to be clear: This is not just his show.

"We've got talent here," Drake said. "We're on the rise, and we're showing it."