Orange Bowl performance gives UNC plenty to build on

The Tar Heels found their next generation of stars after four players opt out

Freshman Josh Downs, who had two touchdown receptions in the Orange Bowl, could be the Tar Heels’ next big-play receiver. (Lynne Sladky / AP Photo)

MIAMI — Leading up to North Carolina’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl, the focus was on the star players who wouldn’t be there. Coming out of the 41-27 loss to Texas A&M in the biggest Tar Heel football game in 70 years, the focus is on who remains.

Four of UNC’s best players from the 2020 team chose to opt out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft: wide receiver Dyami Brown, running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and linebacker Chazz Surratt.

They combined for 2,400 rushing yards, 1,600 receiving yards, 41 touchdowns, 91 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss this year and left large holes in the Tar Heel offense and defense. Carolina was given little to no chance to compete with No. 5 Texas A&M without the four opt-outs, but the Heels took a fourth-quarter lead in a back-and-forth game before fading late.

“We don’t talk a lot about what we didn’t play with tonight,” coach Mack Brown said, “but we lost 4,000 yards coming into the game and still had a chance against the No. 5 team to win. This is going to be a special team.”

The absences opened up opportunities for young players on the team, however, and they got to show their stuff on the biggest stage Carolina football has seen since 1950. While the result of the game wasn’t a positive, the young Tar Heels give UNC hope for the future.

Josh Downs up to the task at receiver

The freshman wide receiver had the tough job of filling in for Dyami Brown, who became the first Tar Heel to top 1,000 receiving yards in back-to-back years. Downs entered the game with just three catches in nine games this season. He topped that against the Aggies, catching four balls for 91 yards and two touchdowns, both of which gave UNC the lead. Even more promising than his stat line was his ability to get behind the A&M defense for a 75-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

“Josh Downs is a young guy that had a heck of a game out there today,” said quarterback Sam Howell, who may have found his next deep threat. “Josh is a heck of a player. I’ve known Josh for a long time now. I knew he was going to be a great player for us. Honestly, I kind of expected him to get a little more touches than he did this year, but it’s kind of hard when Dazz Newsome is in front of him. We know how special he is. We know how special he’s going to be, so I’m definitely excited to work with him this offseason and for him to be one of the main guys next year.”

Newsome, who starred in his final college game, was also impressed by Downs.

“He’s a player similar to me,” he said. “He’s very good with the ball in his hands. He’s very quick, fast, twitchy, gets in and out of coverage real fast. He’s definitely a good player.” 

Eugene Asante stakes claim to be man in the middle

Surratt’s spot in the middle of the defense was filled by a player that the Tar Heels have tried to get on the field for two years.

“(Co-defensive coordinator) Tommy (Thigpen) and I would talk, ‘We should put Eugene in for this,’ but to pull Chazz out was really hard,” said co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. “Eugene can really run. He’s really athletic. A lot of things Chazz does for us in coverage and in being the extra run defender, Eugene will do a good job with. … Everybody on our defense is extremely confident in Eugene. I couldn’t be more excited to watch him play. He’s going to make a bunch of plays and make a bunch of tackles.”

Asante missed a few tackles in the bowl game, but he led the team with 10 tackles and seven solo stops.

“You start looking at Eugene Asante,” Mack Brown said. “I thought he did a good job tonight. Did he mess some things up? Of course he did because he hasn’t played, but he showed that he’s got a chance to be a really good player.”

A new one-two punch at running back?

British Brooks and Josh Henderson got the chance to run the ball, gaining 68 yards in the game which, while not the other-worldly numbers of their predecessors, wasn’t the disaster many envisioned.

“They ran as hard as they could, and they’re going to get so much better in the offseason,” Howell said. “I’m excited for next year.”

With four potential stars in the making joining Howell and the rest of the returning Heels, there’s plenty of reason for excitement.