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Summer Preview Series: Q&A on UNC Football

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

With summer in full swing we are taking a look at where Clemson’s P5 opponents stand for the 2019 season. Over the summer we’ll be conducting Q&As with the SB Nation sites for opposing teams as well as providing our own scouting report. We continue with the Tigers’ Week 4 opponent: the North Carolina Tar Heels. Akil Guruparan of The Tar Heel Blog was kind enough to join us to share about the Tar Heels and the new Mack Brown regime. You can give him a follow here (especially recommended for our Tiger fans who (upsettingly) are also Panther fans).

STS: What has been the reaction to Scott Satterfield from App State and UNC opting for Mack Brown to succeed Larry Fedora as UNC’s head coach?

THB: Satterfield was certainly a popular pick for UNC’s next head coach. App State under his regime was a beloved underdog team in the area for being perennial Sun Belt champs, the win over Michigan might never be forgotten in the state of North Carolina, and he was probably very open to taking the gig. It wasn’t a move that would have been without risk, though. The man UNC fired, Larry Fedora, similarly came from a high-achieving G5 school, and while he put together some good seasons early on, his offensive system and philosophy quickly grew stale at the ACC level. With his buyout as big as it was, UNC needed a known (and known to win) quantity at the P5 level, and for UNC fans (especially those of an older demographic, where most donors come from), there wasn’t a quantity on the market more known than Mack Brown.

It was an uninspiring hire among most of the fanbase at the time, as hiring a near-70-year-old man who hadn’t coached football in 5 years felt like a move purely meant to bring about nostalgia donations from wealthier alumni without regard for the on-field product, but since taking the job, he’s made sure to surround himself with youth and innovation at the assistant positions (Phil Longo at OC and Jay Bateman at DC have been universally lauded as great hires), alleviating the concerns that he was too old for the modern game. We haven’t seen the team in action yet, but right now the general sentiment in the fanbase is one of cautious optimism.

STS: Mack Brown has done a great job taking the recruiting up to the level it needs to be. Stealing QB Sam Howell from FSU was huge and now securing the the commitment of DE Myles Murphy is a big win. That’ll pay long-term dividends obviously, but what does he need to correct on the field in 2019 to up the Heels win total?

THB: I think there are two primary culprits that Mack and staff need to have identified: quarterback play and big-play defense. The first is probably pretty self-explanatory. Nathan Elliott, through what can only be described as evaluatory blindness on the part of Fedora, started the first 3 games of the season, showed that he just couldn’t handle playing quarterback at the Power 5 level, and then, through a rash of injuries at the position, proceeded to play the majority of the season anyways. UNC had solid offensive personnel, but because Elliott just couldn’t reliably complete a pass beyond the line of scrimmage, it was all for nothing. Without a downfield threat, UNC’s run game was bottled up, screens were ineffective, and... well.. we got a two-win season out of it.

We got a glimpse of what a competent arm could do with UNC’s roster against Georgia Tech, when freshman Jace Ruder immediately marched his previously anemic team down the field before taking a hard hit on an option run that took him out for the season, and then again against an NC State team that ended the season on the fringe of being ranked, when Cade Fortin outplayed NFL Draft pick Ryan Finley en route to an overtime loss that would’ve been a win except for the part where Fortin’s receivers kept dropping dimes, presumably because they weren’t used to passes coming at them from an actual quarterback. The quarterback situation looks a lot better on paper this year, with Fortin, Ruder, and Sam Howell competing for the job and all of them showing real promise. As long as they can get the ball downfield when necessary, the whole offense should open up.

As for the second culprit, UNC has for the past couple of years been susceptible to breaking at the back end, allowing teams to get easy, yet morale-busting scores that a competent offense would’ve had trouble recovering, let alone the anemic product the Heels have put out since Mitch Trubisky left for the NFL. We have good defensive backs, but an inconsistent pass rush that tends to fade at the worst times has neutralized them and allowed teams to torch the Heels down the field. Jay Bateman is known for his turnover-hunting, go-big-or-go-home style of defense, but he will have to imbue that with consistency from all his players and discipline on big downs so that UNC doesn’t get gashed and the offense is given a chance to keep up with or pull away from its opposition.

STS: In our previous offseason article on UNC, we talked about running back being a position of strength, especially with Michael Carter. Do you agree? What type of threats do you have in your backfield?

THB: I think it’s safe to say that running back is the best position group on the UNC roster when you consider talent and experience. Antonio Williams, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams all averaged better than 5 YPC last year, and that was with defenses that didn’t respect the pass (that Fedora didn’t lean on them more and ended up with more passes per game than rushes is probably a big reason for his firing).

Antonio Williams was a 4* recruit who transferred from Ohio State, Carter was the 6th-ranked all-purpose back in the country, and while J-Williams was underranked, his 2018 performance as a true freshman speaks for itself. All three return, and behind them is 4* incoming freshman Josh Henderson.

The two Williamses are pretty similar runners; they both are stocky backs with some speed, but their primary strength is their ability to hit holes between the tackles and break arm tackles, perhaps running over a couple defenders in the process. Carter and Henderson profile more as space backs; Carter in particular is a home run threat if he gets to the outside, with really good patience inside even though he isn’t quite as violent as his running mates from last year. Henderson’s kind of jack-of-all-trades-ey; he’s got some bulk to him but he’s better at running away from defenders than at them. He’s a particularly accomplished receiver as well, with the ability to be a legitimate matchup threat against defenses while the other three are all solid checkdown options, but haven’t really shown the ability to run routes like some of the elites. I wouldn’t put it past either Carter or the younger Williams to pick up, though, because their games have grown tremendously while they’ve been on campus and I’m not sure there’s much they can’t do.

Western Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

STS: What do you see as likely positions of weakness for 2019?

THB: The linebacking corps is suffering a double whammy; not only is its previous field general (Cole Holcomb) gone for the NFL, but with Jay Bateman rolling into town, they need two starters at the inside linebacker positions to replace him with. There isn’t really much to work with there, either: Jonathan Williams had some good moments as a run-stuffer and blitzer at times last year, but didn’t show much sideline-to-sideline ability or great awareness. Maybe that comes with a full offseason as preparation as a starter, but as of now, he’s an unknown. Jeremiah Gemmel was a highly recruited player who did some nice things in rotational snaps. Ditto Matthew Flint; though I’m not sure he’s played a college snap on defense yet, he was a really exciting piece of the 2018 class. And coming in with the class of 2019, we have Eugene Asante, who is an absolute missile if you turn on his high school tape, but might need a bit of adjustment time when the college game arrives. So in summary, we have two inside linebacker positions and almost no productive college snaps to project into them. There’s talent, sure, but the linebacker position right now is a scary proposition for UNC fans.

STS: Do you have any bold predictions or fun stories surrounding the team this offseason?

THB: Well, there’s no shortage of intrigue when you’re going through a coaching change: There are stories about how exactly Mack Brown has gone about repairing relationships with UNC press, North Carolina high school programs, and a team that was understandably low on morale; there’s pass rusher Jake Lawler discovering his artistic side through writing and using it as a form of therapy (the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s newspaper, has an excellent article on this), and, most of all, there is the mystery surrounding the quarterback battle, which has been extremely secretive so far. I’ll go ahead and throw in my prediction: despite Howell being Mack Brown’s recruit and Fortin having the most game experience, I’m going to say Jace Ruder starts Game 1 as UNC’s quarterback. He presents a true dual threat that the other two don’t, and I think based on a small sample size that he’s developed as a passer to the point where he is the most potent offensive weapon the Tar Heels have.

STS: Lastly, what are you expecting from the team this year?

THB: UNC’s got an absolute murderer’s row of a schedule to try and stage a comeback to: Clemson and Wake Forest as non-division non-rivalry games (note: WF is technically a non-conference game), App State as one of their non-P5 games, and South Carolina for a season opener are all very good teams making up most of the non-Coastal schedule. The Coastal is... not a phenomenal division, but Miami and Virginia, at least, will be tough. That’s 6 out of 12 teams on the schedule that look like an uphill battle, early. Pessimistic fans would chalk those as losses and then note that UNC would have to be perfect for the other 6 games to make a bowl game, which is never an easy proposition. Add that we were a 2-win team last year, and a 4-win swing is a hard sell. But I really think we’re going to be that much better at quarterback to make the difference, and thus I’m expecting a bowl game appearance one way or another. We’re not beating Clemson, though. Lol.

A big thank you goes to Akil Guruparan for answering our questions. You can give him a Twitter follow here and you can see our answers to his questions here.