Plenty of work ahead for Tar Heels in offseason

UNC is moving on from Sam Howell and needs to rebuild its defense

UNC coach Mack Brown stands on the sidelines during the Tar Heels' 38-21 loss to South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl on Dec. 30 in Charlotte. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

For the first time since 1997, Mack Brown will need to face the prospect of coaching a North Carolina team without Sam Howell as starting quarterback.

When Brown returned to Chapel Hill following the 2018 season, one of his first moves as head coach was flipping Howell from his commitment to Florida State. Since then, the pair have been inseparably linked as Howell rewrote the North Carolina record book in his three years as Brown’s starting quarterback.

Brown and Howell both entered the 2021 season with high hopes. The Tar Heels were ranked in the top 10, and Howell was a short-list Heisman contender. Instead, both player and team underperformed early, losing to Virginia Tech in the opener and never fully recovering. Carolina finished a disappointing 6-7, and Howell’s numbers — while good —were a step down from previous years, and he never took the expected next step toward one of the top players in the nation.

Now, the Hall of Fame coach and the promising passer will see their paths diverge. Howell announced his plans to depart for the NFL Draft, leaving Brown looking to rebuild in Chapel Hill, a job that could be more challenging than three years ago without a Sam Howell to plug in at quarterback.

The biggest question facing Carolina is who replaces Howell?

Jacolby Criswell was usually the first quarterback off the bench over the last two seasons, and he got the start against Wofford in a game Howell missed due to injury this season. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 125 yards and a rushing touchdown in that start.

Drake Maye, however, is expected to be UNC’s quarterback of the future. Brown flipped him from an Alabama commitment, and Maye got into a handful of games as a freshman this season, including throwing a touchdown in a 7-of-9, 89-yard effort against Wofford that may have stolen the show from Criswell.

The two will likely battle it out in spring and preseason, with Maye the odds-on favorite to win the job. It’s possible, however, that Brown will hedge his bets and bring in a transfer to help ease the transition from Howell to the next generation.

Whoever is throwing the ball for the Tar Heels will need to do so behind a rebuilt line.

Joshua Ezeudu and Marcus McKethan both announced they were leaving early for the NFL Draft, opening a pair of sizable holes on the line. The Tar Heels can fill one of them with Miami transfer Corey Gaynor.

UNC also needs to replace running back Ty Chandler, who produced a 1,000-yard season in his one year in Chapel Hill. Two members of UNC’s top 10-rated signing class from last month will likely get the first shot at replacing him — Clayton’s Omarion Hampton and Virginia’s George Pettaway. Five-star Zach Rice could also help fill the void on the line.

While the offense has plenty of areas of concern, it’s the Tar Heels defense that appears to be the more daunting rebuild by far. Carolina appeared to get worse on that side of the ball as the year went on, giving up 39 points to Virginia, 45 in a loss at Georgia Tech, and a four-week stretch where UNC gave up 35 in a loss to Florida State, 42 to Miami, 44 in a loss at Notre Dame and 55 to Wake Forest.

Carolina closed the season giving up 301 rushing yards to a South Carolina team whose top running back opted out of the bowl game.

All the struggles led to cries for coordinator Jay Bateman’s job, but, as we close in on a week into the offseason, Bateman doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. That’s likely in large part due to his success as a recruiter, particularly in the last two signing classes.

Bateman’s recruiting skills could help improve him as a coordinator next season, with several standouts from the last two classes ready to step in. Defensive lineman Travis Shaw could play as a true freshman. He’ll join Rara Dillworth, a linebacker who played 12 games as a true freshman this year. Fellow four stars from last year’s class include defensive back Dontavius Nash, who played in four games, and lineman Keeshawn Silver, who played in three.

The defense also added a transfer in Virginia linebacker Noah Taylor. In four years with the Cavaliers, Taylor had 30 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and the longest pick-six by a UVA linebacker in team history.

The Tar Heels have plenty of talent on hand for the 2022 season. Things didn’t jell for the team this past season, but Brown will have plenty of pieces to try to get the team back to the level they expected to reach this year.