This story was written in the spring of 2016, before Hollins’ senior season at Carolina.
By Zach Goins
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Early in the second half of the Russell Athletic Bowl, UNC-Chapel Hill wide receiver Mack Hollins was ejected for targeting. After Tar Heel quarterback Marquise Williams completed a pass to wide receiver Ryan Switzer, Hollins peeled back looking for an opponent to block. Hollins launched himself into a defenseless player, resulting in the penalty and his immediate ejection.
“I knew I was going to get ejected as soon as they called the flag,” Hollins said. “It wasn’t a malicious hit. It’s not like I ran back and just completely de-cleated him. The guy got back up as if nothing happened. He didn’t even realize a flag was called.”
As a part of his punishment, Hollins will also sit out the first half of the Tar Heels’ 2016 season opener against the University of Georgia in September. Hollins said he wasn’t happy about the penalty carrying over into next season, but that he was trying to find the silver lining.
“I’ll come out, have fresh legs, haven’t played any special teams, haven’t played any receiver,” Hollins said. “If my speed was a problem before, it’ll definitely be a problem after everybody else is worn down. I’ll just have to do everything in a condensed amount of time and try to do as much as I can in a half.”
For Hollins, now entering his senior season, this isn’t the first time he’s faced adversity in his football career. The former walk-on wasn’t recruited out of high school, and he struggled to afford out-of-state tuition before he earned a scholarship at UNC-CH.
A native of Rockville, Maryland, Hollins graduated from Wootton High School in June 2011, but he didn’t have any opportunities to continue playing football in college. Instead of giving up on his dream, Hollins decided to attend Fork Union Military Academy, a boarding school in Virginia with a post-graduate program many athletes use to improve their chances of meeting the standards of Division I programs.
“I knew I had the ability and I didn’t want to just waste it,” Hollins said. “I didn’t want to just say, ‘Whatever, I had a good run, but it’s not worth it anymore,’ and just give up.”
Hollins played one season at Fork Union but left the school in December 2011 after accepting a walk-on position with the Tar Heels. However, that didn’t guarantee Hollins would spend the next four years in Chapel Hill. The walk-on gave himself an ultimatum.
“My mindset was if I don’t have a scholarship within two years, then I can’t continue to have my parents pay close to $50,000 a year, especially with my brother, who was at Stanford at the time,” Hollins said. “I guess it drove me even more to want to get on scholarship, and it ended up working out, luckily.”
Coming in as a walk-on, Hollins knew he would be at a disadvantage when it came to getting repetitions in practice, but that wasn’t up to him. Instead, Hollins decided to focus on something he could control: conditioning.
Hollins knew he needed to be in the best shape of his life before joining the team in the summer, and he took that as a challenge.
“I was running all the time,” Hollins said. “I got the workout packet from (strength and conditioning coach) Lou (Hernandez), but I’d always do one-and-a-half times whatever the workout was. So, if it was 10 100’s (yard sprints), I’d do 15. When I was training, I would slowly decrease the time of break in between reps until I did it without any breaks, and I’d just run the whole thing back and forth.”
Hollins’ training paid off once he arrived on campus; some of his teammates worried he’d trained too hard and might make them look bad.
“I was really nervous thinking it was going to be extremely hard, but when I ended up coming in, I remember the very first 100, the other guys were like, ‘Yo, you got to slow down. What are you doing?’” Hollins said. “I didn’t understand it, because I wasn’t tired at all.”
Since then, Hollins’ teammates have grown to admire his intensity.
“Mack’s a special guy,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “The way he pushes himself and his body, I’ve never seen someone in as good of shape as Mack. It’s all mind over matter with him.”
Trubisky isn’t the only player to appreciate Hollins’ work ethic. Switzer uses Hollins to help hold himself accountable.
“He’s notorious for working hard,” Switzer said. “It’s kind of what he’s built on. Coming in as a walk-on, you’ve definitely got to put more work in than other people. He’s been someone that, since I’ve come on campus, has matched my intensity. He’s someone that’s always down to work, no matter what time of day it is.”
Although Hollins’ endurance might have gotten the coaching staff’s attention, it would take a lot more than conditioning to earn a scholarship. Unfortunately, after a successful summer of making a name for himself, Hollins broke his ankle two days before fall training camp was set to begin.
Hollins, a safety at the time, was sidelined for more than two months and didn’t return to practice until the sixth week of the regular season, only to find out his position had been switched to wide receiver. Due to several injuries, the scout team needed wide receivers, and Hollins, an athletic walk-on, was the perfect candidate.
In his first week back from injury, Hollins immediately turned heads at his new position. The wide receiver remembers a specific catch he made during practice that proved his new position was exactly where he needed to be.
“On Thursdays, you’re not supposed to go hard, but this was my first week back, so I had no idea that was a thing,” Hollins said. “There was a jump ball, and I jumped over two DBs and caught it. The defensive coaches were pissed, yelling at me and telling me I’d never get on the field if I did something like that again.”
The defensive staff might not have been happy about the acrobatic grab, but an offensive assistant saw the catch and assured wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer that Hollins belonged on offense.
Although Hollins was settling in at his new position, he still faced challenges on a daily basis as a walk-on. Before an NCAA rule change in 2014, walk-ons were not provided with meals like their scholarship teammates.
“Meals were always one of the biggest things, because at the time, we couldn’t get fed,” Hollins said. “Everybody comes out of the same practice, everybody put in the same amount of work, you shower, come up to the cafeteria, and everybody’s eating except the walk-ons, unless you want to pay $15 for a meal.”
Hollins also struggled to get an equal number of repetitions in practice, as well as fair treatment from the coaching staff.
“To me, scholarship players are kind of babied now,” Hollins said. “If a scholarship player drops 10 balls, it’s the same as a walk-on dropping one. You get so few opportunities, but dropping a ball is dropping a ball. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jerry Rice or some dude that’s never played the game before.”
Determined to get on the field, but without the opportunity to prove himself at wide receiver, Hollins turned his attention to special teams. In 2013, Hollins earned a starting spot on the kickoff cover and punt return teams after impressing coaches as a scout during fall training camp.
“There’s no gray area on special teams. It’s black and white,” Hollins said. “It’s just one play. You either did your job or you didn’t. You either blocked your man or you didn’t.”
Hollins made his debut on the opening kickoff in the 2013 season opener at the University of South Carolina.
“I had, like, no skill at kickoff,” Hollins said. “I would just kind of run down and see what happens. So, the off returner came, and I just destroyed him. I think he got knocked out, because he got up all hazy.”
The next week Hollins was starting on the punt cover team. The week after that, he was starting on kickoff return.
After the season, Hollins was voted captain of the special teams unit by his teammates, but was still struggling to afford the out-of-state costs.
Then in 2014, just before summer school was set to begin, and Hollins’ self-imposed ultimatum was about to run out, the walk-on earned his way.
Hollins took his scholarship and never looked back, leading the team in receiving yards and touchdowns his sophomore and junior seasons. However, he hasn’t forgotten where he got his start.
“One thing I was big on if I ever got on scholarship was to always look out for the walk-ons,” Hollins said. “I’ll always care about walk-ons more than scholarship players, because scholarship players, in my mind, have it made.”
Hollins will graduate in May 2016, but will return to the university in the fall to begin work on his master’s in sports administration, and of course, play his senior season.
The wide receiver is poised for another breakout season, and hopes his success will carry him to a career in the NFL, but if not, he has a few backup plans.
“Obviously sports are something that I’ve known my whole life,” Hollins said. “I’m also into my animals, my snakes and stuff like that. I like to take stuff apart. Every once in awhile I’ll just take apart my computer, see what’s inside, then put it back together. I guess I’ll have to figure that out within the next couple of years. It’s getting closer and closer every day.”
After breaking his collarbone during the Tar Heels’ week seven game at Miami, Hollins recovered and was drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 118th pick.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.