Last year, UNC entered the season ranked in the top 10 with visions of a playoff berth and a Heisman campaign for their quarterback dancing in their heads.
Instead, the Tar Heels lost their opener, won back-to-back games just once and inspired coach Mack Brown to point out that the media overrated his team heading into the year. The Heels saw their defense implode and lost to South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, capping a 6-7 season that left pretty much everyone unhappy and saw their star quarterback leave for the NFL Draft.
So what are they going to do for an encore?
Carolina has taken steps to improve a defense that was deplorable, by any measure, last season. But now question marks are popping up on an offense that has sent a parade of players to the NFL in the last two seasons, leaving young, unproven talent behind.
It’s probably easiest to let Brown lay out the situation on offense.
“We have to shore up sacks,” he said. “We had too many tackles for loss. We’ve changed some things with our scheme. That should help our offensive linemen. We lost four offensive linemen. We lost a tailback. We lost some great receivers, but we’ve got a very, very talented but inexperienced team coming back, so that starts at quarterback.”
Sam Howell is gone, along with pretty much the entire UNC offensive record book. The spring and fall camps were devoted to sorting out who will replace him. The top candidates are Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell. Both saw limited time last season, with Criswell the primary backup to Howell.
At running back, British Brooks and D.J. Jones were not considered ready for prime time last season, when the Heels brought in grad transfer Ty Chandler. Now that Chandler’s eligibility is expired, the duo will start the season logging carries for the Heels.
The receiving corps is young but promising, although it took a hit when Antoine Green suffered an injury in fall camp that will keep him out six to 10 weeks.
The last time UNC’s defense was this bad, then-coach Larry Fedora brought in former national champion head coach Gene Chizik to serve as coordinator. Chizik made an immediate impact as the Heels improved on that side of the ball and won the Coastal Division.
Might as well see if that trick will work again.
After a brutal season by the Tar Heel defense, Brown placed a call to Chizik, who left after a few years with Fedora to spend more time with his family.
Chizik has several returning players to work with, including Storm Duck — who battled injury most of last year — and Tony Grimes at corner along with Cam’Ron Kelly and Giovanni Biggers at safety.
The secondary is the strength of the defense, although Cedric Gray will bring his 100 tackles back to linebacker, and a number of defensive linemen got playing time last season and will look to take a step forward, including Kaimon Rucker, Myles Murphy and Chris Collins.
The Tar Heels return punter Ben Kiernan for his senior season, with Cole Maynard as his backup. Kicker Grayson Atkins departs after two grad transfer years with the Heels. That means Jonathan Kim will inherit the job. Kim has been the kickoff specialist most of the last two seasons. He got a brief trial at placekicker as a freshman in 2019 but missed his only field goal attempt. Two other walk-ons are on the roster at kicker.
Drew Little is back for his senior season at long snapper, with two other options on the depth chart behind him.
Josh Downs returned all of UNC’s punts last season and averaged nearly 10 yards per return. Several Tar Heels took turns returning kicks, including Ja’Qurious Conley, Caleb Hood and the aforementioned Jones. No Tar Heel has returned a kick for a score since 2018, although UNC has been successful at blocking kicks under Brown.
UNC picked a good year to be young. Yes, the Tar Heels will be breaking in a new quarterback, but so will most of the Coastal Division. Yes, Carolina is making a change at coordinator, but four divisional opponents have new head coaches.
The Heels have their toughest games at home and, other than a trip to App State that could be a trap, have a manageable nonconference slate.
Brown has vowed to find a cure for the penalty problem that plagued the Tar Heels last season, and Chizik should bring discipline and order to that side of the ball as he did seven years ago. There will be some growing pains on offense, but the step back on that side of the ball should be offset by an improvement on D.