Three weeks into the season, it’s time to evaluate the state’s football coaches

Four of N.C.’s seven FBS schools have new coaches, and the other three have had varying results early in 2019

Coach Dave Clawson and Wake Forest are 3-0 after beating in-state rival North Carolina last weekend. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

Most schools these days organize their academic calendars into three semesters. But when it comes to the 12-game college football regular season, it’s more convenient to evaluate progress using the old quarter system.

Believe it or not, with three games already in the books for most teams, the first quarter of that season has already come and gone.

While there’s still a long way to go before the final report cards are issued, here’s a look at the early progress reports for the state’s seven FBS coaches and what they need to do to improve (or in some cases maintain) their grades.

Mack Brown, UNC — A

Yes, the Tar Heels came back down to earth last Friday with a 28-24 loss at Wake Forest. But that notwithstanding, UNC is in much better shape at 2-1 after three weeks — with wins against South Carolina and ACC — than anyone ever imagined. Including, perhaps, Brown himself.

The 68-year-old Hall of Famer has brought an optimistic new outlook to a program that had stagnated during the final two seasons of former coach Larry Fedora’s tenure. Not only has it energized the team’s fan base, but it has sparked a confidence that has already produced tangible results. Both of the wins have come on the strength of fourth quarter comebacks.

Dave Clawson, Wake Forest — A

It’s hard to find fault with a coach whose team has gotten off to a 3-0 start. To this point, Clawson has pushed all the right buttons, starting with his decision to install junior Jamie Newman as his quarterback rather than equally experienced Sam Hartman. Newman has proven to be a clutch leader and a dual-threat athlete who has led his offense to an average of 34.3 points per game.

Clawson’s recruiting over the past few seasons has also built a depth that has helped the Deacons overcome several early injuries — most notably to 1,000-yard rusher Cade Carney — without suffering any significant drop-off in production. Although Wake still has some issues defensively, it’s still vastly improved from the first half of last season, when Clawson shuffled his staff and turned the unit over to current coordinator Lyle Hemphill.

Eliah Drinkwitz, Appalachian State — A

Unlike the two other first-year coaches in the state this year, Drinkwitz walked into an advantageous situation by taking over a program that has won nine or more games and at least a share of the Sun Belt Conference title in each of the past three seasons. His grade is based primarily on the fact that he’s been smart enough not to come in and make sweeping changes to a team that returns its conference Player of the Year quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher, it’s top two receivers and a major portion of its defense.

To this point, everything has gone according to plan for the Mountaineers with wins over two mismatched nonconference teams. They’ll get a better idea of how good they really are, and how good a job Drinkwitz is doing, after this week’s game at North Carolina.

Mike Houston, ECU — B

The Pirates might only be 1-2 with lopsided losses to the only two FBS opponents they’ve faced thus far. But Houston has already managed to accomplish something with this team in his first year at ECU that his predecessor Scottie Montgomery couldn’t do in each of the past two seasons — beat an FCS opponent, and soundly.

It might only be a baby step since the only way Houston is going to truly change the culture of his program is through recruiting, but at least the 48-9 home opening win against Gardner-Webb in Week 2 is potentially a first step back in the right direction.

Will Healy, Charlotte — B

Like Houston, Healy inherited a program needing to upgrade its level of talent and depth. But unlike ECU, the process at Charlotte had already begun by the time the new coach arrived from Austin Peay. The 49ers won five games and nearly earned bowl eligibility a year ago in Brad Lambert’s final season.

While the team will undoubtedly take a major step back this week when it becomes a sacrificial lamb to defending national champion Clemson, Charlotte has shown an ability to put up big offensive numbers that will help it be competitive once it returns to the safety of Conference USA competition.

Dave Doeren, NC State — C

After beating up on two overmatched opponents to start the year, the Wolfpack got a major reality check last week at West Virginia in a game that, if you read between the lines, Doeren admitted that his team wasn’t fully prepared.

“We adjusted as we went and didn’t do a good job of getting the players to understand the adjustments,” he said afterward. Doeren also said that he and his staff gave first-year starting quarterback Matthew McKay too much responsibility by calling run-pass options in key situations and not doing a good enough job of getting his young players ready to play their first game on the road against Power 5 competition.

Doeren called the loss a learning experience for those players. Presumably, it was one for the coaching staff as well.

David Cutcliffe — Incomplete

It’s really hard to get a handle on how good a job Cutcliffe and his staff are doing to this point. The Blue Devils got beaten soundly in their season opener against national championship contender Alabama, as expected, then turned around and delivered equally sound beatings on FCS foe NC A&T and mid-major Middle Tennessee, also as expected.

We’ll be able to better evaluate just how well Cutcliffe is bringing his team along after this week’s bye when it begins a stretch of four straight ACC Coastal games and a date against Notre Dame in early November.